Public Policy Forum Blog

Who says MPS needs more accountability?

The MPS school board will soon be considering a controversial recommendation from a special committee created to increase fiscal accountability within MPS. The committee's recommendation is to create a new Office of Accountability that reports directly to the school board and to move some functions that were formerly performed by administrative departments to the new office. In effect, the recommendations put direct oversight of certain fiscal procedures in the hands of the school board.

Some would say, as the policy body of the school district, board members are micromanaging by seeking to have these types of functions report directly to them, rather than to the superintendent. In addition, there's an argument that since the superintendent is hired and supervised by the board, they already have the oversight they need.

On the other hand, it can be argued that by putting all fiscal oversight directly with the board, the superintendent and his administrators are freed up to focus on educational improvement. It could even be argued that this is a return to the decades when MPS functioned with a superintendent to oversee education and pedagogy and a business manager to oversee the day-to-day management of a large organization employing thousands of people.

I was a member of the special committee, which was created at the June 4, budget adoption meeting when the board approved the following budget amendment :

Establish an Office of Accountability under the Office of Board Governance. The Board authorizes the Board President to convene a committee of a least five members to establish the description and organizational structure of the Office of Accountability. The Office of Accountability is to become effective on January 1, 2010. Allocate $150,000 for start-up of the Office of Accountability.

My role on the committee was to inform my fellow committee members of the best practices for accountability in local government. Unfortunately, Milwaukee's largest local governments aren't always practitioners of these best practices. Those that the Forum has identified and that we emphasize should be in place in every local government, from Vliet Street to the county courthouse to the village hall, include:

  • Independent certification of revenues, so that a budget can be crafted based on a common set of revenue assumptions
  • Clear and transparent evaluation of long-term effects on solvency of short-term fiscal and policy decisions
  • Timely and regularly reporting fiscal data and projections to the public in easily understood terms

I urged the special committee to include these principals in their recommendations, and I believe it has done so. That doesn't mean the Forum or I advocate on behalf of the specific proposal before the school board, as the research is mixed regarding what type of district administration model results in higher student performance. Split responsibilities are quite common, but are not necessarily linked to better student achievement. This lack of conclusive data makes it difficult for a non-partisan organization to take a stand.

Where we do stand, however, is in our insistence that the board, the superintendent, the mayor, the governor, and anyone else who has or may take responsibility for the fiscal condition of MPS adhere to the principles listed above. Accountability is a word thrown around all too often in local government, particularly in school districts. It can only truly be achieved if the public can understand and participate in current debates that have long-lasting implications.

Anneliese Dickman