As West Virginia’s teachers waged war with politicians last year over the fate of the state’s financially strapped and rapidly shrinking public schools, State Auditor John “JB” McCuskey hit the road, preaching his gospel of fiscal transparency during dozens of late-night school board meetings to any official willing to listen.
Open your books, he told them. Rebuild trust by letting the public see exactly how you spend the millions of dollars you’re provided each year.
West Virginia’s public school system, because of a series of technical, logistical, and political hurdles, is one of the last major government bodies in the state to detail for its citizens exactly how it spends its money.
That’s inflamed mistrust between taxpayers and public school officials and left a $2 billion blank space (more than half the state’s budget) in the auditor’s popular and award-winning “WVCheckbook” website, where taxpayers can search through thousands of government transactions and salaries.
When the state’s legislature this year decided through House Bill 206 to provide $177 million more for its schools, bump teachers’ pay by 5 percent, and give districts more flexibility over how they spend their money, it also told the state department that it will have to work with the state auditor to build a searchable data website that lists every person and vendor receiving money from all of the state’s 55 school districts, what tax revenue source that money came from, and what the money was used for.
If McCuskey is successful, it would make West Virginia’s public school systems one of the most transparent K-12 systems in the country when it comes to spending.
McCuskey and his transparency disciples, who now include hundreds of parents and school board members, predict the flood of data will reveal cost savings, build greater participation in the politically combative budget process, and assure taxpayers that money is being spent in an efficient, fair, and legal way.
“We need to make sure all the data that we maintain regarding student achievement and spending is available to the public in a way that they can understand,” McCuskey said. “This is the public’s data. The school officials don’t own their children, their schools, their money. It’s [the public’s] money, their schools, their children, and it’s their data.”
But the task ahead for McCuskey won’t be easy.
West Virginia stores its financial data in software that’s more than 30 years old, which makes culling real-time transactions from it, as McCuskey and his team plan to do, especially hard.
The department has no plans to replace or update the system anytime soon, a job that could run into the millions of dollars.
“We’d rather have any new money we get to go directly to the classroom,” said Sarah Stewart, the executive director of policy and government relations for West Virginia’s Department of Education.
Theodore Pauls, the school board president of Brooke County Schools called that sort of sentiment “absurd.” He compared it to a starving family refusing to purchase a door lock to make sure nobody steals the little food they have.
“I appreciate the fact that they want every dollar to go to the classroom,” he said. “And so do I. That’s why I think there should be greater transparency to make sure that that is actually happening.”
Making Data Available
A substantial amount of research has shown in recent years that how districts spend money can dramatically impact academic outcomes. Federal officials, through the Every Student Succeeds Act, and state legislatures have begun to impose new requirements ramping up the amount of fiscal data local school officials must display to the public.
McCuskey, a lawyer by background, said that voting on the state’s education budget was especially frustrating during his four years as a state legislator since the education department provided such outdated, infrequent, and incomplete expenditure data, making it difficult to figure out what budgetary changes the state needed to make to improve academic outcomes.
“One of the things that was most striking to me was the insane lack of information we had in order to make decisions,” said McCuskey.
After he successfully campaigned to be the state’s auditor in 2016, he contracted with “OpenGov,” a private vendor, to build a website that shows in real time every transaction West Virginia’s local and state officials make and the salaries of thousands of employees.
Today, that website, which cost the state $271,000 to create, is used by journalists, research groups, and think tanks to make recommendations on government spending. Last year the state was lauded by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization as having the nation’s most usable online fiscal transparency websites.
“When you have a state that’s struggling like West Virginia, the status quo is always the enemy,” said McCuskey, who also runs a fraud unit and conducts audits of local governments. “I believe that in order to move this state in a positive direction, people have to have access to the government.”
Demanding More Data
West Virginia’s budgetary woes have been in the national spotlight ever since the state’s entire teaching force last year went on strike to protest stagnant pay, decrepit schools, and a massive teacher shortage.
Pauls, the Brooke County school board member, said taxpayers in his district would be more trusting of school officials if they had a better understanding of how money is spent.
When McCuskey came to speak to his school board in February, the superintendent had just a month earlier resigned after, among other things, administrators received more than $144,000 in pay raises even as the district laid off 40 teachers and closed three schools.
Currently, Pauls said, residents have to either scan the district’s monthly board books to figure out how the district spends its money, make open records requests, or stop by the district’s central office to collect copies of district receipts.
In recent months, Pauls has badgered district administrators about where all the parking fee money they collect from high school students goes, and for details on what administrators meant when they said the district made 300 purchases through Amazon.
“There’s so much room for indiscretion,” he said. “I’m not saying that fraud is happening, but, I’m saying, let’s be transparent here.”
Blaine Hess, the superintendent of Jackson County Schools and the president of the state’s association of school administrators, said districts try to be as open with the public as possible through their budget books, board meetings, and annual audits. He points out that helping the public understand where schools’ money comes from can be confusing since it’s distributed through complicated funding formulas from three levels of government: local, state, and federal.
Hess worries that any extra work heaped on his already-stretched finance department would be difficult to get done. The equivalent of three and a half people, he said, work in the department, which is tasked with, among other things, payroll, benefits, accounts, and complying with a slew of federal and state laws.
“Our office is working at capacity currently,” he said. “We don’t want to be in a place where we have to employ an additional person.”
HB 206, a controversial and broad reaching bill, says no modifications can be made to the state’s information system in order to comply with the state auditor’s requests. Stewart, with the state’s department of education, said after browsing the checkbook website that she thinks the system will be able to provide much of what the auditor’s team asks for.
McCuskey said he plans to have much of the data available for politicians by the start of next year’s legislative session in January and available to the public by the end of next year.
“The technology now is at a place where doing this stuff is no longer hard,” McCuskey said. “It’s a matter of finding someone who’s willing to stand up and do it.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2019 edition of Education Week as Activist Auditor Decries W.Va.’s Funding Data