It’s no secret that taxpayers in Clear Creek ISD often struggle to figure out where their tax money is being spent. The district has a confusing number of spending accounts, not to mention large multiyear bond programs, and there is no easy way to keep track of which dollars are going where.
The 2017 CCISD Bond is a great example of this: the CCISD website includes a “Bond at a Glance” page detailing the projects, and then news releases on another page to “update” families and taxpayers on Bond project progress. But if you try to dig into how much is being spent, or where, you’ll come up against a (figurative) brick wall.
Speaking from experience, to find out where CCISD’s money is going, taxpayers must dig through Board meeting minutes, financial reports, and perhaps most annoyingly, PDF versions of CCISD’s check registers.
As a taxpayer, this archaic approach to financial transparency is anything but transparent. Not only is it difficult for taxpayers to see how money is being spent, but creating and uploading the PDFs is no doubt a time-consuming, tedious manual process, wasting time that could be spent more strategically to improve district operations. And it makes it all too easy for Bond funds — which are supposed to be dedicated to specific projects — to be reallocated to something else, without the public ever knowing.
Leveraging technology can restore transparency to district financial decisions. We have a very talented IT team, spearheaded by Chief Technology Officer Dr. Robert Bayard. These professionals could open up our finances, safely and securely, so that the public could view spending, clearly and easily.
One policy I would advocate for is the creation of a searchable expenditure and revenue database, made publicly available on the Clear Creek ISD website. This database would include the name and address of the person or company being paid (except in the case of employees – that would only include the employee’s name and business location), how much was spent, what account or funding source it came from (including bond funds), and the reason for the expenditure.
This data, which would include all financial data that is considered public record, could be viewed online or sorted and downloaded as a CSV or PDF file. It would be updated weekly or monthly, at the very least, and allow interested parties to subscribe to a Rich Site Summary (RSS) feed to automatically be notified when new data is updated.
APIs Open Up Data
If this sounds like a lot of work, it’s not. It can be done by using digital connectors, special software code that can extract data out of CCISD’s financial and accounting systems. Even better, it is possible to pull out just the data needed for the public-facing database, leaving the sensitive details masked and inaccessible to anyone other than CCISD’s authorized employees. This can be done by using APIs.
An application programming interface, or API, is a computer programming function commonly used to build web applications. It also serves as a connector to share data between applications. Most of us use APIs every day. For example, if you’re on a site like Priceline to book a hotel room, Priceline uses an API to retrieve data from different hotels’ databases and presents it to you in one place, letting you know what properties are available for your desired travel dates.
State government agencies use APIs regularly to open up access to public data. The state of Georgia lets you pull all the expenditures and revenues for different cities and towns in an easily viewed online format. The state of Texas comptroller gathers data from a variety of sources so that the public can view a city’s or school district’s debt. And Kentucky has the best one I’ve seen so far: a single source to view vendor records sorted by branch of government.
The key takeaway is that proven technology exists that can allow CCISD to provide more transparency into how it spends taxpayer funds. As a trustee, I will encourage the district to adopt this technology. Because two things are very clear: taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going, and opening up data will encourage CCISD to spend money wisely.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!