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Alex Schneider: Student group funding decisions aren’t NSA secrets

Distributing money to student groups should be pretty routine. But GW students bring too much politics into what should be rational choices.

Club leaders never seem to get enough money for programming. Elected student leaders never seem to have a large enough pool to allocate from. Students are left to wonder, who’s really paying for big-name speakers and free food?

But the questions and politicking is heightened because the Student Bar Association does not post student funding requests and allocations publicly online. Transparency in this case can clear up a process that always involves limited resources and unfair outcomes.

Sunlight, after all, is the best of disinfectants.

We know the SBA receives $78,205 from the Student Association and more from the dean’s funds and through fundraising, but we don’t know how they distribute that funding to each of the smaller law school-oriented organizations.

Despite language in the school representative body’s constitution requiring public reporting of the budget occasionally, some SBA Senators have acknowledged a “longstanding SBA practice” of keeping the allocations “in strict confidence,” according to the SBA’s Integrity in Senate Transparency Act.

Led by student Sen. Rob Russo, a group of SBA senators is working on much-needed changes to the rules. Unfortunately, other senators have pushed back, and this legislation has not yet mustered the two-thirds majority needed to change the bylaws.

Still, for a bill entitled “Integrity in Senate Transparency,” the plan’s latest revision is a compromise without full transparency. The reform gives the Senate oversight on the release of budget allocations, but does not release the data publicly online.

But club funding distribution should not be private. The information should be available to club leaders, to tuition-paying students, to faculty and to staff. It should be posted online, as is the case with allocations in the Student Association.

The harm of non-disclosure was on display in November 2012 when students agreed in a referendum to raise the student activity fee. Those votes mean nothing if students do not have all the facts as to individual club spending.

In its discussions, the SBA has been far too concerned with club confidentiality. Some student leaders might make the case that confidentiality is necessary to protect external contracts, employee salaries or the nature of advanced event planning.

But this isn’t the NSA budget we’re talking about.

This is clubs planning events for or offering services to students. Peers have a right to know and assess the true cost of club events and the decisions club leaders make.

I’ll admit, not every student will go out searching for how much clubs are spending. But transparency would level the playing field, allow for a fact-based debate over allocations and help keep club leaders honest by making sure money is well-spent.

Information on SA organizations is already posted online. That’s how we know that the GW College Democrats got $31,900 this year, but the Republicans only $27,900. Online reporting shows that GW Mock Trial took in $15,000, but GW Parliamentary Debate got only $6,800 and GW International Debate just $100.

Public accountability puts pressure on clubs to make honest requests, to meet the standards they set for themselves and to spend allocations judiciously.

But even the SA system is not perfect. The SA and SBA should opt for more detailed and precise reporting. They could build a simple system online where students are able to log in and browse a club’s line item budget requests, allocations and expenditures. The system could even rate clubs based on spending habits.

By discussing transparency in the first place, the SBA Senate is on the right track. Senators should opt for transparency with a new online database, finally bringing real transparency to the law school allocations process.

The writer, a second-year law student, is a Hatchet columnist.

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