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Published in Print: March 8, 2000, as ‘Tough Grandma’ Steps Up Audits in Texas

‘Tough Grandma’ Steps Up Audits in Texas

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When Carole Keeton Rylander was elected the Texas state comptroller in November 1998, Betty Ressel wondered whether she’d still have a job.

No need for worry. Shortly after the election, the new comptroller announced that she wanted to expand, not disband, her independent agency’s unusual school-management-review program. And she wanted Ms. Ressel, a certified public accountant who has been with the program since 1993, to remain as its head.

"I thought I’d hear: I’m Carole Keeton Rylander, and you’re fired," recalled Ms. Ressel, the manager of the Texas School Performance Review Program. Instead, the state’s new chief accountant called the morning after the election to talk about beefing up the agency’s role in education.

"I have a passion for education," the 60-year-old comptroller declared in a recent interview.

Ms. Rylander turns a neat country phrase despite having been raised in the capital city of Austin, where her father was the longtime dean of the University of Texas law school. The Republican styles herself, for instance, as "one tough grandma" as well as a fiscal conservative. Over and over again on the stump, she lamented that only "52 cents out of every education dollar is going into the classroom" in the Lone Star State, and vowed to be its "education watchdog."

More Audits

To make good on that promise, Ms. Rylander shifted about $1 million in her agency’s budget to the school audit program and announced that she would "not wait to be invited" into troubled school systems. Those moves coincided with legislation, sponsored by State Rep. Scott Hochberg, that put $900,000 more into the pot for reviews and let districts get on the list by agreeing to pay one-quarter of the cost, which can go as high as $1 million.

Since then, Ms. Rylander has announced audits of the San Antonio and Austin districts without the formal requests that her predecessor, Democrat John Sharp, required.

"This is where it bubbled up first and fastest," Ms. Rylander said, citing a sharp drop in San Antonio’s budget reserve and reports of Austin officials altering state test results and dropout figures, along with low scores on state tests in both districts.

The management audits range over virtually all the operations of a school system, from transportation, to retirement plans, to the alignment of the curriculum with state tests. The goal is to root out inefficiency.

Launching Pad

Ms. Rylander likes to credit her first elected office to her stint as "laminating chairman" at her sons’ Austin elementary school.

When the school board took away the money for coating charts and student work with plastic, the young mother of five, a former history and civics teacher at an Austin high school, decided to do something about it. She was elected to the school board, where she served for five years until 1977, when she became Austin’s mayor for three successive terms.

In 1994, she was elected to the powerful Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s gas and oil industries. She was chairman of that panel when she ran for her current post, known formally as comptroller of public accounts—the state’s chief tax collector, fiscal forecaster, and government-waste cutter rolled into one.

Ms. Rylander inherited the Texas Performance Review Program from Mr. Sharp when she took office just over a year ago.

Created in the recession-mired days of the early 1990s to help stretch school dollars, the program so far has reviewed the operations of 32 school districts. Nearly 90 percent of its recommendations have been put into effect, for a combined $85 million in savings, Ms. Ressel said.

"We have no statutory authority to force a school district to do anything,’’ she said. "We are compelled to write our recommendations so they are persuasive."

It helps, too, that much of the process is public, and that the auditors return to a district about 18 months later to check what administrators have done.

This year, a 12-person office is expected to perform 10 reviews, twice the usual number. The goal next year is 20.

Unusual Independence

Texas is not the only state to offer free audits of district management and spending. More than 20 states accredit their schools, which usually involves education officials evaluating at least some district operations.

But the Texas comptroller is independently elected—not beholden to the state education department, the governor, or the legislature. Pennsylvania may be the only other state with an independent agency—the auditor general—that offers district audits. Florida’s Texas-style audits are coordinated by the legislature’s accountability office. Ms. Rylander said the lack of ties bolsters her credibility in an independent-minded state, where districts hold tenaciously to control.

Still, some observers charge that politics do creep in, when certain school districts are tapped over others for review. One or more San Antonio school board members privately requested an audit close on the heels of Superintendent Diana Lam’s departure last year, for instance. Some allies of Ms. Lam’s believed that the request came because the anti-Lam majority was eager to pin blame for any problems on the administrator.

"They wanted an audit to show how badly she had run the district," said school board member Mary Esther Bernal, who supported Ms. Lam. Ms. Bernal endorsed the review, however, saying it would offer an opportunity to make improvements.

Ms. Rylander denied any selection agenda other than the well-being of "tens of thousands of inner-city kiddos."

Does It Help?

While the Texas review served as a model for Florida’s program and last year won a prestigious award for government innovation from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, not everyone is convinced that performance audits hold much promise for improving student achievement.

It probably depends on the nature of the audit and the use made of money that is saved, said Allen R. Odden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in school finance and management. Simply cutting overhead costs and redirecting the savings to the classroom won’t lift student achievement if the money isn’t being well used, he argued. Audits that look at whether curriculum is matched with state tests and classroom materials may do more good than those with a strictly management focus, he added.

Mr. Hochberg, the state legislator who worked with Ms. Rylander to step up district reviews, would like the comptroller’s office do such specialized curriculum audits. But he said he supports the broader efforts, too.

"I applaud the fact that Ms. Rylander has been enthusiastic about the program,’’ said the veteran lawmaker, a member of both the House education and appropriations committees. "She adopted it and embraced it, and if she claims credit for aggressively continuing it, that’s fair."

Vol. 19, Issue 26, Pages 24,28

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