Cell Phones R Us: Avoiding Fiscal Responsibility the Madison School Board Way

Recently Governor Doyle directed state agencies to �examine all operations to bring accountability and fiscal responsibility to government�. As a result, the state has reduced the use of cell phones and saved thousands of dollars. The Department of Administration characterized the use of cell phones before this change as �part of the carelessness� that marked state spending under prior administrations.
Dane County and the City of Madison have written procedures that limit the assignment of cell phones to specific categories of employees. For example, the city permits assignment of a cell phone �where it is required that an employee be reachable at all times, or where an employee must be regularly able to make business telephone calls while in the field�.
In contrast, the Madison Metropolitan School District does not have a policy or an administrative procedure to restrict the use of cell phones at MMSD expense. Don�t expect that to change anytime soon, even though the annual cost of employee cell phones has increased 60% since 2001 from $51,225 to $82,259, including the monthly fee for each cell phone.
The majority of the Board does not favor budget targets for the superintendent or controls on how the administration spends the budget. The expanding use of cell phones by MMSD employees is just another example of this bias against fiscal controls.

At my request, Carol Carstensen scheduled a discussion of cell phone costs at the October 25, 2004 meeting of the Finance and Operations Committee. The administration provided a memo for the meeting and a list of the 257 current users of MMSD cell phones and their jobs, also at my request. The majority of the 3-member committee– Carol Carstensen and Juan Lopez– decided that no action was needed. Board president Bill Keys and members Bill Clingan, Shwaw Vang and Johnny Winston, Jr. also participated in the discussion.
In the administrative memo, Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Roger Price explained the rationale for the district�s 257 cell phones:
�We experienced a significant increase in the need and use of cell phones following 9/11 and as we have continuously stressed safety of our students and staff�. A number of our building services personnel are on call for bomb threats in addition to their specific areas of responsibility. We have also added phones for custodial use for second and third shift where personnel are often isolated in our larger buildings.�

On its face, Price�s safety rationale seems to track the reasons that the city assigns cell phones to certain categories of employees. Of course, we should use cell phone technology to increase the safety of our staff and our students, whether the cell phones are needed inside the buildings or when staff work in the community or on field trips.
I recommended that the Board adopt a policy or procedure similar to the City�s procedures for that reason. No takers. Much indignation that I was trying to �micromanage� the administration�s work.
Why do I care?
First, because a policy or procedure that limited cell phone assignments to employees with special responsibility for safety could reduce costs about $30,000. That amount is enough to pay a half-time teacher for one year or purchase about 600 new textbooks. That amount is as much as the district gained from some of the fee increases that parents are paying in 2004-05.
Second, because the list of current users suggests that safety is not always the reason for the cell phone. Often the reason seems to be administrative convenience.
Here is the pattern of current cell phone assignments.
Our 30 elementary schools have 39 cell phones. Most are assigned to the building and checked out as needed. The 11 middle schools have 15 cell phones and the high schools have a total of 19, mostly in the hands of administrators and the athletics department. Alternative programs and external programs have 13 cell phones. Altogether the schools and these programs control of 33% of the cell phones. These assignments make sense and no doubt contribute to safety for students and staff. Moreover, this pattern of assignments seems to avoid monthly charges for phones not needed on a regular basis.
The remaining two-thirds of the cell phones are assigned to staff in Special Education (47 phones including 17 for administrators or coordinators), Business Services (9 phones), Building Services (29 phones), General Administration (32 phones) and Madison School Community Recreation Department (54 phones). Some of these employees fit the city�s criteria in that they �must be reachable at all times� because of the scope of their duties and their roles, such as assistant superintendents who must be reached by schools with crises. Some of the Building Service cell phones are appropriately assigned to custodial staff regularly working in isolated areas when schools are closed.
However, the General Administration staff assigned cell phones includes the downtown Athletics Coordinator, the top five staff in Human Resources, Legislative Liaison, the Public Information Officer, the secretary to the Board of Education, the Director of Research and Evaluation, the Lead Elementary Principal, the Director of Risk Management, 4 staff in the Teaching & Learning Department and 5 staff who work on Title I funding projects. It is difficult to understand why these employees could not share a few phones assigned to their buildings for the rare situation when their work would meet the city�s criteria. It is equally hard to imagine the 9/11 reasons for these phones.
The largest user of cell phones is MSCR with its 54 phones or 21% of all MMSD cell phones. Here again it seems that a cost-conscious administration would assign a smaller number of phones to locations or programs and require staff to sign them out when needed. Among MSCR staff assigned cell phones are employees responsible for aquatic programs, after school programs, canoeing and outdoor programs, pontoon boats, camps, and bus tours. Again, it seems that the MSCR use results in many monthly charges for many phones where more centralized assignments would meet the safety need but cut the monthly cost.
If you have comments on this topic, you can reach all Board members at comments@madison.k12.wi.us. No further action is currently scheduled on this topic.
Ruth Robarts,
Member, Madison Board of Education, 1997 – present