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“If I’ve Told You Once…”: K-12 Financial Transparency Isn’t New to Colorado

Today I’ve decided to borrow a page from my mom’s book. How often she has to repeat the same instruction or insight to me, several times, perhaps slightly reworded, until poor little Eddie gets the point. Hey, I’m a kid, cut me some slack! A few weeks ago — right before Christmas, in fact — I dissected a Washington Post story that made it sound like Colorado schools today lack even basic financial transparency.

Which, of course, simply isn’t the case. As I explained before, “The state’s 2010 Public School Financial Transparency Act already requires every school district and charter school in Colorado to post budgets and other key financial documents online.” While lawmakers were considering that bill, my Education Policy Center friends released a brief paper on what school district financial transparency should look like, noting:

Although House Bill 1036 would lead providers to post a substantial amount of financial information online, the introduced legislation falls short of ensuring the level of transparency that citizens deserve and that the state’s largest school district already has achieved.

HB 1036 is what became the Public School Financial Transparency Act. And because my friends are smart enough to know that the true challenge comes in implementing new policy, they followed it up with a 2011 report to see how well school districts were complying with posting budgets, financial statements, and individual expenditures online. Some are struggling or doing the minimum, understandably. Probably even more now than then, though, there are a number of local districts that are doing a great job on this front.

Not that the financial transparency system we have now is perfect, or even close to it. Let’s readily grant there is room for improvement. But that didn’t come across clearly during Gov. John Hickenlooper’s state of the state speech yesterday. In his brief snippet on K-12 policy issues he said:

Colorado voters made clear they will not make new investments in education until they are convinced that current resources are being prudently managed.

We are going to request that the General Assembly fund a plan to make the budget of every public school transparent. Let’s put the numbers on the internet and make the web a window.

The message is great. The goal is admirable and frankly, should be a no-brainer in this complex technological age. My concern is that if Colorado leaders ignore what already has been done, we needlessly put ourselves a step behind in ensuring taxpayers are aware of and have ready access to complete and meaningful information on school revenue and spending.

For example, what are some of the larger school districts — like Jefferson County and Douglas County — already doing well that the state can draw from? What other ideas can we glean from the paper my Education Policy Center friends put out there four years ago?

Let’s not pretend K-12 financial transparency is a new idea, or unknown in practice, here in Colorado. Is that too much to ask? The last time I proclaimed this from my soapbox, it was right as the holiday break was taking hold. Should we cut the Governor some slack? If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times….