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Schools should publish budgets

Philadelphia Inquirer
Tuesday, April 24, 2012

By Thomas Hylton

Gov. Corbett is challenging Pennsylvania school districts to live within their means.  To provide districts more flexibility, he has proposed a new block grant system to replaced targeted spending subsidies.

“The rationale here is clear,” Corbett told the legislature during his February budget address.  “Local districts know better how to spend and allocate resources than do bureaucrats in Harrisburg.”

In theory, Corbett is right.  As a practical matter, however, school boards are completely dependent on paid administrators to provide information.  By controlling information, administrators can usually control how school boards vote.  This means school directors – the elected representatives of the people – make decisions from a very limited perspective.

If the governor really wants school boards to spend wisely, he should require each school district to prepare and publish on its website a comprehensive, reader-friendly budget according to a template developed by the state Department of Education.

As a school board member and former reporter who covered school districts for years, I‘ve found the greatest obstacle for both school directors and citizens who want an efficient school system is the lack of pertinent information.
At present, most school districts publish only bare bones budgets, if they publish them at all. 

A budget should show board members and the public exactly where dollars are being spent. Information should be reported by school as well as district-wide – the names, job descriptions, and costs of all personnel, broken down by salaries and fringe benefits, the sizes of every class, the costs to operate each building, and specific transportation costs.  A chart should show how many students (withholding names) are placed in alternative education schools and the cost of each one.

After I was elected to the school board in my hometown of Pottstown in 2009, I asked for a line-item budget, a master schedule showing how many students were in each class, and charts showing how all the spaces were being used.  My request caused quite a stir.  Micromanagement! Breach of security! Waste of valuable administrators’ time!

But once I received the information, I made some interesting discoveries. For example, the smallest class sizes should be in the primary grades, but we were doing the opposite.  Our primary grades averaged 24 children each, while the average class size at the high school was 18. 

Our high school and middle schools were touted as more efficient than our neighborhood elementary schools, but the budget showed energy costs were twice as much per student at the secondary level than at the elementary level.  It was easy to see why: Our secondary schools, which were enlarged a decade ago, are now oversized: the high school’s capacity is 1,162 students, but it only enrolls 771. Our middle school has room for 1,030 students, but only enrolls 635.

Our school board hadn’t noticed.  And our administrators wanted to enlarge our elementary schools rather than reconfigure our grade structure to maximize use of available space at the secondary schools.

During the Rendell era, as funding increased, we were adding a substantial number of aides and ancillary employees even as our enrollment was declining.  For many of these employees, the cost of fringe benefits is more than their salaries.  Regular classroom teachers now comprise only a third of our staff.
This is the kind of information we need as a school community to make intelligent use of our resources.  But in most districts, like Pottstown, even board members are usually ignorant of the pertinent facts. 

Publishing a detailed budget should not be difficult.  For decades, the state has required school districts to record every expenditure according to a uniform system.  Among other benefits, this system allows the state Department of Education to make “apples to apples” comparisons among districts on everything from personnel costs to utility bills. 

So the hard part – standardized information gathering – is already being done. But like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle box, none of it is assembled in a way that makes sense.  A uniform reporting system is needed to translate the numbers into a comprehensive, reader-friendly narrative.

The Internet and search engines have revolutionized civilization by making abundant information available to all.  Certainly, education is vitally important, and in Pennsylvania, nothing consumes more tax dollars.  Therefore, we should ensure all citizens have readily accessible, credible information, showing how their local public schools function.

Gov. Corbett believes competition from private and charter schools can make public schools more efficient and responsive to people’s needs.  Requiring open and accessible budgets can do the same.  And the more information our school districts provide, the more trust and support they will earn. 




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