Baltimore County leads state in transparency of school expenses

Baltimore County leads state in transparency of school expenses

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Capital News Service

If you’re curious about how your local school district is spending its money, you can download data from the “Contracted Out” database.

But if you want to know exactly why school districts spend what they spend, you’re out of luck — that is, unless you’re interested in data from Baltimore County.

Thanks to what appear to be two random acts of legislation that took place eight years apart, the General Assembly requires every public school district in the state to report every contract expenditure of more than $25,000, but only requires Baltimore County Public Schools to list a purpose for each payment.

A majority of any school system’s budget is devoted to payroll, said Matthew Streett, assistant director in the state’s Office of Legislative Audits. Whatever is remaining goes toward operating expenses like the bus fleets, food services, or even the curriculum. For these things, districts often hire outside vendors via contract.

School contracting data is much more transparent in Maryland today than it’s ever been, and it’s all because of a series of General Assembly actions that began in 2008.

That year, the General Assembly passed the Maryland Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which requires state agency expenditures over $25,000 to be viewable on a website created and maintained by the Department of Budget and Management.

Similar legislation passed the General Assembly in the following years to create searchable websites for school boards of education expenditures, starting with Montgomery County in 2009 and Howard County in 2010.

The General Assembly took up legislation in 2011 to require Baltimore County to report its school contracting expenditures, too — but this time, then-Del. Stephen Lafferty, a Baltimore County Democrat, called for more detail.

“By amendment, we would also add the purpose of the payment and also whether there’s a minority business enterprise so that we can also track that data,” Lafferty said in House testimony on the measure when it was first heard before the committee on Feb. 9, 2011.

While Baltimore County’s data is messy — it uses several different terms to describe school construction and improvements, for example — Lafferty’s provision provides an unmatched level of detail about how the Baltimore County school district is spending its money.

It’s clear, for example, that building construction and maintenance is the district’s top vendor expense. It’s also clear the district spent $114.9 million over four years to lease personal computers, $48.9 million on utilities, $36.4 million on bus contractors, and $34.3 million on classroom supplies.

That level of detail is not available for other school districts in the state because the General Assembly didn’t ask for it when lawmakers passed a contract disclosure requirement bill for the rest of the state’s boards of education in 2019.

The 2019 bill — HB355 — required all school boards to annually report the name of a payee receiving a payment, their zip code, and the amount of the payment for all contracts amounting to $25,000 or more. But echoing the 2011 law, it also singles out Baltimore County, stating the district must additionally report “the purpose for the payment and whether the payee is a minority business enterprise.”

Streett said he believes the purpose of every state school district’s contracts and payments would be of public interest.

“From our standpoint, the auditing standpoint, we’re getting that type of information when we get these data dumps out of their financial records so we can see how the payment’s coded, where it’s going, what the purpose is, what financial components that relates to in their budget, and from a procurement standpoint, it would be good to know which contracts are out there,” he said.

Contracted out: How Maryland’s school districts do business 


Capital News Service

Maryland’s school districts are required by law to tell the state how they spend their money — and the Local News Network at the University of Maryland took a close look at that data. The more than 26,000 records we compiled include every business or individual contractor that got $25,000 or more from a school district in a single fiscal year. While some counties started filing that data as far back as 2010, most did not until after the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill requiring them to do so in 2019.

Select your county below to read about spending in your district and start exploring trends in its spending or search the database yourself.

District text summary and data links:

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Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a student-powered news organization run by the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. With bureaus in Annapolis and Washington run by professional journalists with decades of experience, they deliver news in multiple formats via partner news organizations and a destination Website.

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