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More than 180 privately run schools in New Jersey promise to take on the severely disabled children that public schools can’t handle, giving them a special status in the Garden State's educational system. But these schools are also a $600 million industry funded by New Jersey taxpayers – an industry that is only loosely regulated by the state. After a two-month investigation, Star-Ledger reporter Christopher Baxter exposed what can happen when the state writes checks to private companies without closely watching what they do with the money. His reporting was a relentless indictment of the system, finding the private schools were able to spend taxpayer dollars in ways public schools could not. He uncovered nepotism among school staffs, executive pay far higher than public school superintendents, officials owning fancy cars, schools offering generous pension plans and questionable business deals between schools and companies owned by school officials. In one instance, Baxter discovered a classroom aide who was related one of the school’s directors was taking home a $94,000 salary – three times what others were paid – without even a bachelor’s degree.
The Des Moines Register Reader's Watchdog column that takes on issues faced by individual Iowans who are at wits’ end and can't get answers from public officials, businesses and the justice system. Watchdog reporter Lee Rood's job is to give voice to readers who present important issues, to investigate all sides of those issues and to seek solutions that eluded others. This is a unique effort that both engages readers and values traditional watchdog reporting. At a time when journalists are seeking to remain relevant, build credibility and engage readers, she has launched this initiative that focuses not on the stories that she thinks are important, but on issues that are critical to our readers. In the past year, she wrote more than 60 columns, digging into watchdog issue brought to her by Iowans. Her work has put a new spotlight on wrongs that needed righting. Her work has led state lawmakers to propose legislation that requires Iowans to call 911 if they are present at the scene of an overdose. She has prodded the state attorney general's office to develop a plan to enforce laws that require companies to have worker's compensation insurance. She has fought through red tape for readers who didn't have someone in their corner to do so. Lee Rood's bold move to launch a new form of watchdog journalism for the Des Moines Register has made Iowans' lives better. Online, this body of work lives at DesMoinesRegister.com/ReadersWatchdog.
The work samples of Mike Wilkinson are entries for the Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism. The first story shows how some struggling school districts are paying exorbitant teacher salaries. Another finds that a local television station's segments called "Best School Districts" are advertorials. The final story tracks the murder rates among young black men.
A team of 52 Journal News reporters gathered evidence through a FOI audit of 121 agencies in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam. The audit revealed that school districts and counties generally received an A for their compliance of FOI law. But police departments failed miserably, with a mere 37 percent of them giving out arrest data. Worse, New York's toothless Sunshine Law stifled access to public information and provided little incentive for government agencies to comply.