Schools should be held accountable for failing transparency test

Idaho Education News is reporting what I had suspected was true for some time: school districts in Idaho are failing to comply with a state law that says they’re supposed to post expenditures, contracts, strategic plans, labor agreements and budgets online.

Wayne Hoffman
Wayne Hoffman

The news outlet found that 14 of the state’s 164 school districts and charter schools were fully compliant with state school district transparency laws that passed in 2010 and 2013. Most of the remaining districts had some level of information on their websites but the data found were often out of date, the website reported. Eighteen districts were ignoring the law’s transparency requirements.

The Nampa School District’s Allison Westfall disappointingly told Idaho Education News, “There are times when our site is really good because we very much value transparency. But a turnover in staff in the budget division landed at a time when we had to rank priorities. We need to get this updated.” Meanwhile, staff turnover hasn’t stopped the school district from actively and aggressively pursuing and promoting ever-higher property tax levies. The same is true for the likewise recalcitrant Pocatello-Chubbuck School District, regarded in the article as “the most noncompliant of (the) larger districts.”

In my own perusal of school district websites over the last several months, I’ve found it virtually impossible to find the information and data required by statute. Searching for something as basic and important as a school district’s negotiated master teacher agreement requires a master’s level of sleuthing, expertise and patience that school patrons shouldn’t be required to have. Some websites offer no clue where one would look to find it. If you’re lucky, the website is searchable; even then, you’d have to know what the document is called, which could include words like “master teacher agreement” but then again, it might be called the “collective bargaining contract” or some variation of the two.

Financial data is scarce, sometimes found in school board meeting packets or buried on an obscure webpage, despite the statute’s requirement that data be “easily accessible from the main page of the education provider’s website.”

One wonders what state officials will do about this obvious disregard for state law. The statute doesn’t provide for penalties for noncompliance, which could explain why many districts aren’t taking the law seriously. Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said it’s not her responsibility to demand conformance with the state law, which is not surprising given that Ybarra has also expressed lack of interest in school districts that use your tax dollars to hire teachers and then give them time off to conduct union business.

It has to be made clear that transparency is an important obligation, especially given that K-12 education comprises more than half of the state budget. Perhaps districts that can’t get their act together should be barred from seeking tax increases. If you can’t be transparent about how you’re spending taxpayer money, you shouldn’t be allowed to ask for more of it.

Meanwhile, the 14 school districts and charter schools that get it right deserve accolades. According to the news site, they are: Boise, Blaine County, Basin, Boundary County, Vallivue, Mountain Home, Post Falls, Shoshone, New Plymouth, Twin Falls, Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, Taylor’s Crossing Charter and Victory Charter.

Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.