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Our Views: The buck stops where?
Gainesville school chief bears responsibility for systems careless spending, mounting debt
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A famous sign sat on the desk of President Harry S Truman. It read, simply, "The Buck Stops Here."
It was to signify that Truman, as president of the United States, was ultimately responsible for the decisions made by his administration.

That sign, and the sentiment behind it, apparently does not exist anywhere in the Gainesville city school system. Passing the buck on responsibility for the financial debacle of the system has made the school board and administration -- those who should be guarding the finances - look like the Keystone Cops.

"I'm not the accountant," said Ballowe in an interview last week with The Times.

No, Dr. Ballowe is not the accountant. He is the superintendent and should have his hand on the pulse of everything that happens, especially when you've spent $6 million you didn't have. Ballowe has the credentials of a capable administrator, not a fifth-grader offering the old "the dog ate my homework" excuse.

Ballowe told us that when he found out about the deficit, the school year was already under way and "you couldn't make any changes."

Tell that to families who live on a budget and were paying $3 a gallon for gasoline and are now paying $4. They've changed their budgets in midyear to adjust to a changing reality.

Sometimes there are painful decisions to make, like laying off administrators, cutting unnecessary travel and postponing capital expenditures. It can happen in January or June.

Yet our school district's top administrator seems detached from -- or worse, oblivious to -- the serious details of running the system. "If you have the money and you're paying your bills, I always felt good," he told us.

That might be an admirable goal for, say, a single mother working a $7-an-hour job. But it is the height of irresponsibility for someone charged with overseeing the expenditure of $50 million of someone else's hard-earned money.

What Ballowe's flippant response doesn't acknowledge is that the school system did not "have the money" that it was spending.

It's been nearly a month since Ballowe disclosed the deficit and said he would recommend a nearly 21 percent increase in property taxes to help offset it.

Yet despite repeated requests from The Times, we've yet to get answers to the simplest questions: How did you get yourself into this mess? What have you done to ensure you won't make the same mistakes again?

For weeks, Ballowe has blamed revenue shortfalls, and a former finance officer claimed to have hid them, for the school district's financial woes. But an analysis of the budgets for the past two years by The Times shows that budget-busting spending is responsible for a significant portion of the deficit.

For instance, the budget line for instruction -- which, essentially, is teacher salaries and benefits -- was budgeted at $30.9 million for the current budget year. Yet, the system spent $34.7 million, a nearly 14 percent increase.

Ballowe blamed the excess spending on his plan to create a ninth-grade academy and to make the middle school and high school academies function separately.

But is seems to us that, if you're making significant expansion plans like this, you'd budget for it and anticipate the increase in expenses. That didn't happen, and Ballowe seems either oblivious or indifferent to the financial repercussions.

He wants to do nothing more than point to the academic successes of the district in his tenure and, to be sure, there have been plenty of them. But he shouldn't be given a blank check to mortgage the system's future. Financial accountability should be of equal importance to student accountability.

Now Ballowe is complaining that board members are going behind his back to system employees to get answers. But given his cavalier attitude, what else should they do? Board members are responsible to the voters, and right now those voters are understandably angry.

Unfortunately, to ensure that students are not the ones who suffer from the central office's fiscal fiasco, a tax increase may be all but inevitable. A $6 million-plus hole is a big one to dig out of, and budget cuts alone may not be enough.

But while raising taxes ultimately may be the only way for the system to extract itself from this black hole it is spiraling into, it seems ill-advised to consider one before the taxpayers of Gainesville get a full and documented accounting of what when wrong in the first place. Some policies to ensure it doesn't happen again wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

So far, though, it doesn't look like we're going to get either.

On Monday night, the board will have a first reading of the proposed budget for next year, and it will, most certainly, include the hefty increase in taxes. That budget remained a work in progress over the weekend, so members won't have much time to review it before it comes to a first vote.

What really needs to happen on Monday night is simple. Someone -- Ballowe, members of the school board or everyone -- needs to stand up and honestly explain how they got themselves in this mess and exactly what safeguards they'll put in place to keep it from happening again.

We deserve at least that. And if we can't get it, it might be time for some significant changes on Oak Street.

Remember, the buck stops here. Anything less will be a slap in the face of Gainesville taxpayers.

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