Meadville Tribune

State News

December 21, 2013

Website would monitor education spending

HARRISBURG — Taxpayers will be able to track how school districts spend their money — before they spend it, in some cases — under a plan to launch an open government website that monitors education spending.

The state House is considering two measures to increase transparency in school spending: One bill proposes a website called SchoolWatch, modeled after the site that already tracks state government spending, PennWatch. A separate bill would require local school boards make proposed teacher contracts publicly available before voting on them.

Both are expected to come up for a final vote when the House returns to session in January.

The PennWatch site cost about $900,000 to build and launched a year ago.  It contains information about base salaries and total compensation paid to state employees, said Dan Egan, a spokesman in the Office of Administration, which runs the site. It also includes agency budgets, as well as a database on payments to state contractors.

Egan said it’s difficult to know how launching a SchoolWatch site will compare to the process of creating PennWatch without knowing the kind of information lawmakers want to include.

Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver County, said the aim is to create a clearinghouse of information so citizens can see how their taxes are spent without “having to file dozens of Right-to-Know requests.” Christiana wrote the legislation that created PennWatch and the one that would create SchoolWatch.

That ought to mean less work for government employees who are pulling records for citizens, said Terry Mutchler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records.

Mutchler said the law allows agencies to respond to Right-to-Know requests by saying the information is available online, though citizens who want paper copies can request them.

Christiana said the state will shoulder the full cost of creating SchoolWatch.

“I think the sites pay for themselves,” said Christiana. “This level of transparency has changed behavior in government.”

Once SchoolWatch is running, state education officials are expected to determine a way to track how effectively schools in the state’s 500 local school districts use their money, Christiana said.

“The first step is seeing where the dollars are being spent,” Christiana said. With that information, he said, the next logical step is to compare similar schools.

Not all are enthusiastic about the proposals for transparency in school spending, however. The teachers union and school boards association say they are worried about the bill that would require public release of proposed teacher contracts.

The bill could be interpreted more broadly than originally intended, said Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Board Association. Portions could be read to mean that all individual contracts be posted before anyone is hired, rather than just that the union contract.

Robinson said the association would not oppose the legislation if it is refined so that it only applies to labor agreements with unions.

But a spokesman for the teachers union said opening contracts to public review would be counter-productive.

“Voters give their approval on Election Day. If they are unhappy with their school board members, they can vote them out,” said Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents 182,000 educators.

“Turning all major decisions over to the public would create paralysis,” said Keever. “That’s what this legislation would do.”

If Pennsylvania expects school labor contracts to be publicly vetted, other government contracts ought to be made public before they are signed, too, said Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County.

That would include deals with contractors, such as the proposed arrangement to privatize the Pennsylvania Lottery, Longietti said.

State Rep. Fred Keller, R-Union County, author of the bill to make public teacher contracts, said it’s not intended to interfere with labor negotiations but instead adds a layer of restraint.

Teacher compensation has consistently grown faster than inflation, said Keller. Between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, the average teacher salary increased 2 percent, according to state Department of Education estimates.

Many local teacher contracts include raises higher than that, Keller said.

They are not alone. Budget Secretary Charles Zogby said the average salary increase for other state employees in the coming year is expected to be 4.8 percent.

Keller said he doesn’t oppose to requiring public notice of other proposed contracts.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” he said.

John Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for the Pennsylvania papers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., including The Meadville Tribune.

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