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Transparency for Higher Ed Struggles, Bears Fruit in K-12

Originally posted at Colorado Peak Politics. Re-posted here with permission.

By Ben DeGrow

A couple months ago I noted that Colorado's education transparency train was rolling forward. While the locomotive hasn't been derailed, since that time the engineer has pulled the brakes a couple times. HB 1118, the open union negotiations bill, was sent to its death in a Democratic-controlled Senate committee. Meanwhile, Rep. B.J. Nikkel's higher education transparency bill — HB 1252 — has spent many weeks accumulating dust while the session clock quickly approaches midnight.

But just within the past few days Coloradans have been reminded why having the sunshine is so important. Witness the latest investigative report from 7News' John Ferrugia and Arthur Kane:

In a time of tight budgets, teacher layoffs and increased fees, school districts are still spending money on expensive meals, teacher parties and even gift cards, a CALL7 “You Paid For It” investigation found.

CALL7 Investigators reviewed check registers and credit card databases for the major metro school districts and found thousands of dollars spent on a public relations consultant, gift cards, staff parties and meals at top restaurants. While the totals would never fix the districts' budget deficits, the spending shows that administrators are not cutting potentially wasteful at the time many schools are cutting education resources.

Typical of the genre, the story features a couple "Aha" moments in which local school district administrators have a hard time trying to justify some questionable expenditures. Metro area voters who may have to decide a number of local school tax initiatives this fall might be none the wiser if not for such investigative work.

It's important then to remember that a 2010 law requiring significant online financial transparency from Colorado school districts really made this story possible. A local news agency conceivably could have used the Colorado Open Records Act to uncover some or all of the information featured in the report. However, it would be difficult to generate the "probable cause" needed to spend even more resources and man-hours on an investigation.

The Independence Institute was at the forefront of the call for school spending transparency in 2009 and in 2010. More recently, my former intern Devan Crean and I were able to shine the spotlight on how well (or how poorly) local K-12 agencies were complying with Colorado's Public School Financial Transparency Act. In the immediate aftermath of that report, we heard from several school districts eager to fix their shortcomings.

Let's be clear. The results of neither the 7News investigation nor our 2011 issue paper necessarily indicate some sort of concerted effort among local education agencies to hide their financial activities. Jeffco Public Schools, a district featured in the article for a concerning apparent conflict of interest, actually posted a searchable spending database before the 2010 law was adopted. While transparency may sometimes prevent problems from occurring, in large bureaucracies it often may only help to show the problem is there.

On the other hand, my colleague Amy Oliver has found evidence that indicates why some higher education officials have lobbied this year against transparency legislation. Nine days remain until the end of the legislative session, and HB 1252 finally is scheduled to be heard tomorrow by House Appropriations. The likelihood of both passing the House and speeding through the Senate at this point seems like a daunting challenge.

The fight to preserve and expand government sunshine is ongoing. In spite of setbacks, we need to keep urging Colorado's education transparency train forward to make some more progress. And soon. If you can't defend it, don't spend it!