Cut obstacles to transparency, not Kindergarten

Sean Gill

Guest blogger Sean Gill is a fiscal policy analyst with StudentsFirst.

As in many states, school districts in Pennsylvania struggle to balance their budgets. A recent survey found that more than 140 Keystone State school districts anticipate insolvency in coming years and eight districts said they were already unable to pay their bills. In the state capital, the Harrisburg schools narrowly avoided having to cancel Kindergarten altogether.

Pennsylvania lacks the financial rules and policies to ensure we have transparency and fiscal accountability in place in our schools.

Did the difficult economy of the last several years cause these budget woes? Are waste or financial mismanagement to blame? While districts like Harrisburg have received less state money than before the economic downturn due to declining enrollment, the underlying answer to how things got so bad is simple but frustrating: We really don’t know.

Pennsylvania, like many other states, lacks the financial rules and policies to ensure transparency and fiscal accountability in its schools. Without that, the public can’t determine why districts face insolvency or ensure that officials are making wise spending decisions on behalf of schools and children.

Yes, Pennsylvania school districts receive annual financial audits and produce other reports of financial information. Unfortunately, the focus of these reports is limited and they fail to provide clarity on why spending decisions were made or to help parents, school administrators, and others determine which expenditures produced the best results for student achievement. These reports may also come too late: Pennsylvania lacks an early warning system that would allow the state department of education to identify districts headed in the wrong direction and then help them correct problems before they become insolvent.

However, there is cause for optimism. Last Thursday, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives joined the state senate in approving critically important legislation that would address each of these problems directly. Once signed by Governor Tom Corbett, House Bill 1307 will provide the state with new tools to ensure that school districts are financially sound.

The bill would establish an Office of Financial Recovery, made up of experienced school financial officers, to administer an early warning system which could identify looming problems. The measure also would allow the state to collect better data on school districts and their finances and identify, in a timely manner, districts needing technical assistance. For school districts in dire need of help, the secretary of education could appoint a chief recovery officer to develop comprehensive financial turnaround plans.

So what has to happen now? Schools must prioritize programs that enhance student learning and get rid of wasteful spending that doesn’t help kids progress and Governor Corbett should sign House Bill 1307, as he has already indicated he will. These two steps, taken together and immediately, will go a long way toward turning things around in Pennsylvania.

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