EU finances initiative on transparent school budgets

One does not go to parent’s meetings at school without a wallet. That’s a simple truth of school life our parents knew by their own experience, and today, reminders about monthly contributions are disseminated via parent groups in Viber. According to data by the State Treasury Service, parents invested almost a billion hryvnias in Ukrainian schools in 2014-2016. Nobody knows how these moneys were spent, though, for detailed consolidated reports are nonexistent.

In 2015, public activists in Kherson decided to create an online system reporting on parent funds that schools receive and spend. Four years later, Open School in UA, a single system of open budgets already includes 277 schools and kindergartens in 12 regions, and that’s only the beginning.


Pilot version: Kherson

In a few days, Yuri Antoshchuk, the founder of Open School in UA is going to connect another city to his system. There were problems with communication and time in Kramatorsk, for centralized connection of the city’s schools to this system takes a while. ‘Unlike in Kherson, the city and regional authorities there are desirous of making schools more transparent. In Kherson, they were doing everything to obstruct the implementation of this system’, Yuri says.

The idea of tracking online how schools spend money was first voiced in November 2015 at the Tech Forum in Kyiv. A few months later, three activists held focus groups with parents of schoolchildren back home in Kherson. They wanted to find out whether parents feel any problems with contributions they make to the school budget. The results were very discomforting: the parents had no idea where their moneys are spent and how, and when they refused to contribute, they had to face “public ostracism” from the school’s administration at the parent’s meetings, on school information boards and school websites.

Almost all surveyed parents complained that they make cash contributions every year but were never given payment receipts from the parent’s committee. School renovations, purchases of school implements and other expenses – every time, all these needs came as a surprise to the parents. The “enrollment contribution” was a separate expense item for parents. ‘Last year, my son Ivan became a first-grader’, Svitlana (she asked not to reveal her last name – editor) from Kherson says. ‘Along with the enrollment request, we were also told to write a statement of a charitable contribution of 1000 hryvnias for classroom renovation. Nobody could explain how this money was spent. But that wasn’t it. We also contribute 600 hryvnias to the school fund every year; some give 300 hryvnias only, because they’re eligible for certain discounts’.

‘Discounts on voluntary charitable contributions? It seems that that could be possible only in our Ukrainian education system’, Yuri’s surprised.

Yuri Antoshchuk, Open School Project Manager

‘We contribute for everything, even toilet paper. Light bulbs, towels, dishcloths, detergents, not to mention gifts for teachers. But our child is being taught mostly by private tutors’, Yulia Bezruka, mother of a fifth-grader says.

A parent committee is a form of parents’ self-organization that ideally must handle the matters of study and stay of their children at school. But in fact, they often don’t know that the most part of what they’re financing year after year could be covered from the budget. The only question is whether they are ready to stand up for their rights themselves? And whether school principals are ready to do everything to cover their needs not at the expense of parents but with budget funds that must be allocated for that very purpose?

According to data by Open School, parents in Kherson contribute UAH 16.5 million a year on average, while in 2017, UAH 16.3 million in unutilized education subvention from the state budget was left in the city’s budget. The problem is also that certain school principals simply do not place requests for budget financing, preferring to cover their needs with parent funds. That’s “easier” for everybody: less headache for the school administration, and parents will bring cash to the next parent’s meeting anyway. Most of them were saying that they make contributions for renovation work, for erection of fences, repair of heating pipes, renovation of sports halls. Nobody ever gave them payment receipts.

A discussion about open budgets at the IV Open Data Forum, Kherson

The focus groups proved: parents in Kherson are ready to spend money for particular purposes but want the maximum transparency and availability of reports on how their moneys were spent, at any time and in a convenient format. ‘The situation in Kherson reflects a general nationwide trend. The budget provides financing to mostly secured expenses: salaries, utility services, partially meals. As for the rest, schools must take care of that themselves’, Yuri Antoshchuk explains.

