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Taxpayers want to follow the money trail

School funding is a hot-button issue. Whether it's a discussion of how to address the Portland school district's funding shortfall or how to create a stable funding system for the whole state, everybody has an opinion.

The Chalkboard Project is a nonprofit organization researching and promoting the best ways to improve schools statewide, and after two years of work we've found there are no easy answers. But it helps to base our discussions on shared facts.

When it comes right down to it, most Portlanders Ñ like other Oregonians Ñ are perplexed about how or where their public school dollars are truly spent. Information about K-12 budgets usually comes from local newspapers, television reports and radio talk shows. Few people get to see an actual spreadsheet. Even fewer would be able to make sense of it.

Public misperceptions, often based on inconsistent information, contribute to this misunderstanding, especially among the 75 percent of Oregonians who do not have children in K-12 public schools.

The Chalkboard Project was formed in 2004 by five of Oregon's largest foundations to find out what Oregonians think of their schools, as well as their biggest priorities for improving school quality and raising student achievement.

When Chalkboard conducted the most extensive statewide polling ever of Oregonians on education issues and priorities, 65 percent said they would have greater confidence in K-12 schools if they could easily find standardized budget information they could compare and contrast. People want to know where their money is going, and they want that information in a straightforward manner that is easy to understand.

Chalkboard's Open Book$ Project aims to provide the public with an open, straightforward look at where K-12 dollars really go. Open Book$ is a public Web site (www.openbooksproject.org) we're building that, when complete, will show spending data in two ways: by district and by spending category.

A robust district comparison tool will allow people to see how their own district stacks up when placed side by side with two others of similar student size. Here in the Portland metro area, you can see how and where Portland Public Schools spends its money compared with the Salem/Keizer and Beaverton school districts, for example.

This will be an easy-to-use Web site with friendly graphics that appeal to the public but don't compromise the credibility of K-12 spending data. Our goal is to have the Open Book$ icon on every school district Web page Ñ in the same place Ñ so that we can help answer the questions Oregonians have.

We are going to simplify the spreadsheets by showing the five major categories of school spending, and include a look at existing student achievement data.

Money may grab the headlines when the topic is schools, but it's not the only important issue. Oregonians want top-notch schools, quality teachers and high-achieving students, and before they offer more money to get there, they want more assurance about what they're paying for already.

We all need to start from the same page of reality. Open Book$ lifts the veil on school budgets and provides a much better understanding of how school districts spend our tax dollars.

Chalkboard's partners in Open Book$ include Citizens for Oregon's Future, the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, the Oregon Department of Education, the Oregon Education Association and the Oregon School Boards Association. Audited data is supplied by the Oregon Department of Education in cooperation with Oregon's 198 school districts.

Site testing of Open Book$ is scheduled to begin this month. Our goal is to launch this new tool all across Oregon by this fall. In the meantime, visit Chalkboard at www.chalkboardproject.org to learn more on this or the other issues in our 15-point action plan to improve Oregon's schools.

Sue Hildick is president of the Chalkboard Project.