SUNSHINE WEEK: IRS forms open up access for private school journalists

WISCONSIN — A student journalist at a private liberal artscollege in Kenosha, Wis., recently found that requesting a copy of a school’sIRS Form 990 was a useful way to gather financial information from privatecolleges or universities that are otherwise exempt from freedom of informationlaws.

Nathan Giebel, a copy editor for Carthage College’s student newspaper,The Current, decided to request the tax return forms, which are requiredof nonprofit organizations, after a seminar at last year’s Associated CollegiatePress/College Media Advisers National College Media Convention. In addition toCarthage College, he requested forms from Luther College inDecorah, Iowa, Elmhurst College inElmhurst, Ill., Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., North Central College inNaperville, Ill. and Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis.

From the forms, Giebel wrote an article drawing attention to a tuitionincrease, college expenses and professor salaries. He also wrote, an editorialon the university president’s salary.

He said his experience requesting the forms from his own college wasdifficult in the beginning, but ultimately he was able to receive the forms andcomments from administrators for his investigative article.

“The administration was not fully cooperative at first, even after Ipointed out the legislation, and eventually after I got [the managing editor]involved, he was able to work as a bridge between myself and the administrationand get them to cooperate and understand what my request really was,” Giebelsaid.

Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, saidwhen student journalists request the form from a private school, it is oftenthe first time any one has ever done so.

“It’s not always a matter of them not being willing to comply with thelaw, it’s a matter of them not knowing the law and knowing what the requirementsare. So sometimes a part of obtaining access is successfully educating schoolofficials on what their responsibilities are,” Hiestand said.

The process, which should have taken a few minutes, took Giebel more thana month, but he eventually obtained Carthage College’s Form 990s from 2005 to2007. The IRS Form 990 discloses information about the amount of money theorganization has made in a year; a listing of where the money was spent, howmuch and for what; a detailed balance sheet with the assets and liabilities ofthe organization at the end of each fiscal year; information on the sale andpurchase of the organization’s investments and how they have fared; theidentities and salaries of the top organization employees making more than$30,000 a year and any legal fees paid by the organization.Under 26 U.S.C.Secs. 6104, 6652 and 6685, tax-exempt organizations, such as private schools,college foundations, charities and non-profit corporations are required toprovide the form upon request.

“The valuable thing about the Form 990 is that students attending aprivate school don’t have a lot of options when it comes to obtaininginformation about their schools and the 990 is [a] … valuable tool for gettingbehind doors that are normally closed,” said Hiestand.

Giebel requested the form via e-mail from David Missurelli, the businessoffice controller, after running into confusion requesting the forms in personfrom the business office. Giebel said he received the forms from Luther Collegeand Elmhurst College without any problems or delay. Wheaton College, NorthCentral College and Carroll University did not respond to hisrequests.

“Although what I found actually wasn’t negative — I’m not sure howthey would have reacted if it was — but they were fully OK with everythingI said in my [article and editorial] and they didn’t censor them whatsoever,”Giebel said.

Giebel said that the outcome of his experience has been a positive one,and that some professors have used the article in lectures to start classdiscussions on its reported findings.