Funny about Money

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. ―Edmund Burke

October 21, 2017
by funny

How DO we survive?

Ever have one of those blood-stopping moments that make you wonder how you got lucky? When you imagine that if there’s a god, She must be looking out after you?

Yesterday I was right here, flying low across Glendale on the way into town from the Westside, right at this time. Needed to reload the gas tank at the local Costco, which is on Bethany Home. At about 35th Avenue, I debated whether to go south on the 17 to Bethany Home, cutting maybe a minute and a half off the drive. Given my dislike of freeway driving, I decided it wasn’t worth it and went south on a surface street.

If I had entered the freeway at that moment, I could very well have ended up in the middle of whatever this was. Who knows what caused the woman’s vehicle to roll: maybe a tire blew out, maybe she swerved to avoid a fellow homicidal driver or debris on the road, maybe her attention wandered.

Amazingly, no other cars seem to have been caught up in this wreck. Four in the afternoon is pushing high rush hour here — freeways can be bumper-to-bumper at this time of day. And, it being Arizona, “bumper-to-bumper” does not mean “correspondingly slow speed.” Arizona drivers will go 60 or 65 mph right on the next guy’s tailpipe. We think that’s normal behavior.

But even if you weren’t in the wreck itself, can you imagine being anywhere near it? With five little kids in the car and the mother dead on the road?

Sometimes…you just have to wonder.

October 19, 2017
by funny

Please come to Yarnell in the springtime…

So dawn is cracking and I’m headed east toward the Pima Reservation — which is a LONG way from the Funny Farm — to attend the weekly bidness networking meeting.

God, God, GOD how I hate driving through the awful traffic this damn city has sprouted. Time of day no longer matters: rush hour or not, it is ALWAYS a bitch to drive around the city streets.

Is it just me getting old?

Well. No.

Over Labor Day, everybody in the city but me left town. Or parked themselves in front of some televised sporting event, presumably. That afternoon I happened to jump in my car to run a couple of errands. And thought good grief! What’s wrong here? The streets are not full of crazies; no morons are getting in front of me and doing stupid things like turning left out of the right-turn lane or yakking on the phone through the green light or whatEVER they can dream up. Whaaa? I was actually having a good time driving my tank down the road.

And the thought came to mind: This is what driving in Phoenix used to be like: once it was actually fun to drive your car. When I was a young thang, I often would while away a moment of boredom by getting in my car and just driving around. Because, yes, it was fun to drive in those days. And that Labor Day afternoon, with the streets half-empty, it was — for a few precious moments — fun again.

Most of the time, though, it’s a species of Hell, every time you get on the road.

So I’m cruising east on Gangbanger’s Way thinking how much I hate cruising east on Gangbanger’s, or cruising north or south or east or west on any other street in Phoenix, when a Thought (!!) crosses my mind:

I wonder if there’s any way I could move back to a ranch up around Yarnell.
Can I get back to Yarnell?

Well, no. Of course not.

In the first place, what WOULD I do there? Sit around and sniff the clean air?

I’m too old to run a ranch. I’m really too old to ride a horse: if Babe threw me in the riverbottom today the way she did once when I was a young pup, it would bust every bone in my body. I’d have to hire someone to do not some but all of the work. That would mean I’d have to turn a profit in the cattle biz. Not that it’s impossible to do so: we owned the Gold Bar as a tax dodge, intending to lose money on the thing. We failed: the damn thing ran in the black every year. But ranching is a lot of work. You need an honest foreman to handle just about everything…and honest foremen are few and far between.

Live in town? Really? Seriously? What would I do? Write? Edit copy? Spend half my lifetime driving into Prescott or down into Wickenburg and west Phoenix to keep a freezer provisioned? Hm.

Maybe not so much.

About then yet another revelation came to mind: I’d left my credit cards back at the ranch house.

Shee-ut! This meant I couldn’t do the shopping errands planned for the return trip from the Pima Rez.

