Editorial: Open the books on high school sports money

SHARE Editorial: Open the books on high school sports money

When money is tight for pretty much every unit of government in Illinois, the public has a right to know how every last tax dollar is being spent.

But we live in curious times when, in the hallowed name of private enterprise, various agencies and micro-governments spend tax money as they see fit in quasi-secrecy, essentially telling you, the taxpayer, to butt out.

They hide behind a legal fiction, their status as private not-for-profit organizations, though they dig deeply into the taxpayer’s pocket, existing directly or indirectly on tax dollars.

EDITORIAL

Case in point is the Illinois High School Association, the governing body for high school sports in Illinois. Eighty percent of its members are taxpayer-funded schools, and it makes most of its money from the sale of tickets to sporting events by student athletes on school property. Its 10-member board includes public school principals, and it governs eligibility and other key issues affecting student-athletes.

Only in the Bizarro World of DC Comics is this a private business.

Yet the IHSA refuses to divulge information about its finances beyond the minimum requirements of the Internal Revenue Service. On the most basic level, this makes it impossible even to know if the IHSA’s revenue-sharing arrangement with the schools is a fair deal.

It’s a sham. The Illinois General Assembly should end it. If the IHSA will not open its books more, transfer its duties and functions to the Illinois Board of Education.

During the 2013-2014 school year, the IHSA’s executive director, Marty Hickman, was given a 24 percent boost in pay and benefits, for a total compensation of $372,293, putting him in an elite group of particularly well paid Illinois school administrators. But, as Chris Fusco of the Sun-Times reported Monday, the terms of Hickman’s contract and employment remain largely a secret.

Also kept secret, Fusco reports, are sponsorship, TV and other deals made by the IHSA. And the public is not allowed to know how many people were paid a total of $593,379 from the association’s $9.3 million pension fund, or who received $35,170 in benefits from a supplemental pension fund.

This kind of dry bookkeeping minutia matters because it gets to the heart of whether the IHSA is handling its finances responsibly, which in turn gets to the heart of whether the participating schools are getting a fair cut.

In all, the IHSA took in about $10.7 million in revenues, including $5.5 million from ticket sales at playoff and championship events. Of that $5.5 million, the association paid $2.6 million to the hundreds of schools that hosted the events. The association paid another $1 million to referees and other officials, and kept the balance, $1.7 million.

Fusco offers the example of how the money was divvied up after the 2013 boys basketball Class 4A section was held at Bolingbrook High School. The event netted $24,706 from ticket sales, of which the high school got $6,648.

Was that cut — a little more than one dollar in every four — a fair deal for Bolingbrook High School?

Who knows? The IHSA is not fully transparent about its finances, so it is impossible for anybody else, including Bolingbrook High, to judge the deal.

As a general rule, groups that purport to be private not-for-profit entities but subsist on the taxpayers’ dime are a bad idea. That would include the IHSA, of course, but also two other agencies who we singled out in recent editorials for the same reason — Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism agency; and Navy Pier Inc., which runs Navy Pier.

They live off public money. The public has a right to know where every last dollar goes.

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