Can an MNPS Audit Partially Funded by Private Donations Really Be Independent?

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Most of the Metro Council signed a letter earlier this week requesting a performance audit of Metro Nashville Public Schools. Yesterday, Mayor Karl Dean expressed support for the idea, saying an audit would "help pinpoint areas where investments are working and areas where they are not."

But the suggested funding approach for the audit has raised some concern. In their letters to the Audit Committee and the mayor, the council members propose funding the audit with 50 percent of the cost coming from Metro's General Fund and 50 percent coming from private donations.

Responding to the news yesterday, Metro school board member Will Pinkston tweeted "Bring the audit. But why seek "private donations" to underwrite it? Metro's $1.8 billion budget ought to be able to fund a simple contract without opening the door to influence by special interests." Nashville State Rep. Mike Stewart raised the same issue, adding "Using private donations for a schools audit will defeat the purpose of the audit - independent review. If [worth] doing its worth funding."

This afternoon, I asked Councilwoman Emily Evans, who has led the effort, about those concerns.

"First of all, that was just a suggestion," Evans tells Pith. "That wasn't a requirement."

She notes, as is mentioned in both letters, that the same approach was used when the last such audit was conducted, in 2000-2001.

"We did that in order to protect the school budget," she says. "Especially in a mid-year request like this where you haven't put it into the budget, so it's going to have to come from somewhere. So that was the thinking in 2001, and that was what we suggested as a possibility here. But absolutely, we do not need to do it that way. That is a completely optional approach."

Evans says the suggestion was in response to concerns about the potential cost of such an undertaking, but that she's not married to the idea and that there are certainly other options. She fiercely defends the Internal Audit department's independence.

"It does not report to the council, it does not report to the mayor," she says. "And the integrity of the people in that department is above reproach. We changed the law in 2007. Previously, it was under the executive branch. But in 2007 we moved it out into this independent status."

The six-member Audit Committee, which currently includes three council members and Finance Director Rich Riebeling, will ultimately decide whether or not to recommend to the Internal Audit department that a performance audit of MNPS be conducted. An auditor would then have to be chosen through a competitive selection process.

Evans says accusing the department of bias is a "pretty serious allegation" and one she won't "even entertain."

"They have been doing this for years," she says. "They are staunchly independent and operate with great integrity and commitment to this city."

Asked about the potential for private donations from groups or individuals looking to serve their own interests, Evans says there is no indication that any undue influence was present in the last audit, and that was when the Internal Audit department was less independent than it is now.

Still, she reiterates that she's not insisting on the 50/50 approach.

"But look, we don't need to do it that way, absolutely," she says. "If that's a concern for anybody, you know, let's pull it out of General Fund or reserves or whatever."

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