Besides the company of our band of merry bandits, the weekly eastward junket has just one other blandishment: a Home Depot within walking distance of the restaurant, and on the way home an Albertson’s, a Whole Foods, a Trader Joe, a Penzey’s, a Fry’s… Just about every routine household purchase — and then some — can be had along that route.

No credit card? No errands done. Two hours’ worth of driving through hair-tearing traffic for an hour’s worth of socializing.

Did I really want to do that?

Well, no.

I turned around and headed home, thinking I’d grab the cards and shoot out to Scottsdale, arriving only about a quarter-hour late. And along the way thought why do I want to do that?

The morning was gorgeous, painterly clouds decorating the dawn sky, a virga dropping its veil over the southeast.

Why do I want to do that?

I don’t. I want to walk the dogs.

Which is what I did.

Speaking of honest foremen, it appears that Gerardo has given up the ghost. Haven’t seen nor heard from him and his cousins in over two months now.

The yard is a mess: needs blowering, raking, and trimming in a big way. Cost almost $300 to get a zanjero out here to repair the irrigation system, something Gerardo was keeping shored up, within reason.

So I’d decided that the next time I saw some guys working on a neighbor’s yard, I’d ask if they’d like to pick up another job.

Over in Richistan, the crew that works on THE most gorgeous shack in the entire neighborhood, bar none, rolls up to the jobsite, about an acre of irrigated lawn with vast, lighted towering trees, a gazebo, a burbling fountain, and on and on and on. I know better than to ask: any outfit that calls itself “Paradise Ponds and Gardens” and does what they do at that place is, by definition, out of my price range.

The hounds and I continue up the neighborhood street, where we find another crew’s truck & trailer, with a couple of workers mowing an emerald ryegrass lawn. And holy mackerel: they’re not lawn men: they’re women!

And ay caramba, they’re not just women, they’re Latinas!

Two women, nicely dressed women decked out as though they were at the yoga studio or at the gym instead of pushing a mower around a half-acre of lawn. They look smart — not just in a stylish way. They are, to coin an old Texas saying, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

I ask if they’d like to take on another job. The younger woman says, “Sure. Write down your address.” I have to take the dogs back to the house and retrieve a bidness card for the purpose — which I do forthwith.

On the way back, I see the neighbor’s lawn guy is also on the job. He’s a gringo — a down-at-the-heels sort of guy dressed like he slept in the alley last night. Upwardly mobile? Sooo not!

Fleetingly I consider asking for a bid anyway…until I’m reminded of why I would not hire a gringo yard guy for love nor money. Call me bigoted — you’ll be right. But my one-on-one experience with White landscape workers has been uniformly negative — well, except for one ex-convict who trimmed palm trees. Unfortunately he went back to jail and so has not been around recently. They steal any tools that are not red-hot or nailed down. They cheat you. They try to injure or poison your dog so they can come back and burgle your house.

I’ve yet to meet a Latino yard worker who proved to be, overtly, a thief.

How am I reminded? Because a few minutes after I get back, I find the jerk dragging  debris from the neighbor’s house — across the road — hauling it up the alley and dumping it into our garbage bin!

The guy does this all the time, because he’s too effin’ lazy to open the neighbor’s back gate and drag the front-yard debris through the backyard into HIS alley and dump it in his trash can.

Today it didn’t matter, because today is trash pickup day and the garbage truck (running late…) hadn’t yet come by. But he doesn’t always show up on trash day. Nor do the garbage trucks always run late. And when he fills that garbage can all the way to the lid, the four households who are assigned to use it can’t put a thing in there. We have to walk all the way down the alley to the trash bin assigned to the next set of four neighbors.

Not that it’s a big deal. But it’s the kind of petty dishonesty, petty laziness that speaks to the man’s character. And what it says in speaking is “don’t hire this one!


Yarnell. But only if you can find an honest foreman…

October 18, 2017
by funny


I’m never what you’d call very ambitious…not anymore, anyhow. But lately it’s getting to be a tussle, just to get my rear into gear. Nothing: that is what I want to do. NOTHING.

