HOW ONE SCHOOL BOARD AVOIDS PUBLIC SCRUTINY
On March 3, 2015, I requested from my school board representative and received a copy of the proposed 2015 -2016 School District Budget. In that budget there were two items that immediately raised a questions about the district’s budgeting and spending. These were the budgeting for legal fees of $282,707 and $25,000 for legal services for a total of $307,707. The items are found on page 56 of the Annual Budget Estimate-Expenditure. This figure appears grossly excessive given that the district spent only $67,268 on legal fees the year before, according to a posted audit document, and is projected to spend only $53,547 for 2014-2015 according to the 2015-2016 budget document.
But maybe this practice isn’t that unusual. Let me explain.
An April 14, 2014 article in the Daily Voice referenced State Superintendent Mick Zais stating he was targeting nine counties (one of which was Fairfield County) that spent more on operating costs than on teachers’ salaries. In this same article, J.R. Green, the Fairfield County superintendent, questioned this, stating in part “that the greatest reduction in operating costs during his tenure has been in legal fees.” And that, he went on, “puts us on track to spend less than $100,000 on Legal fees by the end of the year” (2014).
Still, the district budgeted $282,707 again in 2014-2015, and $307,707 in 2015-2016. According to another article in the Daily Voice, funds have been transferred from this “over budgeted” legal fees item to pay roughly $60,000 in teachers’ bonuses in 2014 (unbudgeted), and then $12,500 was pledged for a chorus trip in the February 12 school board meeting from this “over budgeted” item, without being in the budget for public review.
How are we as taxpayers to trust the district as a good steward of our tax funds when, to an ordinary taxpayer, it looks like budgets are being made for excessive amounts to develop large “discretionary” funds that aren’t available for public scrutiny. In my experience in business, if I had padded my budget items is this manner, I would have been reprimanded and the budget cut. Is this the transparency Superintendent Green has spoken about in town hall meetings?
The district’s budget increased from $34.35 million in 2013-2014 to $35.58 million in 2014-2015, which is a $1.23 million increase, or 3.56 percent. For 2015-2016, the proposed budget increase is $1.81 million, an increase of 5.1 percent, to $37.4 million.
Why the increase in these tough economic times? Are we training more students and doing it better or just increasing spending and growing budgets?
And there’s another problem on the matter of transparency. The first reading of this budget is being debated without the proposed spending plan being posted on the district’s website for public review and comment ahead of the planning. It’s hard for the public to comment on something that’s not publically available.
There is a budget work session scheduled for April 21 about which not all the board members were queried in advance. I am aware of at least one board member (District 2) who cannot attend owing to medical reasons. She asked for a meeting reschedule and was denied by the chairman, resulting in the lack of this representative’s chance to participate.
In fact, that was my representative. Does this practice permit proper representation by our duly elected officials, or is this spending and taxation planning without proper representation?
Chuck Stogner lives in Ridgeway, South Carolina. Mr. Stogner presented these observations at the April 7, 2015, meeting of the Fairfield County School Board.