Sunshine eclipsed in Iowa as Branstad vetoes school association transparency bill

The lobbying groups representing school board members, superintendents and principals exert enormous influence over education policy. They promulgate “model” regulations that school districts often enact unchanged. They speak before state legislatures and Congress as the authoritative voice of the public officials who comprise their membership.

Yet, even though they are funded (wholly or largely) by taxpayer dollars and are governed by boards made up (wholly or largely) of government officials, these associations typically resist being classified as public entities for purposes of opening their meetings and records to public scrutiny.

Iowa legislators struck a blow for sunshine when they overwhelmingly passed Senate File 519, later incorporated into House File 645, requiring school associations to make their finances public. But on Wednesday, Gov. Terry Branstad pulled down the shades.

Branstad vetoed the disclosure language, saying that the bill was overly broad so that private companies selling goods and services to schools might have found themselves, unintentionally, subject to Iowa’s sunshine law.

(That interpretation seems strained, given the text of the bill. The bill’s disclosure requirements apply only to a “local, state, regional or national organization.” A judge would be highly unlikely to classify Bob’s Office Supply Store as an “organization.”)

The move to broaden public disclosure was prompted by the revelation of financial irregularities at the Iowa Association of School Boards (“IASB”). The ousted executive director of the association received a back-door $157,000 pay raise that did not go through normal approval channels, and its then-chief financial officer charged personal vacation expenses to an IASB credit card.

Senate File 519 was actually the legislature’s second slog into the swamp of scandal left by the IASB. In 2010, the legislature required the IASB to obey the same public-records and public-meetings laws as the school boards that belong to the association. (The reform provoked a further controversy when the IASB tried to insist that the law applied only to records created after the enactment of the law, not before.)

Senate File 519 was an attempt to extend the same transparency requirements from the IASB to two other entities, the School Administrators of Iowa (a lobbying association representing principals) and Iowa School Finance Information Services (a consulting service to which Iowa school districts subscribe). ISFIS criticized the bill and urged a veto, contending that it would impose unnecessary costs and record-keeping burdens.

(As reported by the Des Moines Register, the founders of ISFIS included a former top executive of the school boards association, Larry Sigel. While on his way out as IASB’s finance director, Sigel signed an agreement under which the IASB was committed to paying his new company $300,000 for services that included encouraging school districts to join the IASB. When the deal came to light, some Iowa legislators criticized the arrangement as unethical.)

It’s difficult to justify why an association made up of government officials should be able to conceal its operations from the public just by adopting a nonprofit corporate form. If one high school principal emails her legislator to discuss state education policy, the emails are subject to disclosure as public records. So if 2,000 principals get together and hire someone to email the legislator on their behalf, how does that magically become a “private” activity?

The issue of public access to the records and meetings of school associations is being fought out in different contexts across the country. In South Carolina, a talk-radio host is battling in court with the South Carolina Association of School Administrators for access to that association’s records. In response, the association has asked a federal court to block the suit, claiming that compelled disclosure of its private correspondence would interfere with the organization’s First Amendment right to speak anonymously.

The courts generally have been willing to look past the corporate form of quasi-government entities and look to their governance, their source of funding, and their function and purpose to determine whether they are sufficiently “governmental” to be bound by state disclosure laws. Whether it is by court ruling or by legislative enactment, greater transparency for school associations seems inevitable — and let’s hope it does not take many more under-the-table $157,000 pay raises to make it happen.