Maybe it’s spring fever. Fall being Arizona’s second spring, after all.

Nevertheless I did manage to drag myself out of the sack and wash the car before the heat came up — which is fairly early. It’s almost 90 degrees right now, at 10:45 in the morning.

…wash me, Seymour!

My enthusiasm for washing the car, even though I know I can do a lot better job than the nearest surviving commercial car wash for about fifteen bucks less, has faded to nil. And really, poor Phryne has needed a bath for quite some time. She got black tarry gunk all over her when Our Honored City Parents finally elected to resurface the neighborhood streets. Layer atop layer of dust settles on her, as on all cars in the Phoenix area. When SDXB and I drove to Prescott, we ran into swarms of flying insects, so she was peppered with squashed bugs. And some moron decided to scrape a shopping cart all along her right flank, leaving some handsome slate-colored racing stripes.

Normally I would wait until it rains briskly,  park the car in the driveway for awhile, then pull it back into the garage and wipe it down. This has the dual advantages of a) avoiding a hose-drag, and b) not even racking up the cost of city water.

However, it hasn’t rained lately, at least not when I’ve felt inclined to get out in the stuff. And the car was beginning to look pretty disreputable.

The main ingredient of products billed as bug-and-tar remover, it develops, is elbow grease. Took exactly the same amount of vigorous scrubbing to lift the petrified bugs and the road tar with the chemical as without.

At any rate, the car is now radiantly clean and the 17 microfiber rags used for the car wash and yesterday’s house-cleaning have been run through the washer and tossed in the dryer.

The eight-inch-deep pile of paper marked “Attend to this NOW” has been dusted off and finally sifted through. What a LOT of trash. I hate, hate, HATE shuffling paper.

Downloading the PayPal, credit union, and credit-card statements direct into Excel without passing “Go” will eliminate at least some of the paper-pushing. There’s not much you can do about the mounds of paper Medicare, Medigap, and Social Security send, other than simply forget it. I cram all that stuff into files, which are now bursting.

How much of this debris, really, do I have to keep? Godlmighty, there are SIX legal-size file drawers in my office, full to overflowing. And that doesn’t count the chuckablock-full four-drawer cabinet in the garage!

Alas, trying to figure that out and then, once figured, shoveling out the mess represents Work, which I decidedly wish to avoid.

…some things, you don’t wanna know…

Next task: figure out (have you noticed HOW MUCH TIME is spent on FIGURING OUT???) how to measure out the granulated chlorine I bought in bulk from Leslie’s yesterday.

You know how Leslie’s does love to sell you untold zillions of dollars worth of chlorine tablets, supposedly to keep your pool sanitized & algae-free? Well…. It appears the things are unnecessary if you use granulated chlorine and know HOW to use it.

Just read through the lengthy, extremely fine-print instructions plastered on an 8-pound package of granular chlorine purchased from Our Beloved Leslie’s dealer. Planned to use it as I’ve learned to use the same stuff that comes in 1-pound plastic packets: dump it in about once a week, all the while floating a couple of (fast dissolving!) chlorine tablets around the drink.

Well. Comes the Revelation…

It turns out you can use this stuff not just for shock-treating but also for routine day-to-day chlorine maintenance. Purchased in bulk, it is MUCH cheaper than either the tablets or the “shock treatment” packets (which contain the same stuff).

Even at the extravagantly profit-seeking Leslie’s it’s cheaper, and even cheaper still at Amazon & Costco. I just paid about $3.75/lb at Leslie’s; Amazon has it for $3.30/lb. At Leslie’s, the one-pound handy-dandy packets are about $4.17 apiece. Apparently Costco no longer carries bulk granulated chlorine — at least not in the off-season.

How much less this would be than floating chlorine tabs escapes me — the math would be way over my fuzzy little head. But since one bucket of those things costs about a hundred bucks and you only have to throw in about 3 ounces of the granulated stuff a couple times a week, my guess is…a lot less.

