School District Boards, Audit Committees, and Budget Oversight

Article excerpt

Seeking a Formula for Good Governance

School districts are governed by local boards, which have significant responsibility for the allocation of resources - primarily taxpayer dollars - in order to enhance students' academic achievement. Across New York State, school budget spending totaled approximately $32 billion for the 2012 fiscal year. (See http://www.pl2.nysed.gov/mgtserv/propertytax; this excludes Buffalo, New York City, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers, which are not subject to community approval because these budgets are appropriated through the respective city treasuries.)

Local school boards are responsible for the oversight of this spending. School board members are elected volunteers willing to sacrifice their time for their community by doing what is sometimes a thankless task. According to the New York State School Board Association (NYSSBA), school board members must be at least 18 years old, qualified voters in the school district, and able to read and write. (For a recent, related article, see Ida Siegal, "Despite Controversy, Teen Wins Seat on Long Island School Board," NBC 4 News, May 16, 2012.) They must be residents of their districts continuously for one year (as little as 30 days or as long as three years in some city school districts) before the election. They cannot be employed by the school district of the board on which they serve; in addition, they cannot live in the same household as a family member who is also a member of the same school board.

There has been increasing dissatisfaction with the governance of school boards, particularly in the wake of the astonishing fraudulent activities uncovered in Long Island school districts (discussed later). Fiscal dissatisfaction is also reflected by Governor Cuomo's recently imposed 2% cap on tax levy increases, effective for the 2012/2013 school year.

Despite the critically important role that school boards play in governing schools across the country, virtually no empirical research exists that examines the governance structure of a school district with respect to the board's fiscal responsibility. School district governance is a partnership between the school board and various components of the school organization and the community in which it serves. To meet its obligation of allocating resources in order to enhance students' academic achievements, a school board relies on the services and expertise of school district management and perhaps other members of the community.

School taxes represent the bulk of a taxpayer's property tax bill, and taxpayers are at risk when they fall behind in property tax payments. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that, although mortgage default is behind most home foreclosures, the number of foreclosures due to delinquent property taxes is increasing ("Tax Liens Trigger More Foreclosures," Wall Street Journal, Jul. 14-15, 2012). The outcome of more frequent challenges to assessed property valuations by homeowners in the face of increasing school budgets leads to further increases in property tax rates ("DoubleDigit Tax Hike Stuns Homeowners," John Hildebrand, Newsday, Jan. 5, 2012, http://www jiewsday.com/long-island/nassau/ double-digit-tax-hike-stuns-homeowners1.3432067). Given the enormous implications of increasing property taxes and the declining wherewithal of citizens to pay those increases, the oversight of multimillion-dollar school budgets requires effective, independent, and capable governance in order to ensure that property tax increases are fiscally sound.

School Boards

Although school boards traditionally regard themselves as discrete units, their effectiveness relies on their concerns for student achievement, processes for establishing policy and procedures, and relationships with district management - especially the superintendents of schools and business, use of board-designated committees, and cohesiveness among the board members themselves. School boards are charged with making policy decisions and governing education on the local level; they must balance the needs of taxpayers and the education of children. …