Public Records: Contracts

Credit: kennymiller, Flickr

Contractor agreements are a great place to find quick-hit business stories.  For a state university, a list of contractors can be obtained with a simple open records request. Obviously private, not-for-profit colleges are under no such disclosure requirement. But with a bit more digging, you can get those contract details as well.

Let’s begin with public universities. The Student Press Law Center has great Open Records Letter Generator. There you can find the relevant open-records language you need for your request. To help with your request, here are some contract details to ask for:

A dataset of all active contracts [YOUR COLLEGE] is currently engaged in. To be clear, this is a request for export of a an active-contract dataset or related materials in native format including all fields going back to January 1, 2000, or as far back as the information is maintained. The dataset should be in Excel format.

This dataset should include, but not be limited to, information that pertains to the following fields:

*Contract No.
*Award Date
*Current End Date
*Estimated Completion Date
*Award Status
*Current Contract Value
*Principal Office Utilizing Contract
*Contract Description

After crafting your request, send it to your institution’s Open Records Officer or other relevant individual — perhaps someone in the media relations or general counsel offices at your college.

When you get the contract details you asked for, be sure to throughly review the information. For instance, who are the business leaders sitting on your college’s governing board? Now, do you see any of those companies on your university’s contractor list? Despite the conflict-of-interest issues that arise with these types of deals, administrators and governing boards seem to have no problem making them. With your request for a contractor list, you should also ask for your university’s conflict-of-interest transaction policy. And if you see anything that deserves more digging, be sure to request the actual contract.

Onto private universities… First, nothing beats being attentive on campus. Keep your eyes open for announcements and other changes on campus. These leads can deliver great stories all on their own.

I’ve said it before: the Form 990 is the greatest public record ever. You can find your university’s Form 990 posted at a number of places online, such as Guidestar or Urban Institute. In the Form 990, Part VII, Section B will list the top five contractors your university compensated for the fiscal year.

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Schedule L, Part IV will list the transactions an interested party engaged in with your university during the tax year — interested parties being board members and officers, both current and former.

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And of course, a quick Google search of any of these companies is strongly advised. Is that vaguely named company a debt collector or a maid service? You won’t know until you check.

That’s all for now. Talk to you soon.

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