New Castle News

Closer Look

January 18, 2014

John K. Manna: State acts to give public more information

NEW CASTLE — When someone suggests, for example, that school property taxes be replaced with state funding, school officials object.

And why? They contend that local control would be diminished as a result.

I find it laughable since school districts really have little local control now.

Here are just a couple examples.

The state places limits on taxation, not only on how much taxes can be raised, but also on the types of taxes that can be levied. Plus, students in public schools throughout Pennsylvania are required to take state assessment tests.

I’m not suggesting that is wrong, but only to point out that schools have to follow state laws or regulations.

And just this week the House passed a bill to add transparency to public education spending. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Christiana of Beaver County, would require the state Department of Education to create a searchable website listing expenses and revenue of school districts, charter and vocational-technical schools.

Under the bill, which goes to the Senate for consideration, districts and charter schools would have to submit the information annually to the state.

The information would then be posted on a website to be known as SchoolWATCH.

Christiana said any information covered by the Right to Know Law could not be excluded from the website.

So what would happen if districts, charter and vocational-technical schools fail to comply? The bill directs the secretary of education to withhold state appropriations until they comply.

The House passed another bill — also headed to the Senate — that would require districts to inform the public 48 hours prior to voting on a collective bargaining agreement. Notices would have to be posted on the districts’ websites and in newspapers of general circulation.

The notices would have to include a statement of the terms of the contract and an estimate of its cost.

State Rep. Fred Keller of Snyder County, sponsor of the bill, told one media outlet that the people who are going to be receiving the pay are allowed to see the contract before the vote. So he asked ...“why shouldn’t the people that will be paying the bill see it beforehand as well?”

I — and I would suspect other citizens — have no problem with either bill. As I see it, both bills — moreso the one dealing with labor contracts — are a response to some school districts notoriously acting as if the money they spend is theirs and not the public’s.

If districts on the whole were more accountable, perhaps these bills wouldn’t be necessary.

As Christiana said, his bill will give taxpayers a way to access information in an easy fashion “instead of having to jump through hoops.”

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