Centralized accounting discussed

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The County Commission's education committee met with school board members and other interested parties for a discussion of centralized accounting last Thursday.

"We're here to learn, as I've told Dr. Stan Curtis (Director of Schools) and Ann Tears (chairman of the school board)," said Larry McKnight, chairman of the committee.

McKnight went on to say, "We're going to listen and compile notes; we're accountable to answer your questions."

Curtis prefaced his remarks by saying, "The biggest thing is to make sure we're open and accountable. We want to develop a relationship with you all (the County Commission), and we don't want to be closed-minded."

Curtis distributed two pages of notes whose introduction read,

"The Central Office staff, school board, and I have spoken with other directors, school system employees of other districts, the Tennessee School Boards Association, and attorneys regarding the cost or benefit to the school system of adopting centralized accounting. The resounding response from all of these people is, 'This is not the direction a district the size of Marshall County should take.'"

The reasons for not including a county's school system in centralized accounting include:

the Director of Schools would lose direct control of financial personnel

the authority of the school board would be reduced because they would no longer set financial policy

school accounting is specialized and requires special knowledge

other systems have experienced major inefficiencies

decision-making authority would be separated from accountability

other counties which have tried it have seen no reduction in cost

"Are there any positives?" asked McKnight.

"No," said Curtis. "The only school system that was OK with it is the one that didn't know another way because it started on centralized accounting when it was formed in 1981."

McKnight asked Janet Wiles, the board of education's director of budget and finance, what she thought the impact of centralized accounting would be. Wiles has been with the school system for seven years, and was a Certified Public Accountant for years before that.

"This has nothing to do with my job," Wiles prefaced her remarks, and then went on to say that she did not know how anybody could run a $40 million business without a finance department. She cited constant interaction between financial and educational staff at the central office, and said moving accounting to a central location in the County would cost time and money instead of saving them.

"What do you all see as the benefits?" Curtis asked McKnight, who replied, "We want to hear from other communities; the jury is still out until we get our questions answered."

"Everyone has an open mind at this point," said County Commission Chairwoman Mary Ann Neill.

"We've got a long way to go to becoming educated," agreed McKnight.

Another meeting was scheduled for yesterday evening to discuss accounting concerns and Basic Education Program funding from the state.

"It's not easy!" said Wiles, referring to the fact that schools are funded by a mixture of local, state and federal money.

"We could do a lot better job of communicating things," said school board member Craig Michael, who is not in favor of centralized accounting for the school system. Michael did say he thought it was great that the County commission was looking at new ways of doing things.

Tennessee is one of only 11 states where County commissions are the funding body for school systems. The Tennessee School Board Association is trying to get this changed to where school boards set their own tax rate, and expect to have it on the floor in the next legislative session. Already in West Tennessee some special school districts are setting their own tax rate.