Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

January 13, 2012

School bills advancing

Maureen Hayden
The Herald-Tribune

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Legislation that would require a local school board to publicly disclose the total  monetary value of a superintendent’s contract – including salary, pension and other perks – is moving forward in the Indiana Statehouse.

On Wednesday, the House education committee approved a bill aimed at creating more transparency for how local school corporations are spending taxpayer dollars.

The bill would require a school board to post online the details of all employee contracts it enters into, including collective bargaining agreements with teachers. 

It would also require the local school board to publicize details of a proposed contract offered to a school superintendent and conduct a public hearing on that proposed contract at least a week before it's signed.

Committee chairman Rep. Bob Behning, who authored the bill, said it was needed to prevent another scandal like the one that occurred last year when an Indianapolis township school board voted to give its superintendent a $1 million retirement package.

When details of the payout were made public by an Indianapolis TV news station, board members said they didn’t understand what they were voting on.

"This is an issue of transparency," Behning said. "The public has a right to know what's in these contracts."

At Thursday’s committee meeting, Behning said that school board has spent more than $200,000 in legal fees trying to figure out how it stumbled into the mess.

Behning's bill met with some resistance during the hearing from lobbyists with the statewide associations of schools boards and superintendents. They complained the bill robbed local school boards of autonomy.

Thomas Little, Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents president,  said his members oppose the bill. "The mistakes made at one school corporation should not have an effect statewide."

But Behning said the legislation was needed to lift the lid off of information that's often closed off to the public.

The salary information of school superintendents is posted on the Indiana Department of Education Web site. But the DOE  doesn't require school boards to report the monetary value of benefits and perks, which range widely, from cell phone allowances to cash payments for the full cost of health insurance.  

The legislation, one of three bills approved by a House committee Wednesday, will move to the full House for a vote.

Legislation that would establish a "parent trigger" to convert poorly performing schools into charter schools was also sent to the full House. The bill, authored by state Rep. Rhonda Rhoads, a Corydon Republican and retired school teacher, would give parents the right to vote to make the switch. More than half the parents would need to approve the change and only schools that have failed to meet state standards for four years in a row would be eligible. 

The third education bill sent to the full House is known as the "credit creep" bill. It gives the Indiana Commission on Higher Education the authority to terminate university degree programs that exceed a standard number of credit hours.

Commissioner Teresa Lubbers told committee members that 90 percent of degrees in Indiana require students to take more credit hours than what they can earn in four years of college for a bachelor's degree or two years for an associate degree.

The "credit creep" bill was mentioned by Gov. Mitch Daniels as one of his top legislative priorities in his State of the State speech Tuesday.

Maureen Hayden is the Statehouse bureau chief for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana.