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TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Lifting the lid on legislative lobbying largesse

(06/05/12 1:56pm)

Two recent news items reinforce the importance of keeping track of what colleges and universities are spending on lobbying at the state Capitol -- and not just "how much," but also "why." Item 1: Sometimes it's a whole lot of money. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the University of Pittsburgh ramped up its lobbying activity -- spending $113,000 in the first three months of 2012 alone -- in an attempt to fend off massive cuts in state aid proposed by Gov.

Missouri newspaper settles lawsuit with school district after six-month battle for public information

(06/14/12 11:40am)

UPDATE 6/15: The Springfield News-Leader settled a suit with the Republic School District on Thursday, ending a dispute over information about another lawsuit, settled in November, involving a student and her family who claimed the middle school did not protect the girl from sexual harassment and rape during school hours. According to the News-Leader, documents reveal the district paid $185,000 -- $122,315 to the girl and her family, and the remaining money toward attorney fees. -------- A southwest Missouri newspaper and the Republic School District are working to settle a public records lawsuit and reveal the details of a November settlement over student sexual abuse allegations, the newspaper’s attorney said Wednesday. The Springfield News-Leader filed a public records lawsuit June 4 for information regarding the district’s settlement with the student, particularly the amount the district paid and the minutes from any meeting where the settlement was discussed. The News-Leader’s suit argued the district is required to release the information under the Missouri Sunshine Law. “We believe that the applicable Sunshine Law statute requires disclosures of the information for obvious reasons – the taxpayers have a right to know how the school is conducting its business,” attorney Bryan Wade told The News-Leader. Wade confirmed the district had responded to the suit, and the two entities are negotiating an agreement.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: When that well-credentialed principal isn't well-credentialed or principled

(07/03/12 3:48pm)

If even the chief executive of one of Silicon Valley's biggest companies can be caught in an exaggeration on a resumé, then there's a chance that the provost of the local college and the superintendent of the local school district aren't above inflating their credentials as well. While it's the employer's job to verify the professional and educational claims before making a high-profile hire, the system isn't foolproof.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Being charged for information you don't even get? That's [REDACTED] outrageous!

(07/10/12 11:59am)

What's more frustrating than asking for public records and getting back a page full of mysterious black rectangles? Getting charged extra for the rectangles. When a public record contains material that is legally exempt from disclosure, state open-records laws typically require that the agency blank out -- or "redact" -- the exempt material and produce the rest. It's a common-sense alternative to making openness all-or-nothing.

Former Elon student asks N.C. Supreme Court to open police records at private colleges

(07/10/12 3:43pm)

Nick Ochsner, the former Elon University student journalist who was denied access to records held by the private school’s police department, is taking his case to the state Supreme Court. Ochsner filed a petition Tuesday to have his case against the university and the state attorney general’s office heard by the North Carolina Supreme Court.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Dead men tell no tales, as states shut down access to autopsy reports

(07/17/12 8:25pm)

In a setback for public access, a South Carolina judge has refused to allow journalists to review a medical examiner's autopsy report in connection with the death of a 25-year-old man shot by police. In a July 9 order, a Sumter County trial judge decided that autopsy records fall within the exemption in South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act covering "medical" records. Although autopsy reports traditionally are public record, privacy advocates are gaining traction across the country in seeking confidentiality, in part because of concerns that gruesome photos upsetting to the survivors may be widely distributed online. Reporter Joe Perry and his Sumter, S.C., newspaper, The Item, sued the Sumter County coroner in May 2011 seeking access to the autopsy records for Aaron Lee Jacobs, who was shot to death after officers investigating a carjacking said he drew a gun. Although the ruling went against disclosure, the outcome could have been far worse for journalists. The coroner's primary argument was that the records were confidential under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act ("HIPAA"), which often is used frivolously by government agencies to withhold records that, as in this case, have nothing to do with a doctor's delivery of medical treatment.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Follow the money? When services are privatized, sometimes you can't.

