Editorials

Save a dollar here, let schools hide the dollars there

Schools must tell the public details of their finances once a year in print. Hiding, changing or omitting information is difficult when it must become ink on paper.
Schools must tell the public details of their finances once a year in print. Hiding, changing or omitting information is difficult when it must become ink on paper. bweisenstein@bnd.com

Illinois state Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, decided to celebrate Sunshine Week, when open government and open records are celebrated, by co-sponsoring a bill that would allow local school boards to be less open.

House Bill 3660 would allow school districts to avoid printing a summary of their statement of affairs in local newspapers. Schools would still need to publish a notice saying the full statement was online, but none of the details that would tell taxpayers if something were amiss and worth further investigation.

The first problem is that not everyone has internet access or the ability or time to navigate to the information.

Second, public bodies are notoriously bad at following dictates to put public information online.

The Citizen’s Advocacy Center surveyed 750 public body websites in Illinois to see how many were complying with state law to post meeting notices, agendas and minutes. Only 73 percent were posting meeting notices, 57 percent posted proposed agendas and only 48 percent posted minutes after the meetings.

If Greenwood’s bill were to pass, Illinois would be the only state in the nation that would not require schools to publicly post financial details about their district. Utah tried to stop, but two years later again imposed the requirement because so many government units failed to comply.

The importance of putting these statements in print, where they cannot later be altered or removed, has been seen as so important in Illinois that school districts face loss of state funding if they fail to publish the statements by Dec. 15 each year. The state’s media also all post the notices to a central website, PublicNoticeIllinois.com, where all school financial notices can be viewed and from multiple years.

Yes, districts might save a few bucks on the front end, but Illinois’ public media are an efficient way to communicate with taxpayers — a fact proven every time school leaders turn to us because they want to communicate something important. Replacing that with a system that relies on 859 separate school districts to take 859 actions when their track record is of as many hits as misses is penny wise and dollar foolish.

State Rep. Katie Stuart was initially a co-sponsor but now opposes the bill. Call Rep. Greenwood — 618-646-9557 — and help her see the sunshine, too.

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