This May, Ohio authorities indicted a Strongsville City school maintenance foreman for using school funds to buy equipment for his personal use. Among the items fraudulently charged to the school account were a generator, thermal camera, lawn mower, snow plow and, oh yes, a barn.
All told, the illicitly obtained goods were worth some $65,000 -- almost as much as the median annual salary of a Strongsville teacher.
At about the same time authorities began looking into the maintenance man's purchases, school administrators and teachers went on strike in Arizona, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. Their beef? That state lawmakers were not spending enough on K-12 schools.
It's hard to squeeze more education dollars from state spending. Their general funds are already constrained by increasing pension and health care costs. Ultimately, it is the local school district that is responsible for setting school budgets and teacher pay.
With the Strongsville maintenance man in mind, imagine how much more money could be freed up for teacher pay if local districts simply cracked down on the waste, fraud, and abuse in their budgets.
A new study by The Heritage Foundation shows that many school districts are wasting huge sums of money -- money that could be used for teacher salaries.
Start with the huge increase in non-instructional school district staff. Over the last 30 years, the number of administrators has risen 50 percent. Their pay and benefits add up quickly. (During the same period, the number of teachers increased 32 percent.)
A 2014 audit found that the Jefferson County, Ky., school district had more than 150 administrators making $100,000 or more. The auditor compared the district to five other large school districts, and the district with the next-highest number of administrators making more than six figures was Charlotte-Mecklenburg with 53.
Speaking of Kentucky, district superintendents there make significantly more than teachers. The Fayette County superintendent makes $266,000, four-and-a-half times more than the average teacher. In Oklahoma, the Tulsa superintendent makes seven times more than the average teacher. In Arizona, the Tucson superintendent makes $272,000, while the average teacher makes $50,000.
Tucson suffers from another kind of waste common to school districts: vacant buildings. Tucson's high schools operate at just half of their total seating capacity, on average.
The Oklahoma City school district spends some $2.4 million annually on empty seats and underused district facilities. If it sold or leased these buildings, the district could pay each of its teachers nearly $1,000 more per year.
The district could offer even larger pay increases if it gave bonuses to just its highest-performing teachers. Teachers should be treated like professionals in other job sectors and rewarded for hard work and effectiveness -- not simply for showing up.
Outright fraud is common around the country. For example, in Arizona's Topock school district (a small district near the California border), one school administrator stole $236,000 -- as much as the total teacher payroll for the tiny district.
Basic accounting oversight would easily pick up these shenanigans. Arizona's auditor reported that for the last decade, Topock "did not submit audit reports" and "had significant internal control deficiencies identified in audit reports." The district operated with weak accounting practices for years prior to the theft.
As teachers around the country head back to school this fall, unions maintain their support for more strikes. The National Education Association even created a fund to support striking teachers. Administrators and teachers in several areas including Los Angeles and Washington state have indicated they are prepared to strike this school year.
State lawmakers in Oklahoma and Kentucky raised taxes to spend more on district schools, and Arizona voters are considering a tax increase on the ballot later this fall. But before raising taxes or putting more pressure on the state general fund, policymakers, taxpayers and teachers should turn to school district offices and demand they clean up their act.
This piece originally appeared in ArcaMax