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by Kathleen Moore

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A budget at last

By Kathleen Moore
Thursday, March 17, 2011

And the winner for slowest response to a request for information is ...

Not the Schenectady school district, but just barely.

I am pleased to announce that I have finally received a copy of the 2010-2011 school budget, only 11 months after I first asked for it through a Freedom of Information request.

It’s not as detailed as I would like — but it’s got 17 pages of labeled figures and it actually makes sense. We’re going to get the 2011-2012 book next week. (To view the 2010-2011 budget, click here.)

I rely on municipal budgets all year long, to put into context the cost of programs I’m writing about. I’d have loved to include the cost of special-education placements when I wrote about that last week, and the cost of English as a Second Language teachers would have been a nice addition to my ESL series. That’s just the most recent two stories in which costs were utterly absent because I had no information.

As a reporter, working without a budget has been like feeling my way through a darkened room. I can’t wait to get the budget book next week and finally be able to see what I’m writing about.

I’d frankly given up hope. For awhile last April I was chronicling the lack of a budget on a regular basis as school board members struggled to figure out what they were spending their money on.

On April 28, the district released an eight-page “summary” that did not illuminate anything. But then-Superintendent Eric Ely told me he’d have to release a more detailed version in two weeks because state law requires it to be released a certain amount of time before the budget vote.

Two weeks later, I demanded to know why the budget still hadn’t been released. Ely told me he didn’t realize there was a law requiring it.

When I finally got the so-called budget (two days later and only hours before the required public hearing), it was merely a list of account codes and their budgeted amounts, without any key identifying each code.

Ely insisted it was a budget, and I suppose by strict definition it was — but I couldn’t make head or tails of it. So I wrote a new Freedom of Information request, asking for a budget that I defined as something in which each expenditure was described by “words in English.”

I was told the document did not exist.

I didn’t believe it at the time, but when interim Superintendent John Yagielski arrived, he told me the budget information he had was too vague to run a district.

It took him nine months, but now I finally have a budget.

I think he’s even happier than I am to know what the district is spending its money on.

School board President Cathy Lewis said he called her a week ago, after finishing his in-depth analysis of the district’s receipts to create a budget, and said, “I can finally breathe!”

Kathleen Moore is a reporter for The Daily Gazette. Reach her at 395-3120 or by e-mail to moore@dailygazette.com.

 
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