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A Step Backward on School Transparency

Re:“Let public look at schools’ spending,” April 15 editorial.

The Denver Post‘s editorial concluded that the adoption of House Bill 1292 would make Colorado “a national leader in transparency” for public education. It got the story mostly right.

Providing accessible and useful school-level financial transparency is a truly positive feature. Under the current legislative agreement, parents and taxpayers would be able to see the inequities created by sending dollars to schools primarily based on personnel formulas rather than on student needs.

However, the version of HB 1292 that passed the House also includes a step backwards. Colorado’s 2010 Public School Financial Transparency Act requires local K-12 agencies to post budgets, check registers, and other key information online.

The law is not as strong as it could be. Some districts do a better job than others in making the information searchable for average users. But it reveals how dollars are managed and appropriated at the district level. HB 1292’s proposed transparency builds off and complements the 2010 law, but doesn’t make it any less essential.

Unfortunately, the legislative agreement to add school-level financial transparency also fully repealed the Public School Financial Transparency Act.

The House’s version of HB 1292 further missed some key opportunities. While enabling users to see each school’s spending on salaries, dollars used to cover the costly burden of Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA) retirement benefits remain hidden.

Also, the $3.5 million price tag seems a bit high for the Colorado Department of Education to get the transparency website up and running. The amount raises the question: Have lawmakers looked at contracting the service out for a more reasonable cost to taxpayers?

A Senate committee adopted a change that spares the 2010 law and cuts the fiscal note. But the amendment, which moves the responsibility for site-level reporting down to the local level, has a significant flaw. The information doesn’t have to be usable or understandable by the average person.

Lawmakers still have a chance to show they’ve learned a key lesson from the defeat of last year’s education tax hike. Voters deserve to see, as clearly as possible, where their tax dollars are going and how they are being used.

Ben DeGrow (ben@i2i.org) is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free market think tank. This article originally appeared in the Denver Post on April 19, 2014.