Chariho School Parents’ Forum

August 13, 2009

Transparency in schools

Filed under: transparency — Editor @ 11:26 pm

Early in my time on the Chariho School Committee I was contacted by a Peyton Wolcott, an amazing advocate from Texas. She started by going to meetings and butting her head against the wall and then she decided to focus on one thing, getting the monthly check book (including copies of the credit card bills) posted on the school website.

She offers a blueprint how she does it – pasted below. Below that is a essay she wrote on her successes.

How to persuade
your district:
The friendly approach
works best–t
ake the
Golden Rule with you
when
asking your schools
to post their checks.

Testimo
nials  (issues & concerns).
 

 Arrarently, the links above didn’t cut and paste well. You can find the information on the center column of her website HERE>

Delaware takes the lead in public school financial

transparency; Texas drops to second place

It’s altogether fitting that our nation’s first state would today also be the first state to take a step towards another sort of freedom — freedom for taxpayers from having to shoulder skyrocketing public school administrative costs — by requiring all of its public school districts to post their check registers online.

 

By stroke of a pen later today Governor Jack Markell (above left) will sign Delaware’s HB 119 which includes the following commendable non-wiggly language: “HB 119: §1509. Transparency of District Finances. Each district and charter school shall post on its web site by September 1, 2009 and every three months thereafter a check register indicating the recipient of each check issued by the school district or charter school, the amount of the check, and identifying information regarding the check sufficient to permit members of the public to seek additional information regarding the payment in question. The only information excepted from inclusion in this database shall be records that would not constitute public records…and records for which the disclosure would violate any federal or state law.” (Of course no HIPAA laws should be violated with any public documents posted, including check registers.)

 

How Delaware reached this point: a road map for the rest of America

In every other state, including here in Texas, although many legislators have written laws over the past several years proposing that school districts post their check registers online, in almost every case the proposed legislation has fallen by the wayside for one simple reason: Having become accustomed to little oversight regarding the details of their spending by either the public or their school boards, superintendents either directly or through their lobbyists voiced opposition to being made to do so, often citing local governance issues. Although they were willing to ask for and accept state and federal dollars in addition to local property taxes, they wanted to continue 100% local control of oversight of their spending.

 

The Delaware road map for the rest of America

Both the governor and his lieutenant governor campaigned on an education platform which included greater transparency, then delivered on their promise, starting with a dozen Back to School Briefings suggested by Markell and hosted by Lt. Gov. Matt Denn (top right) and Delaware Secretary of Education, Lillian Lowery. In this way, both public education professionals and citizens were invited to share their goals for the state’s public schools. It helped that Delaware House Education chair Terry Schooley (lower right, and, yes, that really is her name) who wrote the bill is former president of the Delaware School Boards Association. So the strong leadership on this has come from the top in Delaware. Although individuals with whom I have spoken this past week pointed out that Delaware’s small size probably helped — there are only 19 school districts in the entire state — as anyone who has ever participated in a local school board race can attest, accomplishing something in a small venue can be just as difficult if not more than in a large one.

 

Markell, a former Nextel executive who is also a McKinsey alum, previously served as Delaware’s State Treasurer from 1998 until his election last year, and it was in this capacity that I first learned of him. Several years ago while doing some research one of his lower-rung employees insisted over my protestations words to the effect, “You don’t understand. Our new state treasurer really is serious about reforming Delaware spending.” As his Communications Director Joe Rogalsky confirmed late yesterday, “Gov. Markell’s administration is committed to open, transparent government. He believes the public has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent. He has already put the executive branch’s checkbook online, and believes taxpayers also deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent by school districts. Governor Markell’s reforms are giving school districts greater flexibility in making spending decisions, but with that flexibility comes greater accountability to the public.” Those reforms include redefining the state’s Unit Count school funding.

 

As Denn has said previously, HB 119 is part of his own continuing effort to “put procedures in place to direct more public dollars into the classroom and less into administrative overhead.” Again, the carrot: While enforcing tighter internal controls at the same time give schools more financial flexibility.

