I was at a journalism conference in Nashville last year when I heard about a public record I had never thought to request.
Tawnell Hobbs, a reporter at The Dallas Morning News, was giving a presentation on school finance reporting when she mentioned an investigative story she had done using check registers.
“I get them every month. That’s somebody sitting there with a checkbook writing checks,” she said. “On its face it’s not that sexy, but it can be.”
Hobbs 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.
As Hobbs spoke, I thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?” I’ve requested credit card records from public agencies I’ve covered, but I never thought about checks.
I reached out to Hobbs recently and asked her to tell me more about her story and what advice she has for reporters:
How did you get the idea to do the story?
Dallas ISD planned to cut its budget by $100 million over two years because of funding cuts. I was curious to see if there was fat in the budget that could be cut, so I requested the check register to look at spending.
Was it difficult to get the check registers?
We easily obtained the check register using an open records request.
Were you surprised by what you found?
Yes, I was quite surprised at the amount of money being spent on food for administrative gatherings, rental facilities, transportation and hotel stays.
What reaction did you get from the school system and the public about the story?
As we asked questions concerning the check register, the school district began making changes to cut bad spending practices. And after the story ran, more changes were made. For instance, limitations were placed on spending for food and the rental of outside facilities for activities. The public demanded an end to bad spending practices.
What advice do you have for reporters hoping to do a similar story?
Patience. We went through 775 lines of purchases, receipts and documents. We only counted purchases as “fat” that didn’t appear to have a direct impact on educating children. It was time consuming as the database did not have details. So, we put in dozens of requests for receipts and documents for more information on what was purchased.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to say that it’s important to get the data. Remember, the stories are in the data.
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A few other helpful hints I learned from Hobbs’ presentation last year:
- 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 request.
- Ask for a spreadsheet with the following information: check number, check date, check amount, document number, item description, account, check amount and vendor name.
- Besides checks, also ask for purchase orders, credit card records, paycheck info, budgets and grants.
“Make sure those grants are being used properly and they’re not out there buying pizzas with them,” Hobbs said.
When making requests and looking through records, Hobbs 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 funds
- Back-to-back purchases to stay under the radar (if there is a dollar limit per purchase)