Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

March 26, 2013

Embarrassing audit leads to much improved oversight

The Independent

ASHLAND — An embarrassing audit of the Dayton Independent School District has brought about positive change, not just for the small district in northern Kentucky, but for the entire state.  

The scathing audit by the office of Auditor Adam Edelen alleged former Dayton Superintendent Gary Rye was reimbursed $146,276 for retirement-related benefits not in his contract. The audit also said Rye was improperly paid $47,429 for sick and annual leave days, charged $21,464 to a district gas credit card for his personal vehicle and received thousands of dollars in expenses for meetings he didn’t attend or never occurred.

Rye received those payments at a time when state funding for public schools was flat, and small districts like Dayton were struggling to balance their budgets with a minimum number of staffing cuts.

But Rye does not deserve all of the blame for the wasteful spending. The superintendent was accountable to the Dayton Independent Board of Education, whose members apparently were asleep at the wheel while this reckless spending spree took place. At the very least, board members were failing to be responsible stewards of tax dollars and denying teachers and their students funds that could have been better used to improve education in the district.

However, the audit is not the end of the story. Just days after it was released, the Kentucky Department of Education announced it is adding to its website data designed to hold school superintendents accountable by providing the public with much more information about superintendents, including the entire amount they are paid and not just what is in their contracts.

Superintendents’ base salaries, the average of which is just under $120,000, already are listed on the Kentucky Department of Education’s website, KED spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said. The department will soon display additional compensation, such as travel expenses, reimbursements for retirement contributions and use of a school district vehicle — all of which are considered public information under state law.  

Edelen said the information on the website will help the public — and more importantly school boards — hold accountable their districts’ leadership.  Superintendent evaluations also will be available on the website.

“State and local government have come a long way in becoming more transparent, making everything from state contracts to our basketball coaches’ compensation packages readily available,” Edelen said. “Yet important information about our schools is still cloaked in darkness.”

Education Department Associate Commissioner Hiren Desai said the state also will start to require districts to evaluate superintendents’ handling of fiscal matters.

Edelen said the unapproved benefits and payments to Rye spanned eight years and amounted to $240 per student in the district, which is across the Ohio River from Cincinnati in Campbell County.

Rye has not been charged with a crime. But the auditor’s findings were turned over to the FBI.

Prosecutors in Campbell County will have to decide whether the actions of Rye were criminal. Meanwhile, because of them, taxpayers have more information than ever about their school superintendents. That’s a positive that came from this negative audit.

One hopes the audit also inspires school board members to take their jobs more seriously, not just in Dayton, but in all 174 school districts in Kentucky.