School finance transparency proposal gets mixed reaction
Lawmakers should take action to ensure parents and taxpayers are able to see exactly how much their schools are spending, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, told fellow Education Interim Committee members Wednesday.
Thatcher is working on legislation to increase transparency and consistency in the reporting of school finances, with the idea that anyone should be able to see exactly how much is spent and where that money goes in Utah schools. He said taxpayers and parents have a right to the information. Plus, he said, seeing exactly how schools spend money could help decision makers.
"Do we have the best available data to make the policy decisions we're expected to make?" he asked lawmakers. "I think it's pretty obvious we don't have the best available information."
The state already has a financial transparency website with data about schools. But different districts and charter schools have varying levels of detail and don't always report certain things consistently, said Jonathan Ball, director of the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst.
"There's a resource out there," Ball said of the state's transparency website. "It needs to be improved. If it's improved in the right way, it doesn't have to cost a lot of money."
He cited Rhode Island as an example, saying that state developed a similar system that cost $2.2 million over seven years to create.
The proposal, however, met with mixed reaction Wednesday.
Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said it might be a good idea if it could be done without much cost, but he worried about putting additional administrative burdens on the State Office of Education and school districts. He also questioned how many people actually check the transparency website.
"Sometimes we put pressure on state and local boards and then criticize them because they have too many administrative costs," Hillyard said.
Rep. Kenneth Sumsion, R-American Fork, wondered if a good starting point might be to ask school business managers to come together and see if they can agree on a standard way to account for expenses.
Thatcher said he doesn't believe his bill would cost much or put additional strain on schools, as they must already report spending. He said he's still working out the exact cost and details of how such a proposal would be implemented.
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