Steve Key

Steve Key

Hoosiers have the opportunity to inform state legislators whether they value the publication of public notices.

H.B. 1003 is an educational matters bill authored by Rep. Jack Jordan, R-Bremen. It currently eliminates the publication of the complete annual school performance report. The bill would replace that with a published summary of the report and a reference to a website where Hoosiers could track down the complete report.

The summary language, which was amended into H.B. 1003 during its House Education Committee hearing, gives no guidance as to what information would be included in a summary. The decision would be up to each school district or charter school administration.

The summary might be a simple “We did better this year than last and here’s the website where you can see the full report.” Hoosiers would get no context — Sure, the report was an improvement, but an improvement over what — a terrible report the previous year with a minor improvement, maybe?

The summary language is an improvement over Rep. Jordan’s original language, which simply eliminated the published report. School districts would merely report the required information to the state Department of Education.

Since most Hoosiers aren’t familiar with this annual report, how many would ever think to look for it? That’s the value of publication of public notices in local newspapers. While Hoosiers are reading about county council meetings, high school basketball games and feature stories about a new business opening its doors, they discover public notices like the annual school performance report published between March 15 and March 31. Some newspapers group multiple reports together to make it easier for readers to compare the reports, which are broken down to results by school building.

Indiana’s published school performance report was lauded as an excellent example of accountability by then-President George W. Bush during a visit to the state. The public’s interest in the published reports translated to an impact on property values in Hamilton County as families used the reports to zero in on schools that they wanted their children to attend, real estate agents reported.

During H.B. 1003’s committee hearing in the Indiana House, the lobbying representatives of school business administrators, urban school districts, school district superintendents and the state DOE called for the elimination of the publication requirement. None of them said the report didn’t have value — all cited a cost savings if they could quit publishing it in their local newspapers. (Note: All testifying against the publication requirement represent the educational establishment being held accountable by the annual performance report.)

School districts and charter schools do have to pay for the publication as a legally required advertisement, but the cost is minimized because the state Legislature since 1927 has capped what state and local government units can be charged by a newspaper for publishing public notices. This cap gives taxpayers a significant discount on the publication cost for government units to put notices into their hands.

Based on information gleaned from 116 of 292 public school districts, the average cost of the publication of annual school performance reports in 2019 was $859. The average budget for those school districts was $36.85 million. I’d argue that’s a small price to pay for Hoosiers to receive the information on how well those schools are performing with the use of those millions of tax dollars.

Because the size of the report is dependent upon how many school buildings are in a district, the range of the sample HSPA obtained was $272 for the Lanesville S.D. to $4,600 for Fort Wayne School District. (Note: Fort Wayne School District’s budget was $305.9 million.)

According to a scientific survey by the American Opinion Research in 2017, three million adult Hoosiers read a newspaper at least once a week. That doesn’t mean they’ll all see the school performance reports in March or take the time to examine them, but it’s in their hands and they have that opportunity. Newspapers also post the reports on their websites and an aggregated public notice website operated by the Hoosier State Press Association.

Meanwhile, the state DOE reports that for the entire year of 2019, it had 14,500 unique page views of the school performance reports on its website. That’s not how many people viewed the pages because if you visited the website twice, you’d count as two page views.

The numbers correlate with the American Opinion Research findings that posting public notices only on government websites would result in a massive 60 percent decline in Hoosiers’ readership of public notices.

Unfortunately, many legislators view public notice as a boon to newspapers rather than the most effective means to place information about what state and local government units are doing with taxpayer dollars into the hands of Hoosiers.

Hoosiers have an opportunity to let their state legislators know whether they prefer a summary of the school performance report with the need for them to visit a website for complete information or a continuation of the publication of the full report in their local newspapers.

Stephen Key is executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, which represents Indiana’s paid-circulation newspapers.

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