Use Form 990s to dig into non-profit connections

by December 10, 2012

IRS form 990Anne Ryman of The Arizona Republic used Form 990 and independent audits to find business connections between charter schools and their board members. Those business deals aren’t illegal, but they do create potential conflicts, she writes.

The story idea developed while reporting on a project about online schools, she says. She came across business deals between owners’ non-profit and for-profit businesses and wondered how common they were.

Form 990 data, which is accessible through Guidestar.org, gave her board member names and general financials. The audits, which are required by the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, provided disclosures of transactions between schools and board members.

For instance, her story says, “In one case, school officials in Phoenix thought they were exempt from purchasing laws and failed to put a contract out to bid for non-academic services that were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. In another case, a Glendale school purchased a van for almost twice its value and had to get the money refunded.”

Anne Ryman

Anne says she also filed public records requests to see if board members voted or abstained on issues related to their businesses. The records also helped her confirm information from the 990s and audits. “In one case, people listed as board members were officers of the school,” she says.

She also went to the schools to verify information and to get their points of view into the story.  “I told them upfront that this was not like a feature story so they knew there was some controversy here,” she says.

Not all schools were receptive, but she persisted with calls, emails and letters because she wanted to give them the opportunity to talk, she says.