School budgets make up to 60 percent of your total local property tax bill.
Don’t you think you, as the person paying these taxes, should be able to easily find out how that money is being spent?
New York state thinks you do. That’s why state law requires school districts to post their budgets on their websites.
But apparently, many local school officials don’t believe in that concept, nor do they follow the law.
In a survey of local school districts conducted late last month and early this month, Gazette education reporter Zach Matson found that only about half of school districts in our area — 26 out of 48 — had posted their budgets online as required, even though those budgets were approved by voters nine months ago.
When made aware of their omission by our reporter, some districts quickly went up and posted their budgets, calling it an oversight.
Others were more defiant, choosing only to post partial budgets or summaries or going to the trouble of contacting the state to find out if law actually requires them to post entire budgets.
Many of those that posted the budgets or summaries didn’t exactly make it easy for people to search for them; some budget information was hidden in other sections of the website other than under “budget.”
One superintendent told our reporter that if a resident wanted a copy of the school budget, he or she could call the district and ask for it.
That’s not how this is supposed to work, either under the law or under the basic principles of open government.
You as a taxpayer and citizen shouldn’t have to request a copy of the budget from the superintendent. You shouldn’t have to file a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for the document. You shouldn’t have to go to the school office in order to read it. You shouldn’t have to make copies of it.
You should just be able to go online and read it at your convenience and at no cost.
The requirement that budgets be posted online is supposed to take the effort out of citizens having to go out of their way to obtain the budget.
Residents should be able to go on a school website from their home computer, easily find the budget on the online menu, and read through it line by line — every expense, every bit of revenue, every tax dollar.
There’s no excuse for any school district, big or small, not to comply with this basic regulation.
There’s almost no document you shouldn’t be able to get from the government online.
Posting information online is routine. Virtually every government document these days is prepared on and stored on a computer.
Uploading an entire line-by-line budget to a website is no more difficult or time consuming these days than posting any other document.
And putting the budget in one prominently displayed place where it can be easily found by the casual viewer is no more difficult than hiding the budget in some obscure section of the website.
For districts looking for a model to follow, the Shenendehowa school district is a good one.
When you go to the district website, the word “Budget” is clearly marked at the top of the page.
You click on that, and you get the entire line-by-line budget books for the past four school years, annual financial reports, several budget newsletters, tax rates for each community for the past several years for comparison purposes, voting information and contact information should you have a question.
The budget books each contain a table of contents, allowing taxpayers to easily access an overview and summary of the budget; information about debt service; tax exemptions; the school report card and a detailed budget where one can learn what the district spends on everything from art teachers to cleaning supplies.
The budget book also contains a copy of the school report card, which includes a detailed breakdown of student performance and demographics.
It’s all in one spot, easily searchable and in a format that’s easy to follow.
There’s no excuse for any school district — all of which have to prepare these same documents — not to post them online in the same format in a timely manner for all their residents to see.
If school districts are doing any less than this, then they’re not serving the citizens adequately.
If you go to your school website and don’t see the budget, call and demand that it be posted immediately.