MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Public schools are governmental entities, and citizens have an absolute right to know how they spend the money they receive.
While that may seem like a common sense statement, it falls flat among some school officials.
Public schools are, after all, governmental entities, and government officials tend to act like they live in an alternate universe.
EAGnews has been publishing a series of stories this month regarding runaway spending in public schools across the nation.
Our goal was to publish 50 stories – one from every state.
For most of the 350+ districts we surveyed, we sought spending records related to employee sick and personal leave time, as well as travel records for money spent on hotels, airlines and restaurants.
All of the districts we sought records from are multi-million dollar operations. One would think district officials would carefully track their spending carefully, to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being handled and spent appropriately.
And with modern record-keeping technology, one would think school officials would be able to obtain such data with a keystroke or two.
But information from some states, like Alabama, proved to be downright impossible to secure.
In Alabama, we sought spending information from Bessemer City Schools, Birmingham City Schools, Fairfield City Schools, Hoover City Schools, Jefferson County Schools, Midfield City School District, Trussville City Schools and Vestavia Hills City Schools.
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According to a 2010 National Association of Counties report, Alabama’s open records laws are pretty clear.
Every citizen has a right to access public records. Since it’s not otherwise stated in the law itself, the term “citizens” likely refers to all citizens of the United States.
The report goes on to note the custodian of the records may ask the purpose for a request, but cannot deny the request based on the purpose.
Of the eight school districts EAGnews submitted requests to, only three responded. And it all went downhill from there.
Responding on behalf of the Jefferson County Board of Education, Sheila Jones wrote, “We will be more than happy to provide the information you requested once we receive a copy of your organization’s financial report and a complete list of donors that have made contributions to your organization.”
Education Action Group Foundation, the parent organization of EAGnews, is regulated by the Internal Revenue Service, and even that agency doesn’t make such demands.
Is this how the Jefferson County school district would treat an unsuspecting parent seeking records? Or is that type of response reserved for out-of-state news services with millions of readers that hold public schools accountable?
Jefferson County district officials have the bizarre notion that they can pick and choose who they share public information with. They are wrong, and they are violating the law.
We refused to comply with Jones’ demand, as the identities of our donors are completely irrelevant to how a governmental agency is spending taxpayer funds. So the school district’s spending records remain under bureaucratic lock-and-key, away from taxpayers’ eyes.
Demica Sanders of the Midfield City School District responded to EAGnews that Midfield was “declining this request.”
When asked why, she answered, “The FOI statute is not designed to burden public school districts for requests that have no nexus with or bearing about the operation of the burdened school district. We have limited resources and this study would obligate this district to use its resources to augment at considerable effort a research project of this nature.”
How much a school district is spending on absent employees, or how much it’s using four- and five-star hotels across the country, has no “bearing about the operation” of the school district?
Most private companies would want to have critical financial information at their fingertips, to ensure their resources are being managed and spent properly. EAG, for example, has nowhere near the financial capacity or technological prowess of a school district, yet can track the use of its money in a matter of minutes.
Yet it would take “considerable effort” for Midfield school officials to tell us how they spent tax money? That is nothing less than pathetic management of public resources, and they ought to be ashamed of themselves.
Finally, Trussville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Pattie Neill responded simply, “We will not be participating.” She even sent it from her iPhone, a device many people use to send a short, personal communication on the fly.
Perhaps she was on an expensive taxpayer-funded trip, preventing her from using a desktop computer to send her two-sentence stick in transparency’s eye.
The responses – or lack thereof – from Alabama schools were the worst we encountered in any state.
While several school districts demanded four- and five-figure sums to comply with our simple requests, at least they were willing to accommodate taxpayers and obey the law.
Alabama school leaders either don’t care about how much they’re spending, or they don’t believe that the people footing the bill – taxpayers – deserve to know where their hard-earned money is literally flying off to.