In today's edition of The Journal Gazette, you'll find annual financial reports for East Allen, Southwest Allen and Fort Wayne Community Schools. The public notices represent important information for taxpayers – information you shouldn't take for granted.
At a time when distrust and claims of “fake news” seem inescapable, public notice advertising serves as an enduring source of trusted data. Along with state laws guaranteeing access to public records and meetings, it is part of the foundation supporting the public's right to know what government is doing and how it is spending taxpayers' money.
The annual reports published today, for example, give comparisons of budgeted receipts for 2016 versus actual receipts – to gauge how closely spending reflects what was proposed. Taxpayers can learn with whom school districts are doing business by looking at the list of top-paid vendors. There's salary information, so taxpayers can determine the salaries for the highest-paid administrator to the 7th-grade football coach. There are wage ranges for bus drivers, cafeteria workers and clerical staff.
The reports are a wealth of basic data: School enrollment by grades, a district's assessed valuation and tax rates for each school fund.
Yes, some of the information is available online; all of it must be made available on request. But publication in the newspapers makes the information readily accessible, and makes it an historical archive.
It's not unheard of for someone to request a public notice years after it first appeared, seeking legal or historical perspective.
Those are important points as pressure builds on legislators to eliminate public notices.
Gov. Mike Pence signed a 2014 law that eliminated newspaper notice of the annual budget proposals and estimated tax rates for all local government units. Today, city and county government, libraries and other units are required only to post the proposals on the website of the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.
The Hoosier State Press Association has asked the department for the number of budget notice views each year since the law went into effect. For the last six months of 2014 – when the information was newly posted – there were just 7,000 unique visits to the page.
There's no way to know who the viewers were, but HSPA Executive Director Steve Key notes the department directs local public officials to check the website every year to make sure their budgets are posted. With more than 2,000 local government units, it's apparent much of the traffic on the site is coming from government officials themselves.
We don't expect all 3.8 million Hoosiers who read a newspaper at least once a week to be interested in budget notices, but information once available at a glance is no longer.
“If you wanted to wrest control of local tax and budget processes from regular citizens in order to hand it to politicians, lobbyists and activists, this would be a great way to start,” observes Richard Karpel, former executive director of the American Society of News Editors, in a column for the Public Notice Resource Center.
For now, annual financial reports for public school districts remain a welcome sign of transparency. But many lawmakers are fine with government work done behind closed doors, or by private interests immune to public inspection. Don't take your right to know for granted.