Texas Rising September/October 2009

by Mark Wangrin

Transparency Spotlight

Texas Transparency Checkup

Open Book Test

School districts improve and secure
Web site transparency

Editor’s Note: The following article appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of Texas Rising.

The Internet is not just a place for school districts to post what’s for lunch. Now they can post how much it costs them to buy, cook and serve it — right down to the last plastic fork.

Budgets, financial reports and check registers are becoming more common online as school districts of all sizes make fiscal transparency a priority even as they wrestle with security issues.

“That makes it easier because there’s already a system in place and schools use it for other things,” says Bob Ashton, a program specialist in the Comptroller’s Local Government Assistance Division. “It’s just a matter of converting a financial document to a PDF. That takes staff time, but it probably saves staff time in the long run because there are fewer open record requests.”

School check registers, budgets and financial reports are all available for review by request under the Texas Public Information Act.

School districts have inherent advantages over cities when it comes to posting the data. Web assistance is available from one of the 20 statewide Education Service Centers, created by the Texas Legislature in 1967.

In June, Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill that removed the “65 percent” rule, which was the basis for an incentive for school districts to post financial information. Previously, a district that did not spend 65 percent of its budget on direct instruction could have been considered as meeting that requirement if it published its check register and annual payroll expenditures on its Web site.

One obstacle school districts face in compliance is security. Many are told by their banks that they should not post check registers because criminals can use that information, such as check and routing numbers, to commit fraud.

Boerne posts its check register in a simple form — date of check, payee and amount.

“Information you don’t want to give out is information that’s not required and can lead to fraud,” says Bruce Revell, Boerne assistant superintendent and business manager.

Revell says posting the register for the school district, which has nine schools and about 6,400 students, requires about two staff hours a month to redact information.

“It’s a process that depends on the ease of the software, the way the bank has everything set up,” he says. “It takes some manipulation of the data. When the software was written, the goal wasn’t to post the information on the Internet. As far as I know, there’s no software to do this specifically. But make it a requirement and somebody will come up with it.”

“The main problem we’re worried about is confidentiality,” Ashton says. “There are potential legal ramifications if government entities accidentally put out the wrong information.”

See which districts have put their financial data online at the Comptroller’s Transparency Check-Up Web site, which lists Texas local governments, counties and school districts that are setting the standard in their transparency efforts. TR

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