So the Pool Task of the Day is multi-pronged:

1. Thoroughly wash out the measuring cup used for doling out chemicals into the pool. This supposedly holds 16 ounces (i.e., one pound), but those are fluid ounces, not granulated dry toxic chemical ounces.
2. Trot the kitchen scale outside and measure granulated dry toxic chlorine into said measuring cup until I can figure out how much one pound would really be. And how much 3 ounces really are.
3. Sweep the pool and clean out the various pots, a much-overdue job.
4. Shock-treat the pool at dusk, so as to beat back the re-nascent mustard algae.

Because daytime temps have been around 100° for the past week or so and really have never dropped out of the 90s since the “end” of the summer, the water may be warm enough for a swim today. If so, it will be a brisk swim, because the nights have been nice and cool — and pool water cools quickly when the night-time temps drop. But we shall see.

I’ve been too lazy to experiment with that, too.

Next: fart with state university paperwork for a client, so I can get paid.

Then: fart with concocting a statement for another client, so I can get paid.

After that: write.

If there is an after that.

October 17, 2017
by funny
1 Comment

Talk about Indian Summer…

Seriously! It’s 100 degrees on October 17 here.

Actually, it’s kind of a nice day…a dry heat, y’know… 😀 And a mere 100 degrees is not hot enough to overcome one’s second-spring planting instincts:

Sweet little posies, eh? Picked those up this morning at the nursery, while running around in that part of town. Do LOVE that pot! The bulbs I put in there last winter pretty much fried over the summer. So I picked up a dwarf foxglove, a geranium, and a salvia, which kind of pick up the colors in the pot.

Salvia grows really well out in front over the winter (assuming we get a winter this year). So I may go back and pick up a few more to stick in the flowerbed under the olive tree, which remains sadly neglected.

One thing at a time.

Few days ago I stuck some seeds in a few other pots, also out in front:

They’ve already sprouted! Well, actually, only the two pots on the right have sprouted seeds: lettuce and beets. In the center: a baby rosemary plant; on the right, a thyme plant and a volunteer tomato.

I came unstuck in time today, thinking it was Wednesday and not Tuesday. As I’m thrashing around thinking I’ve gotta send out a weekly meeting notice and go buy enough gas to get to the Pima Reservation through the Thursday morning rush-hour traffic and dayum! I didn’t wash the car this morning so won’t be able to see into the rising, GLARING sun tomorrow morning and how could it possibly be time for choir practice AGAIN, it crossed my feeble little mind:

…well…no…wait…it can’t be time for choir practice again.

And… Well. No. It isn’t time for choir practice again. Mirabilis! It’s actually Tuesday!

This left a great deal of time to get stuff done:

  • Strip the bed and
  • Wash the sheets and
  • Wash the blanket and
  • Wash the dog covering and
  • Bang the dog hair out of all the above, in the dryer
  • Wash the bathroom rugs and the doggie floor rags
  • Bang the dog hair of the rugs and rags, in the dryer
  • Drive to the nursery to buy some new posies
  • Dart into Safeway and let them know a telephone scammer is spoofing their pharmacy’s phone number
  • Fly to the pool store and buy 8 pounds of shock treatment
  • Clean the pool pots
  • Thin out the lettuce & beet seedlings
  • Plant the new posies
  • And even write a little on the latest chapteroid of the current noveloid!

Think of that. And it’s not yet 1 p.m.

The other day I made a nice impromptu ratatouille, which served handsomely as leftovers-for-breakfast this morning. Ratatouille, a dish from the south of France, sounds very fancy to the American ear in the same way that anything spoken or written in French sounds fancy (mais non?). But in fact it’s good peasant food, on the order of pot roast or Yankee stew: simple, cheap, and deliciously satisfying.

All you need is a nice little eggplant, a summer squash (any of the thin-skinned variety like zucchini or crookneck), a little onion, a bell pepper, a bit of garlic, and…whatever else you have laying around. Celery is nice to add. Herbs of various callings — I dumped the rest of the herbes de Provence into the stuff, maybe all of two or three teaspoons. Thyme is always good. Whatever. Got some carrots? Good. Mushrooms? Fine. WhatEVER. And you’ll need some tomatoes — either a bunch of chopped up fresh tomatoes or a nice can of your favorite brand of chopped tomatoes.

