My Two Cents: Praise For Greater Government Transparency

My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BethesdaNow.com.

Those who know me know I’m a bit crazed about transparency.

Several years ago, when Bethesda Magazine ran its first profile of Montgomery County charities, I took the list of 50-plus charities and visited their websites. Only two charities shared their books, posting their completed IRS forms and independent financial audits. These two charities were open and transparent.

Joseph HawkinsOne of these transparent nonprofits, Manna Food Center, has gone on to receive annual donations from one of my company’s employee fundraisers. The logic behind our giving is simple: We give to Manna (thousands of dollars a year) because Manna does great work and they open their books for public inspection.

Recently, we also started donating to the Wounded Warriors Project for the same reasons we give to Manna — great work, high need, complete transparency.

I’m thrilled to see the Montgomery County government has moved in the direction of great openness and transparency. The books are open. Nonetheless, I’m disappointed that Montgomery County Public Schools, and what it spends, isn’t included in the county government’s new budgetMontgomery tools.

MCPS publishes budget information. Such documents, however, aren’t searchable nor can one download the raw data as Excel files. The new budgetMontgomery website allows for both.

I’m not going to pretend to know why MCPS believes taxpayers shouldn’t see its books. But I will share a brief encounter with an MCPS administrator that perhaps will shed a little light on how MCPS thinks and views the public.

Recently, I found myself at the Fund for Public Schools, an umbrella charity for the New York City public school system. While at the site, I clicked to see if the Fund was sharing it books. It is. The Fund shares it books going back seven years — very impressive.

Like New York, I know that MCPS has its own charitable foundation. And so, I went to the MCPS website to determine if the books were open. Those books aren’t.

All you can find is this statement: “In 2012, the Board of Directors approved the Finance Committee’s retention of Commonfund as the foundation’s investment manager.”

The Commonfund link, however, merely takes you to a public website and provides no specific links to the MCPS Foundation’s financials — the books.

I ended up emailing County Councilmember George Leventhal about this. George sent me to Dr. Andrew Zuckerman, the newly hired MCPS chief of staff.

Several weeks later, I spoke with Dr. Zuckerman on the telephone. He was a nice person. He said he would look into “the books,” and determine why the books weren’t public. But I could honestly tell in his voice that he might not care as much as I cared about the issue.

When on the telephone with Dr. Zuckerman, I mentioned that it seemed odd to me that MCPS — a modern and sophisticated public organization — wasn’t more open and transparent. Being such at has never been easier than right now. Beyond the MCPS Foundation books, I mentioned Schools at a Glance and asked, “Why is such a key, and public MCPS data file not available as a downloadable Excel file?”

His answer (not a direct word-for-word quote, but close enough): “The public would misuse the data.”

What?

How would the public misuse facts such as school capacity, enrollment counts and the number of teachers?

I have no idea what Dr. Zuckerman means when he says the public would misuse data. Perhaps BethesdaNow readers can jump in and provide a few examples of how the public would be helped if the Schools at a Glance information was available as a downloadable Excel file.

Go for it readers. Also help me understand what the downside is to the MCPS Foundation posting its financials.

Joseph Hawkins is a longtime Bethesda resident who remembers when there was no Capital Crescent Trail. He works full-time for an employee-owned social science research firm located Montgomery County. He is a D.C. native and for nearly 10 years, he wrote a regular column for the Montgomery Journal. He also has essays and editorials published in Education Week, the Washington Post, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. He is a serious live music fan and is committed to checking out some live act at least once a month.


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