A local school board’s most important decision each year is approving the budget.
Budgets for the following school year usually are crafted and passed in the spring and can take months to finalize.
The best reporting strategy is to attend school boards’ finance committee meetings, and read primary documents, such as meeting minutes, budget presentations and the annual budget book.
A school district’s chief financial officer is paid to explain the intricacies of how districts spend taxpayers’ money to the general public. If you don’t understand something, ask.
Because changes to budgets may be highly contentious among parents, teachers, administrators and local politicians, spending levels for specific programs usually roll over from one year to the next with few drastic changes unless there’s a significant budget cut.
Look for outdated or ineffective initiatives, inefficient and duplicative spending patterns and pet projects buried in budget books.
District budgets are reviewed by federal and state auditors and private auditors. These audits are publicly available and easy to read.
Under federal education law, as revamped in 2015, states for the first time were required to evaluate how their lowest-performing school districts spend money. They must conduct a “top-to-bottom review” of how they “deploy their money, staff, and time to support school improvement,” this Education Week story explains. The state evaluations must be made public.