Schools keeping secrets: How transparent is your child's district about how tax dollars are spent?

You know schools don’t spend every cent in classrooms.

5 On Your Side Investigators wanted to find out if school leaders would share how much of your tax dollars end up elsewhere.

Our four-month long investigation uncovered schools keeping secrets about how your money was spent.

 

 

Transparency 101

Local school districts are funded by citizens’ tax dollars. 

By law, this means schools must share documentation related to how your money was used.

Our team randomly selected 15 Northeast Ohio school districts and requested records about the costs of their legal fees. 

Some districts provided every detail.

Others flunked our transparency test.

Expert Advice

After requesting financial data from local districts, we sought the expert advice of Timothy D. Smith.  

According to his Kent State University biography, Smith worked at the Akron Beacon Journal for 19 years, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Kent State shootings. 

Smith then spent 30 years teaching media law at Kent State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he created the Ohio Center for Privacy and the First Amendment. 

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Smith is also a founding member of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Media Law Committee of the state bar. 

He currently serves as the interim chief of the Office of the Portage County Public Defender. 

At our request, Smith reviewed the records we received and agreed to give schools districts a graded based on how well they complied with Ohio’s open records laws.

“You're paying for it,” he said. “You might as well figure out what you're paying for. You might get some idea of where your money is going."

F

Smith awarded Shaker Heights City School District and the Avon Local School District an “F.” 

"They said it’s not public record. Well, it is public record. They're wrong about that."

The districts provided a list of legal expenditures but failed to produce a single invoice related to their legal expenses. 

“This is public money,” said Smith. “They ought to tell you what it is."  

“They said it’s not public record. Well, it is public record,’’ he said. “They’re wrong about that.” 

D

While they rank at the top of the class when it comes to the Ohio Department of Education’s school report cards, Avon Lake City Schools, Bay Village City School District, Rocky River City School District and Solon City School District also failed our public records test.

Smith awarded the districts a “D.” 

The districts sent us invoices, but the records were so heavily redacted it was impossible to discern how the districts spent your money. 

“This looks like what the FBI used to send me,” said Smith as he reviewed several blacked out documents. 

“They certainly didn't provide as much as the law requires them to provide and they could have provided without doing any damage to their legal advice,” he said. 

5 On Your Side Investigators notified each school district that received less than an “A” grade more than two weeks in before we published our report.

On Sept 19, Karen Derby-Lovell, Director, Communications for the Bay Village City School District, sent us another copy of the documents we requested from the district.

The second version featured fewer redactions than the original documents we received, but the descriptions of legal services rendered were still blacked out.

Derby-Lovell also sent us the following statement:

"Our goal is always to fill public records requests swiftly and completely, while at the same time protecting exempted information as required by law. Exemptions, such as student privacy, attorney-client privilege and personal information, exist because they are also very important.

We often work with those requesting information to clarify exactly what they need. We sometimes suggest (though not required by law to do so) a more efficient way to get data, such as by running a report, if that is acceptable to them. We encourage requesters to stay in contact until they are satisfied that their request has been met in a satisfactory way."

C

The Cuyahoga Heights School District, Mentor Public Schools, and the Sheffield-Sheffield Lake City School District shared some details related to their legal fees, but not others.

For example, some invoices included descriptions related to the services rendered, while others were redacted.

Smith gave the districts a “C.”

“Some of the people had the good sense to release the information that was required,” said Smith.  “Some people didn't have the sense that God gave a goose in terms of releasing anything at all."

 

We asked Smith why so many school districts redacted records related to their legal fees.   

Smith blamed fear. 

“I think the general attitude on the part of most government agencies with the media is that it usually means I get criticized somehow,” he said.

“There’s just a natural tendency on the part of government agencies, and I’ve found this to be true at every level, to say, ‘I’ll just keep it. I won’t let it go.  It’s my information. It’s not yours so I won’t share it with you on the fear that someone would criticize me if I gave it out,'” said Smith.

A

However, not every NEOH school district was secretive about their legal expenses. 

Several districts passed our transparency test with flying colors.

Akron Public Schools, Brecksville-Broadview Heights City School District, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, North Ridgeville City Schools, Strongsville City Schools, and Westlake City Schools all provided detailed invoices, including fee amounts, a description of services and few redactions. 

“They said, ‘Here. Here’s our bills. Here’s what we spent it on,’ said Smith.  

“They didn’t give you details in terms of what the advice was, but you could see where the money went, which is, I think, keeping the people informed of what is going on,” he said. 

The districts’ even provided invoices on controversial topics, including litigations costs related to teacher discipline and labor disputes with their teachers’ unions. 

“I'm particularly impressed when they provided information about contract negotiations, which is always a touchy issue for school districts,” said Smith.