When local governments want to publicize upcoming events, they don’t only post them on their websites – they go to the local newspaper. They do this because they know that the local media are the most effective way of to get information to their constituents. Lawmakers long have recognized this, too. That’s why Illinois requires each of its more than 800 public school districts to publish an annual statement of affairs in local newspapers. Yet every so often, the complaints rise anew that these notices, which are placed in the newspapers at discounted advertising rates, are burdensome.
The latest proposal, House Bill 2485, would remove the requirement that school districts publish financial information in local newspapers.
Locally, state Rep. Allen Skillicorn, R-East Dundee, signed on as a chief co-sponsor to the bill Wednesday while state Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, previously signed as a co-sponsor. When contacted Thursday regarding the bill, Skillicorn was unaware of how much the once-a-year statement of affairs cost schools, but noted that the plan was to add an amendment requiring schools to also post the statements to their website. State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, disagrees with those two fellow Republicans. On Thursday, McSweeney said he is “strongly opposed” to the bill and plans to speak against it this year, just as he did last year. These statements of affairs are detailed reports on the financial activities of the local government that is by far the largest beneficiary of homeowners’ property tax bills. They tell, in detail, how much of our property taxes are spent each year on education, operations and maintenance, debt service, transportation and other categories.
They also list the names of people employed by the district and the contractors with which it does business. Looking them over, you can see how many people earn salaries of more than $90,000 a year, for example, or which companies are the district’s largest vendors.
This is important information, and it is important that residents continue to be presented with it on an annual basis in the newspaper. Removing that requirement in favor of only having the information posted in a hard-to-find corner of the internet – if indeed it is posted at all – would be a move toward more government secrecy.
For one, people won’t look for this information on their own. That is what newspapers do: present readers with information. For those who do seek it out, legal notices from every newspaper in Illinois already are available online at publicnoticeillinois.com, which is maintained free of charge by the Illinois Press Association. For another, many school districts will not post this information online, and no one will ensure that all 800 do so. Ample proof exists that many government bodies already fail to live up to requirements to post information online. Utah is the only state to remove the requirement that public bodies post public notices about their activities. They did so in 2009; by 2011 the requirement was reinstated because local governments were not meeting the requirements online. The same would be true here. A recent study by the Citizens Advocacy Center of more than 750 public body websites in Illinois found that only three-quarters posted notices of upcoming meetings, less than 60% complied with posting meeting agendas, and less than half complied with the requirement to post approved meeting minutes on their website.
We have not seen any data that suggests local government will save any appreciable money by not having to publish public notices. And the public certainly will not be better served. Newspapers are the most reliably published source of local information in our society today. It’s why we call what they print “the record.” Removing the requirement that school districts publicly disclose a detailed account of their finances in local newspapers is not reform. It is regression. The General Assembly should vote down the proposal.