Coarsely chop the onions and garlic and celery if you have it. Pour a little olive oil in a large skillet. Slowly cook the aromatic veggies until they’re transparent and beginning to brown. This should take about the length of time required to consume a small glass of wine slowly whilst reading the news. Get up a couple of times and stir.

Before sitting down with the wine, though, also coarsely chop the other veggies and set aside. You might want to sprinkle some salt on the chopped eggplant, as this is the traditional way: leaches out extra liquid, which if the eggplant is mature can add some bitterness to the flavor. If you decide to do this, pat the eggplant pieces dry on some layers of paper toweling before proceeding with the post-wine step.

Remove the aromatic veggies from the pan — just spoon them out onto a plate next to the stove.

Add a little more olive oil.

Apply the rest of the vegetables to the olive oil in the pan. Pour another glass of wine and, while beginning to consume this, allow the vegetables to cook a bit, stirring occasionally, until they’re starting to brown a little.

Next, stir the onions, celery, and garlic back into the sauteed vegetables. Carry the wine glass over to the stove. Add the canned or boxed tomatoes. Stir well. Pour part of the wine into this mixture (red is better, IMHO, but either is just fine) and mix together well.

Cover the pan. Turn the heat to medium-low. And just let it simmer for 45 minutes or so until all the lovely flavors are combined.

This is good all by itself, or served over pasta, or as a side for grilled steak, chicken, or fish, or whatever you please.

There’s a full-blown fancy recipe for this in the cookbook. And it’s never too late to buy the cookbook! Want a hard copy? Lemme know in a comment and we can conduct business by email.


October 15, 2017
by funny

Computers: Ya love ’em…

By noon yesterday, I was feeling very smug. After dragging my heels for years, I finally forced my self to figure out how to download data for two credit union accounts, three credit cards, and a PayPal account in such a way as to make sense of the entries. Not just “make sense” to my eccentric and overheated little mind, but actually to make sense to an accountant.

Miraculously, it wasn’t near as hard as expected. I hate doing this kind of thing, because there’s always, invariably, inevitably some kind of fuck-up that will require hours of frustration to figure out, decode, and reconstruct before it’s right. But to my great surprise, it wasn’t very difficult at all. Data downloaded smoothly into Excel — backwards, of course, so I had to sort by “Date” in order to make entries run from January through October rather than, clumsily, the other way around. But that’s not difficult. The only PITA was PayPal, but PayPal is always a PITA, so…there being no surprise there, I managed to cope adequately.

So, yes, smug: No more the hours spent entering data from snail-mail statements. No more the time suck of figuring out what check no. 2489 paid for, and to whom. No more the annoyance of calling AMEX to find out who some mystery retailer might be. It’s all there in little glowing letters.

This was good. Very, very good. WonderAccountant will be pleased, and I will no longer have to rely on her reports from the inscrutable, user-hostile Quickbooks to extract the answer to this, that, or the other budgetary question. She will be even more pleased to learn that AMEX will upload data to QB, which she prefers to use because she can generate tax reports from that endlessly annoying program and because it will engross transaction data from your bank accounts.

These are features I would prefer to do without, but will allow as to how anything that saves her time saves me money.

…or ya hate ’em!

Pleased as punch — or as bourbon and water, which I find much more pleasing than punch, thank you — I went back to working on my client’s ongoing project. She has been uploading it a chunk at a time, as she writes. I’d sent her a piece in the morning, and forthwith she sent me back an afternoon piece.

So I set to work on that, and after a couple of hours come out on the other end. And I’m very pleased, yea verily, about that: a major piece of work, out of the way and in impressively short order.

Go to save the thing, and…

…oh, what do you suppose happened next?

Angels flew into my office, gathered around the desk and began to sing?