In April 2016, the project’s activists initiated establishment of the Coalition for the Rights of Parents to Transparent Charity at Educational Institutions, which included seven local civic organizations. In June, thanks to the joint efforts of activists, Kherson City Council has adopted a number of resolutions simplifying the procedure of launching a single online system of charitable contributions at all educational institutions. But were schools ready for that?

‘Even after the city mayor issued a separate ordinance and the order to launch the Open School system at all schools of the city, certain educational institutions categorically refused to do that’, Yuri recalls. ‘Schools were resisting to the city mayor’s ordinance and to the order from the city’s education department. They resisted transparency and openness to the parents’.

In February 2017, six schools in Kherson tested the system during two months. Other schools were in no hurry to switch to the new system. There were all kinds of excuses: that “these are all political games”, that “according to the new law, these reports must be posted on school websites only” (while the module of the open school budget system could be easily integrated into any website and even blog). Some even wrote to the prosecutor’s office, requesting to explain whether all that is legal.

Yuri Antoshchuk presents Open School in Druzhkivka

In November 2017, there were 18 educational institutions in the city showing detailed financial statements regarding charitable contributions on Open School in UA. And today, this system encompasses 142 schools and kindergartens in the Kherson Oblast.


All-Ukrainian educational transparency

‘There should be no cash in schools’, Olga Laukhina, the principal of Oleshky Gymnasium that became one of the first to get connected to the single system of open school budgets, says. The latest version of the Education Law of 5 September 2017 obliges all educational institutions to make their budget and a statement of all incomes and expenses available on their websites. Schools are required to publish reports on what goods, works and services they spent parents’ funds and funds they received from other sources, stating the price.

Do schools want to show their budgets? The law requires them to, and this project makes it easier. The activists travel all over Ukraine and see what the parents of schoolchildren are interested in and what schools need. For instance, citizens of Chernihiv want to implement, develop and use open data in all spheres of life. But is the local administration ready for that? Even though the local authorities prohibited schools in the city from soliciting charitable contributions from parents, the schools still do that.

Nevertheless, Open School’s main achievements are still in the future. At various stages, the activists received support from international institutions, in particular, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, Freedom House and International Renaissance Foundation. Today, this project receives support from the European Union’s Anticorruption Initiative in Ukraine. ‘All funds we received from the EU are spent on upgrading the system, organizing forums, presentations and seminars, on advertising, printed materials, and to cover administrative costs. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had the results we have’, Yuri explains.

Today, the system features educational institutions from 12 regions, even though in some of them, such as the Ivano-Frankivsk or Kharkiv Oblast, only one educational institution from each of these regions is included. Kramatorsk had the biggest desire to get connected to the system, on part of both the city administration and parents.

Open School presentation at the Smart Forum in Kramatorsk

It takes time to change habits. At schools in Chernivtsi, for instance, they were saying that they are reporting anyway, but aren’t ready yet to do that in a single format and with the maximum disclosure. As recently as in April 2018, not a single school in Druzhkivka, Donetsk Oblast was favoring the idea of connecting to the system, but today, the budgets of half of the city’s schools are already available online. In Kramatorsk and Kamiansk, all schools disclose their budgets. Certain principals themselves ask the activists to help them implement the system at their schools, as it was the case in, for instance, Druzhkivka. ‘Today, we have coordinators in Chernihiv, Vinnytsia and Dnipro. At the same time, we are in talks with other cities desirous of getting connected to the system on a centralized basis’, Yuri Antoshchuk says.

In 2019, with the support from the EU’s Anticorruption Initiative, Open School plans to extend centralized connection onto educational institutions in Mariupol, Chernivtsi, Chervonohrad, Zhytomyr and Nikopol. ‘In February, we and our colleagues from the Anticorruption Initiative hope to present our system to the Education Ministry’, Yuri adds. The hope that all Ukrainian schools will eventually become transparent begins to look more and more like reality. Successful experience inspires for new achievements, and there is only one question remains: how long will it take to happen?

By Tetiana Komanytska