District 5 Officials Balk at Adding Information to Check Registers

October 27, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveIt’s been more than a year since South Carolina school districts began posting their spending details online in accordance with a 2009 legislative proviso, but efforts by individuals in at least one district to expand transparency were recently rebuffed in no uncertain terms.

During a Lexington-Richland School District 5 meeting Monday, board member Kim Murphy asked district Chief Financial Officer Karl Fulmer if it would be possible for the district to use account names on the online registers, instead of just the 15-figure account designations the district employs at present.

Murphy said doing so would make it easier for constituents to determine how the district was spending money.

Fulmer responded that the legislation required the district only publish its check registers online; and that if he were to publish account names, he “would be accused of doctoring the information.”

After board member Beth Watson stated that she was “just incredulous that that question was even asked,” fellow board member Ed White added that since the district recently posted information on its website explaining how expenditures are categorized by code, District 5 taxpayers “can go look it up for themselves.”

Some residents say they don’t understand the district’s reluctance to make it easier for taxpayers to understand how money is being spent.

“Putting account names on the online registers would make it so much simpler than making people go through a 15-number code and having them try to decipher the different codes and what they mean,” said Ed Yates, a retired accountant who attended the Monday meeting at Chapin Middle School. “It was be pretty simple.”

Yates said he was particularly put off by comments by White and Watson. “They seem to think the people that elected the board really don’t count. I think they forget they work for us.”

The S.C. Legislature passed a proviso more than two years ago requiring all school districts to post the spending details of their budgets online by the end of the 2009-10 school year.

Putting registers online is seen as an inexpensive and effective way to improve school district accountability. Check registers enable taxpayers to review monthly school district expenditures in detail, and once a register is online taxpayers no longer have to wait for information or pay for records.

At present, every district in the state except Richland School District 2 has its register online. Richland 2 said in August it too would comply with the legislation.

While posting check registers has increased transparency, some taxpayers have been left with questions about expenditures because of a lack of detail.

For example, a typical entry in District 5 check register for Sept. 7, 2011, reads as follows:

151995    09/07/2011    147800    BOB JOHNSONS BODY SHOP    $5,743.09

799-271-660-0004-99   REPAIRS

As Fulmer explained Monday, any account beginning with a “7” comes out of the “fiduciary fund,” and represents fees paid by students, parents and staff for student activities.

“The fiduciary fund accounts for assets held by the district in a trustee capacity or as an agent for individuals, private organizations, other governmental units, and/or other funds,” according to the district website. “These funds are purely custodial and do not involve measurement of results of operations.”

What the entry doesn’t explain is what the repairs were for specifically, or who incurred the expense.

“It’s almost impossible to get enough information from the registers to be able to figure out what’s going on,” said Al Billings, a Chapin retiree.

And because the descriptions are so vague, it calls into question all districts expenditures, Billings added.

A spokesman for S.C. Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, a strong proponent of online transparency, admits that it would be nice if more information were available to taxpayers.

“This past year was spent trying to get everyone on board, but the comptroller has always had plans to take a second pass and make the check registers more user-friendly,” spokesman R.J. Shealy said.

“One of the things he’d like to see districts do is use descriptive names rather than just codes,” he said.

Some members of the District 5 board don’t appear willing to bend on making online check registers more constituent-friendly anytime soon, however.

“We don’t need to do any more than follow the state law,” White said. “We don’t need to do any more than state law requires.”

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.