Louisiana House committee approves school finance transparency bill

(The Center Square) — The Louisiana House Education Committee approved legislation this week to increase transparency of school finances by requiring school districts to post important documents…

(The Center Square) — The Louisiana House Education Committee approved legislation this week to increase transparency of school finances by requiring school districts to post important documents online for public review.

Committee members voted 8-3 to approve House Bill 526, sponsored by Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, “to require each city, parish, and other local public school board to post certain fiscal information on its website” annually by September 13.

The fiscal information includes a budget and general summary, annual independent audit, and quarterly reports of revenues and expenditures, as well as information on school board contracts for each quarter, including the identity of the vendor, payments made, and purpose of the contracts.

The bill would further require school districts to forward the same information to the Department of Treasury to post online. HB 526 calls for the treasury to provide an online tool for comparison of school board budgets and expenditures, in total and on a per-pupil basis, “subject to the availability of funds.”

Edmonds said on Wednesday the bill follows in the same vein as legislation enacted several years ago to create the Louisiana Checkbook to bring transparency to government finances.

“It’s in the process now doing a really, really good job, you can just see just about anything you can name in the transparency area. I know our constituents are real pleased with that, so this just takes it forward into another section which we think is a great addition to law,” he said.

Erin Bendily, vice president for policy and strategy with the Pelican Institute, noted that HB 526 simply requires schools to post existing documents online to “make it easier for parents and the public to get information about how public funds are being spent to support their students in their local schools.”

Similar legislation sponsored by Edmonds was approved by the Legislature last year, but was vetoed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, who argued “our local school systems simply do not have the resources or technology to comply with this unfunded mandate.”

Rep. Phillip Tarver, R-Lake Charles, questioned how Edmonds addressed issues raised by Edwards in his veto.

“One thing that we’ve done is we’re in a different section of law,” he said. “The second thing is we’ve reduced some of the cost, which was one of the issues, so our (fiscal) note has gone down … substantially.

“So we think those things will probably be enough,” he said.

Rep. Tammy Phelps, D-Shreveport, noted that the financial information is already available, though not in a centralized location, and questioned whether the cost associated with posting the information online is a wise use of limited education funds.

“I would love to see this money go into educating our students,” she said.

Edmonds countered that the bill would increase public confidence the money is wisely spent, and argued the bill brings consistency on financial transparency statewide.

“When they’re asked for millage changes, when they’re asked for their tax dollars to go up, I think they should have or could have a possible level of higher confidence and trust, which we always ought to be attempting to build within our constituency,” Edmonds said.

Dannie Garrett, with the Louisiana School Boards Association, testified in opposition to HB 526, which he characterized as “an unfunded mandate on school districts.”

A fiscal note attached to the bill anticipates a cost of just over $1 million over five years to the treasury to set up the centralized website with the budget comparison tool. The cost to local school boards was undetermined, as some school districts already post the information, while others may need data reporting software to comply.

“Requiring us to compile a report for every one of those expenditures throughout an entire school district is going to be an unfunded mandate,” he said. “And that money has got to come from somewhere.”

The bill now moves to the full House for debate.