The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

December 27, 2013

We favor transparency | Taxpayers have right to track spending

JOHNSTOWN — Do you know where your money is going when you pay local property taxes? Or how your school district is using it?

Most of us don’t, but a bill now in the state House could change that.

According to CNHI State Reporter John Finnerty, Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, has written legislation that would launch a website to create a clearinghouse of information so citizens can see how their taxes are spent without “having to file dozens of Right-to-Know requests.” 

The website would be similar to the PennWatch site, launched a year ago, that tracks state government spending. The PennWatch site cost about $900,000 to build and contains information about base salaries and total compensation paid to state employees, according to Dan Egan, a spokesman for the Office of Adminstration. Without knowing the kind of information lawmakers want to include in the proposed site, Egan said, it’s difficult to determine how much SchoolWatch might cost.

We support the idea of bringing more transparency to our public education system, even if the cost is slightly higher than the PennWatch program.

Christiana is confident that it would be money well-spent, as with the PennWatch site.

“I think the sites pay for themselves,” he said. “This level of transparency has changed behavior in government.”

We need look no further than Greater Johnstown School District to see the lack of public accountability. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale recently took the district to task for its inability to provide documentation for $8.7 million in transportation spending. That amount represents the total unverified by the district over four different audits dating back to 2002.

That’s not to say that SchoolWatch would prevent such issues – the district should have been able to provide documentation for the spending even without the site – but any insight that taxpayers can get into how school districts are operating is a good thing in our eyes.

For instance, another bill being considered in the state House would require local school boards to make proposed teacher contracts publicly available before they are voted upon. There are some details to be worked out on the proposal, such as the language involved in it, but we believe it’s another good idea.

Not surprisingly, the teachers union doesn’t agree.

“Voters give their approval on Election Day. If they are unhappy with their school board members, they can vote them out,” said Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Why should taxpayers have to react after the fact? Simply voting out school board members a year or two after a contract was approved takes power

away from the taxpayer. Allowing them to view a proposed contract beforehand empowers them and allows opposition to be heard before it is approved.

“Turning all major decisions over to the public would create paralysis,” Keever said. “That’s what this legislation would do.”

Again, we disagree. We’re not advocating a public vote on school contacts, just that they are made publicly available before voting by the school board takes place.

Transparency is a concept often talked about in our government, but rarely seen. These proposals would take some important steps toward it.

 

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