With news of Alabama’s abysmal ranking in yet another study about K-12 school funding coupled with hints at possible changes to the formula used to distribute Alabama’s tax dollars to school districts, one of the questions that needs to be asked is how exactly school officials are spending our tax dollars.
Many school districts have asked for property tax renewals and increases. Others are contemplating new ways to raise revenue to spend in our schools.
The K-12 public education spending plan for the nearly $8 billion in local, state, and federal dollars for FY15 was set by Alabama’s school districts during budget hearings held in July, August, and September.
The annual budget for a district, even for a school, is less than helpful if you are unfamiliar with the way numbers are laid out in a budget and what the categories of expenditures are.
But a check register? Nearly everyone can understand a check register, right? So let’s start there.
The Check Register: Just a Glimpse
In October 2009, the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) directed all school districts to post monthly check registers on their local web sites not later than 45 days after the end of the month being reported.
That check register looks like this (click the image to make it larger):
Unlike Alabama’s open.alabama.gov web site, these check registers are not searchable unless you are able to use the ctrl-F function from within the PDF. It’s not sortable, either, unless you want to go to the trouble of turning the PDF into a spreadsheet like I did here.
Remember that checks listed within the check register are for district-level, rather than school-level, expenditures.
Given the broad categories in the description field, and the generous use of “other” categories, the check register only gives us a glimpse of expenditures our boards of education approve every month. It’s a place to start.
If you really want to know why that check was written, keep reading.
How to Use the Check Register to Get More Information
In reviewing my local school district’s check register for March 2014, this total caught my attention. That’s nearly a million dollars in one check. Written to the “City of Hoover”, with the category of “Other Payable”.
I wondered if this was the check I had been waiting for, as a few months earlier, I had requested to view whatever contract for School Resource Officer services existed between Hoover City Schools and the City of Hoover but was told there was no written contract, only a verbal agreement. Once a year, the City of Hoover sends the Hoover Board of Education an invoice for School Resource Officer services. I wondered if that check was payment for that invoice.
In order to see the invoice, I had to formally request it through an Alabama Open Records request. I submitted a simply worded request via email to Hoover City Schools’ Communication Director on May 10, 2014. [Email addresses have been redacted to keep the spammers away.]
I received the invoice sixty days later on July 8, 2014. The law governing open records in Alabama has no time limit for response (another story for another day).
Here is the actual invoice.
That invoice told me that $813,369.93 was used to pay half of the salaries and benefits for School Resource Officers, half of their cell phone expenses, the full purchase of a vehicle, overtime (half or full, depending on the activity) and half of the cost of crossing guards.
In a fully transparent world, those invoices would be available at the click of a mouse. Until then, the only way to know for certain why those checks are being written is to request invoices through the Open Records law.
Let’s not unleash a flood of requests upon our school officials, please. But when there are genuine questions about how money is being spent, you should be able to obtain a copy of whatever invoice was used to write the check.
So what do check registers reveal about how school officials spend money? Not a whole lot. The real details are in the invoices.
Additional Reading and Viewing
And here’s a brief tutorial about check registers….