• Swamp Watch

"Transparency" In Name Only

East Baton Rouge Parish School Board Brags About Transparency. But is it enough?

Billions of dollars are flowing into Louisiana's public schools as part of the American Rescue Plan's Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding program. While the legislature debates requiring local school boards to be transparent with all taxpayer dollars they spend, the Louisiana School Boards Association has aggressively lobbied legislators against giving the public easy access to school board financials.

Part of their argument has been that school systems are already transparent, and that for those that aren't, concerned parents and taxpayers can submit public records requests. While many districts do post top-line budget information, most do not provide detailed financial information essential for true transparency and accountability. And in many districts, the public records request process can be burdensome, time consuming, and costly. To call that transparency is laughable, and puts the burden on taxpayers to find out where their dollars are gone.

In the cases where Boards voluntarily offer some fiscal data online, much is left to be desired.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School System is a great example of school boards paying lip service to transparency, while not actually providing transparency. Like many other systems, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board publishes a PDF report of its general fund budget online, showing only high level spending categories. Taxpayers seeking more detailed information would have to go through the records request process- for which the Board would charge the taxpayer a minimum of 25 cents per page. Recently, they've touted their ESSER Fund Dashboard, providing information on how the nearly $230 million in federal funds will be spent.

The ESSER funds are divided into three buckets: ESSER I, ESSER II, and ESSER III. The only problem with the school board's dashboard? It only provides details for ESSER II and ESSER III, completely excluding the nearly $20 million in the bucket of ESSER I funds. And, much like the general budget posted online, good luck getting any true detail from this transparency effort. It simply covers high-level spending categories. While an improvement from just posting a 300-page PDF, true transparency would allow parents and taxpayers to hold the Board accountable for every dollar spent- not broad categories of millions of dollars.

Schools Boards and their association have consistently cited their current "transparency" efforts, as well as the cost associated with providing this information, as a reason to oppose legislation mandating school boards participate in the Louisiana Checkbook. If this is the "transparency" they're talking about, they have a long way to go. With more money flowing into school districts than ever, the need for transparency, and the ability to provide it, has never been greater.

You can read all of our past stories on the LSBA and Louisiana's education swamp here.

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