“Falling fund a district slipup.” This is the headline of a front page article by Marlene Sokol in the August 8 Tampa Bay Times – about the dramatic decline in the Hillsborough County Public Schools’ reserve fund: from $298 million in 2012 to $152 million in 2015. The article points out that “somehow, the fact that tens of millions of dollars were leaving the fund each year escaped the notice of Hillsborough’s incoming superintendent and seven elected board members who provide oversight.”
You might recall that last January the Hillsborough School Board dismissed without cause one of the country’s finest superintendents, MaryEllen Elia, who now heads the New York State Department of Education. Of course, the inevitable finger pointing has begun, and the Board members who voted to fire MaryEllen are talking about her failure to draw their attention to the district’s rapidly falling reserve.
It might be the case that MaryEllen should have made more of an effort to draw the Board’s attention to the reserve issue, but it’s important to keep in mind that district educational and financial performance monitoring is a shared – board and superintendent – responsibility. This was a key point in the excellent podcast by CABE Executive Director Bob Rader and two of his board members that was featured in last week’s post, “Board-Superintendent Collaboration on the Monitoring Front” ( http://bsi.powerpoint3.com/?p=139).
I’m not privy to all the details involved in the Hillsborough Schools’ disappearing reserve crisis, but I do know that if the Hillsborough Board of Education had taken three pretty simple steps, they couldn’t have been caught by surprise even if Superintendent Elia didn’t make a point of alerting them:
- Make sure that financial performance monitoring is explicitly listed as a major board responsibility in the board’s written job description (often known as the board’s “governing mission”).
- Employ a standing board committee (often called “performance oversight and monitoring”) to carry out the detailed monitoring function and to keep the full board apprised of progress and problems.
- Ensure that the committee reaches agreement with the superintendent on the performance indicators that will be monitored and the format and frequency of the performance reports the committee will receive in carrying out its monitoring function.
With this kind of structure and process in place, no school board could easily be caught off guard by significant financial developments, including a rapid decline in the district reserve fund.