"Villainy wears many masks, none so dangerous as the mask of virtue."— Ichabod Crane, in the 1999 film version of "Legend of Sleepy Hollow"
"If you're going through hell, keep going."–Walt Disney
Those who still think America's public schools are focused on academics are behind the times. Money, control and influence are the priorities now. You can tell because of the battle being fought behind the scenes in our school districts over open government.
Citizens who want to know what government schools are doing with our dollars and children are finding that many in leadership don't want us to know. As we push for information, they're pushing back. This struggle is taking place earnestly – even fiercely. It's also happening quietly, largely because the media aren't much help. (Many of those whose job is to inform the public have become sycophantic defenders of the government and aggressive attackers of the people.)
Media Response to Records Requests and the PDC's Investigation
Washington State's Public Records Act provides citizens with the legal right to obtain records from public agencies. This legal right is necessary for transparency and accountability. If citizens aren't informed and involved in holding governments accountable, governments become corrupt.
In September 2011, I sifted through more than a thousand records from Spokane Public Schools (SPS). It appeared to me that the school district actively campaigned for its 2009 bond and levy and also assisted in a 2011 campaign for a school board candidate (which would be violations of state law RCW 42.17.130). I filed a formal complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission. After reviewing it, the PDC announced it would investigate. That investigation is ongoing.
(It's important to know that if citizens don't file PDC complaints, no one will.)
Despite this formal investigation of the second largest school district in Washington State, most media either declined to mention the investigation or have criticized and mocked it. I was labeled as a "loud critic" and implied to be incompetent, a conspiracy theorist and "less than fully hinged." Certain local media suggested that my motives were improper and self-serving.
In February 2012, a school administrator implied in The Inlander that I'm an "abusive" public records requester. In a phone call asking for an interview, Inlander reporter Nick Deshais said: "I'm doing a story on the Spokane Public Schools trying to change state law to charge reasonable costs for public records requests. They say about 75% of their requests in the last year have come from you, therefore suggesting it is you who are at fault for this request."
(I would be happy to stack up the number of my requests against the number of Spokesman-Review requests for data, information, quotes, records, ideas, and canned, happy little stories.)
In Deshais' article, two other citizens also were implied to be abusive, although each filed just one records request with SPS. On May 25, a citizen transferred her request to someone else because of the district's handling of her request. In an email to the district, this citizen explained:
â¦ the district has made my name well known through a series of e-mails worded in such a way that has raised unwarranted alarm in the public while subtly suggesting members of the public consider taking legal action. The District has also publicly implied that I am an abusive public records requestor, despite that I have made but one request, and although it is my legal right to do so. As a result of these actions by the District, I have been the recipient of hostility from many members of the public, both known and unknown to me. The District has imposed this attitude upon its employees as well, which has directly (led) to negative and hostile encounters â¦ and additionally placed undue stress upon our family.
School District Response to Requests for Public Records
Many people don't realize that the Public Records Act allows citizens to make records requests anonymously, and without having to explain intent. However, SPS began notifying people about certain requests, repeatedly identifying requesters by name. Administrators told citizens that injunctions could be filed against the requests, and they offered to talk with citizens about it by phone. They told me that people were "concerned" about one of my requests but they planned to keep notifying people unless I modified the request. These actions seemed to me, a requester, to be purposefully intimidating.
The district told citizens, "Unfortunately, the Washington State Public Records Act does not allow public agencies (such as School Districts) to ask why a requester is seeking public record information." Actually, it's fortunate that citizens don't have to explain themselves to public agencies. Public agencies, however, do have the responsibility of explaining themselves to citizens.
SPS has attempted to excuse its notifications by saying it's trying to protect private email addresses. But last year, I allowed the district to redact email addresses, and the district notified people anyway.
School District Assault on the Public Records Act
In 2011, the SPS board also began an assault on the PRA by making it a Legislative Priority to charge records requesters for the district's personnel costs to compile public records (as opposed to the copying costs allowed by law). Directors asked for help from Sen. Lisa Brown, and her bill, SB 6576, would have required all school districts to charge those personnel costs. Thankfully, the bill failed, but SPS has indicated it might try for the law again.
Those salaries are already paid with taxes. Why would citizens have to pay them again just to obtain public information? Most couldn't afford it. Such a law would essentially eliminate citizen access to public records where it comes to school districts – which I suspect was the goal.
SPS claims this Legislative Priority is all about costs. Yet, certain administrators appear to have taken purposeful steps to inflate the costs of responding to public records requests and to make the process more burdensome for them and for citizen requesters.
Golly, What's In Those Records, Anyway?
SPS administrators persistently claim that their efforts and their levies and bonds are "for the kids." It's important to understand how your dollars are being spent. Absorb the bare fact that certain government officials want to charge you for the privilege of knowing what they're doing.
