Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Standardizing State Agency Accounting through SWIFT Implementation

Different state funded E-12 institutions in Minnesota have varied levels of required budget transparency. For example, E-12 public school districts are regulated differently than two state agencies who also provide education to E-12 students (on a smaller scale). Charter Schools have long been criticized for the multiple layered governance and lack of fiscal transparency. Charters have also been criticized for the lack of efficiency and high level of spending on administration compared with school districts.

Changes are happening in state agency transparency. In 2009, the legislature approved funding to implement a new, comprehensive accounting system for all state agencies. The Minnesota Accounting and Procurement System (MAPS) had a lack of software update availability that was putting it at risk for failure. The state did a comparison study that showed cost savings with a new system, put out a bid request, and chose the Statewide Integrated Financial Tools (SWIFT), which is on target to be implemented by July 1, 2011.

State Agency versus School Board Governance
School Boards are required by state law to abide by open meeting laws, and provide transparent budget information in order to qualify for state funding. See the Robbinsdale Area School Board for an example of the kinds of budget disclosure available at the district level.

Openly available documents from the three E-12 Education-based state agencies include the agency profile and Governor’s budget recommendations for FY 2012-13. A more detailed budget outline was available by request from the Minnesota Management and Budget staff person, Kristy Swanson.

Both of the smaller state agencies, the MN Academies for the Blind and Deaf and the Perpich Center for Arts Education, are governed by a board appointed by the governor, who’s responsibility is primarily to run as a state agency board, without the requirements of a school board, but still governed by public open meeting laws. Board documents have not been readily available, and a more detailed line-item budget request was refused by both finance directors, due to the pressing needs of the legislative session and SWIFT implementation. This left some open questions of accountability and transparency within both institutions.

Key comparative elements that were unclear from the MMB documents were the true per pupil cost, the cost of the residential facilities, and the cost of administration and how that administration directly translated to students served at the facility. The justification for cost and number of Full-Time Equivalents (FTE), 80.4 at PCAE and 179 (FTE) at MN Academies, has been that they serve the center’s statewide outreach needs as well. It is unclear how that metric is evaluated. This difference in transparency made it more difficult to compare statistics than it is for charter schools because the governance and reporting structures are more similar to state agencies.

Statewide money is needed to improve graduation rates and address achievement gap issues in specific communities at risk, as in those served by MN Academies and PCAE, as well as to improve economic growth and increase international competitiveness. My recommendation is that state agencies that also function as schools should have additional measures of reporting and transparency. This reporting should be directly connected to their governance functions, similar to the reporting required of traditional schools. These measures would include per pupil costs, administrator to student ratios, and clear residence hall costs. This is one way to ensure that tax dollars are being spent wisely. SWIFT will hopefully fulfill its intent, and improve accounting and accountability for state agencies, but more attention and accountability is needed at the board governance level.

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