State-sponsored workshop reveals complexities of school district budgeting process

David DorseyEducation

You think completing and filing your income taxes is difficult? Try filling out the required budget forms school districts must do to comply with state law. I recently attended an all-day budgeting workshop sponsored by KSDE, along with more than one hundred superintendents, finance officers and the like from districts in the northeast part of the state.

Since I am not involved in putting a school budget together, I was there to observe the process and gain a better understanding of what districts go through to meet legal requirements.

I was left with the following impressions:

wile-e-coyotehelp1. School district budgeting is incredibly cumbersome. The packet given to the attendees has over 170 pages of instructions, examples, guides and miscellaneous legal requirements! It’s enough to make the IRS flush with jealousy. Furthermore, this year is a particularly tough one for schools because the new block grant funding law is somewhat in limbo as it is winds its way through the judicial system. (For the record, the districts were told to follow the new block grant law when budgeting.)

2. Somewhat related to the above, filling out all the forms to ultimately get to a 100-plus page budget that looks like this (regardless of whether the district is as large as Wichita or as small as Attica) is clearly too difficult without getting significant help from the state.

3. The process encourages districts to artificially inflate their budgets. A combination of

    • having to estimate revenues based on local tax collections that have yet to be made, and
    • state law that prohibits schools from spending more than they budget without going through the cumbersome procedure of republishing their budget,

virtually assures the amount schools budget is not an accurate reflection of what they intend their expenditures to be.

One can make the argument that an artificially inflated budget inherently compromises fiscal responsibility, whether it involves a CFO of a large district or the superintendent of a small district. And, of course, when a district starts with an inflated budget, inflated spending is a reasonable supposition.  The entire process promotes both distorted budgeting and spending. Furthermore, it is difficult to make accurate comparisons of expenditures to budgeted amounts.

4. But the strongest impression this exercise left is that the process desperately needs to be simplified. School districts should be able to budget their money and otherwise follow state law without depending on KSDE for guidance. Every legislator should be required to attend one of these budget meetings to understand how needlessly complicated it is. Given that the legislature will be writing a new education finance law, a priority should be the simplification of budgetary obligations.

There are far too many examples of ways to simplify the process to describe in this forum, but one excellent potential for change is the publishing requirement. Under current law, each district must publish their budgets in the official local newspaper. This is clearly an outdated, not to mention expensive, requirement given that state laws obliges all districts to publish three condensed versions of their budget on their websites (although KPI has discovered that not all are following the law). It would also encourage districts to make their budgets much closer to anticipated expenditures if they weren’t required to republish.

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