How much should requesters pay for hundreds of Maxine comics that district employees sent to each other on district time (such as those I received along with records on the levies)? How much for hundreds of outside newsletters, FUSE Washington emails, legislative updates, and correspondence with money advocates – frequently sent and forwarded on district time?
How much should we pay for the district's incessant and pervasive whining, complaining and campaigning for money – for bonds, levies, simple-majority propositions and other money initiatives and legislation? How much to see administrators purposefully lobby new 18-year-olds (i.e. potential voters on bonds and levies) on school property?
How much should we pay to see if the union and district assisted a school board candidate's elective campaign, or if the superintendent, associate superintendent, and pro-bond/levy group Citizens for Spokane Schools worked together closely and perhaps privately on "levy/bond promotional matters"? (These issues are at the heart of the PDC investigation.)
How much should we pay for the hundreds of daily communications on district time with the union and the media? (It's a wonder anyone has time to breathe, much less educate a child.) Just 10 months of communications between SPS and The Spokesman-Review reportedly produced 40,000 records (an average of about 133 per day). How much for public records that were completely redacted (blacked out) for supposedly not being about district business, yet which used district servers and were sent on district time?
How much should requesters pay to learn that the district treats friendly reporters and allies much better than other taxpayers? How much to know that, in return, local media appear to ask little of the district, seeming to prefer happy sound bites over real information? How much to see all of the obsequious fawning over each other when there's something to be gained?
How much should we pay to see the leadership badger employees day after day after day to vote on the levy, don't forget the levy, tell your friends and family to vote on the levy, vote, vote, vote, vote, 800 jobs are at risk, maybe yours, too, nothing will look the same if the ballot fails, programs are at risk, but look at what you'll get if it passes!? How much to find out where those supposed 800 at-risk jobs are? (I asked that question, but SPS either doesn't know or won't say.)
How much should requesters pay for multiple copies of electronic records that were purposefully printed out, then scanned back in (in some cases prompting an extra charge for scanning)? How much for records that have all metadata removed, attachments included separately (thus creating more records), recipients missing, BCCs (i.e. blind carbon copies) not articulated, email addresses inaccessible, headers of earlier records missing, and which are now not searchable except by opening every record? How much for the thousands of emails the district sent out regarding these records requests? (Each also is a public record and subject to records requests.)
How much should we pay for information that should be online and easily accessible, but that wasn't or isn't – such as the board's Legislative Priorities, late additions to board packets, contracts for the current superintendent and the incoming superintendent, and district instructions to board directors (including a prepared script) on how to help promote bonds and levies? How much to see a list of titles of the curricular materials used in SPS? (In 2009, this list of titles was 56 pages long.)
How much should requesters pay to determine if certain district meetings were held without notice, minutes not taken of certain district and board meetings, pertinent material not posted, or critical decisions made away from the public eye?
This SPS Financial Report – which is provided online – is enlightening. See document pages 52-54.
- Notice that the category of "Instruction" includes supervision, the Department of Teaching and Learning, principals, and counseling and health services (page 53).
- Notice that "Public Activities" (which includes daycare and KSPS) cost $8.2 million (page 54).
- Notice that the district's interest payments on outstanding capital bonds now total more than $20 million (pages 6 and 20).
- Notice that the school board now costs taxpayers almost $1 million per year (page 53), and that the board still overspent its budget by $66,420.
- Notice that "Food Service" cost taxpayers $11.4 million (page 53). How much do you think we should pay to learn that SPS purposefully aims to feed adults with the children's free meals program, so it can reach a 70% level of participation?
How much to know that – despite persistent claims of budget "cuts" – the district's operating budget has actually increased by tens of millions since 2002, and the total budget (including capital projects and debt service) has increased by more than $200 million?
Did you know that certain students are counted as more than one student for funding purposes? How much should we pay to see an obsessive focus on increasing FTE (full-time equivalent) revenue, juxtaposed next to a disdain for taxpayers? In thousands of school district records, I've seen little administrative concern for the children beyond how they can be used:
- To carry home levy flyers;
- To be mules for campaign ads in the KIDS Newspaper;
- To vote on bonds and levies when they turn 18;
- To help campaign for pro-money ballot propositions; and
- To be counted as FTE for revenue.
Work Now to Keep an Open Government, Or Fight Later to Get it Back
Open-government laws on Public Records, Open Public Meetings and Public Disclosure are key to retaining a transparent and accountable government. Governments (including government schools) that are closed to the people are likely to move beyond the control of the people. Protecting our children, our communities and the Republic begins right here and now by keeping the window open on government activity, including school districts.
I'm trying to help keep that window open. Please stand with me, or stand to lose it all.