Tapping Data on School Finance
Tips to drive enterprising reporting
One of the most important things a reporter can do, particularly on the education beat, is follow the money. Tawnell Hobbs, the national K-12 reporter for The Wall Street Journal, shared insights and advice drawn from many years on the beat during an EWA webinar last week.
Hobbs said she regularly requests and reviews district financial data. One of her stories, written while Hobbs was a reporter at The Dallas Morning News, questioned whether the Dallas Independent School District got its money’s worth from a consultant and eventually saved the system $50,000 – despite initial pushback from the superintendent. Hobbs also exposed cases in which district employees, including the superintendent, inappropriately received driving stipends. She uncovered instances of credit card misuse, excessive spending on catered or outside food, and the questionably high salaries paid to members of the Dallas superintendent’s cabinet.
Combing through school finance records enabled Hobbs to also explore broader topics, such as traditional public schools stepping up their marketing efforts amid competition from charter schools. She spotted trends such as school leaders increasingly dipping into emergency funds for unforeseen expenses, such as mold abatement tied to aging buildings.
These types of stories won’t fall in a journalist’s lap. They require getting comfortable with filing records requests, keeping track of data, and asking tough questions.
Here are some tips Hobbs shared during the EWA webinar:
• Regularly request payroll data, staff directories and, if possible, student directories. The laws vary by state, but in Texas, Hobbs was able to get directories that included students’ names, date of birth, age, address, phone number, school and grade level. She suggested requesting that type of data, if available, along with payroll and staffing records at least three times a year. “I tell you, I used them every week,” Hobbs said. She also suggested requesting a directory of district cell phones, records showing employees on paid leave (and the reasons why they are on leave), check registers, and other records.
• “There is no such thing as old data.” District information collected in prior years is good for putting things into perspective and looking for trends.
• Put large numbers into perspective. When Hobbs and her then-fellow Dallas Morning News reporter Matthew Haag reported that Dallas schools spent more than $57 million over four years on catered meals, consultants, and hotel stays, among other expenses, they equated the cost to the annual base salary for 1,086 teachers. “Mind you, this was when positions were being cut and teachers hadn’t had raises in years,” Hobbs said.
• Make technology work for you. Hobbs carried a portable scanner when she reviewed public records, which helped her cut down on charges for scanning and printing copies. She now uses a mobile app called TurboScan to scan documents and even convert them to searchable PDFs.
• “You’re not an extension of the PR office, OK?” As a reporter, “your job is sometimes to tell the people what the government officials won’t tell them,” Hobbs said. Asking tough questions and writing hard-hitting articles might rile some school officials, but that effort also informs taxpayers about how their money is spent, she said.