Kansas Lawmakers Vote Down School Transparency Measure


By John Celock

By a narrow margin Kansas lawmakers defeated legislation Friday that would have required school districts to place spending information on district homepages or face steep fines.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted 58-61 to defeat legislation that would have strengthened the state’s school finance transparency law. The proposed legislation would have clarified the placement of current budget spending on the homepage and imposed a $1,000 a day fine for noncompliance. Existing state law requires the information to be posted on an easy to find place on the website. Six House members were not present for the vote.

“We have a statue and for a large part it is being ignored,” House Education Committee Vice Chairman Jerry Lunn (R-Overland Park) said during the House debate on the issue Thursday.

Lawmakers adopted a law in 2013 requiring current budget data and budget information for the previous two years to be placed online and found via a link on the homepage for the website. The Kansas Policy Institute, which pushed the original proposal and the new legislation, began briefing lawmakers in 2014 about district non-compliance, with districts either placing it on a webpage marked on the homepage with a general budget link or several pages into a homepage.

“It’s interesting that both parties are making a lot of transparency proposals this year and we see this where we can’t hold school districts to existing transparency laws,” KPI President Dave Trabert told The Celock Report. “The genesis of this is that school districts continue to ignore the law to put a specific budget reports on their homepage with a clearly identifiable link.”

Trabert was pointing to recent pushes in the Legislature for transparency related bills, including live streaming of committee hearings.

The state Senate voted 27-13 last year to pass the bill, which was then sent to the House. The debate and vote on the legislation broke largely on ideological lines with Democrats and moderate Republicans opposing the bill and conservative Republicans supporting it. Supporters argued the bill would increase transparency for school district finances, while opponents said the current law already requires this and the $1,000 a day fine was punitive. Opponents also pointed to a current subcommittee study within the House Education Committee about creating a “dashboard” for school district financial data to be placed on district websites.

“We vote no on SB 188. Representatives Rhoades, Ousley and Boldra have been appointed to a committee to research and define accountability standards for schools, to create a ‘dashboard’ for school districts to adopt on their websites so that constituents know where the tax dollars are spent,” Reps. Sharon Schwartz (R-Washington), Sue Boldra (R-Hays) and John Ewy (R-Jetmore) said in a written explanation of vote published in the House Journal. “SB 188 is a duplication of the charge of this committee.”

During the debate Thursday, House Minority Whip Ed Trimmer (R-Winfield) argued against the fines and noted the work of the subcommittee. He said that there should be other ways for districts to comply. He noted that the information being asked for is public and available at school district offices.

“There are other ways to comply that are not punitive and don’t hurt the students of Kansas,” Trimmer said.

Rep. Valdenia Winn (D-Kansas City), the top Democrat on the House Education and Education Budget Committees, argued Thursday that the bill was a “reporting burden” that would place additional work on school districts at an unknown cost to comply with reporting current budget information including compensation. She said though that “everyone wants transparency.”

Lunn challenged the argument that the information was open to the public, noting the school districts that do not have the link on the homepage. He noted that districts are not placing certain financial data like employee compensation in an easy to find spot.

“The compensation is out there but you have to go to lengths to find it,” Lunn said Thursday.

Lunn said Thursday that the bill would allow teachers and the public to easily find out the salaries of district administrators and the pay differential between administrators and teachers in the state.

Lunn led 12 other lawmakers in an explanation of vote Friday pushing what they said was a transparency bill for a large part of the state budget. Much of school district funding in Kansas is provided through the state and has been a source of contentious debate over the funding formula in recent years.

“SB 188 is a transparency bill for the sake of school patrons, parents, students, taxpayers, principals, and voting citizens. They deserve easy accessible and easily understood information about how their school districts are allocating public dollars,” Lunn’s group said. “They should not have to wade through a blizzard of hidden information and multiple links to find out how taxpayer dollars are spent. Education is over 50 percent of the general fund, so this bill would provide transparency for billions of taxpayer dollars. This bill is necessary to provide a remedy so current law is not ignored.”

The idea of school districts providing budget information online has been mentioned in other states. Earlier this week, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) called for school districts in the Ocean State to do so as part of her State of the State Address.

Trabert pointed to a recent KPI review of 40 school districts around the state, saying that the report showed only five in full compliance with the law and another 23 where the information is contained behind a homepage link which Trabert said is for “generic budget information”.

The bill was opposed by the Kansas Association of School Boards, which opposed the $1,000 a day fine, and the Kansas National Education Association. KNEA spokesman Marcus Baltzell told The Celock Report that the association found the bill duplicative to the current law and said the information is public. He noted that the bill was pushed by KPI, who has long been opposite KNEA on education issues in the state.

“It’s another bill that is unnecessary and we have a good history of that in Kansas,” Baltzell said.

Trabert said the bill is needed and questioned why people would oppose the fine. He noted the fine was put into place to be a way to require districts to comply with the law. He compared it to the sanctions a person would receive for not following the law and said government should not get a pass.

Trabert said that he hopes Friday’s vote “isn’t the end of it” for the bill. He took aim at opponents of the measure, saying that they do not want to see the financial information published online.

“It is hard to imagine why a school district wouldn’t simply comply. It is simple, it is a PDF report,” Trabert said. “Why would you not do that? Why would legislators vote against transparency?”