By CELESTE BOTT
Capital News Service
LANSING – A financial scandal in the Genesee Intermediate School District (ISD) has reopened a broader political discussion about the recall of ISD board members.
A recent forensic audit report by Southfield-based Plante Moran revealed that tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars were misused for district administrators’ personal expenses. The State Police is conducting a criminal investigation.
The ISD board unanimously voted to terminate one administrator after Superintendent Lisa Hagel filed charges calling for her dismissal, claiming “a misuse of public funds through travel, inaccurate records, misuse of ISD equipment, directing inflation of an invoice and falsifying records.”
Sen. John Gleason, D-Flushing, said that the members of the Intermediate School District board must also be held accountable.
“As of right now, there’s no avenue to recall that board, even if they have failed to do their jobs,” Gleason said. “A change in legislation is the only way. And I’m working on it. I’ve already begun the process by taking it straight to the Department of Education.”
Gleason said he intends to work with the department and members of the state Board of Education to ensure the public has more power over ISD board members.
In Michigan, local and intermediate school districts are independent of other units of local government.
Local school board members are elected by local voters. But Michigan’s 57 ISDs are governed by board members who are not elected by the public, but by local school boards.
ISDs’ responsibilities include the oversight of special education and the formation of career and college preparatory programs for their local districts.
According to state law, to recall a member of an ISD, a majority of the local boards must “adopt resolutions requesting removal of the member.”
The Genesee County controversy isn’t the first time the abuse of funds in a Michigan ISD has culminated in an attempt to change the current recall system.
In 2003, the Oakland County Intermediate School District was under fire after reports of excessive spending on travel, gifts and meals.
Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, then a member of the House, helped bring about a criminal investigation. Johnson was also the primary sponsor of a bill that would have authorized voters to recall ISD board members, but it did not pass.
Opinions vary as to why prior attempts to change the recall system have been unsuccessful. According to Gleason, it’s a partisan conflict.
“When the same sort of recall bill was introduced in 2003, the Republicans were in the majority and they weren’t willing to get behind the change,” he said.
Gleason said he isn’t sure if the response would be different today, but it won’t stop him from trying.
The Education Action Group Foundation, based in Muskegon, argues that less extreme measures could hold ISDs responsible for misused funds.
Victor Skinner, the foundation’s communications specialist, said that if ISDs – particularly ones with questionable financial activity – granted more public access to their spending records, situations like Genesee’s would be less common.
“Public scrutiny of district spending would help keep officials honest,” he wrote on the organization’s news website. He suggested that districts post check registries online for public viewing, saving people the time and trouble of obtaining those public records under the Freedom of Information Act.
Don Wotruba, deputy director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, said he doesn’t see why the recall system should be changed.
“In the Genesee case, we have not heard anything that would lead us to believe the board did anything wrong,” he said. “To the contrary, they investigated and took swift action once the audit was completed.”
Gleason maintains that intermediate school boards are responsible for misuse of money within their districts, and that their members should face removal in the wake of such scandals.
Gleason said he will introduce legislation to make it simpler for the public to recall ISD board members. But he is resigned to the fact that laws can only do so much.
“We have laws for red lights and people run them,” he said. “We can always change or attempt to change laws, but we can’t change people. Hopefully these incidents will inspire a stricter selection process from the start.
“We have to be careful about who we put in charge,” he said.
By CELESTE BOTT