New websites give public access to district budgets, supt contracts
On Board Online • Top Stories • September 15, 2008
By Marc Humbert
Oliver Robinson, superintendent of the sprawling Shenendehowa school district in southern Saratoga County, is eligible for a $1,000 annual bonus if he doesn’t smoke.
These and other details of Robinson’s contract with the Shenendehowa board – and those of most other school superintendents across New York – are accessible with a few mouse clicks on a new website called www.SeeThroughNY.net.
The website, a creation of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, an arm of the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank, is one of a growing number of public and private projects aimed at bringing more transparency to how taxpayer dollars are spent.
On June 17, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced the debut of www.OpenBookNewYork.com, which has information about more than 60,000 state contracts, updated daily. Later this month, detailed revenue and expenditure information for 3,100 local governments, school districts and special taxing districts will be added. It will include information dating back to 1996.
“Our goal is to continue to add information and to make this the premier go-to place for information on local government,” John Traylor, assistant comptroller in charge of DiNapoli’s local government and school accountability division, told On Board.
Meanwhile, state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has provided New Yorkers with a website called Project Sunlight. A search of www.sunlightny.com can provide viewers with detailed information on political contributions, spending by lobbyists, legislation and state contracts.
The state’s top newspapers are also offering open access to databases that contain all sorts of information. Want to know the annual pensions for New York State school retirees? The Buffalo News website has that. Gannett newspapers, including the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, offer up detailed information on school administrators’ salaries and state school aid. The Syracuse Newspapers have links to details about the state’s Empire Zone economic development program, among other things.
“The good news is people are using technology to make it easier for the public to understand what’s going on. It’s dramatically opened up the process,” said Blair Horner, the longtime Albany lobbyist for the New York Public Interest Research Group.
But Horner, who took a one-year break from NYPIRG in 2007 to develop Cuomo’s Project Sunlight, said government should make access easier. Horner said he has been pressing aides to Gov. David Paterson to pull all such information together in one place.
“We’re hoping that at some point the Paterson administration will step into the breach and really make New York’s government a 21st Century digital democracy,” Horner said.
The Empire Center site has superintendent and teacher contracts for almost all of the state’s more than 700 school districts, all gathered through Freedom of Information Law requests. Lise Bang-Jensen, a senior policy analyst for the Empire Center, said most districts do not provide such information on their own websites, but they should.
“Ideally, every school district in the state should have on its website its teachers’ contract, its superintendent contract, all of its union contracts, its payroll, its itemized budget and its detailed expenditures,” she said.
“This is taxpayers’ money. The public should know where its money is going,” she said. “An informed electorate is vital to democracy. The more people know about how their money is spent, the livelier debate we can have about how it should be spent.”
What it all means for school districts is increased public scrutiny at a time when taxpayers are increasingly restive, fuel and food costs are rising and the economy is stagnant.
Kelly DeFeciani, a spokeswoman for the Shenendehowa district, said the inclusion of her district’s contracts on the Empire Center’s website is of little concern.
“We have had all of our employee contracts on our own website for many years now,” she told On Board.
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