The dog began to speak in English, offering advice on what stocks to buy?

Donald Trump announced he was stepping down from office to spend the next 10 years golfing in Barbados?

No. ‘Fraid not. Oh, indeed, you DO know what happened: Effing Word hung.

And hung big time. I couldn’t crash out of it. I couldn’t even switch to a different program. Ultimately the only way I could shake it loose was to SHUT DOWN THE EFFING COMPUTER.

And this, of course, causes everything I’m working on to crash.

I figure that will be a fucking annoyance but not the end of the world, because everything is saved. I know I saved all the Excel files that were still sitting open on the computer, and even if they didn’t save, I’d emailed them to WonderAccountant and so those could be retrieved from “Sent” mail.

I knew I’d saved the chapter of the current noveloid I’m working on — and was feeling extremely proud of: this day’s little inspiration having proven…well, inspired — and even if I didn’t, Wyrd is set to save every three minutes.

Wyrd is set to save every three minutes because of its propensity to generate random catastrophic crashes.

But nevertheless I’m pissed, because I know this is going to be another time suck.

And I’m right. It is another time suck.

Manage to get the system back up and find that probably the Excel files are OK.

The client’s file, thank God, saved itself in several iterations as it was diving in flames into the Pacific Ocean, one of which miraculously contained the latest changes and comments I’d made.

But my file? The one I felt so happy with because it’s the first decent creative work I’ve done in freaking WEEKS? Not so much.

The whole day’s new work is gone. Gone, gone, gone! Wyrd tells me it has autosaved nothing, no back up, please go away and stop bothering me…

Well, by now of course I’m in a screaming rage.

I search and search and bang around and whack around and try every trick I can think of. Finally, as I’m about to give up, I manage to find some autosaved files under the suspect filename. And in there what should I discover but an .asd file that was apparently was saved late in the Timeframe of Desperation.


An .asd file is a type of Wyrd recovery file. Wyrd and the Mac, of course, had told me they hadn’t saved anything within living memory: that the latest save had failed to keep most of the day’s scribbling.


So I try to open this thing, but as you can imagine, Wyrd refuses to open it.

I look up “how to open an .asd” file on the Font of All Wisdom and do indeed find such a thing. Unfortunately it’s written in Techese and so is utterly incomprehensible to the likes of moi. I cannot even begin to understand what the author is trying to say, except that he’s offering some indecipherable hope that this file can be broken into.

What the fuck to do?

Finally I decide to try to hack into it using TextEdit.

And lo and behold…it WORKS.

Angels do not sing at my house. At best, they laugh. Peals of angelic laughter now erupt around the desk.

Of course, you can’t edit a TextEdit file. But…you can copy it.

Highlighted the passages that had been disappeared from the working Wyrd file, reopened said file, and pasted. And HALLELUJAH! It worked! More angelic laughter.

So I saved the creative work I’d done that afternoon, at the expense of damn near giving myself a nervous breakdown.

One of the Excel files had corrupted. There’s an easy fix for that: change the extension from .xlsb or .xlsx to .xls. Wasn’t very worried, because I knew I could retrieve the one I’d sent to WonderAccountant, but tried the trick anyway. It worked.

You realize, of course, that had I stayed true to my resolve to draft creative work with pen on ink on, you know, paper, this wouldn’t have happened…

How do I hate computers? Let me count the ways…

October 14, 2017
by funny

Charter Schools: What Could Go Wrong?

Interested in charter schools as an alternative to traditional public education? Well, that makes sense, especially in a backwater like Arizona, where schools are shamefully underfunded and the resulting national and international academic rankings are similarly shameful.

Are charter schools The Answer? I don’t know.

Certainly here in the Wild West, where ethics run as short as water, it’s highly debatable. If you’re thinking about a charter school for the kids or the grand-kids, think carefully, and take a long look before you leap. With permission from the Grand Canyon Institute, Funny about Money is reproducing a response to a little firestorm that arose after publication of a report suggesting that over the past 20 years, more than 3/4 of Arizona charter schools have indulged in questionable uses of taxpayer money. If you’d like to read the full 90-page report, which is quite the jaw-dropper, you can download the PDF here. There’s a separate executive summary online, too.

