The larger issue

Interesting questions were raised last week during the school district's floor meeting portion of Town Meeting. Normally a quiet gathering that rarely lasts more than an hour - which is on one level surprising since the amount of public money under discussion is usually two to three times greater than what gets hashed over at the municipal floor meeting - this one departed from what has become, unfortunately, the standard script.

We refer, of course, to the concerns raised about the apparent discrepancy between what Burr and Burton Academy says it has pulled from its endowment fund to help run operations at the school and the corresponding numbers stated on federal tax forms. The tax forms in question are known as 990s and must be filed by tax-exempt organizations like Burr and Burton to provide information on their finances. Transfers of money from an endowment fund to offset education costs would be part of that. There seemed to be a mis-match between the amount of money the school took in for providing special education services, and the amount the school actually spent. The school's board of trustees responded the following day with a letter, printed here last week, that explained why financial planning and estimates can over- or under-shoot the mark, based on what actual enrollments turn out to be, months after the initial estimates are formed. That part certainly seems a plausible explanation.

There may be more information to come over the endowment and tax forms part of this. It's possible that this may have been a mix-up between the school and their accountants. There is a larger issue that these questions raise however, and it's not a new one. It relates to how much information an independent secondary school should be obliged to share with the public, and this is what forms the crux of this issue.

Burr and Burton is not a public high school. There are many who would argue that this is a primary source of its strength. The issue at hand is not about whether BBA is a good school or not. State assessment test scores are solidly above average, by and large - you can nit pick here and there but overall most public high schools would be happy to have the same results. More significantly, we think, its high graduation rates, the percentage of its students who go on to some form of post-secondary school education, and its low drop out rates are better indicators of its overall performance. Because it is an independent school, it has more leeway to chart its own course when it comes to rules and standards.

While Burr and Burton is obligated to accept students who apply from its core "sending towns" - those communities which agree to pay Burr and Burton's tuition rates - it can choose not to accept other students who come from outside these local districts. Burr and Burton has also used its independent status to develop a robust international students program, which would be hard for a public high school to do, and can be more flexible in general. As a rule, we think such flexibility is a good thing, within the bounds of its public mission. More public schools probably wish they had it.

The school is so firmly rooted in the history and traditions of Manchester and surrounding towns that its leadership would have to work pretty hard, for a long period of time, to undermine that connection. We're pretty confident they won't do that. Yes, they are also a "choice" school - no one has to go there and those who prefer not to can attend other schools, also at taxpayer expense. But let's be real - the school has a dominant position here, obtained and maintained in part by all that generous philanthropy.

So what, some might ask, is the problem?

Burr and Burton also accepts public tax dollars to pay its costs of operations, while also raising money privately and conducting annual fund drives. Because it does accept public money - millions of dollars worth each year - where is the line to be drawn between an independent governance structure run by a self-perpetuating board of trustees and a reasonably transparent level of accountability, particularly financial accountability?

BBA's trustees took a good step in that direction last week by offering to make available its audited financial statements to the Manchester school board for its review to resolve the endowment transfer and special education questions. Perhaps it should consider making them available to the other sending town's school boards as well. And we'd go one step further than that - why not publish a far more detailed budget report, line by line, just like public school districts have to do, beyond what taxpayers currently get in their town reports?

We recognize it's a little different when your organization is run by a board of trustees instead of a school board, but within that context, the more information that's shared the better. Private fund-raising plays a big role at Burr and Burton - all those new buildings wouldn't be there without it - but as much transparency as possible should be the guideline. Ultimately, that's in the school's best interests as well.

If you accept that everything has its trade-offs, and private fund-raising in the millions of dollars means there will always be certain information that will remain private, then on balance, that trade has worked well for our area. But the public, through its tax dollars, is owed something too. These are tough issues given the unusual nature of BBA and its historic role in the community, but we'd like to think the school's trustees would err on the side of as much openness as possible.


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