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Open government, open records records

By Staff | Feb 10, 2010

A group of parents at The Sanibel School is taking its allegations of bullying and intimidation by the public school’s administration to the state’s Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services and Office of Professional Practices.

According to Claudia Foster, a spokesperson for TEAM Sanibel, a group of 30 parents who united to bring their concerns to the School District of Lee County, the parents have rejected out-of-hand the findings of School Superintendent James Browder, who determined there are no grounds to discipline any member of the school’s staff.

The parents did not expect an objective analysis at the local level, Ms. Foster said last week, adding they “are hoping that someone at the state level, who is more objective, will look at it more stringently.”

While we have no reason to believe that Dr. Browder approached his administrative investigation with anything other that the professionalism such reviews demand and, indeed commend him for also seeking an outside legal opinion by a labor attorney, we understand the parents’ skepticism.

Their doubt stems from a lack of trust, a failing fostered by the district’s us-against-them approach to the constituency it serves and TEAM Sanibel is certainly not the first group of parents forced to go the public protest route to get their concerns addressed.

Nor are they first to feel disenfranchised by a process that avoids discussion and then does not even have the courtesy to provide a copy of its findings to those most impacted.

In yet another example of opaque governance, the school district declined to present its conclusions at a regular meeting and then informed the parent group it would cost “$400” to obtain the report concerning their allegations.

The parents declined, opting for a state review.

There are two issues here, and they go hand-in-hand.

Open communication fuels open government (BOLD SUBHEAD)

The School District of Lee County needs to rebuild trust by fostering open communication. The school board needs to do so by inviting concerns and, yes, criticism.

District controversies, whether they center around parental complaints about such things as Exceptional Education Student parameters, student disciplinary procedures or transportation times – or disputes at the board level itself – have a common link: The complaining parties or party feel isolated from the process instead of part of it. They feel shut out.

This has to change and this change has to start at the board level. Simply put, the board needs to listen more, circle the wagons less. Board members also need to remember who they were elected to represent. Hint, hint – it wasn’t the administration, it wasn’t staff, it was the parents and the students within the district. Their issues are the board’s issues.

In TEAM Sanibel’s case, none of the board members received – or even requested – a copy of the investigation prompted by those parents.

The board relied on a three-page summary presented at an afternoon “briefing” meeting, adjourning without input or discussion despite Boardmember Bob Chilmonik’s protest.

Small wonder the parents have little faith in the system.

Open records (BOLD SUBHEAD)

It’s well past time district officials did more than tout “transparency” while campaigning. Difficulty in obtaining records and excessive charges for routine requests do little to ensure open government or public trust.

This, too, has to change, again, at the board level as it is a policy decision – their policy decision – that impedes the process.

Make public records more accessible.

Four hundred dollars to take a look at the district’s methodology in investigating parental complaints – $354.06 for the estimated nine hours it would take to go back over the documents to make sure no exempt or confidential information was included among the pages, plus copying costs – is nothing less than a dodge around the intent of the state’s open records law.

The school board needs to change the district policy that allows “special services” fees. These fees are not included in the legislative language designating allowable charges – basically copying costs. They are a district interpretation of a controversial court case that opened the door to dubious charges designed to keep the public in the dark by making it too expensive to obtain even routine records – or reports already paid for with tax dollars.

The court case has been so misinterpreted that, based on the recommendations of a statewide open government panel, the legislature is expected to consider language forbidding the fees and bill sponsors in both the House and Senate have already stepped forward. We suggest our school board act ahead of the curve on this one. Again, it’s a way to build trust and make district procedures much more transparent.

Build trust by welcoming more input and greater transparency and maybe next time a group of parents step forward with concerns, they’ll have a little more faith in the system, the administration and the board.

Open communication, open government, open records equate to trust in government. It’s a worthy goal for 2010.

– Reporter editorial