Pennsylvania schools to get more transparent in the coming year

ApprovedWhat do Penn State, Temple, Pitt, and Lincoln universities have in common? They’re all classified as “state-related” universities, an affiliation that classifies them as schools which may soon have to report greater amounts of information to the state capitol in Harrisburg.

In 2008, the state established a Right-to-Know law, which explicitly outlined that commonwealth organizations can’t deny access to public records information unless another law would render the action illegal. Of course, the definition of which documents constitute public record is a different matter entirely. As a result of this potential wiggle room, the state legislature is currently voting on Senate Bill 444, which would require the four state affiliate universities to hugely increase the scope of which of their documents are considered public record.

Not only that, but the universities will all be required to make the new records publicly searchable and accessible on their own school websites. The state’s Office of Open Records recognizes that this bill will require the schools to “produce more material than we’ve seen in the last couple of hundred years,” and the idea is to give the public more of an idea of what is going on at their state-funded schools.

This is especially relevant when it comes to the schools’ money, which comes largely from taxpayers. The schools will be required to disclose the salaries of their top paid staff; for Lincoln, the smallest of the schools, this means its top 25 salaries. For the other three, this will apply to the 200 top paid staff.

Partial laws to this effect are in place already, but aren’t scaled to the size of the universities and aren’t widely viewed as effective transparency measures. At Penn State, for example, a school which employes thousands of workers, only the top 25 salaries are reported. What’s more, most of the information that is currently required has no formatting rules, meaning that the documents that get posted are generally too confusing and full of jargon to be easily dissected or used in any meaningful way by the general public. It is currently unclear how the new bill will address this particular issue.

Other documents that will now have to be posted publicly include the details of contracts with sponsors and with contractors hired to work on the school (such as conduct building and remodeling projects). Penn State, for example, has a sponsorship deal with Nike which will have to be disclosed in its entirety should the bill pass into law.

The Sandusky scandal at Penn State ushered in a rush of vocal critics of the lack of transparency regarding internal documents at state universities, and this bill represents just one of many steps proposed to improve the situation since then.

The bill is expected to pass without much trouble, though the schools may oppose it and a timeframe for implementation is still uncertain. The Office of Open Records hopes that schools will have their databases setup and functional by January of 2015, this would allow records regarding salaries for the following fiscal year to be included in the first round of documents to be entered into the new system.