Years ago, when I was an education reporter, I asked the school system I was covering to tell me who had school-issued credit cards so I could look through the statements to see what they were buying. In all that time, you know what I never thought to ask for? Something old school — checks.
I could have kicked myself as I listened to Tawnell Hobbs, an education reporter at The Dallas Morning News, talk recently about the great stories she has done by requesting her school system’s check registers.
“I get them every month. That’s somebody sitting there with a checkbook writing checks,” she said, speaking at the Education Writers Association Conference in Nashville. “On its face it’s not that sexy, but it can be.”
Tawnell found that the Dallas Independent School District “spent at least $57 million over four years — or one year’s average base pay for 1,086 teachers — on purchases such as pricey meals, costly trips, lucrative consulting contracts and overnight stays at hotels in the Dallas area and beyond.”
She also found that the school system spent more than $300,000 at Atlanta Bread Co., about $86,000 at Chick-fil-A and at least $1.7 million on promotional items, such as mugs, wristbands, T-shirts and hats.
No matter what beat you cover, you can ask to see public agencies’ check registers. Tawnell suggests asking for a spreadsheet with the following information: check number, check date, check amount, document number, item description, account, check amount and vendor name.
Before putting in your request, find out who keeps the information and try to talk with them. They might compile extra information that you didn’t think to ask for.
Tawnell shared some other great public records ideas during her presentation, including:
- Purchase orders
- Credit card info
- Paycheck info
“Make sure those grants are being used properly and they’re not out there buying pizzas with them,” she said.
When making requests and looking through records, Tawnell says to watch out for these red flags:
- Credit card purchases for even amounts (possibly gift cards)
- Understaffing in an office overseeing purchases
- Frequent change orders and/or budget amendments
- Big budget swings
- Decreasing reserve or emergency fund
- Back-to-back purchases to stay under the radar (if there is a dollar limit per purchase)