Education commissioner flat-out fails school budget test

In recession-era budget-strapped Colorado, education administrators have had to make some tough choices. Take Department of Education Commissioner Dwight Jones. He had to decide between buying furniture, plasma screens and fancy dinners, on the one hand, and paying full teacher salaries on the other.

You can see this story as a school-type test, with two compare-and-contrast situations.

Situation one:  Teachers in Denver’s union are voting this week on whether to take 1.65 percent less money than originally negotiated, in order to save Denver Public School District about $5 million.

The district says it has to renegotiate the contract because the state is requiring all districts to hold 1.93 percent of state funding ($10.5 million for DPS) in reserve. Districts have to hold the money until January, when the state will decide whether or not to take it back.

The agreement would give the money back to teachers if the state lets districts keep the funds.

Now here is situation two:  At the end of last fiscal year, the Colorado Department of Education spent $12,000 on new furniture, $13,600 on plasma televisions—all while Commissioner Dwight Jones treated employees and colleagues to $80-a-head dinners at some of Denver’s fanciest restaurants.

A memo obtained by Channel 7 News noted that the department wanted to spend its money by the end of the fiscal year in order to continue receiving it. But in an interview with the news station, Jones wouldn’t ‘fess up:

DOE Commissioner Dwight Jones said the reason the furniture was replaced is that it was a danger and one piece had collapsed on an employee.

“I made a decision to say I think the safety of employees really makes sense,” Jones said.

But [a memo obtained by 7 News] said the furniture is being replaced because it was “mismatched” and “not conducive to staff collaboration.”

Jones insisted that the furniture was dangerous.

Then Ferrugia showed Jones an email that said the old furniture — that the new $12,000 office suite replaced — was in “excellent condition.” The memo said it is available to anyone who wants it.

“I had not seen that before now,” Jones said.

Sure. It’s not really a math lesson. Not buying the $12,000 furniture set wouldn’t have saved enough money to give the Denver teachers back their full cost-of-living raises.

But for Jones, the 7 News story has been an ethics lesson. He’s agreed to cut out the fancy dinners and look more carefully into his department’s spending in the future.

Homework assignment for lawmakers: Clear your home and office of all high-end furniture catalogs and consider carefully how else you might spend the money you would take back from the schools in January. Is it worth taking the money back? Yes or no? Is your decision one you would be happy to present clearly to voters and that you would like to have journalists examine? Who might you consult in making your decision? Be prepared to present your decision and support it with reliable data.

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Katie Redding

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