Workers Stymie Rules for State's Budgeting; Education Audit Shows Disregard for Process

Article excerpt

Byline: Walter C. Jones, Times-Union staff writer

ATLANTA -- Trying to make progress toward education improvement is frustrated by state employees who publish questionable data, frequently change directions and maintain independence from senior administrators and legislators.

That's the gist of a recent audit of how the Department of Education complies with budgeting rules set in law and overseen by the Office of Planning and Budget. Analysts for the Department of Audits and Accounts found repeated instances of questionable data, setting easily attainable goals and uniform disregard of the budgeting mechanism.

"Steps should be taken to improve the validity and reliability of the [Education] Department's results measures by placing priority on the collection of important outcomes-related data and by ensuring that goals are fully measured and that all relevant students and grades are included in the results," the auditors write.

Observers say the problems aren't limited to the Education Department, where they have existed during the administrations of the past two superintendents.

But education, from pre-kindergarten through college and technical school, consumes 56 percent of the state budget, so the Education Department was the logical place to study budgeting procedures, said Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus. He is chairman of the Budgetary Responsibility Oversight Committee that requested the audit.

"In the past, there has been a certain degree of arrogance," he said of the Education Department. "They take the attitude that 'it's my business.' We take the attitude that it's the people's business."

Ten years ago, the General Assembly enacted a law setting up what has come to be called results-based budgeting. It was supposed to be a powerful management tool for governors, legislators and members of the public to tie funding to accomplishment.

The procedure required agencies to set goals for each program and to measure progress each year.

At the Education Department, auditors found repeated instances of arbitrary goals and ones that were set to be easily attainable. They interviewed managers who said they used any criteria they chose to pick a target -- such as how much to improve the dropout rate or how many students would become proficient in social studies. None got input from either the board of education or then-Superintendent Linda Schrenko. And many of the goals were changed the next year, so tracking progress was impossible.

Hooks believes employees in the agency guard their independence.

"I think it may be inherent to the situation where they don't want to be questioned," he said.

Other government agencies exhibit the same behavior, insiders say. One reason is that managers fear that objective measures showing little or no progress provide ammunition to opponents of particular programs. …