When the Lawrence school board is facing difficult decisions such as budget cuts and school closings, it’s more important than ever to keep the public fully informed.
As much as possible, members of the public should have all the same information the board has and they should have that information in time to try to have an impact on the decisions being made.
A good first step would be to take a look at the way school board agendas are structured and released. School board agendas are posted on the district’s website, but usually aren’t available until the Friday before a Monday night meeting. In some cases, the public has had plenty of notice that certain issues will be taken up at a specific meeting. In other cases, however, agendas posted on Friday listing issues that will be taken up on Monday give the public precious little time to formulate a response.
The situation is aggravated by the fact that the online school board agenda often doesn’t provide easy access to information related to agenda items. Last Monday’s agenda included a useful link to the district administration’s report on full-day kindergarten. However, the only link from the item about closing Wakarusa Valley School, was to the elementary school task force recommendations.
The agenda didn’t include any mention of the preliminary plan presented by district administrators at Monday’s meeting to fill an expected $3 million hole in next year’s budget. In fact, Monday’s meeting apparently was the first time the board members themselves had seen the plan.
Administrators didn’t expect the board to take any action on the budget plan, but the figures in that plan were directly related to another item on Monday’s agenda: the closure of Wakarusa Valley School.
Why not put those figures out ahead of the meeting so that both board members and district patrons have some time to ponder them before they are discussed?
For guidance, school officials might look at the agendas compiled for Lawrence City Commission meetings. The city usually releases its agenda late Thursday in advance of a Tuesday night meeting. The city agendas also routinely include staff reports and other detailed documents about items the commission will be discussing. This makes it easy for the public to understand the issues ahead of the meetings. The time between the release of the agenda and the commission meetings also gives members of the public time to contact their elected officials or prepare to attend the meeting where an issue of interest will be discussed.
The worst thing the school district can do in an emotionally charged situation such as school closings is to make district patrons feel like they aren’t getting the whole story or that district administrators or board members are acting hastily without adequate public input. With that in mind, this would be a great time to examine how and when information about upcoming school board decisions is shared with the school board, students, parents, district employees and taxpayers.