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Utahns can trust the bulk of school finance records posted on the state's transparency website, according to a report released Wednesday by the Office of the Utah State Auditor.

And policymakers should feel confident using the data to identify areas of efficiency and savings, according to audit supervisor Chris Otto, who said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the accuracy of financial records for school districts and charter schools.

"There's a general sense out there that public-education financial data [are] not reliable," he said. "The data [are] fairly reliable and representative, and they should be using that to make cost comparisons."

But included in the roughly 27 million records analyzed by the auditor's office were more than 5,000 instances of personal student information, Otto said, the release of which is potentially in violation of state and federal privacy laws.

And up to $900 million in school funding was inaccurately reported to the Utah Public Finance Website by six school districts and seven charter schools.

Otto said the discrepancies can be attributed partly to a lack of administrative and accounting resources, particularly among small rural school districts and charter schools, which are treated as individual school districts under Utah law.

"The majority of charters use accounting software that lacks sophistication," Otto said.

Utah's transparency website was created in 2008 as an informational resource for taxpayers. School districts are required to submit annual financial reports to the website.

But reporting failures — due to incomplete data, miscoded transactions, redundant uploads and incompatible formatting — result in some school finance data being absent on the Utah Public Finance website, according to the report.

"Some of them attempted to report and had problems," Otto said. "It doesn't appear that state transparency has the ability to compel them to do it. There is no penalty in place."

Tintic School District has not posted financial records to the transparency website since its inception, an oversight Tintic Superintendent Kodey Hughes attributes to an outside accounting firm contracted to perform the district's annual auditing.

"It sounds like the district needs to go out and look for better options for our auditing," Hughes said.

Hughes teaches classes in addition to his work as superintendent, as do all of the principals in the district, which enrolls about 250 students.

He said it can be challenging to comply with state requirements without the administrative staff of a larger, urban school district.

"There are so many changes every year that come out of either legislation, the auditor's office or the state Office of Education," Hughes said. "It is a tall order, and you just keep chipping away at it ... striving to make as much headway as you can."

Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction, said the schools and school districts that released private student data were all contacted and administrators there worked to correct the problem.

He said in some cases, staff had entered student information into memo fields on the school's accounting software, not realizing those fields would be included in the upload to the state transparency website.

"You're talking about millions of transactions, and there are going to be some human errors," Smith said. "I can't guarantee that's not going to happen, but the systemic things that were happening have been corrected."

Smith said he appreciated the work of the auditor's office in reviewing the performance of school financial reporting.

Transparent and reliable spending data, Smith said, allow administrators and lawmakers to identify correlations between costs and practices.

"It's a first step in trying to analyze how we're spending money and understanding the flow of money in education," Smith said. "I, flatly, welcome it."