LJWorld.com weblogs First Bell
Board's Finance Advisory Council to remain 'advisory' for now
One of the first things an outside observer notices about the political culture in Lawrence is that besides having the standard set of local units of government — a county commission, a city government and local school board — this town has an abundance of volunteer "citizens advisory committees" that have to study various issues before they are ever placed on a governing board's agenda.
Whether you're talking about designating bicycle routes on city streets, naming a new park or deciding which social service agencies should get funding, it sometimes seems like hardly a decision is ever made by elected officials here unless it is first run through at least one, and sometimes multiple advisory panels.
The advantage to such a robust "participatory" style of self-government can be to add legitimacy to any given decision — and lend political cover to the elected officials who voted for it — by knowing that major decisions have popular support, and that voices from all the various "stakeholders" were heard before the decision was made.
But there are always questions about how much authority those unelected bodies should be given, and where the line is between soliciting community input and ceding governmental authority that elected officials have no authority to give away.
That was the question at the Lawrence school board meeting Monday night when board members considered, but then backed away from, an idea to give its Finance Advisory Council a direct, hands-on role overseeing how the proceeds from a proposed $92.5 million bond issue would be spent.
The school board established that council last year to act as a kind of sounding board on various financial and budget issues. The council has five community members appointed by the board, and two ex officio members from the administration. The current chairwoman is former school board member Cindy Yulich.
Forming the council came on the heels of a process where the board had not one, but two different advisory groups study and make recommendations about closing and consolidating school buildings: one recommended doing so; but the second balked at deciding which specific schools should be closed, and so recommended investing money to upgrade and modernize existing schools.
That, in turn, led to the upcoming $92.5 million bond proposal that will be on the April 2 ballot, which calls for not only modernizing the elementary schools, but upgrading technology throughout the district and expanding career and technical education programs offered through the two high schools.
The Finance Advisory Council itself didn't play much of a role in developing that bond proposal. It was just getting formed, rounding up members who were willing to serve on it, and trying to figure out exactly what its overall mission should be.
But in recent weeks, the school board has started to sharpen its focus on the finance council and define some very specific responsibilities. During Monday's meeting, for example, the council offered a fairly comprehensive review of the district's overall financial position, comparing the Lawrence district's finances with those of 21 other districts in Kansas of various types and sizes.
The school board also plans to rely heavily on the council as a sounding board for ideas on how to cut school budgets if, as most board members now expect will happen, the tax cuts that were enacted last year force the Kansas Legislature to start cutting school funding again.
That led to a discussion Monday night about whether it should have a direct role in monitoring how bond proceeds are spent - assuming that voters approve the bonds on April 2 - to make sure the money is spent on those projects the voters are being asked to approve.
It was also suggested the council should make recommendations about how any excess funds should be used. That would be in the event the projects come in below the expected cost, or the district is able to earn interest on the deposit of bond proceeds before they are spent.
Board president Vanessa Sanburn, who is also up for re-election April 2, said the idea was in response to a lingering perception in Lawrence that the last time voters approved a school bond for building improvements, the money was used instead to build new athletic facilities.
This time, though, most of the other board members, along with the administration, said that would be going beyond the legitimate scope of an advisory committee.
Board member Bob Byers, who is also running for re-election, said giving the council "oversight" authority would imply a level of control or supervision, something he said should be the job of the elected board and the administration.
Mark Bradford, who is stepping down from the board when his term expires this year, seemed to agree, at least in part. He thought the council's role should be strictly internal, offering advice and counsel to the school board, but he was hesitant to give the council the role of soliciting input and ideas from the public.
Meanwhile, superintendent Rick Doll reminded the board that in a major construction project like this - which is actually a collection of several projects at multiple locations - the board will approve contracts with a general contractor or construction manager, and that contract will include an "owner's representative" who will be in charge of day-to-day monitoring of the project to make sure it stays within the bounds of the intended purpose.