Using Citizen Audit Committees to save money

How can we stretch our education dollars? One idea, which comes from a group in Connecticut, is to use a Citizens Audit Committee (PDF). It draws on the experience of Dr. Armand Fusco, who served as a superintendent there.

Fusco calls for citizens to set up such a committee, which serves as an independent, volunteer organization that keeps school boards honest. Call it oversight by crowdsourcing. The document provides suggestions for how to organize a committee (set up responsibilities, a charter, keep meetings private and exclude school employees, establish some way of training volunteers.)

Fusco also offers a list of documents and resources that a district may need. This is useful, though the terms may differ from state to state:

First up, the check register: “Each check entry should show its number, the recipient, dollar amount, the invoice number or warrant, and reference that tracks the check to a specific line item. If a check register does not show all of this information, then it can be assumed there is something to hide.”

Next up is the Master Teacher Schedule, which  “shows each classroom teacher, the subject or assignment for each period of the day, the room number, the number of students in each class, and the total students assigned per day.” Why is this important? “What will be found, particularly at the secondary level, are significant variations among teachers in terms of student loads, even within the same department.”

Things to look for include:

  • Asset management–how closely does the district track its assets?
  • Benefits–do part-time workers get full-time benefits?
  • Cash collections–how much and how are they tracked?
  • How are other services purchased, such as energy, insurance, legal services, and printing?

Certainly some suggestions won’t be popular, such as going to a year-round schedule. Neither will be the suggestion that school boards be aggressive in cutting spending:

The phrase [“fixed costs” is] often used in defense of budget increases is “costs are contractual or fixed,” falsely implying that they are irreversible labor expenses. Not only can union contracts be renegotiated, but they also only specify the salary to be paid an employee, not how many people are to be employed.
No cost is fixed because the vast majority of budget line items are estimates based on past spending that may not have been allocated:

The phrase often used in defense of budget increases is “costs are contractual or fixed,” falsely implying that they are irreversible labor expenses. Not only can union contracts be renegotiated, but they also only specify the salary to be paid an employee, not how many people are to be employed.No cost is fixed because the vast majority of budget line items are estimates based on past spending that may not have been allocated efficiently. The only fixed costs are bid orders, contracts, and federal and state mandates for programs, not staffing.

Ideally, your local school board should be doing these activities. But that doesn’t always happen, especially when it comes to the more aggressive suggestions in the report. That’s why having an independent watchdog is a good idea.

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