(07/24/12 5:30pm)

A Minnesota court is poised to decide how much information the public can demand from construction companies that take on eight-figure government contracts but decline to abide by the same disclosure requirements that apply to government agencies. The Timberjay, a weekly newspaper in northern Minnesota, is fighting to prove that a construction management firm and its subcontractors must honor requests under Minnesota's Government Data Practices Act for details about schools they are building at the public's expense. Typically, private companies are not within the reach of state open-records laws, which entitle the public to review and copy documents that are in the custody of state, county or city agencies. But lawyers for The Timberjay say this situation isn't typical. By assuming management of a $78 million package of school district construction projects, a private vendor, Johnson Controls Inc., also assumed the disclosure responsibilities that go along with that authority, they argue. Attorneys for the company argue that, in addition to expanding the law beyond its literal terms, a ruling in favor of the newspaper would discourage firms from seeking government work for fear of giving away sensitive internal information to competitors. The ruling will apply only in Minnesota, but it will be watched throughout the country, with governments increasingly "privatizing" what used to be public services performed by public employees. Variations of the issue are recurring across the country. The South Carolina Supreme Court will decide whether a state association of school administrators is so entangled with government -- through taxpayer funding, through the receipt of fringe benefits normally reserved for public employees and through exercise of legislatively assigned duties -- that it should be forced to obey South Carolina's open-records act. In Minnesota, the state Court of Appeals heard arguments last week in the Timberjay case, testing whether a private company can be brought within the coverage of the Data Practices Act when it performs a governmental function. And that question -- how "governmental" is the job of constructing school buildings -- may be decisive. Often, the information that journalists need about private contractors' performance is available through the government agencies involved in the contract.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: IRS tax forms disclose inner workings of athletic conferences and other collegiate associations

(07/31/12 6:52pm)

We've talked on this blog in the past about the value of the IRS Form 990 in cracking the wall of silence at private colleges (and at the nonprofit "auxiliary" affiliates of public colleges, too). But there's a less-well-known way to use federal tax forms to check on what colleges are up to. Any good-sized college will belong to a multitude of nonprofit organizations, and each of those organizations also must file -- and must make publicly availably -- an annual tax return with details of its revenues and expenses.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Growing list of states require disclosure of student athletic participation

(08/07/12 7:53pm)

Pennsylvania has joined the list of states that require public schools to disclose details about how much they spend on sports and how well they are progressing in providing equal athletic opportunities for girls. The law is billed as a step toward promoting fairness in athletics by enabling students and parents to find out whether girls' teams get competitive funding for facilities, travel and other essentials. Among other things, the law requires each middle school, junior high school and high school to report annually each Nov.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Education Department allows access to records of employee tuition waivers

(08/21/12 6:21pm)

The cost of tuition has never been a hotter discussion topic. With the sticker price of a year's undergraduate education at a private university topping $28,500 a year -- and the average student graduating with more than $25,000 in loan debt -- serious questions are being raised about whether college is a sound financial investment. Because tuition costs are pinching family budgets so uncomfortably, the public is doubly outraged when it comes to light that well-connected insiders are getting a free ride -- at a cost that inevitably ends up being passed along to the paying customers. In recent years, journalists have brought to light questionable VIP tuition waiver programs in Illinois, where the governor and legislature just abolished a widely abused system of legislator-dispensed scholarships, and in Tennessee, where student government officers at the University of Memphis have benefited for years from free tuition covered by other students' activity fees. The latest free-ride program facing scrutiny is in Rhode Island, where an exceptionally generous perk waives tuition not just for college and university employees, but for their spouses and children as well.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Filtering filth (and some facts, too) -- get the dirt on school website blocking

(08/28/12 4:57pm)

A back-to-school open-records project that every public high school news organization ought to try: Get a list of the websites, or terms, that your school's filtering software blocks. There are plenty of news stories about school policies guaranteed to trigger a collective campuswide yawn -- but website blocking is not one of them.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Bypassing the FERPA roadblock to tell compelling stories about school disciplinary trends

(09/04/12 6:42pm)

Statistics about discipline are some of the most closely guarded secrets that schools keep -- but they're also some of the most essential for the public to know about. It's now well-documented that nonwhite students are singled out disproportionately for expulsion or suspension, for the same infractions that would merely earn a white student a stern lecture. Recently, the U.S.