Questioning every expense

I am a firm believer in professional development and continuing education.  Everyone, in every job, needs to keep up with trends and new information to be able to do their job effectively.  One key to effective professional development, however, is finding the most appropriate venues, which has to include getting the most value possible for the money spent.

As elected officials, school board members are stewards of public funds.  In the best of times, school board members need to encourage and demonstrate fiscal responsibility with the money the public entrusts to us.  In the worst of times, such as now when we face state cuts and have just failed a levy, it becomes even more important to question every expenditure, no matter how small.  After all – you watch the pennies and the pounds add up.

Because of this, I asked fellow board members to consider carefully the expenses we (board members) incur on behalf of the district, specifically in the form of how we choose to attend the Ohio School Boards Association (OSBA) annual conference.  The OSBA conference is a “tradition” among many board members, a time to get out of town, attend some professional development sessions, and network with other board members.  This year, it happened to take place the week following our failed levy.

The conference begins in Columbus on Sunday night with sessions for delegates and a reception.  The general sessions run from 9-5 Monday and Tuesday and 9-noon on Wednesday.  There are a couple motivational sessions and several award ceremonies.  There are also meetings for Great Oaks representatives.  Since this is a state-wide conference, hotel rooms are expensive, around $250/night including fees.

All five Milford school board members attended this conference for varying amounts of time:

  • One board member stayed for the entire conference, starting with a delegate meeting on Sunday and ending with the sessions on Wednesday, including Great Oaks meetings
  • One board member arrived Sunday and stayed for two nights, attending general sessions all day Monday and on Tuesday morning
  • One board member arrived Monday and stayed for one night, attending general sessions all day Monday and Tuesday
  • Two board members went for the day on Monday and attended general sessions all day, without charging expenses back to the district

My challenge to other board members is to be sure this is the best place to spend our hard-won money for our professional development.  Some school districts only send one or two board members to this conference each year, rotating who attends.  Other districts, such as Indian Hill, do not send anyone.  Is sending only one or two people a year a better strategy?  Is there a way to maximize what we get from the conference, since our administrators are also attending?  Is this the best place to put our school board professional development spending?

As we make our choices, I ask that, just as we do with all district programs and services, we weight the cost vs. benefit before we spend.  And if other school board members find this conference, as well as other events they choose to attend for networking and professional development, weigh out on the benefit side, that’s great.

My experience at this conference is that there was very little, if anything, I as a school board member could take away that would help our district provide a better education or reduce costs.  On the other hand, I attended an OSBA legal seminar on the budget bill last year – it was inexpensive and very valuable; in my mind, well worth the money and time invested.  There are other programs out there as well – the choices are many and varied.

At Thursday’s board meeting, I was happy to find the majority of other board members did not challenge my request for us to consider all financial expenditures we incur.  However, one board member said I was “inappropriate” and “unprofessional” to bring this up during a public meeting.  Since per Sunshine Law, school boards cannot deliberate in private, when else would be the appropriate time?  And why would it be inappropriate or unprofessional to discuss something like this with the public, to whom we are accountable and whose money we are spending?

I do thank those who have reached out me about this topic for your input and support.  It is hard to challenge the status quo, and it has created a lot of waves.  It’s helpful to know you find it valuable and appropriate when I question this kind of thing.  I appreciate the various forms of messages, comments in the street, comments after the board meeting, etc. – these all help me know I am on the right track.  If anyone else has comments, positive or negative, about the philosophy behind this topic, I hope you will post here or message me with your thoughts.

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3 Responses to “Questioning every expense”

  1. Kelly Kuhn Says:

    Each school board member is (or should be) elected in the hope that s/he will be the best person at the time to serve the community: to help ensure the school district is effectively and efficiently meeting our students’s needs. Being truly efficient takes effort, including challenging the status quo, and every individual in an organization (or school district) needs to honestly determine whether s/he is part of the solution. No expense is too large or small to review for appropriateness.

    It may be uncomfortable to have these discussions in public, but I can’t see how they are inappropriate.

  2. Susan Terrell Kupka Says:

    Sorry I missed the meeting. Had I been there, I would have joined those afterwards who offered comments of appreciation and support. Thanks Andrea!

  3. Joe ross Says:

    Andrea — I also attend numerous meetings of low-value and I know what you’re talking about. We always need to be careful not to do something wasteful or of little benefit only to avoid being accused of doing nothing. Sometimes doing nothing is the wiser option.

    Yes, you should bring it up at a Board meeting. The community would definitely want to weigh-in, and should be able to. To hide things like this, or hide from discussing them with the public, can only erode the public’s trust in Board transparency and honesty.

    My opinion? I would send one person that reports back to the group. There’s always a chance that something of value could be learned, but it doesn’t take an army of people to find it.

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