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Financial Transparency Strengthens the Public in Public Education

Colorado has a tremendous opportunity to lead the way in making public education a more truly public enterprise.

School officials should place detailed and useful spending information where citizens can access it freely: the Internet. Such a simple and highly cost-effective approach promotes public accountability and transparency.

Public schools in Colorado are funded through taxpayer dollars and governed by boards accountable to taxpayers and parents. But school boards generally set policies and oversee affairs from a high-perched mountain view.

Bringing more concerned eyes to keep tabs on the taxpayer money flowing in and out of the education bureaucracy can only help. Financial transparency provides incentives to focus spending on classroom activities and other priorities supported by the community. It also promotes better-informed public debate and greater taxpayer confidence in the management of their money.

Currently, a concerned citizen can access extensive amounts of detailed spending information, but almost exclusively through formal requests that tend to be costly, time-intensive, and stressful. The expense and difficulty varies from one school district to another.

Consumers should not have to pay to see grocery store or department store receipts. Likewise, taxpayers should have a free and easy way to view how their school tax funds are being used. Today’s technology makes it rather easy for officials to post detailed financial records online in a usable format.

For less than $10,000, a private group in Wisconsin can take existing government accounting data, quickly convert it into a searchable database, and host it online. Milwaukee Public Schools’ 432,000 invoices made up one of its first projects. As capacity grows, the cost for an agency to follow suit will continue to decline.

The federal government and a handful of state governments have taken advantage of current technology to build these kinds of user-friendly budget databases. One of the innovators is the state of Texas, where the Comptroller’s office accurately boasts their Where the Money Goes Web site allows users to drill their searches for expenditure information “down to the pencil.”

The best news from the transparency efforts in Texas is the nearly $5 million reported in cost savings, including $2.3 million in the site’s first year of operation. The direct public oversight of spending allowed the state to consolidate contracts, to find more affordable services, and to eliminate non-essential purchases.

No one can guarantee that Colorado schools will realize the same amount of savings by forging ahead with online financial transparency. But it remains distinctly possible that the largely nominal cost to post detailed spending on searchable databases could more than pay for itself.

In tight budget times, every little bit of savings can help. While transparency is an intrinsically worthy goal, the practical benefits of greater efficiency only make the case for posting expenditures online all the more pressing.

Senate Bill 57 before the Colorado legislature proposes to open up the books of every school district, charter school, and local public education agency in the state. With the bill enacted into law, citizens could search online databases to see if their money is being put to good use. School administrators could follow the lead of Illinois and Texas counterparts who have embraced transparency, adopting the policy that “if you can’t defend it, don’t spend it.”

On one hand, where citizens can see their tax dollars are being used frugally but needs not being met, they may be more likely to support requests to increase funding through property taxes or voluntary contributions.

On the other hand, where serious issues are raised, the impetus will be on local officials to implement reasonable public suggestions for cost savings before asking for more funds.

Shining sunlight on the detailed financial picture for all to see would help strengthen the public in public education.

This article originally appeared in the Denver Daily News, January 26th.