Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Information is power. Who has it?

It looks increasingly like our superintendent won’t inform the school board of his planned budget cuts until tonight—the very night when the board is supposed to vote on the budget. School board members have been as much in the dark as the rest of us about possible cuts.

The board is required by law to submit its budget to the state by April 15. Tonight, April 8, is the last scheduled board meeting before that deadline. The agenda for the meeting includes a proposed budget summary, but the proposal just addresses broad categories of spending: so much for “instruction,” so much for “general administration,” etc. It doesn’t disclose the specific cuts in staff or programs that the budget will necessitate. Without those specifics, the board is in no position to assess whether the money should be allocated differently among those broad categories.

Perhaps for that reason, the board chair (at the superintendent’s suggestion) has scheduled a “work session” immediately before tonight’s meeting. The topic of the work session is “budget discussion.” That’s all the agenda says; it contains no additional information or enclosures. Tonight is awfully late for the board members to receive specific information about planned cuts; they’ll have to act on that information within an hour or two of receiving it.

The district has been aware of the $3.6 million shortfall since at least early January. Shouldn’t the board have been informed sooner about the administration’s planned response?

Coincidentally, the district also has community meetings scheduled this week and later this month as part of its redistricting process. (One was last night.) At these meetings, people will get a chance to respond to draft redistricting maps. I’m glad the district is getting input on draft maps; that will be much more useful than the exercises at the meeting I attended. But rather than release the draft maps in advance, the superintendent plans to unveil them at the meetings. Even the school board members, apparently, will not have advance notice of the drafts. The rationale is that this will “allow the superintendent to explain what decisions and compromises were made.” But the effect will also be to prevent people who are affected by specific changes from knowing about them in time to attend the meetings.

Is it really the job of the superintendent to withhold information from the school board and the public until he sees fit to release it? Does withholding that information benefit the board and the public, or does it just benefit the superintendent?  Who works for whom?

The work session will start at 5:15 tonight at the Educational Services Center.

Related post here.


Chris said...

Here’s an interesting article about school districts’ responses to open records requests. Researchers from IowaWatch asked school districts across the state for information about their policies and procedures for emergency lockdowns. According to the article, administrators from our district told the researchers that “district officials are reluctant to provide this information readily because of past accusations of being too free with information.” The district did eventually provide some information, however, "after several weeks of prodding by IowaWatch."

The article then noted that “The Iowa City school district has come under fire in the past for its handling of public records requests, but in a highly public instance was accused of being too restrictive, not too free. In 2012, the district settled a public records lawsuit, paying nearly $5,000 in court fees, after a judge ruled it had illegally withheld records regarding a geothermal project at City High.”

Maybe my history doesn’t go back far enough. Has anyone ever complained that our district was “too free” with releasing information to the public?

Julie VanDyke said...

Murley has complained that our district is too free with information in past discussions. He has consistently moved board materials towards being less informative: i.e., the transfer information used to include which actual school a child was transferring from or into for out of district enrollments into or out of the ICCSD was removed from public view when he had the reporting format of that information changed. We used to see the "reasons" given for the parents leaving the ICCSD by choice (both on their original forms and in summaries of outgoing surveys). None of these things are included any more, though I have protested their removal as valuable information towards public understanding of the wave of immigration out of our district by as many as 3, 4, or 5 to every 1 that comes in.
Murley's explanation of being too free with information was that giving information to the public in advance allows for too much public criticism. Hmmm, criticism, cause his proposals aren't going to receive criticism if people aren't informed? No actually. I'm pretty sure his proposals will be criticized (some people might call that examined closely) regardless...but much as evidenced in the individually targeting community comment policy "guidelines" he and Chace Ramey wrote secretly behind closed doors for the board, providing them directly to board VP Marla Swesey and Chair Brian Kirschling for its debut at the Policy & Engagement Committee that no board member would admit to knowing when asked directly by Tuyet Dorau, this is not a man, when you look at that policy he crafted to target individuals who knowledgeably disagree with his administration, who values informed dissent. His intolerance of informed dissent was likely increased by his unpopularity at his last district, the teachers of which gifted him with a no-confidence vote in his leadership.

