Camden residents rightly bristle when the impoverished city is compared to a third-world nation.

But the city's school board is certainly acting like some despotic ruler in refusing to make public the budget that taxpayers are funding. The board should immediately disclose details of its newly adopted $341 million budget for the coming school year.

Board members tentatively adopted the spending plan earlier this week, but refused to release the document to the public. Copies distributed to board members were collected after the vote.

By refusing to share the information with the media, the board effectively left the public in the dark. With only sketchy details, one could only guess at which programs or jobs were being axed to trim $14 million and balance the budget.

Here's a tip that might help the school board pass its next civics exam: When a public entity is making decisions about how to spend public dollars, the public has a right to know the details.

There must be total transparency in the process.

State taxpayers account for most of Camden's $341 million school budget. That means New Jerseyans beyond the city's borders have a right to know how those dollars are being spent.

The budget was tentatively approved in a public meeting. But district officials contended the document was a working draft and thus not a public record. Board members said they approved only the budget amount, not the details.

That reasoning defies logic, and goes against the spirit of sunshine laws to protect the public interest.

Since the board took a vote, the document should be made public. (The Inquirer has filed a request for the budget under New Jersey's Open Public Records Act.)

By refusing to release the document, the board has wrongly excluded taxpayers from their right to participate fully in the process.

Board members planned to meet again tonight to consider specific cuts to balance the budget. Their procedure limits the public's ability to lobby for programs. Never again should the board keep a budget under wraps until it is too late for the public to have an impact on the spending decisions.

Camden is not a dictatorship.