With the approach of May school budget votes, districts are under pressure to provide residents with a clearer picture of how they’re handling their finances.
The push for greater transparency comes from the state comptroller’s office, which recently conducted its first review of how school budgets and related documents are presented on district websites. The inquiry covered a random sample of 13 districts statewide, including Island Trees and Rockville Centre on Long Island, and revealed several shortcomings.
State examiners concluded, for example, that six of the districts failed to post details of their proposed budgets in a transparent manner. Ten districts did not post results of audits conducted by the comptroller’s office or outside accounting firms, as required by state regulations.
Island Trees was faulted, for example, for not posting an audit of an activities fund in the proper location, while Rockville Centre did not post a corrective action plan related to another audit. In both cases, the two districts indicated they would avoid such oversights in the future.
Nor was fiscal data always readily available. State examiners pointed to a website maintained by the Beacon City school district in the lower Hudson Valley, where residents seeking reports on year-end revenues and expenditures would have had to comb through board meeting agendas to find the data.
"Often, required and important financial information was not posted or posted in hard-to-find locations," stated a report from a comptroller’s unit headed by Julie Landcastle, a chief examiner. "Therefore, taxpayers and other interested parties did not have readily available information to make informed decisions."
Most districts involved in the state’s review agreed to go along with the agency’s recommendations. A few, however, questioned the fairness of criticizing districts for practices that had not been subject to scrutiny in the past.
Charles J. Murphy, longtime superintendent of Island Trees schools, said his district would comply with state guidelines but was already making every effort to be transparent. In a phone interview, Murphy added that he found some of the state agency’s criticisms to be "trivial," such as a finding that a voter-approved budget had not been specifically labeled as "final."
"In truth, our financial webpages contain a multitude of budgetary-related documents, so that taxpayers are able to make ‘informed decisions,’ " Murphy stated in a response letter to Landcastle. "We pride ourselves in sharing this information annually with our school community."
One controversial recommendation from the comptroller’s office urged districts to add to their websites information known in accounting terms as "budget-to-actual" data. Such presentations are not required by law but are considered to be a "best practice."
Typically, such information is displayed in two-column charts. The first column lists various types of budgeted expenditures — for example, costs of instruction and student transportation. The second column shows exactly how much of the budgeted money has been spent at a given point in time.
The idea behind such comparisons is that they provide residents with a sense of whether districts are following their own spending plans or, perhaps, underspending in ways that allow them to build up unnecessary cash surpluses.
"It’s really giving the public the complete picture," said Randy Partridge, an assistant state comptroller in charge of auditing school districts and other local government entities. "Having the ability to readily compare prior years' expenditures to a proposed budget allows an individual to assess a budget’s reasonableness, helping them make an informed decision."
In response, nine districts out of the 13 said either that they had taken steps to comply with auditors’ recommendations on "budget-to-actual" or planned to do so.