Editorial: Dist. 303 shows reasonable vigilance on spending limits

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 12/6/2016 9:38 AM
  • Community Unit School District 303 is located in St. Charles, Illinois.

    Community Unit School District 303 is located in St. Charles, Illinois.

Perhaps it was just a matter of unfortunate timing when school administrators at St. Charles Unit District 303 asked to have their spending limit increased. With an election four months away, it's not exactly an opportune time to ask for something that might give the appearance school trustees are relaxing their vigilance on monitoring finances.

Present policies require board approval before payment of any expense greater than $10,000. District 303 administrators asked a board committee to bump that limit to $25,000, an amount they said was more consistent with practices at other local governments. They explained that more and more bills exceed the $10,000 limit and said contractors get frustrated when they have to wait for payment.

Presumably, such circumstances involve budgeted projects and expenses and any expense ultimately is subject to board scrutiny and approval, so it's important to note that administrators aren't asking for more money or for less regulation from a board that has earned a reputation for conservative money management. But, as one school board member responded, it still doesn't look good.

"I don't like creating the concept that we don't care about $10,000 anymore," said school board member Steve Spurling, one of four trustees who could face re-election bids because their terms are expiring. "It might send the wrong message."

Board President Kathy Hewell emphasized that refusing to hike the limit is not a sign the board doesn't trust its administrators. To the contrary, Hewell, who does not have to worry about a re-election bid, said she has "absolutely no concerns or doubts about the administration." She just thinks the community expects strong and direct financial control from its school board.

"I don't think our community wants us to be less hands-on, less vigilant," she said.

We suspect she's right. To be sure, board members for a large school district can't be expected to scrutinize every expense in a $211 million spending plan. That's part of what they have administrators for. Still, $10,000 is not exactly chump change, and it's understandable that board members could see that figure as a reasonable limit.

If indeed St. Charles administrators have so many routine bills higher than that, perhaps there's a case to be made for giving them some greater authority. But they need to lay it out specifically.

In the meantime, it's understandable that the board would balk at a limit two and a half times higher than it has been observing. Indeed, it's more than understandable; it's refreshing.

Even if trustees ultimately relax some of their direct oversight, their deliberative approach is a sign of commitment to their duties and to the expectations of the taxpayers.

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