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School spending needs sunshine

We frequently have been critical of the actions of the chairman of the Dougherty County School Board, but James Bush is making a solid argument in pushing for open discussion of the system's annual budget.

In the past, School Board members have met in smaller-than-quorum numbers with the system's financial personnel to get information on the next fiscal year's spending plan for the school system. That has, for the most part served, a single purpose: keeping taxpayers in the dark with a budget-in-progress as long as possible before the budget is finalized.

For those crafting the spending plan, it keeps the annoying people who are funding the lion's share of the plan from having much -- if any -- input into it.

The system's Executive Director for Finance and Operations, Robert Lloyd, suggested doing the same thing this time around in a year in which severe decisions may have to be made. Board members already have gotten a warning shot that, as things stand now, revenues will fall about $9 million short of what it would cost to operate Dougherty County's public schools in Fiscal Year 2013, which starts in just under four months on July 1.

We're pleased to see Bush and School Board Finance Committee member Carol Tharin balk at the idea, which we see as serving no other purpose than to keep the public out of the information loop for as long as possible.

"I am not comfortable meeting individually or in pairs with Mr. Lloyd to discuss the budget," Bush said. "The media needs to be aware of our budget discussions, and I think meeting individually or in small groups seems to lack the transparency the public deserves."

Indeed, it serves only to make the process -- as it has been -- as opaque as possible.

The fact is, the stage is set to require the School Board to make some financial decisions that will have serious impact on the way the system operates. There are questions that taxpayers and parents of students have every right to ask before a budget process has gone so far that any input the public might have can't be accommodated.

Questions need to be asked and answered. What is the student population of each school compared to how many seats it has? Does the system have some schools that should be consolidated? Can the school system budget be balanced without furloughing teachers? If not, what can be done to keep the furloughs at a minimum?

Without a doubt, some of the feedback the system will get will be unproductive as those who are frustrated simply vent about what they see as wrong. Some will toss out ideas that are far-fetched or impractical.

But there also will be some thoughtful, considered comments that might lead to an innovative idea or spark a train of thought that could be of benefit to the School Board, the system and, most importantly, the students. At the very least, those who are paying the bills with their property taxes and with their sales tax should have the opportunity to be heard.

We encourage Bush to call for the public session that he suggested on Tuesday. As he said, the more informed the board is, the better off the system will be. And a few fresh ideas, which we hope would come from the public meeting, couldn't hurt.