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Thursday, Oct 23, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Griffin’s disclosure idea for school officials has merit

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The annual budget for Hillsborough County schools is nearly $3 billion, and the money comes from taxpayers. The public deserves to know the money will be spent wisely to educate nearly 200,000 students in one of the nation’s largest districts.

To ensure complete confidence, it helps to know that top officials aren’t spending public money on contracts with friends and the like. That’s a standard precaution in public agencies. When you work in the public sector, the public has a right to be nosey.

That’s one reason Superintendent MaryEllen Elia quite properly files a financial disclosure form.

School board Chairwoman April Griffin wants more, though, and she made her move late Tuesday night, near the end of a typically long board meeting. She introduced a surprise motion that would require anyone with what she called “decision-making ability on budgeted items” also to file a financial disclosure.

The motion didn’t pass: It was a 3-3 vote, with board member Candy Olson absent because of illness. There was understandable caution by some dissenters, especially Doretha Edgecomb, to enact a sweeping change without more study.

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So here’s what the board ought to do: Study this from all angles, then come back and pass a common sense rule for transparency among the district’s top stewards of the public’s money.

I’m not talking about forcing an assistant principal to sign a form before ordering office supplies. But Griffin has a good point about the purchasing power held by top department heads. They have power to set contracts for anything under $10,000. Board approval is required for anything over that, but it’s not unusual for members to follow the staff’s recommendations.

That why it would help to know what financial connections staff members have.

“I’d like to be able to remind people who serve the public that they do serve the public, because sometimes that gets lost,” Griffin said. “It’s very easy to spend other people’s money.”

There were legitimate reasons not to pass her motion on the first read, though. The full board should be there for a vote like this, and as member Carol Kurdell noted, “For me, it’s kind of out of left field. I haven’t had time to even look at this.”

And Edgecomb was correct when she said, “Something this important demands real discussion.”

That’s not code for letting it die in committee, though.

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School board members, like all elected officials, file financial disclosure forms. The public hires them and can fire them.

But the top officials Griffin referenced have authority to spend lots of the public’s money on things like transportation, construction and other things necessary to keep a system the size of Hillsborough schools running. The public has virtually no say about how those people do their jobs, but they should at least have confidence that everything is being done by the book. Transparency at the top is a big step toward that.

It needs to happen.

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