Public School Boards Need to Do Better at Embracing Transparency 

 


They say sunlight is the best disinfectant.  


 
So why do so many public school boards hide in the shadows?  


 
 
One of the shining virtues of public schools is the requirement that they be transparent and open to the public.  


 
And they are! 


 
But too often school directors do so in ways that are unnecessarily burdensome, equivocal or combative.  


 
Let me give you an example.  


 
I live in the McKeesport Area School District (MASD) – a community just south of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.  


 
When I heard my school board was considering a proposed district budget for 2022-23 without a tax increase, I wanted to take a look at it. So I went to the district Website and there was a link labelled:  


 
“Preliminary Budget Information for 2022-23 School Year.”
 


 
I clicked on it and got this: 


 
“The Board of Directors of the McKeesport Area School District has prepared a Preliminary Budget in the amount of funds that will be required by the School District for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2022. The Proposed Budget is on file in the Office of the Business Manager/Board Secretary, and is available for public inspection in the McKeesport Area School District Administration Building…” [Emphasis mine.


What the heck!?  


Why not just post the preliminary budget on the Internet!? Why make me go all the way to the administration building (during business hours) to see a copy? 


It’s not like I can even turn to my local newspaper to tell me about the district’s budget. With so many cutbacks in local media, our papers rarely even cover school districts anymore unless there’s a big story.  


If I want to know how my district proposes to spend the community’s tax dollars next year, I need to either go to the school board meeting or go to the administration office and look at a copy. Will I be able to take a copy with me to peruse at my leisure? Maybe or maybe not.  


We should be able to do better than this. 


Don’t get me wrong. 


 
Authentic public schools are way better than privatized schools.  


 
They’re preferable to anything you’d find at charter or private schools that take school vouchers.  


 
And one of the biggest reasons why is this requirement of local control, self-government, and a free exchange of information between representatives and the community who elected them.   


 
Authentic public schools HAVE TO hold public meetings to conduct their business.  


 
They HAVE TO take comments from the community. 


 
They HAVE TO make their documentation available to the public.  


 
And except under extreme circumstances, they HAVE TO be run by elected school boards.

 
 
None of that is a given at charter and voucher schools. 


 
The problem is how too many public school directors meet these obligations. 


 
MASD, for example, makes its proposed budget available – but not in the most convenient way that it could.  


 
Let’s be honest. It wouldn’t take much to improve this.  


 
Posting the full budget online would take just a few seconds. In fact, it’s actually more trouble to have it available in the administration building and task a secretary with presenting it to anyone who comes in-person and asks for it. 


 
The same thing goes for school board meetings.  


 
Before I became a public school teacher, I was a journalist often covering public schools.  


 
I’ve gone to a lot of school board meetings in my life. A LOT.  


 
And almost every board put unnecessary or onerous restrictions on public comments.  


 
Residents could come to the meetings and address the board but they often had to sign in before-hand. They couldn’t just show up and speak. They had to let the board know days in advance that they were coming and the subject they planning to speak on.  


 
If something came up during the meeting unplanned, technically residents weren’t allowed to comment – though I admit I’ve never seen a school board hold to such a policy in the case of unexpected events.

 
 
Also there are almost always time limits on public comments.  


 
Now I know it’s unreasonable to expect members of the public who volunteer to serve as school directors to spend all night listening to rambling or incoherent comments. But these time limits are often way too restrictive – especially when only a handful of people actually turn up to speak.  


 
Limiting people to two minutes of public comment in a month or even a two-week period is ridiculous.

 
 
Then we have the issue of audio visuals at board meetings.  


 
Many school boards have microphones for people to speak into during the proceedings. This is supposed to allow everyone present to hear what is being said. However, the equipment is often so bad that it actually ends up blurring the speaker’s voice until its incomprehensible or board members who don’t want to be heard simply don’t speak into the microphone.  


 
Sure – the entire proceedings are being taken down by hand by an administrator for an official written copy of the minutes. But this isn’t even available to the public until a month later when the board votes on last month’s minutes document. The public can’t get a copy of this material until more than a month has passed from it taking place. And it probably isn’t available on-line. 


 
Finally, we have recordings of the meetings.  


 
Many school boards now video tape their meetings and stream them live on YouTube, Facebook or some other social media site.  


 
This is a nice improvement from when community groups had to do this, themselves. And, in fact, it’s really a response to that phenomenon to gain control over what becomes public record. School boards began recording the meetings to discourage others from doing it so the district would have control over this material. And in most cases it worked. 


 
However, these recordings are almost always of exceedingly poor quality.

 
 
Cameras (and microphones) are placed so far away that it is almost impossible to tell what is happening, what is being said or who said it.  
 


Any teenager with a smart phone and a YouTube channel could do a better job.  


 
Moreover, these videos often don’t stay posted online for very long. They could easily remain posted so anyone could rewatch them and catch up with what happened at a school board meeting they were unable to attend in-person. But school boards make the express decision to take these videos down so that record is not available. 


 
Very few of these are accidents. In most cases these are intentional to push the public away at the exact time when they should be inviting them in.  


 
These are just some examples of how school boards comply with transparency requirements but do so in ways that are inconvenient, onerous or antagonistic. 


 
It is so unnecessary. 


 
Things don’t have to be this way.  


 
School boards should welcome transparency. They should embrace public participation in the process.  


 
After all, this is one of the major factors that distinguish authentic public schools from privatized ones.  


