Friday, March 20, 2009

Senate Education Committee Says “No” to School District Financial Accountability Bill

A landmark bill that would have required the state's public school districts to tell the public how they spend taxpayer dollars was killed in the House Education Committee Thursday.

SB 57, which originally would have required all of the state's school districts to post a searchable database of expenditures online, was watered down in the Senate to apply only to districts with existing websites and to permit disclosure in the form of spreadsheets.

Nevertheless, lobbyists for the state's education establishment, along with several district superintendents, objected to the cost and effort the disclosure mandate would have imposed.

Jane Urschel, the executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said the members of her organization were not opposed to the measure but were concerned about its cost given uncertainty about existing and future budgets.

"Right now, it came down to a choice," Urschel said. "Districts don't know how much they have for this year, 08-09. They've been promised a certain amount of money, but here we are this far along in the fiscal year and the state is saying, we're probably going to have to cut your budget.

""They don't know what next year's budget looks like. We don't even have a school finance act yet, and here they are having to plan next year's budget."

Urschel also said she thought the bill reflected a simplistic view of school district finances because it assumed that simple technology could be used to publicize budgets that, in some cases, run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

"It's not as simple as it was made to sound," Urschel said. "In talking to people who do know these technologies, the idea that you can get a Quicken and apply it to a school district budget is absurd."

She also said that proponents had failed to assure that the bill would allow for disclosure of the context of particular expenditures.

"It's not enough to put the check stubs up," Urschel said. "There has to be some context."

Urschel did not explain why a spreadsheet or accounting program suitable for a school district's finances could not accommodate brief explanations of the purposes of particular expenditures.

A spokesperson for the bill's leading proponent, Golden-based Independence Institute, disputed the notion that the costs of compliance with SB 57 would have been a substantial burden for school districts.

"At the point where the bill was amended to, as considered by the House committee yesterday, it would have essentially required something as simple as an Excel spreadsheet or Quickbooks accounting data to be uploaded to the website, which in itself would not have cost any additional money," Ben DeGrow said.

DeGrow also pointed to some studies allegedly showing that the personnel burdens a disclosure mandate would impose on school districts are minimal because district office staff receive fewer calls about receipts and expenses when that information is available online.

Some school districts make some financial information available under current law, but there is no requirement that they disclose all expenditures.

The bill was rejected by the committee on an 8-5 vote, with all of Democrats voting "no" and all Republicans voting "yes."