As you can imagine, this report elicited loud squawks of protest from various quarters, some of which contain some fairly heavy hitters, especially within the present political infrastructure. If you care at all about the future of education in this country — and about the use of your taxpayer dollars therein — you need to take a look at this.

Fighting Fire With Data

No substance in critiques of charter school finances report

Oct. 5, 2017 – On Sunday, Sept. 17 the Grand Canyon Institute (GCI) released a policy report that tracks the financial practices of Arizona’s charter schools over the past 20 years. It found that 77% of charter schools use taxpayer money for questionable financial practices. Of the more than $1 billion charter schools received in public funds each year, almost half is paid to related parties – the charter holder’s own for profit business, corporate board members or relatives of either.

Last week, charter sector leaders criticized GCI’s policy report, Following the Money: Twenty Years of Charter School Financial Practices in Arizona, with no substance behind their arguments. The president of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools (ASBCS) responded to GCI’s policy report by labeling the organization as anti-charter and claiming that charter schools are well-regulated. She was joined by the vice chairman of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, who is also the CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He stated that charter schools are held to a high level of accountability and argues that a school’s academic performance should be the ultimate determination of its fiscal responsibility.

GCI is pro-school-choice

The Grand Canyon Institute is pro-school-choice.  The recommendations that we make in our report are to ensure that well managed, fiscally responsible charters create true school choice among all publicly-funded schools. Greater accountability will provide charters that do not engage in such activities a competitive advantage, allowing them to thrive and ultimately improve the academic performance of Arizona’s charter and public district schools.

 The misconception about the superior performance of charter schools

The claim by charter proponents that charter school students’ performance is superior to public district school students is a misconception. Comparing similar students in the two systems tells the story differently. This superior performance claim is based on comparisons of aggregate charter school and public district school scores on standardized tests. Charter schools attract proportionally more higher-performing, advantaged students and tend to “weed out” the lowest performers. Because charters rarely provide transportation, they enroll comparatively fewer students from lower-income families. They also enroll comparably lower numbers of students with special needs. The result is higher aggregate test scores.

GCI’s policy report cites the only recent studies that used student-level data to compare district and charter students of similar socio-economic and demographic backgrounds. Those studies, one from a research center affiliated with the Hoover Institution at Stanford and the other contracted by the Goldwater Institute, both found that overall Arizona district schools modestly outperform charters. Some charter schools, no doubt, do perform better than district schools, but that is not the case for most charters.

Simply put, aggregate data perpetuates the misconception that charter school students perform better than public district school students.

 Academic success does not equal fiscal responsibility

One common critique of GCI’s findings and other research that focused on charter school finances is that academic performance should be the metric indicating whether a charter school is practicing fiscal responsibility. Data that indicates related-party transactions, excessive executive compensation, and shareholder payouts despite a lack of profitability has been routinely dismissed.

GCI does not see why academic performance and financial accountability should be mutually exclusive.  Charter schools that engaged in related-party transactions that led to cost-savings were not included in the 77%. As taxpayers, why should we turn a blind eye to whether our money is being used inefficiently or unethically simply because of strong academic performance by students at a select few charter schools? Is it too much to ask that charter schools engage in both strong pedagogical practice and proper handling of taxpayer dollars?

GCI probed the prevailing economic theory referenced in the charter school marketplace. The theory is that once the state has given taxpayer money to the charter school the charter is free to spend it as they deem fit. Moving large sums of public money to a related party, a for-profit corporate entity, diverts taxpayer funding to companies that do not provide audited accounting to the state or the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools. This does not change the fact that the money came from public sources.

