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Kid's Game

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Voters have short memories.

It's a reality that Mayor L. Douglas Wilder speaks about frequently these days, most recently in his panning of the city auditor's report on waste in Richmond Public Schools.

Counting down the final months of his term, Wilder hijacked a press conference announcing the audit's findings April 3 to say he doesn't care about saving city money. That he never did.

With much wringing of hands and vigorous rubbing of temples, Wilder made clear his general distress with all this focus on money during last week's release of the long-anticipated city auditor's report on the school system's spending and finances.

This was the audit he'd gone to war to get, going so far as to threaten hiring an outside auditor and withholding city funding for the School Board's insolence in the face of his demand for control.

But Wilder's distress last week was not over the audit's findings. Not over the report's grim indictment of a system-wide culture of waste and inefficiency that sounded a final note justifying the departure of the system's former assistant superintendent of finance and operations, Tom Sheeran -- and maybe, too, Monday's announcement that Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman will step down in June 2009. Though presented with the political bone of $6.7 million in annual waste uncovered by City Auditor Umesh Dalal's report, Wilder dismissed the need for the Schools audit. Instead, he asked, Sally Struthers-like: "Who cares about the combination of services or the savings here or there? Why are we here if we're not here for these kids?

"You're talking about money in a vacuum," he said, seemingly accusing the city's auditor and superintendent of schools of trying to draw attention from the real problems with their audit sideshow.

Who cares, indeed?

The question of Wilder's own money-saving efforts is one he has repeatedly declined to answer. And it's one he's discouraged others from asking, too. He raged at media criticism that he has provided double-digit raises to his inner administrative circle, including a 19 percent pay increase for city Chief Financial Officer Harry Black, whose own departments received their low marks from a Dalal audit in February.

That audit of Black's departments — procurement and accounts payable — found parallel inefficiencies and areas of outright abuse. But there's a stark contrast in how the two city finance departments have faced the facts of their failures.

Though Wilder once made a Schools audit his cause célèbre, it was actually the School Board's own Carol A.O. Wolf who first asked for the audit in April 2006.

During the succeeding months, the board has wrangled with itself and its administration in an often public and not always congenial push toward accountability. First came questions about Finance Director Sheeran's authority to move the school system's central computer system out of City Hall, then Sheeran's resignation under pressure, Schools Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman's announcement of a total shake-up of her finance department and a private consensus among board members that Sheeran's departure was necessary for change. Now, finally, the departure of Jewell-Sherman herself.

Preceding Sheeran's departure was that of the system's longtime plant services director, Archie Harris, who oversaw a department highlighted in Dalal's audit for its often creative way of skirting the competitive bidding process for Schools contracts. Then went Doug Green, former head of the computer department Sheeran moved. The school system's internal auditor, Debra Johns, remains under fire for failing to find — or even to look for — the problems discovered by Dalal.

Media reports have trumpeted Dalal for giving the system a "failing grade" and in one instance local radio heralded Wilder as redeemed for his dogged criticism of schools.

The report, Dalal says, is pretty damning. He cites the 96 percent noncompliance with state procurement law. And he affixes blame for the mess firmly at the top.

"There should have been proper guidance and leadership" in the district's finance department, he says. In other words, the buck stopped with Sheeran.

But the audit also stopped in March 2007, examining a 21-month period prior to that date. Sheeran left eight months later. And since March 2007, Dalal says, he's seen improvement and cooperation from school officials.

"The current administration is substantially receptive and they're willing to at least work," he says.

Interim Finance Director for Richmond Schools Jim Damm noted at the press conference that nearly half of the audit's 100 recommendations would be in place by next fall. Almost a quarter already are in place, including measures that tighten regulations around some of the most serious problems Dalal discovered.

While Dalal praises Schools officials for their cooperation and willingness to check their humility at the door, the same hardly could be said of his assessment of Wilder's administration.

Leading up to the February release of his audit of the city, Dalal complained of roadblocks and intimidation tactics aimed at limiting his access to city departments. In his official report he cited cooperation from department heads, but privately he indicated he never got the cooperation he needed.

He questioned the results of his own audit, concerned that because Harry Black had refused full access guaranteed to the auditor in the city charter by requiring all information to pass through him, the data the audit relied on could have been compromised. An audit, he said, is like any forensic investigation, and when the evidence is tampered with, there is concern that the results might be tainted.

In the end, Dalal suggested savings of more than $5.1 million to be had by switching to a free, state procurement service. That single biggest cost-cutting suggestion was dismissed by Black. And months before that, at a meeting of Dalal's audit committee, Black told committee members that the painful and potentially expensive work of consolidating city and Schools departments was no longer an objective of Wilder's administration.

Unlike Sheeran, city finance director Black has retained his job and his status as an important Wilder adviser, despite a council investigation into his own unauthorized expenditures related to the attempted School Board eviction from City Hall Sept. 21. In total with legal bills, moving costs and rent on an empty building, those expenses have surpassed $1 million.

Two months after his February audit report on the city, Dalal continues to wrestle with Wilder administration officials over his access to critical data.

A computer system approved and funded by City Council that would allow Dalal's auditors a fishbowl-like view of city records has been repeatedly rebuffed by Wilder's team.

"This is a tool the City Auditor's Office needs to do its job," Dalal told Style last month. "We have gotten no cooperation."

A reporter who asked Wilder after last week's press conference about his silent refusal to allow access to the computer department records received similar treatment: stony silence that ended with the whish of closing elevator doors.

"Everybody has an excuse for not doing anything, as long as you want to do something and can blame somebody," says Paul Goldman, Wilder's former confidante and political adviser, noting this tactic has long served the former governor.

Indeed, lost in Wilder's criticisms of last week's audit was the fact that this audit and the counterpart city audit were just two steps in a three-part process that Wilder had begun himself. The third step is an upcoming report on ways to consolidate some city and Schools departments — like procurement and accounts payable — or at least many of their functions, in an effort to save taxpayer money.

And while Wilder asks about the children — a legitimate question considering Richmond's abysmal dropout and graduation rates — other leaders say the children stand only to benefit by trimming administrative departments that have nothing to do with classrooms.

"I'm a citizen that wants to make the city better, and this, as ugly as it is, it is a huge step in the right direction," says School Board Chairman George Braxton, who did not attend last week's audit press conference. "You absolutely have to face the brutal, harsh reality. In this particular area, the administration was not doing a good job. Now we have a blueprint to improvement."

Contrasting with the about-face of city administrators, Braxton calls himself a "huge proponent of consolidating certain services. I've said very often, the grass doesn't care who cuts it, engines don't care who works on them."

Now, he says, "Both sides need to improve what they do so they can harmonize." Key to that is implementing Dalal's recommendations, since putting two broken departments together doesn't make sense — two wrongs don't make a right.

But, he says, there's still time to make things right for Richmond's citizens. For the children, even.

"These," says Braxton of the audit recommendations, "are the changes that four years ago people were looking for." S



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