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Lawmakers advance school spending transparency bill

Published January 28, 2013 6:21 pm

SB128 • Proponents say it will help public understand the school system; critics question value, feasibility of revealing so much data.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utahns might be able to look up exactly how much their schools spend on what — from teachers to textbooks to programs — if a bill that gained initial approval Monday becomes law.

The Senate Education Committee unanimously approved SB128 after nearly an hour of debate, with a number of conservatives praising the idea and some within the education community questioning the price tag and usefulness of such a move.

Bill sponsor Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said his bill would simply require the financial data school districts already report and collect to be displayed on the Utah Public Finance website.

"The reality is this information already exists," Thatcher said. "It's just not available to the public, and since it's their money, I think they have a right to look and see how those monies are spent."

He estimated the bill would cost about $15,800 to cover training and changes to the state's transparency website. Some of the information is already available on that website, but districts don't always report the information consistently or in great detail.

Some, however, expressed concerns Monday over the proposal.

State Superintendent Martell Menlove said if the state puts information online for its more than 1,000 schools rather than just for its school districts, he believes it would actually cost much more than $15,800.

He also questioned whether such data would be useful to Utahns looking for information on their schools, given its complex nature.

He noted that school expenses fall into hundreds of categories.

"We are interested in transparency, we're interested in providing data; however, we want to provide that data in a manner that would make sense," Menlove said. "I'm not sure that providing an excessive quantity of data is going to make it possible for many who search this to have better information."

Kory Holdaway, with the Utah Education Association, also wondered whether such data could mislead those trying to compare schools, given that the data would show information for only a year, not over time.

Others, however, were enthusiastic about the idea. Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said openness is the best policy, and the data could even help dispel misconceptions about schools.

Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, said he trusts that Utahns are smart enough to understand such data. Plus, he said, it's already being collected, meaning it shouldn't be much of a burden to make it public.

The bill now moves to the Senate floor.