 
School directors complain about losing revenue to charter and voucher schools. If they treated the public more like valued members of the decision-making process, they would do a lot to boost their own reputation.  


 
President James Madison wrote


 
 “[a] popular Government, without popular information, or­ the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy.”  


 
School directors should take this to heart. 


 
Public schools should not be shadowy corners for school directors to try to sneak through policies under the nose of stake holders.  


 
They should be shinning centers of the community. 


 
The sooner school boards understand this, the better it will be for the state of public education and the students, families and communities we are supposed to be serving in the first place. 


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Let Voters Fix Harrisburg School Board – Not State Takeover

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Pushing the self-destruct button is the ultimate measure of last resort.

 

But that’s how several Pennsylvania lawmakers are suggesting we fix the dysfunctional Harrisburg School Board.

 

An election that could oust most of the very school directors responsible for the district’s troubles is less than a month away. But Democratic Representative Patty Kim, Republican Senator John DiSanto and Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse all say we shouldn’t wait – The state should takeover the Harrisburg School District immediately.

 

This would effectively destroy all democratic government in a district located in the state capital.

 

While senators and representatives from all over the Commonwealth work to enact the will of their constituents from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, residents at city schools a few miles away would be robbed of their own voices.

 

Under state law, if the district were put into receivership, a court-appointed receiver would assume all the functions of a locally elected school board, except the power to raise and levy taxes. This appointee would effectively take charge of the district’s personnel and finances.

 

Oversight and public input essentially would be repealed. The receiver could do whatever he or she liked and there’s little anyone could do about it.

 

It’s a bad idea anywhere, though one can understand why state lawmakers have suggested it here.

 

Harrisburg Schools are a mess, and it’s largely because of the inept leadership of Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney and five of the nine-member school board who consistently support her every move.

 

Declining academic performance, high teacher turnover rates, and poor fiscal management – all are hallmarks of the way Harrisburg schools have been run.

 

The state even suspended more than $10 million in funding to the district after the board voted not to cooperate with an audit requested because of allegations administration had mismanaged federal grant funds.

 

But the district’s problems begin before the school board even enters into the picture.

 

Like nearly every urban district in the Commonwealth, Harrisburg has a history of being neglected and underfunded. One estimate puts the Harrisburg shortfall between $35 million and $38 million a year.

 

That’s why the district is already under a state-mandated recovery plan. It serves a poor community whose tax base simply cannot support the needs of its own children. Like other impoverished schools, the administration and board are required to work with a recovery officer.

 

This recovery plan has not miraculously fixed the district’s problems. It’s magical thinking to suppose that a court-appointed receiver would do any better.

 

If the state wants to help, it should provide equitable and sustainable funding. However, it is completely reasonable that state lawmakers wait until responsible adults have taken back the school board first.

 

A citizen-led school reform group called CATCH (Concerned About the Children of Harrisburg) has been pushing to oust the incumbents who have consistently supported the administration’s disastrous decisions, most of whom are up for re-election.

 

There are nine board members. Five invariably vote with the administration: Danielle Robinson, Ellis Roy, Lola Lawson, Patricia Whitehead-Myers, and Lionel Gonzalez.

 

 

Three unfailingly vote against the administration: Brian Carter, Judd Pittman and Carrie Fowler. There is one wild card: Joseph Brown, who was just appointed to take a vacant seat on the board this month and has mostly abstained from voting.

 

Of these, Brown and all of those supporting the administration but Robinson are up for re-election.

 

To flip these seats on the board CATCH is pushing for Gerald Welch, Doug Thomson-Leader, Steven Williams, and Jayne Buchwach. The local teachers union, the Harrisburg Education Association (HEA), and the local chapter of The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) endorsed all of them and an additional one – James Thompson.

 

If even two of the newcomers are elected, that will shift the balance of power away from those who have enabled an administration infamous for irresponsible errors and neglect purchased at the expense of personal favors to weak willed school directors.

 

This includes an accounting error that kept 54 former employees on its healthcare plan, an investigation into improper grading allegations at one of its high schools, rapid teacher turnover, and falling student test scores. Administrators haven’t even presented a budget for the 2019-20 school year yet!

 

Meanwhile, this same quintet of school directors rewarded administration by reappointed Superintendent Knight-Burney last spring, hiring controversial attorney James Ellison as solicitor despite a record of fraud, lawsuits and delinquent taxes, and three times refused to fill Melvin Wilson’s vacant board seat with a candidate who had broad public support and instead punted the decision to the courts.

 

Despite an almost laughable record of corruption in the district, voters have a chance to change course in less than a month.

 

All of the reform candidates are Democrats so the matter could be settled by the May 21 primary.

 

It would be beyond absurd for the state to step in and deny the public the right to correct its own ship.

 

However, though new candidates could be elected in a matter of weeks, they wouldn’t be sworn in until December. So even under the best of circumstances, city schools would remain under the dysfunctional board for the foreseeable future.

 

That’s not good. There’s a lot of damage a lame duck board could do in that time. However, the alternative of receivership is worse.

 

Once you take away a school district’s right to govern itself, it’s hard to get it back again. Plus there is no guarantee that appointed bureaucrats will do a better job. In fact, they rarely do.

 

Education Secretary Pedro Rivera has remained silent on the issue of receivership. But in a recent statement he said his department “will consider all actions allowable by law” to guide the district through a financial recovery plan.

 

Here’s hoping that democracy is allowed to flourish in the capital of Pennsylvania.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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