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Votes

Demanding Better Budgets

School Board rejects budget document, calls for a comprehensive audit.

The Alexandria public school system's budget office received a strong rebuke last week when School Board Chairman Arthur Peabody criticized the administration’s financial documents as being confusing, inconsistent and incomplete. He said taxpayers deserve accountability, and that board members and taxpayers shouldn’t have to be accountants to figure budgets out. After he finished, the board voted for a comprehensive audit of the FY2007 revised budget and a drastic improvement to how information was presented in budget documents. Furthermore, Peabody added, the days when administration officials could deflect questions about their practices as being routine had come to a close.

"Those days are over," Peabody said during last week's School Board meeting. “We're simply not going to approve documents that we don't understand.”

The criticism of budget documents comes at a time when the school administration is under fire for removing the cost of the district's laptop program from public documents — an action Budget Director Leslie Peterson described as a routine dismissal of "recurring costs." After Councilwoman Del Pepper confronted the superintendent about the lack of financial information about the laptops at the City Council’s annual retreat last month, School Board member Yvonne Folkerts said she disagreed with the administration's decision to remove the $1.4 million annual cost of the program.

“I think we need more transparency,” said Folkerts, who is the chairwoman of the School Board's budget committee. “Our budget document needs to be more user friendly.”

Although the chairman said that he felt that nothing “untoward” was being done with the taxpayer’s money, he described the district's monthly financial statements as disorganized and contradictory. He said he was concerned that some of the documents were internally inconsistent, and that his own examination of the documents raised more questions than answers. He said that he expected future budgets should have a baseline so the numbers could be understood in context.

“I think we should have the numbers tracking and I think we should have the categories to be identical,” said Peabody. “I think it needs to be transparent.”

THE SHOWDOWN over budget issues was initiated by School Board member Claire Eberwein, who questioned a number of “budget transfers” in the FY2007 revised budget — expenditures not authorized in the final form of the approved budget but needed for the day-to-day operation of schools, according to administrators. One of the transfers, which was for $132,000, purchased two school buses earlier this year.

“We clearly have found an example of where our policy was violated recently with regard to bus purchases,” said Eberwein. “I think it’s necessary to have an outside consultant review the transfers.”

She also questioned the use of “differentiated resources” — money that goes to at-risk schools that is usually used at the discretion of principals. She wanted to know if differentiated resources, which had been allocated as part of the approved budget, were later transferred out of individual schools.

“If indeed, differentiated resources are not being used to boost up the performance of schools who have a large number of at-risk children then they are not being used properly,” said Eberwein. “As far as I'm concerned, I don't believe that any board has indicated that they would want that to be the case.”

ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS disagreed with Eberwein’s comments, defending the budget transfers as appropriate and the direction of differentiated resources as necessary. Assistant Superintendent John Porter, who oversees the division’s bus system, said that the school system was facing a transportation crisis early in the school year and needed to purchase two new buses. When Superintendent Perry approved the appropriation of $132,000 for the buses, Porter said, he didn’t think that the matter needed School Board approval because they were capital expenditures. He said that although the current policy dictates that operating transfers of more than $15,000 needed board approval, the previous budget director interpreted the existing policy to mean that capital transfers did not — regardless of their amount.

“We understood the policy to mean that these purchases did not need board approval because they were capital expenses,” said Porter. “This is certainly not done with any intent other than to get some buses to make our school system run properly.”

As to the use of differentiated resources, Superintendent Perry said that the problems with these accounts had arisen at Ramsay Elementary School and Cora Kelley Elementary School. According to the superintendent, principals at both schools hired personnel positions that were not authorized in the budget. When the discrepancy was discovered by Deputy Superintendent Cathy David, who oversees division’s principals, she informed both principals that they must find a way to pay for the positions or let them go.

“They were told if they wanted to keep the positions, they had to pay for them out of differentiated resources,” said Perry. “The positions were not authorized, so somebody needed to pay for them.”