Legislative Watch: An Inspector General for T.E.A.?

S.B. 215: Senator Bettencourt has nine co-sponsors for this one: Creighton, Hancock, Hughes, Lucio, Nelson, Paxton, Seliger, West, and Zaffirini.  That adds gravitas and gives SB 215 a good shot at passage, at least out of the Senate.  It got out of the Senate last session, but died in the House.  The bill is an attack on those age old enemies of good government: Fraud!  Waste!! Abuse!!!  And it’s entirely aimed at public education.

The bill would create the office of “inspector general” at T.E.A, with the IG to be appointed by the Commissioner.  Here’s the IG’s charge:

The office is responsible for the investigation, prevention, and detection of wrongdoing and of fraud, waste, and abuse in the administration of public education by school districts, open enrollment charter schools, regional education service centers, and other local education agencies in this state.

The bill gives the IG sweeping powers, including the right to initiate investigations or reviews on its own initiative or in response to a complaint “from any source.”  The IG would be empowered to issue subpoenas, and to attend closed sessions at school board meetings, other than those involving attorney-client communication. The IG would have access to all records, even those normally shielded from public disclosure. There is one exception to that—the IG would not have access to any document or file “that is a privileged communication between an individual and the individual’s attorney.”  I find it curious that this attorney-client privilege is limited to “individuals.” What about the school district as the client? 

There are at least two other major concerns with this bill. First, it has the IG appointed by the Commissioner and reporting to the Commissioner.  So I guess we won’t see any inspections of fraud, waste and abuse at T.E.A.  It would be better if the IG reported to an elected body, such as the State Board of Education. 

Secondly, let’s consider the ancient trio of “fraud, waste, and abuse.”  We know what “abuse” is and the statute includes a definition of “fraud” limiting it to intentional deception or misrepresentation designed to produce an “unauthorized benefit” to someone.  But “waste”?  As applied to government spending? The term is wickedly subjective. 

Most of us would agree that in any large scale operation with a multi-million dollar budget there is probably some wasteful spending.  But precisely what is “wasteful”?   What’s essential to me may be wasteful to you, and vice versa.  There are people who think all extracurricular spending is wasteful. There are people who think all standardized testing is wasteful. 

There are people who think any administrative salary above a certain amount is wasteful.  I guess in theory we would all agree with that as a general proposition, but what precise dollar pushes a superintendent’s salary from “that’s pretty high” to “wasteful”?  This statute would create a high powered office with the ability to cripple political opponents with intrusive investigations.    Not a good idea.

It will be interesting to follow this one through committee hearings. I expect we may hear some things about private jets and luxury boxes at Spurs basketball games for charter school muckety mucks.   We will also hear about questionable spending by traditional school districts.   We will hear about superintendent salaries, and even more, superintendent buyouts. 

There is wasteful spending in public education, as there is in every large scale operation, public or private.  But in the traditional public schools we already have guardrails in place.  Did the board spend too much to buyout the superintendent?  There is already a law in place to exact a price for this.  Moreover, the board members are democratically elected and hold all of their meetings in the open.  There is far less oversight of privately operated for-profit charter schools.  Maybe this bill should have a more narrow target.    

Stay tuned. 


Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday!!