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Editorial: Ideas should be welcome

— It’s budget time in the world of government.

Budget committees are working out the details of what they will recommend to their particular board or commission.

If the organization has budget problems, it can be a particularly tense time. Committee members are looking at whether the budget accurately reflects the established policies and economic position of the body.

In the case of a school district, the budget committee wants to know that the largest amount of money is going to where it will directly benefit students the most.

These committee members number among the unsung heroes of government process. They almost never get their photographs in the paper, they are prohibited by law from being paid, and they filter through page after page of dry and — yes, we’ll say it — boring figures to try to understand where the money is going and why.

In other words, it’s all work and no glory. These are conscientious people dedicated to the welfare of the constituents of their respective districts. They deserve our thanks — and our company from time to time as part of our civic responsibility to our respective communities.

So it can be a little disturbing to hear administrative and elective officials sternly school the budget committee on what they can’t do, as happened at the final budget committee meeting last week of North Wasco County School Board.

It may sound a little self-centered, but we suspect the “lesson” might have had something to do with our May 21 editorial “Nickels and dimes can pay off,” where we urged school district officials to consider how small savings can add up over time.

Budget committee members apparently had the same idea, because the district’s superintendent and chief financial officer were warning members away from requests to see more specific numbers, “such as a breakdown of how the ‘materials’ category was spent.”

That’s not helpful, the superintendent said before the chief financial officer noted that the main job of the budget committee is to bring transparency to the process by asking questions and listening to public testimony.

The Oregon Department of Education’s “Ask Betsy” section describes a role that goes a little further:

“The budget committee does not change staffing levels, salary schedules, or negotiate salary contracts. It is not the committee’s role to adjust policies or priorities set by the board or to add, delete, increase or decrease programs. However the school board budget committee does test the reasonableness of the budgeted line items to meet the priorities and goals of the district as set by the board, and takes input from the public on the level of services planned.

“The budget committee can make changes to any of the line items in the budget to meet the goals and programs outlined by the district with the revenues projected. The appropriation level (usually the function level such as 1000 for instruction, etc.) as approved by the committee and adopted by the board has binding authority on the administration. The administration is given the authority to transfer funds between line items below the appropriation level by policy DBK.”

That last part means staff has some latitude to move funds as long as the move doesn’t change what broad function — the aforementioned “instruction” category for example — the money is used for.

So budget committee members have more real latitude under state policies — and even more under state law.

Oregon Revised Statute 294.428 defines the legal role of the budget committee and says only, “The budget committee shall approve the budget document as submitted by the budget officer or the budget document as revised and prepared by the budget committee.”

It seems ill-advised to chastise budget committee members for trying to be conscientious in their responsibilities, especially for an organization that is trying to show an effort at transparency — not to mention the fact that all school board members are de facto budget committee members.

A better course might be to redirect that interest and energy. A committee, for example, that goes into individual schools, examines the materials process, and brings outside eyes to the process might come up with suggestions for savings worthy of consideration.

The message has been pretty clear that constituents want to see government do more with less. A few new eyes on the issue might bring creative results.

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