It may be time for a history lesson on how Murley left his previous district(s) (barely avoiding rail, tar, and feathers). Complaints from individuals and media included the expense and frequency of Murley's travel (one of Wassau's "Most Traveled"), that he increased the amount teachers had to pay towards their insurance by a significant amount, that he overspent to the point of almost ruining their district.
Murley used to speak with me quite a bit on the phone...one of the things he said to me was that I should stop speaking up on behalf of the interests of the high FRL groups and others because he said that if they wanted their wishes and concerns taken into consideration, they had to do it in the ways the district offered them. I'm being kind in that description. What he seemed to me to be saying pretty clearly, and not in a way that gave me the impression that he cared but that he seemed dismissive of their needs, was that if they didn't speak up in large numbers themselves, that their concerns didn't matter and wouldn't be given as much consideration.

Keep in mind also, it is under this superintendent that the board meetings stopped including full administrative and MIS reports. Those reports are no longer given on camera for the public at large to see or review, they are "hidden" in committee meetings which are only audiotaped, with the squeaky clean mini-version presented to the board if at all. This superintendent has taken to helping hide all kinds of important information in those pesky committee meetings...yep, the same ones that "magically" receive policy in near final draft form from invisible hands that don't remember writing them until their HR Director lawyers crack under pressure and contradict our superintendent's assertions and spotty memory.

Julie VanDyke said...


"One district — the Iowa City Community School District — originally assessed a fee but eventually provided the policy, with parts redacted, after several weeks of prodding by IowaWatch."

This is something I have seen happen in a unique situation where I had the original email text written down carefully with the assistance of Mr. Murley during an evening phone call during which he also told me details about when he sent his initial email, who he sent it to, to which he said only Director Mike Cooper had replied. I would never have known about Director Cooper's email reply, a very disturbing one considering there was an election pending at the time it was written...one that included candidates Swesey, Hoelscher, McGinness, Fields, Hemmingway, and VanDyke.

One of the most interesting things about this particular FOIA Murley initially helped me make, is that by the time the FOIA was "completed" he no longer seemed to want me to have the information he'd already provided over the phone. In fact, not only was I charged for the FOIA request which he himself had led me to initiate, but when Chace Ramey provided the first "redacted" version of Cooper's email it was missing much more information than they really could have begun to justify withholding (remember, I had the original email written down as Murley read it to me over the phone). So, because I knew what the email had said, I challenged Ramey's redaction. He then provided a second, ever so slightly less redacted version. Now, when comparing the 3 versions of Cooper's email reply: one from Murley, Chace Ramey's first redaction, and Ramey's second redaction, it's kind of interesting to "see" what the district considers "confidential".

I would again, yep, it'll be relevant till all of it is honestly corrected, suggest every one of you read the extensive concerns and attention paid to the importance of more transparency from the district very clearly advised by the Synesi Audit. Particularly since the URGENT email Murley told me he'd sent to the board was to request the board's permission to begin looking into getting information on an emergency external audit (asking that Paul Schultz and Paul Bobek not be alerted to said email) of the district's business office etc. Cooper's email reply, as Murley relayed it on the phone, implied that with an election coming up shortly (one in which Patti Fields was seeking re-election if you'll remember) that it wasn't a good time to ask for this outside audit. "Magically" Murley was put off taking action on getting the outside audit the board meeting immediately after the election.

Still, the thing I find most interesting in the entire fall down the rabbit hole was that there could be two different redacted versions from Chace Ramey. Either he over-redacted the first time, if it withheld information for which he had no legitimate reason to justify, or...he over-redacted THE FIRST TIME. Let me tell ya though, having the original email dictated from Murley during that original phone call (before Chace would have even started here), I feel both versions from Chace Ramey are "over-redacted". There is a difference between withholding information to protect an individual's employment rights and withholding information because the administration doesn't want the public to know something(s).

KD said...

I'm upset at how this was handled, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

This is our eleventh year with a kid in this district. I think one of the problems with getting information is that our local paper could do better with reporting. When we first had a kid I was surprised how much of the reporting was of a "aren't our schools great variety". Both the print and online editions of the P-C should have formatted today's stories differently in my opinion to draw maximum attention to this issue.

The Board has never had a strong regard for making a transparent district. This includes current and past Board members. I've sent out an email today....based on past experience I doubt I'll get a response. Of course there are Board members that seem nervous that anyone would attempt to question or comment in a manner they find negative. That is really a shame and I would have never guess this would happen when we decided to move to the Iowa City area. That wasn't how I thought the progressive people of Iowa City functioned.

While Murley doesn't attempt to want to be transparent, this isn't a new problem. I'm not sure what the answer is though.

Having attempted in the past to get answers to very basic questions, I found it was very frustrating. It went from the level of classroom teacher all the way up to the superintendent. Sometimes they were simple yes and no questions.