Yesterday Colorado's House Education Committee gave a bipartisan endorsement of HB 1152, a measure sponsored by Rep. B.J. Nikkel (R-Loveland) to create a publicly-accessible, Web-based financial database for the state's colleges and universities. Higher education has been one of the few sectors of government to avoid the online transparency trend. My colleague Amy Oliver demonstrated how the existing open records law is not enough to fulfill citizens' right to know.
Colorado's K-12 establishment first experienced its own uncomfortable confrontation with the issue in 2009. Senate Bill 57 — requiring school districts to post online revenue and expenditure databases — was never supposed to see the light of day. But the loud voices of everyday citizens, demanding “show me the money,” kept the Senate Education Committee from killing it quietly.
While interest groups eventually were able to buy time and rally opposition to derail SB 57, they recognized the growing steam behind calls for change. Rather than jump in front of the oncoming transparency train, the school board and school executive associations hopped on board. The lobbyists steered it clear of few of the more promising provisions, but 2010's House Bill 1036 represented a largely positive step of good faith openness.
By that time large districts like Jefferson County and Douglas County had set the standard for searchable online financial databases — which goes above and beyond the requirements of HB 1036. The legislation phased in a series of new posting requirements, but enforcement has been mostly dependent on bottom-up pressure. As of last fall only 26 of the state's 178 school districts were fully in compliance, a number that almost surely has risen in the intervening months.
Is the law perfect? By no means. There is room for improvements, some of which will be made more feasible by technological advances. Is the K-12 transparency problem largely solved?
No. It has been crucial to open up the books so taxpayers can go online and see how money is spent. But it also would improve oversight to open up the full policy making process so employees, citizens and their watchdog (the press) can observe all of how the sausage is made. House Bill 1118 by Rep. Kathleen Conti (R-Littleton) would require school districts and unions to make the bargaining process open to public scrutiny.
Let's face it. In a tough economy and tighter budget times, everyday citizens have become more engaged with how scarce tax dollars are being used. But part of the process remains unseen. Union agreements bind many local school boards in how they use public funds, while also setting priorities and policies for local schools and classrooms. Of 41 Colorado districts with union negotiations, all but 2 remain essentially closed from public view. What other private group do we allow to have secret meetings with government officials over tax dollars and official policies?
Two efforts last year to open union negotiations — an unsuccessful one in Jefferson County and a mostly successful one in Colorado Springs — initially fueled the momentum. This year the pressure is coming from Douglas County residents, who have posted an online petition to support union bargaining transparency.
To be absolutely clear, we're talking about a measure that would empower eyes, not voices. It wouldn't be productive to let citizens and members of the press to chime in and disrupt the process, but it would be valuable to allow them to observe the tradeoffs and the justifications for union perks, such as taxpayer-funded leave days. Teachers also would have the opportunity to see whether their union truly bargains for them in good faith. And unions would be reminded that they are bargaining ultimately against taxpayers, not district administrators.
Government higher education is one step closer to following the lead of K-12 and other agencies, and posting their finances online. Meanwhile, school districts and teachers unions face the prospect of having backroom dealings brought into the light. Opponents may win one or both of the current battles, but the larger tide is turning against them. Public education is closer to becoming more truly public property. Colorado's transparency train rolls on.