State Auditor Stacey Pickering fired a shot over the bow at the Mississippi Department of Education, and we say kudos to him for doing so. That agency for years has been getting the lion’s share of all local budgets and the state budget, and the bureaucrats who run it — and benefit mightily from it — have the audacity to run to the cameras and microphones every year and say, “We’re not getting enough money, and any legislator who votes against fully funding us hates children and education.”
That narrative is tired. Most people don’t buy it. There’s plenty of money in the budget, if it’s spent in the right places — on teachers and students’ needs instead of lining the pockets of unnecessary administrators and their cronies.
A recent audit of MDE and a PEER report shows a pattern of “creative” contracting and waste, and Pickering put them all on notice.
“If we discover one red cent has been misspent and diverted from our children and teachers, we will not hesitate to take full legal action against those involved,” Pickering said in a press release.
There are all sorts of questionable expenses in every education budget. There was an $11.7 million “gaffe,” as they called it, last fiscal year. But the red flag(s) in the audit reports of 2015 and 2016 show a pattern of MDE making purchases and contracts in amounts under $50,000 — the threshold for which the agency is required to get bids.
So, MDE officials don’t even have to get very creative to line the pockets of their cronies. It could be a word problem on a third-grader’s state test: “If Carey wants to pay Joseph $200,000, but she can’t spend more than $50,000 at a time, how many payments will she have to make?”
Of all of the red flags in the audit report, that was the most troubling one. MDE purchased a total of $214,470 in IT products from Joseph B. Kyles, an activist and head of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition in Memphis, where he was arrested for assaulting his pregnant girlfriend when she refused to get an abortion. There was no documentation for any of the spending, according to the report.
“That’s not just a red flag, but a neon sign with an arrow on it, pointing,” Pickering said.
A PEER report accused MDE of illegal invoice splitting, cronyism and for just having a lack of oversight in spending, so that’s what got Pickering’s office involved.
There’s a lot of troubling information in the initial reports, including more than $600,000 in contracts to state Superintendent Carey Wright’s former co-workers, often for what appeared to be the same work or project. Her $300,000 salary isn’t all that’s out of place.
It’s no secret that there’s plenty of waste in MDE, which oversees a budget of more than $2 billion. But if lawmakers and other elected officials won’t back down for fear of being labeled “anti-education” and “anti-child” by the bought-and-paid-for pro-education posse of lobbyists, the MDE may finally be reined in and forced to budget and spend like most other agencies. It’s about time.