The School District is still trying to recover from the "surprise" budget deficit of 2006. While digging itself out of the red and working to prevent a recurrence, District leaders face an even bigger challenge: winning back public confidence.
The best way to rebuild public trust is by providing greater transparency about School District finances. The District must make it easier for people to follow the money, and it must install clear accountability measures for using tax dollars wisely.
Unfortunately, "transparency" and "accountability" are easier to talk about than accomplish in a District culture that has been closed, secretive, and defensive. The conventional wisdom downtown has long held that controversial issues like budget cuts are best resolved behind closed doors, that giving the public too much information bogs things down, and that the District's enemies are always poised to seize upon any negative nugget. Hence the flow of information is tightly and centrally controlled.
This is both undemocratic and counterproductive. The closed posture makes it difficult to mend fractured community relationships and can create enemies where none existed before.
Over the past year, the School Reform Commission under Chair Sandra Dungee Glenn has listened to community concerns and taken initial steps to open up. It has heeded pressure to release some key budget documents and hold evening budget hearings, and been more responsive to parents and community members who testify and ask questions. It's an opening.
New CEO Arlene Ackerman's plans for "weighted student funding" offer another opportunity for community-wide discussion and input into the entire budget process.
We hope that in this discussion, the District can figure out how to make the dense, often unreadable budget documents more user-friendly. Few people now have the patience to wade through these tomes in search of answers that may not even be there.
The time is ripe for a new approach. Even the District's most passionate critics are simply asking for its leaders to acknowledge that the system's problems are shared ones that we must all face together. If District leaders are bold enough to fully open the system to public input, they might finally find themselves part of a united community working for a common goal.