School board not off the hook for budget shortfall

questioning mind

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The Bondurant-Farrar School District has a $900,000 error in its budget due to an inaccurate property tax amount, and some want legislation enacted to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Legislation, though, isn’t needed.

The school wasn’t technically at fault. County officials provided wrong tax data. But a little old-fashioned curiosity and accountability from school board members could have prevented this problem.

It wasn’t a surprise that Facebook was building a complex in the Altoona area, with one building landing in the Bondurant-Farrar school district—a complex that was heavily reported to receive a 20-year property tax exemption.

News that’s heavily reported, though, doesn’t always get read.

Newspaper readership, both print and digital, is on a continued decline. According to the Pew Research Center, weekday and Sunday circulation numbers for 2018 were down 8 – 9 percent from the previous year. Another indicator of falling readership is that the number of newsroom employees has dropped about 25 percent during the last decade. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that our general population has increased about six percent in the last eight years.

The population is going up while newspaper readership is going down. We have an increasingly uninformed populace.

The Bondurant-Farrar school board members should have known there was a large commercial building going up in their school district, one that would be tax-exempt for 20 years. Wouldn’t a board member, just out of curiosity, want to know what tax revenue was given up over this deal? If the question would have been asked, the answer would have been found and the error uncovered.

It seems that nobody had that curiosity.

Following the money, in general, is a good practice for any entity—whether in the private or public sector. Every small business can name their top customers and run a report listing sales by account, sorted by highest annual sales.

An intimate knowledge of where its money is coming from would benefit public schools, as well. Not a lump property tax sum, but an itemization showing revenue from individual property tax payers.

Property tax is public information. Anyone can go to and discover who pays what for property taxes. A large percentage of it goes toward public schools. Administrators could provide board members with reports itemizing revenue, sorted by highest revenue.

It would accomplish two things.

First, Facebook would have likely popped up near the top of the list and set off alarm bells for board members who were fully aware that Facebook is tax-exempt. The error could have been fixed before budget decisions were made.

This practice would make school board members more active and accountable. Unfortunately in some districts, board members are too passive and become agenda rubber-stampers.

A secondary benefit is that it could be a humbling experience for board members. When names of property owners are attached to individual tax numbers, showing financial sacrifice, board members may reflect more on the responsibility being entrusted to them.

It takes time and energy to manage a school district. There are bound to be moments when it seems like a thankless job. And sometimes, mistakes just happen.

At the same time, board members pursue these important positions through elections. There’s real work to be done that requires a questioning mind and a sense of accountability.

We expect our children to arrive at school curious, ready to learn, and to be independent thinkers.

No less should be expected of our school board members.

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