In the final hours of the 2020 Indiana General Assembly, legislators reduced the amount of information about both school academic performance and financial performance. The vast majority of legislators probably had no clue that the annual financial report had been added into H.B. 1003.
Language reducing the publication of the August school financial report to a summary and reference to a website to see the entire financial report was added during a meeting between bill author and sponsor, Rep. Jack Jordan, R-Bremen, and Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, and two House Republican policy staffers. The meeting was to work out a conference committee report for H.B. 1003.
When H.B. 1003 left the House, it contained language reducing the publication of the March school performance report to a summary and website reference. The Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee with Sen. Raatz as chairman, eliminated the school performance report language from the bill.
Raatz told Steve Key, HSPA’s executive director and general counsel, that he intended to work with Rep. Jordan and interested parties on what a summary should include, which would become a bill for the 2021 General Assembly.
“For Hoosiers, opacity replaces transparency. Rather than have the information placed into their hands, they’ll have to follow up with a search on government websites for the information now delivered on their doorstep.”
— Steve Key, HSPA executive director, general counsel
Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the House Education Committee, had told Key he wanted summary language in H.B. 1003 when it left the House while conceding the House language did not specify what should be included in any summary – leaving it up to the school district leadership to determine what would constitute a summary.
During the Raatz-Jordan meeting, one of the policy staffers suggested for consistency that the two legislators look at summary language for the financial report. Raatz and Jordan agreed to do so. Key said neither apparently considered that the financial report was completely different from the performance report.
“Every local government unit publishes a financial report every year. The performance report is a unique report for school districts and charter schools,” said Key.
The new language modifying I.C. 5-3-1-3 was never introduced or considered by a House or Senate committee. The public, nor HSPA, had any opportunity to object.
Neither Raatz nor Jordan mentioned the addition of the financial report summary language during presentation of the H.B. 1003 conference committee report to their respective House or Senate Rules Committees.
This prevented any committee member from raising a question as to whether the addition violated House or Senate Rules on accepting language that had not been passed by either chamber.
During the House Rules Committee, Rep. Terri Austin, R-Anderson raised a question about the new section, but thought it was the language for the annual school performance report. Rep. Jordan didn’t correct her misconception.
HSPA didn’t learn of the addition until after the Senate Rules Committee hearing, when Key was talking to Raatz. That was when Raatz credited staffers for mentioning a second report that could be included in the conference committee.
HSPA was unable to bring the issue to the attention of House and Senate chiefs of staff Tyler Campbell and Jeff Papa before H.B. 1003 was brought to the Senate floor and passed 40-9.
Key said at that point there wasn’t going to be any stopping of the bill because Republicans strongly favored Jordan’s “Educational Freedom Bill,” which will allow school districts to seek waivers of legislatively passed mandates to improve school performance. The House passed H.B. 1003 with a 95-0 vote.
The section changing publication requirements for the financial report goes into effect in July, which means this August’s report will be the summary, not full financial report.
“This is particularly frustrating because HSPA never had the opportunity to make its case for greater transparency through publication rather than posting on the DOE website,” Key said. “This also will open the door for every other local government unit to argue its financial report publication should be reduced to a summary. I expect they’ll be lined up to make that request before the 2021 General Assembly.”
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, they’ll cry,” Key said. “For Hoosiers, opacity replaces transparency. Rather than have the information placed into their hands, they’ll have to follow up with a search on government websites for the information now delivered on their doorstep.”
The other significant bill concerning public notices died early in the session.
H.B. 1310, authored by Rep. David Wolkins, R-Warsaw, would have placed a $300 cap on what local government units could pay for the publication of a public notice. If a newspaper tried to charge more, the unit could replace the publication with posting on its website
HSPA pointed out to Rep. Wolkins that the proposal did not take into account that public notices may be two or three inches in one column or may take up multiple pages of space in a newspaper.
After the discussion with HSPA, Wolkins said he would not fight a decision by the bill’s committee chair not to give it a hearing. Rep. Dennis Zent, R-Angola, who is chair of the House Local Committee did make that decision.
Rep. Wolkins said he filed the bill for Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, who was the co-author of H.B. 1130. McNamara testified during the 2019 session that one of her goals was to eliminate all publication of public notices in Indiana Code.