 

Other states

Texas of course took the early lead in school spending transparency with Governor Rick Perry’s executive order in 2005 requiring all school districts to post their check registers online if they failed to reach a 65% spending level; then-commissioner Shirley Neeley diluted the import of this by inviting fellow school superintendents to Austin to help rewrite the already-generous NCES formula; last time I checked fewer than a dozen districts were posting their check registers online as part of the resulting SchoolsFIRST plan. That over a third of Texas’ 1031school districts are voluntarily posting is a testament to individual school superintendents and their boards. It helps that new Commissioner of Education Robert Scott has also been a long-time proponent of transparency, starting with his posting the Texas Education Agency’s check register online in February 2007, and by so doing becoming the first state DOE in the nation to do so. More here www.tea.state.tx.us

While all of TEA’s checks are online, last year then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin put everything over $1,000 online for all Alaska state government including their DOE.

Alabama has taken a different tack towards transparency; Governor Bob Riley signed an executive order this past February requiring all state government checks to go online, and the Alabama State Board of Education followed suit this summer by voting to require all Alabama school districts to post their checks online if they wanted state funding. In one fell swoop, both carrot and stick. I like what he told the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama: “Taxpayers will know where their money goes and to whom it goes. You shouldn’t have to be an investigative reporter to find out how the state spends tax dollars. This reform empowers taxpayers to become fiscal watchdogs.” Individual efforts in Illinois (Adam Andrzejewski) and Michigan (Mackinaw Center) have resulted in several districts voluntarily posting online in those states. .

School financial transparency: conservative or liberal issue?

The great thing about transparency is that embracement of it can cut across all party lines. I note with rue as a conservative that by getting a law passed requiring all school districts to put their check registers online, three Democrats in Delaware — the governor, lieutenant governor and house education committee chair — have accomplished what has eluded their Republican counterparts here in Texas. Terry Schooley’s Texas equivalent, Rob Eissler, pointed out by phone yesterday from San Angelo where he was speaking at an education conference that HB 3, passed earlier this year, “has a significant part in terms of transparency where our state comptroller is charged with looking at and ranking districts in terms of efficiencies. So I think we‘ll get similar results, maybe even better.” Not quite so, as many transparency seekers would point out. Aggregated numbers — whether they’re efficiency percentages or pie charts — do not constitute transparency but rather the ability to manipulate statistics according to arcane formulas few understand. And such aggregates certainly don’t show how much a superintendent is spending on his monthly credit card for travel and meals, another mentioned reason for some administrators‘ opposition to putting checks online for all to view. Instead of serving us pie charts, let us see those tax dollars spent on servings of pie at fine dining establishments.

 

National roster

Once again I’m in the process of updating the national rosters I maintain (see the links on my website www.peytonwolcott.com); Delaware is the 32nd state to come on board. By the time all Alabama and Delaware districts are added, the roster will total over 600. Given that when we started this transparency project almost three years ago there were at most only 20 or so districts online in 4 or 5 states, to say that this progress is encouraging is an understatement. But in the world of politics, a little understatement now and then is probably a good thing.

 

Bottom line

As one state employee told me, “We’re streamlining things because we have no money.”  There is no surer or faster way to streamline than to publish all expenditures, see which stand up to scrutiny by folks out of a job and struggling to make their mortgage payments.  Given that all other states are in the same boat — except for Texas and Alaska, thanks to governors Rick Perry and Sarah Palin — the three folks in this picture at top have a lot to smile about, as do their schoolchildren and voters.  That federal stimulus money isn’t going to last very long, and with half of all U.S. mortgages scheduled to go underwater next year, governmental entities spending beyond their means must learn to self-regulate their spending in order for our great nation to survive the tough times ahead.  Thank you, Delaware, for leading the way for the rest of us — again.

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1 Comment »

  1. More data for the blinder crowd to ignore. No matter what data we look at or which test scores we use, the result is the same.

    http://newsblog.projo.com/2009/08/low-sat-scores.html

    Comment by RS — August 25, 2009 @ 8:13 pm | Reply


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