As of last week, just 26 of 48 regional school districts had posted their approved budgets on their official websites, despite a state law that requires them to do so.
More districts have the information posted now than a week ago, as some added budgets to their websites in response to inquiries from The Daily Gazette.
The budget-posting requirement was included as part of a broader set of legal changes enacted in 2016 that mostly touched on how budget reserves are handled.
As of Wednesday night, 22 of 48 districts in six Capital Region counties did not have their full 2017-18 budgets clearly posted on their websites’ “budget” pages.
While it is unclear when exactly the requirement takes effect, a handful of districts went ahead and posted budgets to their websites when asked this week whether they were aware of the law. Others did not.
(One legal expert cautioned that districts would technically be in legal compliance even if the budget documents reside in hard-to-find meeting minutes somewhere on the website.)
All districts had some budget information posted online, ranging from top-line summaries of total revenues and expenses to detailed presentations and budget proposals. But some — including Schalmont, Duanesburg, Amsterdam, North Colonie, South Colonie, Fort Plain, Fonda-Fultonville and Schoharie — fell short of posting their actual spending plans.
“You are correct; it’s missing some information,” Fort Plain Superintendent David Ziskin said when asked about his district’s budget information. “It’s not a secret; by statute (the public) should have access to it. … It’s their money.”
Duanesburg spokeswoman Monique Jacobs said last week that the budget omission was “just an oversight and not intentional,” and added, “of course we will get it posted.”
Fonda-Fultonville Central School District, however, said they had contacted officials with the state Education Department and concluded that a document that included a school board presentation and “a summarized look at the budget” — but not line-item expenses — satisfied the transparency requirement.
“If anyone wishes to see a more detailed version of our budget, they can contact the central office and it will be provided,” the district’s business administrator, Joseph Karas, said in an email statement Friday. “We believe in transparency and feel it is important for the community to know how funds are being spent on new initiatives.”
A complete version of Schalmont’s current budget was not available on the budget section of that district’s website as of Friday evening. The website did contain a school board presentation that outlined details of the district’s proposed budget, but not the line-item spending specifics. Joe Lenz, the district’s business official, was provided a legal citation for the requirement on Friday morning.
Bob Freeman, director of the state Committee on Open Government, said the requirement was one of basic transparency that is simple to follow.
“I am unsympathetic,” Freeman said of the new requirement for districts. “I don’t know of a single superintendent anywhere that doesn’t make twice as much as you and I … they have a responsibility to know, and this is not difficult; this is not rocket science.”
The language of the statute, which went into effect last July, seems clear: “Each district shall post on its website, if any, a final annual budget.” What is less clear is whether the requirement applies to the current year’s budgets or if it begins with budgets that will go for voter approval in May.
Jay Worona, general counsel of the New York State School Boards Association, said he reads the law to mean the current 2017-18 budgets should be posted. Bob Lowry, who analyzes legislation for the state Council of Superintendents, said the requirement could also be interpreted to take effect in the coming July, since districts had already passed budgets when the law took effect last year.
The state Education Department was working to develop guidance on the legal requirement for budgets currently under development, according to a department spokesperson. But by Friday night, department officials had not provided clarity as to whether they thought the requirement is in effect now or if it takes effect this July.
Regardless of when the requirement takes effect, Worona said the law clearly mandates districts post to their websites a full budget document after it has been approved by voters — not just summaries, notices or budget presentations.
“The legal obligation is to ensure that we are posting the actual document that contains all the information about every expenditure that will be made,” Worona said last week.
Freeman said the requirement represents “proactive disclosure” — government agencies making public information available, as outlined in the state Freedom of Information Law. By publicizing the information, Freeman said, government agencies can limit the amount of time spent fulfilling basic Freedom of Information requests. He also said government transparency helps improve the trust a community has in its public bodies.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo included in his executive budget a proposal that would encourage all types of government agencies to proactively disclose public information whenever possible.
“Certainly, a budget is readily retrievable; it’s one of those items that is critical to the taxpayer,” Freeman said. “Many, many units of government — even absent a law indicating they must post that kind of information — they do it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do, plain and simple.”