Board of Ed still undecided on town finance tool
It has been more than two years since the town of Darien adopted OpenGov, yet the Board of Education has still not implemented this program.
According to Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky, OpenGov is an online tool that facilitates internal financial management as well as external visibility, which can add more transparency to the town’s finances.
Darien adopted the new platform for financial reporting with the start of the 2017-18 fiscal year. Detailed budget information dating back to 2013 can be accessed by the public through the OpenDarien link on the town’s website, DarienCT.gov.
“It’s really a budgeting and reporting tool, and it will make it easier for anyone to analyze financial data,” Zagrodzky added.
When asked why the Board of Education has not implemented the program as well, Chairman Tara Ochman said while no one is opposed to it, “We are still looking into whether this program is right for us.”
She added that Schools Superintendent Dr. Alan Addley and Finance Director Rich Rudl are both new to their positions and “wanted to have some time to research to find the right program,” she said.
When OpenGov came up at the Board of Education’s July 26 goals and objectives meeting, “the administration said this is our first budget cycle here in Darien and they don’t want to commit to the program yet,” she said.
“As a board, we are waiting for a recommendation from our administration and we are happy to go from there,” Ochman added.
Additionally, she said the Board of Education hasn’t budgeted for a new program.
“We will take it up during our next goals and objectives meeting,” she said.
Zagrodzky has been recommending the Board of Education adopt OpenGov for more than a year already. This subject has been brought up at several townwide meetings including the annual League of Women Voters Candidates Night in October, and the State of the Town meetings for both 2018 and 2019.
Most recently, it was mentioned yet again at the Dec. 10 Board of Education meeting when school administrators were assessing business office practices and structures, discussing transparency, and analyzing programs.
When Board of Education member John Sini asked about implementing OpenGov, Addley said, “If it dovetails and integrates with Munis [the current financial system] and doesn’t prevent any other major problem here — then we should do it, no problem.”
Addley continued: “If it’s simple to do and it talks to Munis and it makes sense and it doesn’t prevent an awful lot of work, then yes.”
Rudl said he doesn’t know any Board of Education district that currently uses OpenGov.
In response, Ochman said, “We’ll figure out whether we’re trailblazers or we can find something even better.”
Rudl and Addley are looking at the “best way to make our budgets transparent, and if that ends up being OpenGov, I have not heard anyone on this board object to it,” Ochman added. “If that ends up being something else, we just have left that door open so that we can find the best way to be the most transparent and most responsive to the public on the budget.”
Response to Ochman’s position
Board of Finance Chairman Zagrodzky told The Darien Times he “certainly understands this has been a year of transition” for the Board of Education, with both a new superintendent and new director of finance. “Personnel changes like this take time to stabilize,” he added.
Zagrodzky said the goal is to get the town and the Board of Education on one system, “so everybody can go to one spot to see our total budget.”
“By having both budgets on one system, we will be able to benchmark effectively with other towns on the same system,” he said.
Zagrodzky continued, “My hope is that once their new leaders are fully up to speed, they will review OpenGov and begin an implementation process. The town’s finance director, Jennifer Charneski, did a great job implementing OpenGov for the town. It takes some time, and there is a learning curve, but it is not hard to upload data and configure the system. Once OpenGov is set up, it is easy to use and maintain.”
OpenGov took two to three months to set up, said Charneski, who performed all the accounts set up for OpenGov and created the website for it.
The budget module of OpenGov costs the town $19,000 per year. The transparency part of the program is $21,000 per year, according to Charneski.
The town is using the program for two purposes, Charneski said.
First, “We use it to take a look at our spending, instead of us trying to put out reports.”
In OpenGov, “We have reports that show our annual budget and our annual expenditures — down to the individual line items,” she said.
She further said OpenGov enables the public to do “something as detailed as how much does a particular department spend on office supplies?”
In addition, the public can use filters that are available on the website to drill down into town spending, Charneski said.
The second way the town is now using OpenGov is to build the 2020-21 budget.
The fiscal 2019-20 budget was the first budget developed in OpenGov, according to Charneski.
“It went really well,” she said. “We found that we looked at the numbers differently than in the past. We analyzed the requests with more detail and with more of an eye on what had actually been spent in the past.”
Prior to OpenGov, the budget was developed in Munis.
“The Munis financial system had a budget module. The same information was available in there, but we find OpenGov displays it in a more user effective way,” Charneski said. “We found this to be very worthwhile for the budgeting.”