Gov. Corbett is challenging Pennsylvania's school districts to live within their means. To give them more flexibility in doing so, he has proposed a new block-grant system to replace targeted state spending.
"The rationale here is clear," Corbett told the legislature during his budget address. "Local districts know better how to spend and allocate resources than do bureaucrats in Harrisburg."
In theory, Corbett is right. As a practical matter, however, school boards are completely dependent on paid administrators for information about district spending. By controlling information, administrators can usually control how school boards vote. So school board members — the elected representatives of the people — have to make decisions from a very limited perspective.
If the governor really wants school boards to spend wisely, he should require each school district to prepare and publish online a comprehensive, accessible budget according to a template developed by the state Department of Education. As a school board member and former reporter who covered school districts for years, I've found that the greatest obstacle facing school board members and citizens who want an efficient school system is the lack of pertinent information. Most school districts publish only bare-bones budgets — if they publish them at all.
A budget should show board members and the public exactly where dollars are being spent. Information should be reported by school as well as district-wide. This should include the names, job descriptions, and costs of all personnel, in both salaries and fringe benefits; the size of every class; the costs of running each building; detailed transportation expenditures; and the number of and amounts spent on students placed in alternative schools.
After I was elected to the school board in my hometown, Pottstown, in 2009, I asked for a line-item budget, a master schedule showing how many students were in each class, and charts showing how all the spaces were being used. My request caused quite a stir: Micromanagement! Breach of security! Waste of administrators' valuable time!
But once I received the information, I made some interesting discoveries. For example, the smallest class sizes should be in the earliest grades, but the opposite was the case in Pottstown: Our primary grades had an average of 24 children in each class, while the average class size at the high school was 18.
Our high school and middle schools were touted as more efficient than our elementary schools, but the budget showed energy costs were twice as much per student at the secondary level than at the elementary level. It was easy to see why: Our secondary schools, which were enlarged a decade ago, are now oversize. The high school's capacity is 1,162 students, but it's serving only 771 students; our middle school has room for 1,030 students, but its enrollment is only 635.
The school board hadn't noticed this. And our administrators wanted to enlarge the elementary schools rather than reconfigure the grade structure to maximize use of the available space at the secondary schools.
In addition, as school funding increased during the Rendell era, Pottstown was adding a substantial number of aides and ancillary employees even as enrollment was declining. The cost of these employees' fringe benefits is often more than their salaries. Regular classroom teachers now make up only a third of our staff.
This is the kind of information we as a school community need to make intelligent use of our resources. But in Pottstown and most other districts, even board members are usually ignorant of the pertinent facts.
Publishing detailed district budgets should not be difficult. For decades, the state has required school districts to record every expenditure according to a uniform system. Among other benefits, this system allows the Department of Education to make "apples-to-apples" comparisons among districts on everything from personnel costs to utility bills. So the hard part — standardized information-gathering — is already being done.
But like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the information has to be assembled in a way that makes sense. A uniform reporting system is needed to translate the numbers into a comprehensive, accessible form.
The Internet and search engines have revolutionized civilization by making abundant information available to all. Education is vitally important and, in Pennsylvania, our greatest public expense. We should therefore ensure that all citizens have readily accessible, credible information about how their local public schools function.
Gov. Corbett believes competition from private and charter schools can make public schools more efficient and responsive to people's needs. Requiring open budgets can do the same. And the more information our school districts provide, the more trust and support they will earn.