Killeen city and school officials failed the taxpayers last week.
In a single evening, the Killeen school board approved spending $1 million on a new scoreboard the district doesn’t need — at least not right now — and Killeen City Council members declined to ask substantive questions during a briefing on an audit of the city’s finances that is costing taxpayers nearly $400,000.
As a result, residents have reason to question their elected representatives’ commitment to transparency, accountability and good stewardship.
The scoreboard purchase for Leo Buckley Stadium — approved by a 4-2 vote — was carried out even though more than 100 district residents had criticized the plan on social media since the proposal was aired at a May 23 board meeting.
District officials had tried to justify the scoreboard purchase by noting that the current board is 10 years old and that replacement parts would no longer be available in five years. In addition, the new board had additional features, including the option of unlimited digital advertising space, that would make the scoreboard a good investment.
Perhaps. But two questions remain: Why $1 million? And why now?
If the district ostensibly has up to five years to purchase a new scoreboard, the logical approach would be to spend that time looking for sponsors who could help with the purchase in exchange for permanent advertising rights on the scoreboard. The longer time frame would also allow for thorough research into other companies’ products and pricing. But most importantly, by waiting a few more years, the district would have had the opportunity to lock in a scoreboard with more advanced capabilities and features than the model they’re installing this fall.
But apparently, money talks — or the lack thereof.
After the vote, board members confirmed the district still owes $153,000 to Daktronics, the current scoreboard’s manufacturer, as part of an agreement in which the district received the board at no cost in exchange for the advertising revenue the board generated over 10 years.
Daktronics offered to wipe out the district’s debt as part of the purchase agreement for a new scoreboard. Still, it seems logical that the district could have found a cheaper replacement option and still had the money to pay off the debt on the first board. And if they couldn’t sell enough advertising on the existing board, how will more ad space translate to more revenue on the new one?
No doubt, board members who voted for the new scoreboard believe the district is getting a good deal. But $1 million is $1 million. It doesn’t matter if they had the money in the athletics budget.
Taxpayers see a school district that has received poor grades in the Texas Education Agency’s A-F performance rating, as well as a recent Children at Risk study; continuing challenges in the area of special education, students at several campuses relegated to portable buildings; and teachers frequently forced to purchase their own supplies and materials.
How many textbooks would $1 million buy? How many teacher salaries would $1 million pay, even if for only one year? How many laptops would $1 million provide for students?
The members who cast the dissenting votes — Carlyle Walton and Susan Jones — are to be commended for saying no to this unnecessary expenditure.
At City Hall, Killeen council members didn’t face a $1 million vote Tuesday, but they had an obligation to ask questions regarding a $400,000 municipal audit — and few had anything to say. An even bigger concern is that the audit firm’s representative had little to say, either.
That’s a problem. Especially since the audit firm’s May 2 report to the council was a real bombshell — offering a list of troubling observations, including unauthorized use of bond funds, inconsistent planning for capital projects, misapplication of pay raises, and creation of an escrow account to transfer funds.
But the audit firm’s representative played Tuesday’s briefing close to the vest, offering little new information other than to say the audit is about 70 percent complete.
While Council members Steve Harris and Shirley Fleming are to be commended for asking for more details, including further information on the problem areas listed last month, the other council members did little to advance the discussion.
Even more troubling is the fact that Tuesday’s meeting originally was billed as a midaudit briefing — a $10,000 item mandated in the audit contract — but was later classified as merely an update.
So what happened?
In the wake of Tuesday’s underwhelming presentation, it’s obvious that both the audit firm and council have taken a more cautious approach to disclosure of the investigation’s details.
However, it’s a little late for that. You don’t just drop a bombshell and then try to walk it back. To the outsider, it seems the audit firm was either told to pull back, or its investigation is going a different direction than it was last month.
In either case, the sudden lack of transparency has the appearance of a cover-up, though that may not be the case.
Also troubling is the fact that City Manager Ron Olson sent a memo to council members instructing them not to ask questions of the auditors at Tuesday’s meeting.
Olson may just be urging caution in the face of an ongoing investigation. However, as the audit firm’s contract is with the council, he should not be telling members how to comport themselves in dealings with the firm’s representatives. As elected officials and stewards of the taxpayers’ money, it’s the council’s job to get the answers on the audit, and it’s the audit firm’s obligation to provide them, where possible.
At this point, it’s fair for the council and the public to ask whether the auditors are doing the job they were paid to do. The fact that the auditors have not interviewed any key former city employees in regard to the city’s financial practices raises questions about their ability — or willingness — to connect all the dots in this investigation.
It’s the council’s job to closely monitor the auditors’ progress and ensure they provide the most complete assessment possible — and that begins with demanding a detailed midaudit briefing.
Our elected officials are tasked with the responsibility of putting the residents’ best interests first and spending our tax money wisely.
Both Killeen’s city council and school board fell short in those areas last week.
Now it’s up to the taxpayers to remind them who’s paying the bills.