Misconduct by school officials has been in the news quite a bit lately for Iowa. An investigation in Waukee has led to felony charges being filed. A recent audit in Mason City found more than $2 million in “improper disbursements,” and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation is looking into the matter.
The latter is a concern in Ottumwa because it involved John Berg, the Ottumwa school district’s current chief financial officer. The district has been strongly supportive of him thus far. A statement released last week said the district is aware of the audit and is “confident that Mr. Berg did not engage in any unlawful or dishonest activity while employed in Mason City.”
The statement is not a surprise. It’s what you would expect given the fact the allegations involve conduct at another school district and that Ottumwa officials don’t have a complete picture at this time. Absent information or DCI findings to the contrary, we would expect the district to support Berg.
It was the final paragraph of the district’s statement that was probably the most important at this time:
"Concerning business operations at the Ottumwa Community School District, we diligently review practices and procedures as well as having segregation of duties. As an example, contracts with salary amounts are reviewed and approved by the board on a yearly basis.”
The best hedge for any governmental body, and school boards are most definitely government, agains financial misconduct is oversight. Good oversight looks a lot like what the district described. No one person should ever be in charge of money. Documentation of what is spent, where it is spent, and whether the spending is proper should always have more than one person reviewing it. Similarly, contract alterations should involve the board. Votes on changes must, of course, be made in open session.
We understand why some in Ottumwa remain concerned. There’s a lot of smoke at Berg’s former district, and it’s fair to wonder whether there’s fire. The district should hope the DCI does a thorough investigation and if charges are filed they don’t target Berg. Keeping him in place when there are active charges would be a very different matter than when there’s an investigation.
Frankly, we’re hoping the investigation clears Berg as well. The last thing the district needs is another round of serious questions about finances. The district fell short in its response to the misuse of student funds by employees. Yes, the exposure stopped the practices, but the public never saw any repercussions for those involved in the scandal. Having to deal with a new set of serious questions would reignite the debate over whether the public’s tax dollars are being protected.
No one will ever eliminate human greed. Where people have access to money or anything else they find valuable, some will seek to take it, whether they are entitled or not. To imagine otherwise is to ignore human nature. It is always cheaper to uncover such misdeeds sooner rather than later.
Sunshine remains the most effective weapon against misconduct, financial or otherwise. Few are bold enough to steal in full view of the public. It’s not a magic shield against everything, but openness on the parts of governmental bodies is far better protection than secrecy will ever be.