Thursday, March 24, 2011

OKC schools: Spending records? Who has time to keep spending records?

"March 13-19 was National Sunshine Week across America," writes Steve Gunn of the Education Action Group.
It was created to encourage transparency at all levels of government, so taxpayers can get a closer look at how laws are written and public dollars are spent.

But a big, dark cloud remained over the Oklahoma City school district.

Defying the spirit of transparency, district officials refused a request to provide details about the amount of money they spend on union labor.

The request came from our organization. We have been active in several states, trying to educate the public about the significant amount of money that schools are forced to spend due to various provisions in union collective bargaining agreements.

From our research in other districts, we know these costs often add up to a big chunk of change. With so many states preparing to slash school aid, we want the public to realize there are still areas that can be cut from local school budgets without hurting students, if the unions would only cooperate.

So we sent a freedom of information request to the Oklahoma City district, asking 25 specific questions.

Most of them were pretty simple, like how much is spent on employee insurance premiums, automatic annual salary increases, and reimbursement for unused sick days.

But 20 of our questions came back with the simple response, "NOT A RECORD."

We were perplexed until we discovered an enclosed e-mail message from Kathleen Kennedy, an official with the district.

"Most of the information you requested is not a record and as such, we do not legally have to create one as identified in the Open Records statutes," she wrote.

Kennedy might as well have written, "It's none of your business."

It's entirely possible that Kennedy is legally correct. Perhaps Oklahoma law does not force school districts to keep detailed financial records, or to create and share such records at the request of citizens.

But perhaps it should.

The fact is that the Oklahoma City district is in deep financial trouble, having recently cut $17 million from its operating budget.

It seemed odd to us that a district with such financial problems would not keep detailed financial records, particularly in the age of user-friendly computer spreadsheets.

We made a similar request a few weeks ago to the Jenks school district, and officials there had no problem answering our questions.

As we asked in a press release sent to media outlets across the state, how can Oklahoma City school officials expect anyone to empathize with their financial problems if they have no records of where their money is going? How can the district put people in charge of the budget who do not bother to track and document how tax dollars are spent?

Would the school district have such a big deficit if officials had a better handle on where the money is going?

Beyond that, we were frustrated by the fact that the school clearly has this information at its disposal, yet is willing to hide behind a legal technicality to conceal it from the public.

Do Oklahoma City school officials really believe the public has no legitimate right to know where tax dollars are going? Are they not familiar with the concept of transparency and keeping the public informed?

We’re sure there are some Oklahomans who won't be bothered by this story, because our organization is based in Michigan. They probably think we're sticking our noses where they don’t belong.

But if the school can legally hide its financial records from us, it can do the same to the media and taxpayers of Oklahoma. That can't be a comfortable feeling for citizens who care about open, accountable government.

As Education Action Group CEO Kyle Olson put it, "Any school district that hides information from the public is a district that does not deserve the trust or support of the public."

We've been invited to discuss this issue on the News Radio KTOK (AM 1000) in Oklahoma City tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. If you’re in the area, please lend us your ear.

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