Tommy Chang, school superintendent and scapegoat
SINCE AT LEAST MARCH, city officials have known that an IRS audit had uncovered possible financial lapses in Boston, which ultimately resulted in a payment of $944,000 in fines and back taxes. The city cut a check to the IRS on Election Day, as voters went to the polls unaware of the payment.
Mayor Walsh could have informed the public, and explained — as he has done since the news emerged — that most of the mistakes identified in the investigation predated his mayoralty. But he instead claimed he had been ignorant of the findings, and singled out school superintendent Tommy Chang for failing to tell him, even though much of the underpayment of taxes was unrelated to the schools.
“The superintendent had the findings,” Walsh told the Globe in late November. “The School Department had the findings. I didn’t have them.”
That’s hairsplitting, at best. The mayor may not have seen the finalized IRS “findings,” but the broad outlines of the problems identified by the agency had been sent to the city well before the election. Unfortunately, Walsh’s deflections fit a pattern of scapegoating Chang that does nothing to help Boston’s students.
The audit found mismanagement of student activity accounts in 16 Boston public schools, including using those funds for unauthorized expenses and paying some workers off the books. Those violations resulted in roughly $30,000 in penalties and back taxes. In June, with the audit ongoing, Chang sent school principals a memo, later obtained by the Globe, directing them to improve handling of student activity accounts. Additionally, the IRS also determined that the city was failing to pay Medicare payroll taxes for dozens of city workers in other departments, an oversight that cost about $700,000 in back taxes and penalties.
Chang apparently never told Walsh about the school department’s missteps, drawing Walsh’s criticism. But what about the city auditor, who knew at least since August and has escaped any public upbraiding from the mayor? And why would Walsh expect Chang to inform him about an audit that was already known to City Hall?
Since he started, Chang has been shown the underside of the proverbial bus more often than he deserves. Last year, the Globe’s James Vaznis reported on an advisory panel convened by Chang to study potential changes to admissions requirements to the city’s exam schools in order to increase enrollment of black and Latino students. Almost immediately, Walsh killed the idea and said he didn’t know the committee had been formed. This summer, in a Globe magazine profile, Walsh said that the political inexperience of Chang’s team had made it harder for the reform agenda to get traction here. And in a meeting with the Globe editorial board before the election, Walsh criticized the city’s high schools and said he’d asked Chang to file a report on ways to improve them.
Nonetheless, Walsh said he stands by Chang. The question is, how long before Chang decides he can’t stand this problematic pattern? It’s one thing for the mayor to hold city officials accountable, and another to seek scapegoats. With the power and promise of a second term stretching in front of him, Walsh has to understand that the buck stops with him.