Our View: Board needs a say, for accountability’s sake
November 27, 2012
The Steamboat Springs School District needs to strike an appropriate balance between allowing administrators to spend money to cope with specific challenges caused by increased student enrollment and providing the oversight needed to make sure such expenditures are made in a transparent manner as part of a public process.
We realize increased student enrollment can put unanticipated strains on the district early each fall, particularly as it relates to class size. While we support the notion that administrators should have some leeway to act quickly to alleviate any new burdens brought on by more kids in their schools, we don't think those decisions should be made in a vacuum.
School Board President Brian Kelly got it right last week when he said surplus revenue spending involves public money and therefore should go through a public review process.
Like Kelly, we don't have any particular qualms with how Superintendent Brad Meeks and his administrative team chose to spend much of the $143,000 in additional revenue resulting from the district's enrollment jump of 22 students. But we think a more public process is needed to provide transparency and accountability. Such a process might have gone a long way toward preventing the resulting anger from members of the district's teachers union.
Steamboat Springs Education Association President Babette Dickson and other members of the union have charged that some of the surplus revenues could have been put to better use than the $12,000 spent on telephone and Internet service expenses and an anticipated $10,000 to be spent on a part-time administrative assistant at the district's central office. They contend a more pressing need is resolving an issue whereby there are sometimes no nurses at one or more of the district's four schools.
Other surplus revenue expenditures include money for an additional kindergarten teacher, for a long-term substitute at Yampa Valley High School, for an additional reading section at Steamboat Springs Middle School, and $11,000 in teacher salary increases.
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The district's Asset Protection policy, part of the group of policies that define executive limitations, stipulates that neither the superintendent nor any other district employees shall "commit to any single, unusual/non-recurring/non-budgeted expenditure, including personnel, of greater than $25,000." Most of the surplus revenue expenditures signed off on by Meeks fell below that $25,000 threshold. During a discussion at last week's meeting, School Board members came to a consensus that the district should be allowed to hire additional teachers — which usually cost more than $25,000 — to accommodate enrollment growth without prior board approval, particularly because such hiring decisions often must be made quickly during the late summer or early fall, times of the year when the board seldom meets.
Some board members said other spending decisions, such as the hiring of a part-time administrative assistant — a position that previously drew the ire of the teachers union before it was shelved in the spring — should be approved by the five-member group of elected officials.
We tend to agree. While surplus revenue from increased student enrollment may appear to be "extra money" for the district, it actually is part of the total general fund allotment intended to provide for the operating expenses of the school system. Although such revenue isn't realized until well after the board has approved the district's school year budget, board members have a responsibility to provide a similar level of oversight for those dollars, even if the proposed expenditures are simply a prioritized list previously agreed upon by the district's administrative team.
Making sure those spending decisions are made as a part of a public process would provide the opportunity for stakeholder groups to say their peace to the board, and would make sure the ultimate decision-making is in the hands of the people elected by voters to provide such fiscal oversight.