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Audit: ECS Sound; Policy Issues Ahead

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The Education Commission of the States is financially sound and produces high-quality work that is valued by state policymakers, an audit of the Denver-based education clearinghouse reports.

But the commission may be blurring its overall mission by trying to do too much and by undertaking too many grant-financed projects, adds the audit, which was released last week.

"I'd feel bad if people didn't view [the audit] as significant because we spent $100,000 on it," said state Sen. Ardyce L. Bohlke of Nebraska, an Independent legislator who is the vice-chairwoman of the 13-member ECS executive committee. "But the proof will be in what happens over the next two years."

Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad, the Republican who currently chairs the ECS, requested the audit last spring. The firm of MGT of America, located in Tallahassee, Fla., conducted the study. ("Audit of ECS Tops Gov. Branstad's Activist Agenda," June 11,1997.)

Where's the Focus?

The commission's fiscal 1997 budget was $8.7 million, 59 percent of which came from grant-related projects, while 30 percent was drawn from state membership fees.

Auditors praised the commission for boosting its reserves from a dangerously low level of just over $200,000 in 1988 to $1.7 million at the end of fiscal 1996, which is equal to three months' operating costs.

But the organization's success in raising revenue from grants, as well as problems tracking work on those projects, raised some concerns for the auditors.

They asked the ECS to consider "whether some grant-funded projects were really serving the needs of state education policymakers or had gone too far into serving the needs of school districts."

"It's an unfortunate tightrope," said Tennessee Commissioner of Education Jane Walters, a member of the ECS executive committee. "But grants allow ECS to do a lot more for states. It's not realistic to exclude foundations and grant providers."

The audit also urged the nonpartisan commission to decide whether it wants to be an advocate for certain policy positions, a long-debated subject within the ECS.

"If the answer is 'yes,' then appropriate procedures should be established," the report says. Individuals surveyed for the audit said that the commission's neutral nature was one of its major strengths.

During its fall meeting last week in Phoenix, the commission's 53-member steering committee formed two panels to study the audit and draft a plan of action by spring.

"The primary thing you want to do with this is use it as a leverage point for change," said Frank Newman, the president and chief executive of the ECS.

For example, the commission clearly needs to find a way to increase the participation of its 371 commissioners, most of whom are education policymakers chosen by the governors of the 48 member states. Montana and Washington are not members of the ECS.

Since 1991, just about 30 percent of the commissioners have attended their once-a-year national meeting. Just 46 legislators attended this year's national gathering in Providence, R.I.

Next Steps

To help address the problem, the auditors suggested removing inactive commissioners from committee assignments. State involvement might increase, they added, if one ECS staff member were assigned to each state, and more local, in-state meetings were held.

While the group's popular information clearinghouse was applauded for handling some 3,000 inquiries a year, the auditors recommended that it be made more accessible by computer.

Mr. Newman said that the ECS is six months into a four-year, technology-enhancement project. He added that the audit is saying, "If we're intelligent, we'll stay going down the same path."

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