The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

David Knepper

January 26, 2014

David Knepper | How tax dollars are spent could be just a mouse click away

JOHNSTOWN — “It’s clearly a budget. It’s got a lot of numbers in it.”

– President George W. Bush

 

It should come as no surprise that funding for public education takes the largest bite out of taxpayers’ wallets. Of every tax dollar generated from local property taxes, roughly 70 cents is passed on to the school district with the remaining 30 cents split between the county and municipalities.

Nonetheless, the challenge to fund public education at a level of spending that will provide a quality educational program for every student, but yet at the same time hold the line on raising taxes, is a formidable task.

Surprisingly, only about 30 percent of residential property owners have children in school. It is the other 70 percent that need a more persuasive argument to support further school spending with accompanying tax increases.

According to a recent report from the Cato Institute, titled “Cracking the Books,” that examined school spending data nationwide, few state education departments provided in-depth, comparable data on school spending. Such generalized data deprive local taxpayers of the ability to reach informed decisions by not developing a user-friendly format for parents, teachers, researchers and taxpayers on levels of spending at the local level.

In order to create greater transparency, many of the 500 Pennsylvania school districts, not counting the counties and local municipalities, have been relying on the Internet through their websites to shine a brighter light on their financial status.

Citizens, with the click of a mouse, can now gain instant access to these websites in the convenience of their homes, offices, or wherever there is connectivity. Budget data is now being presented on school district websites as a better alternative than having the public inconvenienced by having them travel to the school superintendent’s office or the courthouse during normal business hours.

Having the pending budget on display to meet state requirements is fine as long as the line at the door doesn’t stretch around the building – an improbable scenario unless there is a rumor of a tax hike.

A blueprint that Pennsylvania lawmakers could follow is that of our neighbor, New Jersey. Its administrative code, enacted in 1996, provides increased public accountability and transparency by requiring officials in each school district to place a “user-friendly” summary of their proposed budget on the district’s website (if one exists). NJAC 6a:23A-8.1(C) requires the “user-friendly” budget summary to be posted on the district’s website within 48 hours after the public hearing on the budget.

After the election (and following municipal review if the budget is defeated), a final user-friendly summary of the final budget must be posted on both the district’s website (pursuant to NJSA 18A:22-8a) and the Department of Education’s website.

This document provides the framework to present budgets in quantitative terms as well as provide graphical and narrative formats to make the information contained in this report as understandable as possible. No doubt it also provides a more convincing case for budgetary adjustments, specifically on the expenditure side, to meet escalating costs to operate New Jersey’s schools.

Presently, a number of local school districts in Cambria County have already planted their “cyberspace footprints” in emulating what New Jersey has already done.

In surfing the web, I discovered that only eight of the 14 school districts in Cambria County did not display their annual budget or had scanned the budget document without any interpretative analysis or review. If I were to present a “blue ribbon” to the best budgetary presentation in terms of detail and illustration, it would go to Central Cambria School District.

“One click, that quick,” on the search engine for “bud-get” and I was there. Could their format be a model for other school districts to replicate?  

Do I envision some kind of competition among our school districts? It’s possible if taxpayers believe that “transparency” is not a hollow term or lofty expectation.

David A. Knepper is currently the executive director of the Forest Hills Regional Alliance. He holds a doctorate in educational administration from Penn State. His column appears monthly in the Sunday edition.

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