Tuesday, March 09, 2004

No. 2 in a series on school finance



I call it ''the doi factor.'' Nebraska taxpayers fork over hundreds of millions of dollars every year in state aid to education. Not a dime of that money is ever audited in any meaningful fiduciary way.


That's what our problem is. We're just writing the checks . . . and never reconciling our accounts. Financial accountability that is clear and meaningful is just almost nonexistent in public education.

We can't demand that there be a CPA on every school board. But we CAN demand that our money be accounted for . . . at least, to a degree.

Nebraska law needs to be changed YESTERDAY to direct performance audits of state aid to school districts. It doesn't have to be every one, every year. We couldn't afford that.

But here's what I imagine:

A big press conference. A huge fish bowl with the names of all Nebraska school districts. The governor's there. The state senators are there. Here comes Miss Nebraska . . . to draw three school districts' names.

They're the ones who are then subjected to a no-holds-barred analysis by the State Auditor. She will have, say, three months to issue a detailed report with all the nitty-gritty details on how those three districts are choosing to spend their dough.

I'm talking about a detailed, professional performance audit that crunches numbers, names names and raises questions, not the half-baked ''a lick and a promise'' audits school districts pay for themselves. With them, an accounting firm simply certifies that, yep, the district spent all those millions it says it spent. That's not too instructive if the goal is cost-effectiveness.

What we NEED is a report that tells us that district spent X amount on nonclassroom salaries, and X amount for staff members to travel to Japan to find out what they could have found out from a $10 book, and X amount on laptop computers for first-graders that are fancier than what professional writers use, and X amount in checks that wound up in the post office box of a school official's brother-in-law's dummy corporation.

Are you catching my drift? That's the kind of stuff that goes on. People don't know. We need to put the brakes on school spending somehow. This is how.

But isn't this meddling with local control? Well, nooooooo. Since at least half of most school districts' budgets comes from state aid, which in turn comes from taxes that Nebraskans pay in to state government, then Nebraska taxpayers have a huge stake in how well each district is budgeting, because at least half of it is our dough.

Right now, we have no idea where it goes. Doi.

If an audit reveals a few areas of obvious waste or even fraud -- and believe me, a thorough audit of ANY organization that's spending other people's money will -- then that will be exposed and corrected. That's a win-win. A key benefit is that the public will learn a lot more about school finance than we know now, which is just about zilch.

But the real leverage comes from the fact that our school districts won't know if it's their turn to be audited. With a spot-check system, they'll never know when they'll be on the spot. So they'll all have an incentive to clean up their act. Right now, they don't. In the absence of meaningful outside audits, school overspending, fraud and waste are highly unlikely to be caught.

That needs to change, bigtime.

It's time to burst some bubbles about school spending. It's time to give them a business bath.

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