Local leaders need to get up to speed on KDE District Finance Report Card

By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support/Communications Services

Meetings of the Kentucky Board of Education are really quite similar to those of local school boards. Adopt agenda. Approve minutes. Public comment. Routine actions. Staff reports. And when a presentation generates a lot of questions from board members, the audience starts to pay attention.
Such was the case at the Aug. 7 KBE meeting. The topic that sparked the state board members’ inquiries is one that local school board members and superintendents should take note of right away.

The issue was the addition of a district finance report card to this year’s release of Unbridled Learning school and district assessment and accountability data. When the report cards go public, the new feature – according to Education Commissioner Terry Holliday and other Kentucky Department of Education staff – is designed to produce greater public discourse about the fiscal decisions local leaders are making. [School Report Cards were made public on October 3, 2014.]

The KBE conversation
What was slated as a 20 minute discussion of the district finance report card took almost twice as long. At least seven KBE members weighed in on the report card and its 20 “data elements,” including average daily attendance, enrollment, fund balances, percentage of personnel salary and benefits compared with total expenditures, and whether the school board voted to take the maximum 4 percent revenue increase not subject to voter recall.

The fact that the report cards will highlight in orange those last two points created much of the KBE members’ exchanges with Holliday and Associate Commissioner Hiren Desai, KDE’s equivalent of a district finance officer.

Desai noted that the new report card information already is on the KDE website. “We’re not providing anything in this which is unknown or necessarily controversial. We think this finance report card will be useful to all constituents in providing transparency in how funding is spent at the district level,” he said.

But KBE Chairman and former superintendent Roger Marcum wondered about the potential for misinterpretation of data because the report card doesn’t let districts add explanations of factors that played in the decision making. Desai acknowledged, “We anticipate that the financial report card will be used by some constituents to misinterpret the data. We can’t eliminate that.”

Several other KBE members joined in with similar issues.

“My concern is that it looks like an audit with no notes and doesn’t give the district a way to explain what is taking place,” said Trevor Bonnstetter. “It seems to me that we’re missing the two-way side of the communication. We’re sending out information and we’re not providing the district an avenue to communicate.”

KBE Vice Chairman Jonathan Parrent added, “I don’t think we want to make any judgments on this. We just want to present the data.”

New KBE members Sam Hinkle and Debbie Cook, both former local school board members, also questioned the lack of an option for districts to provide additional information. But for this year, the report card design is “locked in,” although Desai promised, “This is a living and breathing document.”

To see the full 39 minute discussion (begins at the 1 hour, 18 minute mark), visit the KBE meeting archive here and click on the Kentucky Board of Education August 2014 event.

The Last Word
Holliday told the KBE that the district finance report card was a result of two years of scathing audits by state Auditor of Public Accounts Adam Edelen. “A lot of the public is calling for more transparency,” he said, adding that district staff were taking up “hundreds of hours” asking KDE staff to provide comparative financial information that now will be readily available via the report card.

Holliday called the report card “a trial…that will get better and better.”

For now, superintendents and local board members need to get acquainted with the document and the data. When this report card goes out, the focus won’t be on what teachers taught or students learned. It will be on how local leaders spent taxpayer dollars and whether they can justify those actions.

And that’s a message worth getting out.

Thanks to Brad Hughes for permission to share this article, originally published in the Get Your Message Out column of the Kentucky School AdvocateOctober 2014.

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