St. Petersburg College is no small operation. With more than 45,000 students and a budget of more than $145 million, it is a major player in Pinellas County with an important mission. Yet its lack of public detail and openness in managing its money has been more indicative of a small-time, less sophisticated institution. The college owes residents, students and taxpayers a more vigorous public accounting, and SPC president Bill Law promises changes.
The SPC board of trustees approved the annual budget that took effect July 1 with only a slick four-page brochure and a handful of other papers in front of it. The information amounted to a summary of priorities and a one-sheet summary of revenue and operating expenses. That is too superficial, although trustees also met privately with college budget officials. The Legislature and the public get a line-by-line listing of the state's $68 billion budget. Cities and counties provide a similar level of detail to their elected officials and the public, and SPC should be no different.
No one expects or wants college trustees to meddle in the minutiae of individual academic departments, but trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to look beyond an overview supplied by administrators. And a lack of public detail was not the only problem with SPC's budgeting process. As St. Petersburg Times staff writer Lorri Helfand reported Monday, the trustees approved a budget that was not complete until weeks after they had already okayed it. It also took the college nearly two months to provide a copy of the final budget in response to a Times request. That's not in keeping with the state's public records laws that require public documents to be produced within a reasonable time.
To his credit, Law told the Times editorial board this week that the college should have responded faster. He said the trustees are more focused on establishing the college's priorities than on line-item budgets, but he recognizes the importance of openness, and more budget specifics are now available on the college's website. After little more than a year on the job, Law is still changing the culture to a more decentralized, open operation than the one he inherited from his predecessor, Carl Kuttler.
The college's five trustees should review more detailed documents and ensure they are publicly available before approving the annual budget. The terms of four of the trustees have expired, and Gov. Rick Scott has an opportunity to appoint some new faces to a board that could use more energy and a fresh eye. The governor should seek community leaders with strong civic and business backgrounds who appreciate St. Petersburg College's important role in public education — and the importance of financial accountability and openness.