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Give 'em Credit?

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I stared in dismay at the stacks of papers sitting on the table, all of which were somehow related to spending in the Lake Pend Oreille School District. There were credit card receipts and purchase orders and purchase requisitions and travel reimbursements. A lot of them.

$300 and some odd dollars. That’s what it would cost you, or me, to put in a request for this much public information from Lake Pend Oreille School District. Luckily, I wasn’t the one who paid it, but 300+ dollars gave me 300+ reasons why I wasn’t going to run out the door screaming when I was asked to delve into this paperwork nightmare. It felt like tax time.

I got the credit card pile – American Express, Office Depot, Office Max. School district credit cards in the name of Steve and Karen Battenschlag. Steve Battenschlag is the Chief Administrator for the Lake Pend Oreille School District. He’s one of the guys who signs checks and it makes sense he would have a credit card. His wife, Karen, works in the maintenance department and reports to the director, Sid Rayfield. Sid doesn’t have a school district credit card, so I wondered why Karen needed one.

Cynical as I am, I didn’t expect to find much of interest in the foot high stack of documents I took home with me that evening. I wish I could say that was because of my inherent faith in my fellow human being but, the truth is, despite Enron, despite Arthur Anderson, despite Martha Stewart – heck, despite George Bush, I still tend to believe that anyone smart enough to work their way from a small potatoes, “something to do in my spare time” purchasing position to a position running the whole district is smart enough not to fiddle with the books.

Let me say right away, I didn’t find any blatant examples of modified records. I did find some expenses I questioned – was the Sky Mall the cheapest place to buy those inspirational posters hanging in the district office? And why are we buying blue jeans and shirts and men’s boots at Wal-Mart – are we providing uniforms now? But for the most part, the amounts I questioned were small and I was willing to write them off to the poor judgment calls all of us who are human tend to make. (Though I must admit, I got a lot of laughter out of the men’s underwear at JC Penney. And at 30 bucks, I hope that was a six-pack, ‘cause if it was just one pair, then I want to see them modeled at the next school board meeting.) 

I did ask the district's auditors whether they considered the practice of making personal purchases with a district credit card to be financially sound, even if reimbursed - and they pointed out they only perform "tests and controls" to see whether the district is complying with its own policies. 

I'll go ahead and say what we're all thinking - when someone is in a position of public trust, managing the monies that provide for our children's educations, then they need to whip out their own credit card when buying underwear, and leave the school district's card in their wallet. I hope that's what they do - as of this writing, I don't yet know what the underwear were for. Maybe they were a legitimate business expense.

What I did find in those credit card receipts, and in the other documents that friends were pouring through, was an attitude toward spending I feel is appalling.

Remember the grumbling about 2000 people from the school district flying to Boise every year? That might not have been an exaggeration on Mr. Battenschlag’s part because page after page of those credit card receipts were for plane tickets – that doesn’t count the ones we didn’t buy on a credit card, of course. And here was the first thing I noticed – a purchase order for 22 tickets to allow a school choir to fly to a competition, and a note on the purchase order – “to be reimbursed.” Remember all those kids blocking your path into Safeway, asking you for donations or for you to buy raffle tickets or candy bars? That’s what “to be reimbursed” means in real life. And that’s okay, right? Money’s tight, times are hard, and kids who want a broader educational experience than what can be found right here at home can help to pay their way.

But let’s send some administrative personnel to, say, Phoenix. Guess what? No notes about reimbursement.

Picture this: You’ve loaded up with groceries at Yokes after running the gauntlet of kids selling stuff. You might even have a few bucks in your own pocket because you cornered some hapless friend by the tomatoes and forced him to buy magazine subscriptions so your kid can buy a uniform or some equipment or, heck, maybe even a plane ticket to a competition. You head out Triangle Drive and pass the district’s administrative office where you see this big group of adults... washing cars. And out front there’s a handmade sign that reads, “Please help us send our payroll department to Phoenix.” Boy, does that picture bring a smile to my face.

Another stack of paperwork – Staples, Costco, Wal-Mart, Target. Target and Costco are particular favorites. Here’s a charge for Barnes and Noble and here’s one for Home Depot. Notice a pattern? Where’s our purchases from local vendors? Alpine Lumber or Trader’s or Badger or Sandpoint Building Supply don’t sell door chimes? You know these guys – they’re the folks all those kids are hitting up every day to donate so those same kids can make their “reimbursement” payments. I’m sure these folks must show up in the school district’s check register, but let me tell you, they don’t make many appearances in the credit card receipts. 

Out of curiosity, I took a stack of charges to one of those local vendors whose name DIDN'T appear on a credit card slip, even though that vendor sells many of the items the district is buying. And I asked for price quotes. 

You already know what I’m going to say, don’t you? Yep, the local vendor was cheaper. And that’s before freight.

Then there's LDI.... and CDI. LDI stands for “Leadership Development Intensive” and is a “personal growth” program the district has been promoting (and paying for) for select employees along with at least one community member and one spouse. So far 44 people have gone through this program that teaches communication skills, to the tune of $57,000 for tuition and lodging. At least one of those 44 has gone through the training three times.

CDI, Communications Development Intensive, appears to be a monthly meeting for a small group of employees at the district’s administrative office, mostly from the accounting department. CDI appears to have cost the district just under $600 for meals – and as these employees get a day off each month to attend this training, an additional estimated $10,000+ in salaries. (Feb 2001 through Dec. 2001).

I don’t have a problem with district employees learning to communicate, and I don’t even have much of a problem with them learning how on my dime. But you have to question the timing, don’t you?

Just a few weeks ago, Senator Shawn Keough spoke to the school district’s Board of Trustees about legislative holdbacks. Battenschlag has stated previously that the legislature balanced its budget on the backs of our kids. According to the budget later adopted by that Board, the holdback amount was $388,414. That’s a lot of money to me – but it’s not a lot in a $20+ million budget. Were there places where money could have been saved, places where the district might have tightened its belt? A look at the credit cards suggest there might well have been.

Steve Battenschlag suggested to Senator Keough that the legislature should have been looking at the stock market and preparing for some tough times. It would appear that Mr. Battenschlag wasn’t reading the writing on the wall too well, either. When every other school district in the state of Idaho was taking a deep breath and dealing with a slowing local economy and the reality of reduced sales tax receipts, this school district was still spending money. It was sending employees to conferences, training people to communicate, and having meetings at lunchtime while picking up the tab. None of that is necessarily wrong if you’ve got the money to spend. But if someone balanced their budget on the backs of our kids, I have a suggestion of who it might have been. And it wasn’t our legislature.

If you agree, or have questions of your own, call your school board members, attend a board meeting, voice your opinion on the bulletin board at focusonschools.org, or write to us here at The River Journal.

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Author info

Landon Otis

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education, Lake Pend Oreille School District, funding, Steve Battenschlag

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