 Arizona’s charter schools are not well-regulated

The Grand Canyon Institute’s comprehensive financial analysis found that charter schools were rampant with related-party transactions, a practice where charter school operators did business with for-profit companies owned by the charter holder, members of the school’s corporate board, or relatives of either. While this activity is illegal for public school districts, it has been allowed for charter schools to create cost savings. However, GCI found that 77% of charter schools engaging in this practice do so in a manner that does not create costs savings for the charter entity. Therefore GCI concludes it is not in the best interests of students or the taxpayer. While charter schools are required under state law to disclose such activities, the Arizona Daily Star reported that the ASBCS does not keep track of such conflict-of-interest disclosures.

Furthermore, stringent oversight of charters at the school level is a dubious claim when the current law allows governing boards for charters as well as, when applicable, parent corporate boards that oversee multiple charters to be composed of the following related-party combinations:

  • One person, the charter holder.
  • Two people, husband and wife who also hold the charter.
  • Two charter holder couples.
  • Relatives and owners of related party businesses.
  • Charter holder serves as the board chair/president.
  • Corporate Boards that are the same for related-party businesses dealing with the non-profit charter. Salaries, bonuses and distributions from these subsidiaries are not reported on the Audits. Money moving to the subsidiaries is noted in the Related-Party section of the Audit.

In addition, 113 charters did not post notices of upcoming board meetings or meeting locations on their websites as required by law.  As a result, a complaint was made to the Arizona Attorney General for their failure to comply with Arizona Open Meeting Laws.

With no aggregate records kept of charter school financial activities, GCI researchers were forced to dive into financial documents charter-by-charter to determine how widespread the practice was. All charters from 1994 to 2015 were financially evaluated using forensic accounting. The result is a database with financial information pulled from Annual Financial Reports, audits, and IRS 990 filings from every charter school that reports to the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools. This information was collected with cooperation from the ASBCS and the Arizona Department of Education.

GCI found that charter governing and corporate boards composed with the above related-parties invite the wolf to watch the hen house. Current charter law enabled the following examples of related-party transactions:

  • Renting from a for-profit business or individual
  • Purchasing goods and services from a related for-profit business or individual
  • Leasing employees from a related party for-profit company or individual
  • Loans and notes to a related-party for-profit company or individual
  • Paying a related party for “board” services on the corporate board
  • Consulting contracts to a related party, and a host of other dealings with parties related to the owners of the charter.
  • Multiple related-parties on the payroll.

GCI also found that charter schools paid teachers on average 20% less than public school districts while paying administrators significantly more (about 50% greater than their counterparts in similar-sized public school districts). This lack of regulation has created an environment where those who control the purse-strings can enrich themselves and their families at the expense of students and teachers. For example, when a charter elects not to participate in the Arizona State Retirement System, the retirement contribution from the employer will likely be less than the ASRS 11.1%. Does that savings go to teachers as additional compensation or into the pockets of charter holders?

Next steps

Charter schools in Arizona, including the one-in-four with good business practices, face a real danger of becoming associated with corruption instead of student success.  That is not in anyone’s interest. The Grand Canyon Institute wants to work with the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools and the Arizona Charter Schools Association to create a highly competitive environment that creates high-performing charter schools.  We suggest starting with the report’s key recommendations that charter schools must:

  • Conduct public competitive bid processes similar to public district schools.
  • Ensure consistency among Annual Financial Reviews (AFRs), audits, and IRS 990 filings, including using the same accounting method, Cash, Accrual, or Modified Accrual across all reports.
  • Adopt executive salaries comparable to similarly sized public district schools.
  • Be subject to annual audits by the state Auditor General similar to public district schools.

These policies will foster high-performing, fiscally responsible charter schools, which will give Arizona what it has strived for: true school choice.

If research like this matters to you, please consider a tax deductible donation to the Grand Canyon Institute,  a  501(c) (3) nonprofit organization and an independent, nonpartisan think tank led by a bipartisan group of former state lawmakers, economists, community leaders and academicians. Donations can be sent to the Grand Canyon Institute, PO Box 1008, Phoenix, Arizona 85001-1008. Or donate online here.

And no, my little chickadees, there’s not a single paid link in this entire squib.