By Sue Botos
In an effort to keep a finger on the public pulse when it comes to school financing, Rocky River administrators are discussing the establishment of a citizens finance committee.
At its recent work session, the school board heard from Lowell Davis, a school finance expert called in for support after the district’s attempt to pass a levy failed in March.
Davis told the board that he has had “a number of different experiences” as he has helped set up citizens finance committees in other communities. While some programs eventually “crashed and burned,” he said a group in Mentor has functioned effectively. “You need credibility, but it (the committee) needs to be divorced from the self-interest of the board,” Davis said. He added that in the case of Mentor, all committee members but one have a background in the financial industry.
Davis went on to outline a few characteristics of a successful citizens committee. First, he said, one member had to be a lawyer to provide legal guidance. Second, the group must have a mission statement. “A clear mission is needed that does not usurp the (school) board’s prerogative,” Davis stated.
Third, Davis said that private business practices must be applied to any levy campaign, with calculations carefully monitored for potential trouble.
Although members of the initial committee will be appointed at the same time, Davis suggested staggering the terms as a way to prevent burnout. He added that a five-member committee functions well. Representatives from the administration, school staff, teachers, parents and the school board could also have input for the group.
The committee would report to the school board during its appropriations proceedings, according to Davis. “This is not about where money is being spent, but brings a realistic recommendations to the school board,” Davis commented.
For example, he said that in Mentor, the committee “stuck to its purpose,” presenting the school board with realistic ways to trim the budget, rather than complaining about salaries being too high. “This has given the (group) credibility. It’s not based on the politics of the situation,” he stated.
Davis added that committee meetings are open to the public, and while they usually attract a lot of attention initially, public interest starts to wane as the number nitty-gritty takes over the conversation.
Responding to school board members’ questions, Davis said the Mentor committee members were recruited and included the chief financial officer of a large company and CPAs.
During his presentation, Davis stressed that the committee would in no way take away from the job of school Treasurer Greg Markus. “This is not a substitute for our CFO. Greg can carry his own water. I have no concern there,” he stated.
School board finance committee Chairman Scott Swartz suggested that the initial committee consist of three members plus Superintendent Michael Shoaf, a board member, outside legal counsel and Markus. “We could start with three members, then appoint two more to stagger the terms.”
Davis added that terms should be limited to two to three years. “You don’t want the same opinions in place all of the time,” he stated.
The school board is considering having the citizens finance committee in place during the first quarter of 2013, in time for input during the annual five-year projection in May.