The financial transparency of publicly funded entities, required by state and federal laws, sets the U.S. apart from other countries and contributes to the high standards of governance that taxpayers deserve. But for data to be meaningful and useful, it must be accurate and timely.
As research analyst for a watchdog organization that monitors taxpayer dollars in Utah, I rely on the budgets and financial data mandated to be publicly available across all levels of taxpayer-funded entities.
In preparing an annual report on Utah’s education spending that the Utah Taxpayers Association publishes, I discovered that the financial data for Utah’s public schools, as reported to and by the Utah State Office of Education (USOE), are muddled and fragmented. I saw problematic data at every level in Utah’s education hierarchy.
Such disorganization is unacceptable, especially because public education receives all of the state income tax, more than half of the property tax and nearly half of the state’s entire discretionary budget.
Because of accounting differences between schools, taxpayers lack clarity about how their money is being spent. If one school district categorizes spending for supplies or programs differently than another school district, I lose my ability to compare one district with another because I very well may be comparing an apple with an orange.
At the June State Board of Education meeting, Associate Superintendent for Business and Operations Scott Jones said, “I’m only as good as the data that gets provided to me.” His statement acknowledged that we all rely on data that school districts, public charter schools and divisions within the USOE self-report under a system lacking uniform procedures or oversight.
In my role as a watchdog, I, too, am only as good as the data that gets provided to me. I have little confidence that meaningful analysis of spending across public schools in Utah can be completed due to the unreliability of the data. Students and taxpayers deserve better.
U.S. law requires high standards of financial management and transparency because, without a sound structure of policies and procedures, the door is left open for waste, fraud and abuse of public funds. In many cases, this waste and abuse is not perpetrated with malevolent intent, but it simply occurs by accident catalyzed by a faulty system. Proper accounting, uniformity and oversight prevent these problems and are essential pieces in protecting taxpayers.
Utah cannot afford a high margin of error in accounting practices when it comes to managing public education dollars. Our children’s education and our state’s economic growth are too important.
The state Board of Education needs resources to put a uniform accounting system in place so that taxpayers and schoolchildren know they are getting the best education that money can buy in our state. With problems of financial reporting becoming apparent within the USOE, the board has begun discussing how to address these problems. There may finally be potential for meaningful change in clarifying the board’s role as head of education in Utah. It will take additional manpower and financial commitment in the short term to institute policies and procedures that ensure adequate financial oversight and management of Utah’s education dollars, but the payoff will be well worth it.