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Citing budget cuts, Pennsylvania auditor general will kick school audits back to the Department of Education

The office has been investigating school districts for about 30 years

  • Kiley Koscinski/WESA

Pennsylvania’s auditor general is dissolving the department’s school audit bureau in April. That will put the task of auditing Pennsylvania’s 500 public school districts and nearly 180 charter and cyber schools back in the hands of the Department of Education.

The office has been investigating school districts for about 30 years, but Auditor General Timothy DeFoor, a Republican, said staffing and budget cuts have forced him to reconsider.

“As we looked carefully at the work of our department one thing has become clear – we need our auditors to focus on the work we are required by law to perform,” said DeFoor in a statement announcing the move.

The audits done by the school audit bureau have exposed mismanagement and irresponsible expenditures in districts across the state. In 2016, the office released an investigation that found a lack of oversight in the Penn Hills School District allowed it to fall into $167 million in debt.

After Pittsburgh Public Schools administrators took a 2019 trip to Cuba that raised eyebrows, DeFoor’s predecessor—Democrat Eugene DePasquale—launched an investigation into how much money the district spends on travel. The investigation uncovered a 179% increase in travel spending under former district superintendent Anthony Hamlet.

A subsequent audit by the Pittsburgh city controller’s office later exposed other issues at the district and a state ethics commission required Hamlet to pay nearly $8,000 for ethics violations that dated back to 2016. Hamlet resigned last September.

Michael Lamb, Pittsburgh’s city controller, criticized the auditor general’s decision to push school audits back to the Department of Education. In a statement Thursday, he argued that the department doesn’t have the resources or expertise to conduct these audits.

“This decision should be viewed as an attack on Pennsylvania’s public education system as charter schools will continue to deplete the resources of districts across the state without a check on their fiduciary responsibility to students and taxpayers,” Lamb said.

He called for the state legislature to better fund the auditor general’s office and to codify school audits as a responsibility of the department.

Currently, the state auditor general’s office has 46 staffers performing school audits, down from 120 in 2013. DeFoor said that gap means the audit cycle would need to be lengthened from the current five years to seven, “which would mean findings may not be relevant by the time they are announced.”

But the Pennsylvania State Education Association is calling on DeFoor to reconsider the move, warning that no other agency is prepared to take on the responsibility.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Education does not have the staffing capacity to take on this new work,” said Chris Lilienthal, a spokesman for the PSEA. “So we’re very concerned about what this will mean for audits going forward.”

Lilienthal also criticized the way the announcement was made, arguing there was no plan laid out for how the Department of Education would absorb the responsibility.

“There’s going to be a great deal of time needed to put plans in place and we don’t have a lot of time. We have just a few weeks,” he said.

The Department of Education is set to take over on April 22. The department on Thursday did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The Auditor General’s office said in a statement that he may still audit specific activities of educational institutions that use taxpayer dollars through the performance audits bureau.

“As with all performance audits, these audits would gauge whether government programs and activities are meeting stated goals and objectives, and if tax dollars are being spent efficiently and effectively,” he said.

Any audits already started by the auditor general will be completed by the end of 2022.

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