Background on today’s story: PPU spending in Knox schools

Today we ran this in KNS:

A Knox County Schools fund for maintenance needs also pays for new school equipment, furniture and landscaping, a News Sentinel review of Knox County Schools purchasing records found.

At least $283,000 was paid out of the Physical Plant Upgrades maintenance fund for desks, tables and chairs to furnish the new Northshore Elementary in the current fiscal year, public documents show.

And Knox County Schools staff incorrectly reported at least one recent expense from the maintenance fund — a $3,787 piano for Northshore in 2013.

“We have to catch things like that, but it’s not rampant or anything,” said Ron McPherson, finance director for Knox County Schools. He said the piano issue has been resolved and money is being repaid from the music department.

See more here. And there is more. Much, much more.

The information we received was based on a pretty robust answer to a records request. Knox County Schools spokeswoman Melissa Ogden said the available PPU-related records, including purchase orders and invoices, was “roughly 36 binders of information plus a box.”

Over a couple days we sat with a very helpful KNS staffer and went over each page of the documents. Lots of coffee was involved. Eventually we copied about 1,000 pages of docs at 15 cents per page. From that and other sources we found a few questions that wound up being answered in the story. Among them –

What of that piano, the land purchase for schools and the other Northshore related expenses?

We learned that the piano purchase was an error, the Northshore land purchase (part of which was a gift) shouldn’t have come through the PPU account, and that the PPU account is used for a national purchasing contract with a school furniture provider.

How does an accounting line fluctuate from $34m to $0.00 in a couple months?

Schools staff said that was because of an accounting issue – that the accounts compared weren’t exactly the same accounts. Nonetheless, it provided a picture for what appears to be the fluctuating nature of the PPU account.

PPU funding is not a pot of cash, but an amalgamation of unspent debt.

This means that those maintenance funds are actually capital funds (not that there is anything wrong about that), and that the spending for regular maintenance to schools becomes part of the debt load. These are my words, and oversimplified, but it seems in personal finance to be much like spending auto repairs with a line of credit or credit card, which I know plenty of people do – though it’s not ideal. Speaking back to schools, it’s easy to see an argument for a school system to use what resources it has at its disposal to accomplish the job and protect the operating cash they receive from the county and state to be spent elsewhere. That’s another oversimplification, but how the capital debt is spent versus what it is spent upon – and how it is labeled – appears likely to change.

Related, this fund caused at least one commissioner to call the PPU money a “slush fund,” and according to this definition … well, decide for yourself (also, the corruption map there is kinda neat). The implication is that a slush fund, in general, is used for out-of-sight or nefarious financing, and my impression is that there has been no outright malfeasance – but that doesn’t mean the opportunity, or potential, doesn’t exist.

But it’s all being audited now, so we should see soon what may come.




About Gerald

A journalist in Knoxville, TN. Work (mostly) inside and play (mostly) outside. I'm a part of the X or the Y generation. None of us claim the other.
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One Response to Background on today’s story: PPU spending in Knox schools

  1. Amy Broyles says:

    Excellent reporting, Gerald – thanks!

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