I’ve been to a lot of public meetings in my years with the Observer. I take notes, I might raise an eyebrow or two.
Rarely does my mouth fall open in shock. But that is what happened Thursday night at the District Parents Advisory Council meeting in Ranchero. Going into the meeting I thought a lot about the recent revelations that the School District had transferred $10.5 million in five years from the operating (or student services side) of the budget to capital (which is the buildings and equipment side). And the money in the capital fund was put towards the $9 million new District Education Support Centre and a $1 million building at the school district works yard.
In my mind there were two options.
First, the school trustees didn’t know or understand what was going on.
Those trustees are elected to oversee the school district, to direct policy and their single biggest responsibility is to allocate scarce resources in the roughly $70 million budget. That is their job and they are the ones who vote to approve the budget or not.
Second, the trustees did know about these transfers and did them anyway.
Also not good.
The continual message from many officials, both elected and in paid administration, was that the new administration building was paid for from a separate budget and did not impact services to kids. That now appears to be a fallacy.
Of these two alternatives, school board chair Bobbi Johnson is saying the first scenario is the case – none of the nine trustees knew about surpluses that tallied in the millions of dollars each year. In her words, “we all missed it.”
It’s difficult to comprehend. Sure, we can blame administration for a lack of clarity, or point to the fact that trustees are elected people with an interest in education, not accountants.
But what happened to accountability?
Public trust is gone. And rightly so.
Things now need to change.
In previous years, passing the $70 million budget would take about three minutes at a regular board meeting. The chair would call the question, a seconder would be added and, with usually no discussion, the whole parcel would be passed.
I’ll bet there’s going to be a lot more said in future.
And, to the board’s credit, there have already been some changes. Despite repeated attempts to attend budget committee meetings in the past, I was always told they were not public. These committees are often where the nuts and bolts of budgeting take place. This year, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the previous justifications for private meetings had been swept away, and I was welcome to sit and listen.
What is needed now is honesty, accountability and transparency. It is not going to be easy to rebuild public confidence in our school board. But it is critical. Our kids deserve it.