We Need Open Government
by Alex Saitta
October 1, 2007
Everyone in Pickens County should be concerned open government has taken a couple of steps backward with our school board and school district. The school board is doing the peopleís business and that business should be done in the open, so the public can see what is going on.
Here is a list of some of the ways the powers that be are closing the school district to the people and the press in this county.
Talk to any local reporter, and theyíll tell you getting quotes directly from the Superintendent is next to impossible. The district issues press releases and asks the reporters to use those in their quotes. This results in a one way communication, rather than a two way Q&A between the reporter and the Superintendent. I understand the Superintendent is a busy person and the press releases save time, but once in a while the Superintendent should talk directly to the press.
Another example, was we assigned a reporter to do a Voice of Pickens County, with the following question to teachers: What do you find most rewarding about your job? The reporter was asked to talk to 3 public school teachers, 1 private and 1 professor. The reporter called 2 or 3 schools and was told all that needed to go through the public relations department at the district office. She then called that department and was told she could not question any teacher. The reporter was told she could question administrators in the district office, which made no sense because none of them are teaching.
Here was a told powder-puff question and press access was still shut-down.
The district is limited in the information it releases to the public and the press. For example, the district has a design for all the high schools. There have been hours of community meetings about the design, so it is close to the final design. Yet, the public has not been given an estimate of the cost of these buildings. I can estimate how much the schools will cost. E.g., Pickens High with 1,600 students will cost about $45 million. Such estimates should have been released to the public.
The previous administration had all sorts of rough building and renovation plans, and even those included cost estimates for the public to review.
The district office stonewalls many information requests. Here are two questions I asked the district office in July. One was, do you know how much employment grew from July 1, 2006 to June 30, 2007, and how many of those where teachers? The second question was, how much did the number of district administration personnel (administrators and support) increase during that time, and how much did total salary costs rise?
Their response was they don't have the ability to easily answer either question. Their reasoning was unclear, but generally it was their accounting is so bad, and it will take hours and many people to figure that out.
If you have a request for information, this administration charges you handsomely to get the information. That didnít happen before and it is another step that has been taken to shut-off the government from the people and the press.
The district administration and school board leadership call for meetings during the day, when they can just as easily be held at night. Most of the public can't attend these meetings.
Often times the district administration will set-up private meetings with 2 or 3 board members, so it isn't forced to have the discussion in a public meeting.
Another major blow to open government occurred when they removed the board members comments from the agenda. Normally, that is where I or any other board member could have brought up an issue of concern. I canít do that any more, so the public and press will left in the dark on many more issues. To bring up such things at a board meeting, now they must be put on the agenda. The Superintendent sets the agenda, with help from the chairman, so if they don't want it discussed at a meeting, it is unlikely to be discussed, unless you can get 5 board members to change the agenda for that meeting.
Let me give you a example of what I mean. The board has received some complaints about all the changes that are taking place at one time -- scope, sequence, MAP testing; 1,100 Pro-Boards, 1,400 laptops, email system and the plan to launch Curriculator, which requires teachers to put all their lessons on lap-tops, and the step-up in professional development.
Normally, I would have brought this up at the board meeting, under the board member comments section. I would have stated the complaints and asked questions about the pace of the changes. I canít do that any more, because board member comments have been removed from the agenda.
Being a strong believer in open government, at the last meeting, I made a motion to add to the agenda a discussion about those complaints/ concerns. I voted for it, Jim Shelton did and Kevin Kay too. Shirley Jones, Herb Cooper and Oscar Thorsland voted against it. BJ Skelton and Hay abstained. The motion died and the issue was not discussed publicly.
I'm not happy about any of this and it needs to change. I'll keep trying, but I don't think it is going to change with the make-up we have on the board. You need board members who believe in open government. Frankly, looking how the board has moved away from open government, it seems most board members do not.
Even public input at board meetings has been restricted. Speakers now have to fill out cards, and their time has been cut by 40%.
Watch what they do, not what they say. The district and school board say they want public involvement, but yet they have taken steps to reduce it.