Indiana lawmakers may have been trying to do the right thing last week when they created a way for financially struggling school corporations to avoid being flagged for takeover by the state. But they went too far when they made those procedures secret.
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to create new exceptions to the state’s public records and open meetings laws, limiting public scrutiny of efforts by local and state officials to turn around a school corporation’s finances before it gets placed on a state watch list.
As Steve Key of the Hoosier State Press Association pointed out, this isn’t just bad public policy – it’s likely to be counterproductive by blocking public participation in important government decisions.
“To me it’s puzzling,” he said. “It doesn’t allow people in the community to support their school district or push the administration and the school board to turn things around before it gets worse.”
The legislation in question, House Bill 1315, doubles down on the state’s takeover of financially distressed Gary and Muncie community schools. It allows Ball State University to take over Muncie schools and further weakens local control of Gary schools. The bill also sets up procedures for the state to place schools on a watch list if they are found to be at risk of becoming financially distressed and eligible for state takeover. With property tax caps and school-choice policies cutting into funding for public schools, a fair number of districts could be at risk.
In a concession to school groups, legislators added a provision by which the state’s distressed unit appeals board would notify schools when they are at risk of being put on the watch list and help them develop a corrective action plan. That seems only fair. Schools should have a chance to turn their finances around before being targeted.
But the amendment also says discussions of a corrective action plan and watch-list placement can take place in closed-door executive sessions and all records and correspondence regarding the discussions, including the plan itself, can be barred from disclosure under the state’s public records law. Records would be made public only if and when a district is put on the watch list.
The rationale for secrecy is apparently that, if word got out, parents might abandon the school district, making a bad financial situation even worse. But in a system where government exists to do the people’s business, as the Indiana Open Door Law says, secrecy should be a last resort.
“I understand the concern that they don’t want to hurt the reputation of the school and they’re afraid parents will flee the school,” Key said. “But I would see a much greater value if the community is able to galvanize itself and say, let’s take the action now, and decide what that action should be.”
Different versions of HB 1315 have been approved by the House and the Senate. If its author, Rep. Tim Brown, doesn’t agree to the Senate’s changes, it will go to a conference committee for further revisions.