One of the chronic frustrations of Michigan taxpayers has been understanding how money is spent in Michigan public schools. The Headlee Amendment and Proposal A are two landmark pieces of Michigan constitutional reform that were inspired in part by public concern that escalating property taxes never seemed enough for the public education establishment.
In response to this concern, Mackinac Center analysts have led the charge in encouraging school districts to make their spending information available online, as well as posted information gathered through research and Freedom of Information requests. The state appears to be following our example, with recent legislation requiring school districts to put key information online.
The new requirement includes union contracts, annual budgets, breakdown of expenditures, health insurance information, association and lobbying fees and a list of compensation packages of their superintendent and employees making more than $100,000.
Unfortunately, only about half of Michigan school districts have complied with the state's requirements so far. Nevertheless, the impact is already being felt. For example, WJRT TV-12 in Flint used this newly available information to report on the Harbor Beach school district's superintendent, whose total compensation package exceeded $300,000. In a district of only 600 students, this alarmed many local residents, and the Harbor Beach board of education is now trying to explain its use of taxpayer dollars in this manner.
This new transparency requirement comes on the heels of a year-long push by the Mackinac Center to encourage school districts to post their checkbook registers online. Nearly every newspaper around the state weighed in on this issue and commended the Mackinac Center's effort. So far, about 85 school districts have voluntarily made their registers publicly available.
Some members of the state Legislature are doing their part and opening up their budgets to the public as well. Reps. Tom McMillin, Justin Amash, Kevin Elsenheimer and Marty Knollenberg have all published the names and salaries of their legislative staffs online. In fact, the Democrat-controlled House also publishes online the spending accounts of each of its members.
A more transparent government is a first step toward a more responsive and fiscally responsible government. Michigan is benefitting from the work of Mackinac Center analysts to promote and lead this charge.