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Letter: Next Stop: Audits

To the Editor:

I support our schools and our teachers but, like many, question whether we should increase school budgets unless we know the school system is squeezing out waste and operating efficiently. To argue that the schools need more money because student loads increase is not enough; to make informed decisions we need to know the baseline cost of efficiently managed school programs and services and add to that increasing student loads and some of the new programs we think we’d like to see in our schools. One would think we’d have the information to make an informed judgment but we don’t. So, how do we get to where we need to be?

The first step is the obvious one: engage an outside auditor reporting to the School Board and find out what we’re spending, where; and for what and to what end. This is long overdue. The notion that staff can audit itself – our schools’ current practice – is not prudent in an organization with a $2B annual budget. Self-audits have no credibility in today’s world if, indeed, they ever did.

How you spend your money tells you what your priorities are; outcomes tell you how well you are meeting those priorities. An outside auditor reporting to a board of directors is a long-held standard in business and should be common practice in our school system. That the school system might consider outside audits now, one can only say “better late than never.”

But there’s more. As good as they are, outside financial audits, by themselves, don’t get us where we want to be. To get a baseline we need to do more. We need to complement financial audits with programmatic or “operational audits” which drill down on specific programs to evaluate how closely each program and expense aligns with the broad scope of policy, plans, objectives, and desired outcomes set by the board. These go beyond price and cost to purpose and effect. They examine systems, processes, and operations weighed against objectives, desired outcomes and efficacy. Whereas financial audits are largely quantitative, operational audits measure both quality and quantity.

Operational audits can give us answers to such questions as: is the objective, program, or process sound? Does it relate to established goals and objectives? What is each priority relative to others? Are resources sufficient to task and outcome? Is the process effective? Is it efficient? Is it cost effective? Is it getting the desired result? Can objectives be achieved to the same or better effect in a more efficient or efficacious way? Most importantly, are there feedback mechanisms to alert managers before issues become problems?

I was encouraged when, at the Dan Storck-hosted Town Hall meeting last week, there was a suggestion that the school system might not only be moving toward engaging an outside auditor but there was some thought being given to conducting operational audits as well. If these twin ideas can be put into practice, they’ll give us the information we need to make informed program and budget decisions on which we can evolve to the world-class school system we all want here in Fairfax County.

Barry M. Meuse

Alexandria