Community college shields travel bills behind pay wall

Community college shields travel bills behind pay wall

A Texas community college that won a state “transparency” award is charging $2,340 to disclose the school’s travel records. The state Attorney General says not so much.

Community college shields travel bills behind pay wall

By   /   September 28, 2016  /   News  /   3 Comments

Photo by Kenric Ward

Photo by Kenric Ward

ROAD READY: Alamo Colleges spent $3,255,202 on staff travel in fiscal 2015, but won’t say who went where or why without a payment from Watchdog.org.

 

A Texas community college that won a state “transparency” award is charging $2,340 to disclose the school’s travel records. The state attorney general says not so much.

Last May, Watchdog.org sought the travel expenses of administrators and board members at San Antonio’s Alamo Colleges for 2014 and 2015.

Alamo Colleges attorney Ross Laughead responded with a three-page letter estimating that 130 hours of staff time would be required to compile the information.

“The request requires manipulation of data,” Laughead wrote on May 23. “The cost of manipulating data becomes the responsibility of the requestor pursuant to Texas Government Code Section 552.231.”

Subsequently, Laughead agreed to disclose, without charge, the colleges’ overall travel expenditures for the past two years.

The district’s total travel outlays for fiscal year 2015 were reported at $3,255,202, up from $2,190,637 in fiscal 2014 – a 49 percent increase.

“These amounts include travel conducted by both employees and students and encompass all funding sources, including operations, auxiliary and grant sources,” Laughead explained.

Pursuing a breakdown of the district’s travel logs — who went where and why — Watchdog challenged the college district’s $2,340 charge with the state AG’s office.

Meanwhile, Watchdog requested, and received, travel records from two other major community college districts in Texas.

Austin Community College provided 975 pages of detailed expense sheets showing $951,571 in travel costs for fiscal 2015. Austin’s travel bill was less than a third of Alamo Colleges’ outlays.

Fort Worth-based Tarrant County Community College, with an enrollment comparable to Alamo’s 58,000 students, listed $37,924 in itemized travel charges.

Austin and Tarrant disclosed their travel expense information at no charge.

Houston Community College reported $838,634 in travel expenses, but did not itemize its outlays. The college system said it would charge $120 to do so.

The Dallas County Community College District — the state’s largest with more than 70,000 students — quoted a charge of $550 to produce its travel records. The college said the travel logs could be viewed in person at no cost.

Laughead denied Watchdog’s request to examine Alamo’s travel spending, citing “privacy” issues involving cell phone numbers that may appear on the records.

AP file photo

AP file photo

BUCKS UP: Alamo Colleges chancellor Bruce Leslie, the highest compensated county community college chancellor in the nation, applauds his school’s financial transparency.

Ironically, the Alamo Colleges won the Texas Comptroller Leadership Circle 2015 Platinum Award for financial transparency from the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

The Leadership Circle honors state agencies that “open records to the public; provide clear, consistent pictures of spending; and share information in a user friendly format that helps taxpayers understand how their tax dollars are spent.”

At the time, Alamo Colleges President Bruce Leslie said, “We have recently expanded and enhanced the information available on our financial transparency website to keep taxpayers, students and employees informed about our financial health.”

Watchdog reported last year that Leslie’s $429,229 salary made him the highest-paid community college president in the country.

Reviewing Watchdog’s cost complaint against Alamo Colleges, the state AG’s office rejected most of the district’s $2,340 bill.

“Section 552.2615 of the Government Code requires a governmental body to send an itemized statement of charges if the charges will exceed $40,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Tamara Smith.

“The college may not recover more than $40” for accounting work already performed, Smith ruled, citing insufficient itemization by the school.

As for any uncompleted work, Smith said, “The college may charge labor at $15 per hour for the time spent retrieving [and copying] the responsive information. … However, the college failed to explain how ‘verifying expenses’ and ‘managerial review’” qualified for charges.

“Accordingly, the college may not charge for those items,” Smith wrote.

Smith said Alamo Colleges “may charge 20 percent of any applicable labor as overhead,” citing Section 552.269 of the Government Code and Section 70.8 of Title 1 of the Administrative Code.

The AG’s office gave the college five days to produce amended charges for the information requested by Watchdog.

Nicole Neily, president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, said, “It’s disappointing that Alamo Colleges has chosen to throw up barriers to public information, but unsurprising.”

“We hope that the involvement of Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office will provide the transparency that the law requires,” she said. Watchdog is a project of the Franklin Center.

Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him atkward@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @Kenricward

Michael Buse, Nate Crosser and Grant Broadhurst contributed to this story.

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