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OUR VIEW: Why we sought school budgets

We riled up some school officials around the Mitchell area last week with our surprise openness audit.

In conjunction with Sunshine Week, a yearly observance of the importance of government transparency, we called all 36 public school districts in our print circulation area and asked for a digital copy of each district's most recent budget.

Why would we do such a thing? We wanted to determine whether a document that is open in theory would actually be open in reality. In other words, would the state laws designating school budgets as public documents actually work for someone requesting a copy of a budget, or would those laws prove useless when thrown against the wall of government bureaucracy?

The results were mixed. Granted, 24 of the 36 school districts supplied us with a copy of their budget in a timely fashion. But that also means we were not able to obtain a budget from 12 school districts. And even among the districts that complied, few did so without first casting suspicion on the requester. School officials who fielded the requests often wanted to know who was asking, what organization the requester was associated with, where the requester was from, and why the requester was seeking the information.

You might say, so what? It's natural to be curious when a request for information pops up by surprise, isn't it?

Natural, maybe. Appropriate, no.

A public document is only truly public when anybody from anywhere can acquire it for any reason. That's why our reporters gave only their first names when they called the school districts. We knew that if the officials understood they were talking to a reporter, they might realize they'd have to surrender the document or risk public scrutiny. We wanted to test whether the school officials would be as cooperative with someone they thought was a random citizen.

Some school officials were wonderfully courteous and cooperative. There was a clear understanding by some that a public document is a public document, and that public documents should be provided immediately to anyone who asks for them. Hooray for those well-informed public servants.

Other school officials interrogated our reporters the way one might expect to be treated by an airport security screener. Shame on them. They treated the school's budget -- a lawfully public document that belongs to the people -- as though it was a secret to be guarded against the threat of prying eyes.

Sunshine Week is over, but as our audit showed, those who believe in government openness must never rest.