State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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School transparency website could be heavier lift than its model

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Jan 15, 2014 6:30 PM
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A state House proposal to make a searchable website of public schools' expenses is before the Senate for consideration, but its implementation might be more difficult than some lawmakers suggest.

The measure would require public schools to submit their annual expenses to the Department of Education. Eventually, the agency would display the information in a searchable website online, planned by a special advisory committee made up of education stakeholders and legislators.

The site would be called SchoolWATCH -- and if that sounds familiar, it's because it's modeled after the existing, roughly one-year-old website called PennWATCH, which shows various state expenses for your perusal.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim Christiana (R-Beaver), also sponsored the PennWATCH bill when it was before his colleagues in 2012. Christiana points to PennWATCH's fans in the state Senate (Lehigh County Republican Sen. Pat Browne) and in the Corbett administration (the governor himself), and says he's optimistic his school-specific spin-off will make it into law.

"I'm hopeful that this is another bill that they would be interested in," Christiana said Tuesday.

But the similarities between PennWATCH and the proposed SchoolWATCH may stop with their names, as Dan Egan put it. Egan is the spokesman for the Office of Administration, which oversees the PennWATCH website.

"I don't know how much of our experience is translatable to SchoolWATCH," Egan said. The two sites are basically the same in concept, but Egan said the work required on their respective back-ends would likely be very different.

The PennWATCH website, according to Egan, is fairly easy to maintain, since state data, like payroll, tends to be centralized. At most, he said, the website must span around 70 agencies.

By contrast, the SchoolWATCH site would be responsible for 500 school districts and numerous other charters, cyber charters, and vocation-technical schools - all of which could be submitting data in various forms.

"It's the difference of, do you have all this expense information... versus sending a bunch of paper reports to PDE every year," Egan said, referring to the Department of Education. "The devil's in the details."

Details will also determine how much the proposed SchoolWATCH site costs. A House Appropriations Committee fiscal analysis said building the site could cost as much as $2 million, without considering maintenance.

The PennWATCH website cost the Office of Administration $900,000, and monthly upkeep costs are negligible -- "staff time," said Egan.

How does PennWATCH fare as a used tool? All of the information on it is already subject to public information requests under the state's Open Records (or Right-to-Know) law. But Egan said the site still nets an average of 12,000 visits a month, and 25,000 page views. The majority of that traffic is going to the employee salaries section, "far and away the most popular," Egan said.

It's an interesting point to bring up. Under the SchoolWATCH proposal, school administrator salaries would be displayed online, but not the individual salaries of any other school employees. A House Republican staffer said the prospect of posting teachers' salaries online concerned the House Education Committee Chairman, Rep. Paul Clymer (R-Bucks). He added that, under the SchoolWATCH bill, the special advisory committee convened to develop the website could still choose to display all employees' individual salaries online.

Published in State House Sound Bites

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