Chris Rogers, editor, Winona Post

 

I have to praise Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) School Board members Steve Schild and Michael Hanratty for calling on school administrators to “show the work” and show the School Board what’s in their draft budget (see story page 4B).

Every year, the city of Winona and Winona County present elected leaders with draft budgets that can be over 200 pages long, breaking down every single expense — from how much the library has to spend on new books to how much the police department is budgeting for postage. Staff walk elected leaders through all the details five months in advance of the final budget deadline. By contrast, in a normal year, WAPS prepares budget books that are around 50 pages long, with high-level information about general categories of spending. This year, with one month to go before the deadline, WAPS has only given the board a two-page summary of the proposed budget. That’s the fiscal equivalent of glancing at Cliffs Notes before your English final. School Board members simply don’t know what is in the budget they’ll be asked to vote on in a few weeks.

As Schild points out, asking for information isn’t a criticism of the diligent work administrators have done to come up with the very best budget proposal they can. But while so much of the work of running a school district is delegated to staff — including drafting a budget proposal — approving a final budget and overseeing the district’s finances is rightly the responsibility of our elected School Board. The board can’t meaningfully approve a budget unless they see the whole thing.

Remarkably, WAPS Finance Director Kristy Millering’s response to a School Board member asking for more information about the budget and staffing was to tell him, “Our staffing is where it needs to be.” Staff should give recommendations and wise leaders should listen, but the School Board members you and I elect should be the ones making the final decisions on spending. Getting information about what’s in the budget is a bare minimum prerequisite.

Some board members disagree, apparently. At an earlier Finance Committee meeting, School Board Chair Nancy Denzer responded to Schild’s calls for information by saying that staff had already looked closely at budget considerations. “And so all of those things are happening,” Denzer said. “And those are things we probably don’t know. And personally, I don’t feel like I need to know them, because I just know that they’re doing them.”

To WAPS’ credit, administrators said a more detailed budget book will be shared with the board at their next meeting, two weeks in advance of a final vote, and the district has complied with public information requests for budget information. From what I can see, WAPS’ staff has taken a prudent approach to making the district’s expenditures fit its shrinking enrollment while prioritizing students. (This is despite the Minnesota Legislature failing to do its job on time and let schools know how much money they have to work with.)

But telling your bosses you did a good job and showing them the work are two different things. Setting a budget is the most important decision School Board members and district administrators make all year, and Winona families deserve elected leaders who will take a hard look at the details, with enough time to consider options before the June 30 deadline. Anything less is a dereliction of duty. Next year, WAPS should aim to be more like the city and county, sharing detailed budget drafts with elected officials and the public early on in the process. Thank you, Schild and Hanratty, for sticking up for the proper role of elected leaders in a democracy.