Montgomery school officials mulling county budget website use -- Gazette.Net


Montgomery County Public Schools officials are exploring the possibility of posting operating budget information on the county’s new budget website.

County government officials gave school system officials a demonstration on Aug. 20 of the site, called budgetMontgomery.

Larry Bowers, the school system’s chief operating officer who attended the meeting, said school officials are currently learning about the site.

School officials have not yet had the chance to talk together to determine what it would take — in terms of staff and costs — to place operating budget information on the website, Bowers said.

“We’ll have to sit down and talk about the benefit for the school system beyond just the importance of improving the communication to the public about what is in our budget,” he said.

Jennifer Hughes, director of the county’s Office of Management and Budget, said the meeting included a question-and-answer period but not “much discussion,” she said.

“I think they were really in a listening and a looking mode,” she said.

Hughes said that, before the Aug. 20 meeting, she had met with other school system representatives about the site — “but they were not the right people to make the decision about whether or not to do this.”

Hughes said the website has multiple benefits, including that it is easy to access and use and information can be translated into about 90 languages. The site also allows users curious about the budget to “drill down to the level of information you want” and manipulate the data.

“You can’t do that with a PDF file, which is what every other county government and most other jurisdictions around the world have,” she said.

The site, however, has also generated “legitimate questions,” Hughes said, including how difficult it is to participate and the staff power it requires.

“This is a very, very new approach to providing budget data to the public,” she said.

It is ultimately up to the school system to decide whether or not to use the site to display its operating budget, she said.

The county government is the only entity that has posted operating budget information on the website. Other county agencies, while they may have that budget information available online, have not placed such information on the new site, Hughes said.

Capital project data from the county government as well as multiple agencies — including the county school system — are available on the site. Users can view information on countywide and individual school projects.

The school system’s operating budget — about $2.28 billion in fiscal 2015 — can currently be viewed in PDF format on the system’s website.

Bowers said he sees the website not only allowing more accessible online data but also allowing users to manipulate data and view it in different ways.

One of his next steps, he said, is to share information about the site with the county school board.

Bowers said he thinks “there’s a lot of potential in the capital budget” being displayed on the website, and that school officials are looking into adding to the data already posted.

“The operating budget, I think, is just going to take a little more time,” he said.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and others have questioned why the school system’s operating budget has not been posted to the site, Hughes said.

“It is a priority of the executive that our [county government] data be transparent and open to the public and that’s something that he’s made clear,” she said.

With about 50 percent of the county’s operating budget going to the school system, Hughes said, “the natural question is, are we able to look at the MCPS data the same way?”