The Right Note is a weekly opinion column published on Thursdays. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
Last week, the Arlington School Board approved a plan to begin publishing a written explanation to go along with its budget. Laying out clearly defined rationale will provide the public with important information, but it will also help the Board evaluate the budget as it is being formed. As someone who regularly calls for more transparency and accountability from our local government, I believe this is a positive step in the right direction.
This is certainly one part good government transparency, one part heading off as many questions as possible on specific line items, and one part ensuring the budget is carried out by the Superintendent in the way the Board intended. Whatever the impetus was for providing the information, any time taxpayers get a more complete picture of how and why their money is being spent, it is a good thing. Board Member Noah Simon deserves credit for moving the ball forward with his colleagues.
The next step to ensure accountability for the budget is for the School Board to require the Superintendent to put the “check register” online, at least monthly. The Board members can certainly access this information, but if they want public accountability, words and explanations before the money is actually spent will not ultimately be enough.
By providing near real-time accountability for spending, parents would better be able to assess the priorities of the school system. Teachers would be able to see how much money makes it to the classroom versus being lost somewhere in the administration. The taxpayers would be able to identify whether or not the money is being spent wisely. And, the big winners would ultimately be the students when they receive maximum educational value of school spending.
One explanation that will hopefully be provided next year is how the Superintendent reports the per pupil spending numbers. As I wrote earlier this year, the actual per pupil spending and reported per pupil spending do not seem to add up. The per pupil number reported in the proposed budget was roughly $3,354 less than the actual per pupil spending, according to my back of the envelope calculation.
In Arlington, I doubt there would be enough public pushback over the higher number to cause an outcry for a lower schools budget. However, at university level costs of over $22,000 per student, it does warrant an actual explanation. I look forward to reading it.
Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.