Thursday, February 13, 2003


There's not much good that can be said about Nebraska's $675 million budget deficit and the significant hit that our K-12 public schools are expected to take in the way of reduced state school aid next budget go-round.

Maybe it's not a silver lining -- but at least it's a pretty color of gray -- to recognize that the schools' own financial foibles often are the cause of their budgetary woes, and hard times just force them to face facts and quit making boo-boo's.

This may be the best leverage yet to insist that Nebraska start doing performance audits on state school aid. After forking over hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, wouldn't you say it's about time? Go, State Auditor Kate Witek, go.

What kind of school spending foibles are on the table? The overspending of the last decade is pretty obvious, and the responsible parties are, of course, our largely do-nothing, rubber-stamp, clueless school boards. A pox on any school-board member who isn't in there bustin' heads, insisting on clear budget information and effective accountability from our district and government employees. We should expect more leadership from them from now on.

Perhaps what the Nebraska school finance mini-crisis is revealing is too many years of less than stellar school management, too. Look for sloppy bookkeeping, clerical errors, outdated information systems, staff turnover in the budget offices, communication problems between school departments, lax training for school finance officials, and poor planning by senior staff members to be revealed in the coming months.

Here's our chance to rectify some of those.

Take a look at what's happening in other locations. Maybe we can learn something, and find some school funding in the "Lost and Found." These examples are from the Jan. 8 Education Week:

-- El Dorado (Calif.) Union High School District accidentally left a number of employees off the balance sheet because of old, incompatible personnel software. So district officials thought they had $2.3 million more to spend than they really did. They had to raid the raise fund . . . which didn't go over well.

-- The Boulder County (Colo.) District Attorney is investigating the alleged inflation of reserves estimates by school officials in the St. Vrain Valley District, and two district officials have resigned.

-- In Seattle last year, the double-counting of a number of students in vocational education resulted in $7 million extra put on the balance sheet and all kinds of cascading consequences, among the errors that led parents and the union to call for the superintendent's ouster.

-- In Jenks, Okla., the half-day preschool kids were accounted to the state as full-day . . . but when the state found out, the district had to come up with the reimbursement cash, $500,000, a significant chunk of its annual budget of $44 million.

-- Oakland, Calif., school officials agreed to raise salaries by 24 percent over three years to help with teacher recruitment, but never did the necessary cost cutting to raise the cash, and now they are seeking a $100 million bailout loan from the state to cover the promised raises.

-- New administrators in Birmingham, Ala., are blaming their predecessors for inaction in necessary budget cuts and inflated reserves that "let" a fiscal crisis happen with a $42 million deficit in a $205 million annual budget, resulting in a forensic audit by the state.

-- In Englewood, Colo., a $478,000 clerical error by a staff member because of poor accounting techniques in "position control" is causing an embarrassing shortfall.

The REAL shortfall is between some school managers' performance . . . and the public's reasonable expectations. Ya think?

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