LJWorld.com weblogs Town Talk

District’s failure to release information about school board applicants is a disservice to the public

Advertisement

The way governments operate these days can be confusing. I sometimes think the scenes from Washington, D.C., are a how-to-video from Twitter on how to rule the world in 140 characters or less.

But hopefully local government isn’t that confusing. I’m less certain of that, though, when it comes to the Lawrence school district. The Journal-World is trying to report on what seems to be a fairly basic story: the process to fill Kristie Adair’s vacant seat on the school board.

As part of that process, we want residents of the district to know who has applied, a bit about their backgrounds and what they could offer the board. We also want as much of this information as possible before the March 6 filing deadline.

The reason for having the information before the deadline, we believed, was obvious: People need to know who has applied for the position so they can decide whether they too want to apply.

A secondary reason is the sooner the public can get the information, the better — especially in this instance. The deadline to file is March 6, and the school board has indicated it may fill the position by March 13. If members of the public want to provide some reasoned and thoughtful advice to the school board on the appointment choice, it would be helpful that they have the information as soon as possible.

A final reason falls under the category of common sense. Newspapers for generations have reported on candidates when they file for office. It is nonsensical to wait until after the filing deadline is passed and then publicly reveal who has filed.

But when we asked the school district for the names of applicants, that is what the J-W reporter was told would happen: They wouldn’t be released until after the deadline — sometime before the March 13 meeting, though.

Upon hearing this, I called Superintendent Kyle Hayden and told him I thought such a plan was a bad idea for all the reasons articulated above. He ultimately agreed to give us the names. We did get a list of names, but we initially received no contact information and no background information about the candidates.

We realized that all the applicants were asked to fill out an application form that had background information, contact information, and that even asked pertinent questions related to the applicant’s motives and qualifications to serve.

We thought this would be good information for the public to have, and we also thought it would be easy to obtain. Boy, were we wrong on that last point. The district has refused to give us the applications, although it did eventually release some contact information conditioned on the “permission” of the applicants.

I tell you, the Lawrence school district ought to offer a doctorate in stubbornness.

District officials reiterated that they would release the applications at some point after the filing deadline but before the March 13 meeting. I’m unsure of the rationale behind that decision. I put two calls into Hayden to discuss that decision but never got a call back. I did chat with Marcel Harmon, president of the school board. He said he wasn’t sure of the rationale either. He said the issue had never been discussed with the board. If he had to guess, he said, it was because the board didn’t want applicants seeing what other applicants had filled out on their applications. He thought it wouldn’t be fair to those who turned theirs in early.

That’s a weak argument. If that is a concern, applicants could have chosen to turn their forms in right before the deadline. The district’s decision to withhold the applications theoretically helps a handful of applicants but hurts many more members of the public by denying them timely access to information.

We’ve filed an open records request, and we’ll see how that turns out. In the meantime, we’re using Google and other sources to find contact information to reach out to applicants so we can provide the basic service of letting people know something about the people who want to represent them.

We will get our job done one way or another, with or without the applications. But I believe that the constituents of USD 497 need to understand the silliness that is going on here. Don’t get me wrong, the school district is a sympathetic bunch. It does incredibly important work. It faces funding challenges that are beyond the control of local officials. The women and men who do the hard work in the classrooms often are under appreciated.

But this silliness doesn’t have anything to do with that. It has to do with a public government upholding the contract it has with the public. I’ve long viewed it this way: A public government, like the school district, gets to tax the residents of the district. (The district’s budget is about $155 million.) The residents have to pay that tax regardless of whether they agree with how the district spends the money. There is no recourse. You pay your taxes regardless of your opinion, or else the system would fall apart. That is an awesome authority that the government has.

The other part of the contract — the part that people have died to defend — is that government takes on an equally awesome responsibility. Government must be as open as it possibly can be with the public. Now, I’m not an absolutist. I understand there is a balancing act that must occur at times. But even in those instances, every government should have the attitude of trying to figure out how it can release the information the public needs to see.

That attitude does not exist in the Lawrence public school district. If it did, we would have the applications. Unfortunately, that can-do attitude of openness is lacking in many governments. Like I said, we’ll overcome this silly application issue. That’s not what this is about. Instead, I believe we are living in a time where it is very dangerous to give government an inch on the issue of openness and transparency. Based on the letters to the editor I see about affairs in Washington, D.C., many of you seem to agree.

Comments

Carol Bowen 2 months ago

USD497 has a history of excusive practices. It's reports are not available before meetings, public input is not sought, and getting on the agenda is contrived. In its favor, the last bond issue was well conceived and managed. The board is committed to neighborhood schools.

Samuel Brown 2 months ago

"The other part of the contract — the part that people have died to defend". Little melodramatic don't you think.

Chris Johnson 2 months ago

This didn't stop the LJW from publishing a long advertisement for Mary Loveland. I don't think that should have been printed until all the candidates had the opportunity to present their qualifications in the same way.

Chad Lawhorn 2 months ago

Hi Chris: We do plan to run a profile on each of the candidates. We did run an original article listing everyone who has filed thus far. As for the profiles, we run them as we complete them, and we are trying to complete them as soon as we can. Thanks, Chad

Jonathan Becker 2 months ago

Perhaps the LJW should use the same "open" methodology for its coverage of the upcoming school bond issue. LJW could delay coverage as to what the bond issue is about until after the election. That way, the LJW could avoid any competing bond issues from getting an unfair advantage.

Seriously, the idea of competition for replacement of a school board member is misplaced. The selection should be the best person, not who writes the best application.

Julie Boyle 2 months ago

Lawrence Public Schools provided the Journal-World the names of applicants, and after checking with them, their contact information. This is the same information that would be provided the public and media during a filing period for an election. The newspaper has used that information to contact the applicants and write and print profiles for the public to review. Since that information exchange and reporting is taking place, Mr. Lawhorn's assertion: "District's failure to release information about school board applicants is a disservice to the public" is false. Julie Boyle, Communications Director, Lawrence Public Schools

Chad Lawhorn 2 months ago

It is worth noting that at the time we filed the open records request that we had no guarantee we would receive any contact information from the applicants. In fact, we had reason to believe that the district didn’t want to give such information to us. After all, we had to fight just to get the district to release the names prior to the deadline. For what it is worth, we still have no guarantee that we will get contact information from future applicants.

Julie’s assertion that this process the district is going through is somehow on par with what the county clerk does when people file for elected office is incorrect. Candidates file their forms and we have full and immediate access to those forms. The county clerk does a fantastic job with that. There is no process where the candidate has to give his or her permission about whether their information is going to be released.

Let me also say, I did not want to file this open records request. I tried on two occasions to work with the district to avoid it. I got no response from the district on those efforts. If the district simply would have provided us the names and some contact information when we first asked for it, we never even would have thought to ask for the application form. I only directed my reporter to do so after she said (I paraphrase) “Well, I’ve got the names but I’m not sure they are going to be able to get me any contact information. So it may take me awhile to get these articles done.” To which I said “I bet they filled out some type of form. See if you can get the form. It would have their contact information.” At that point, I didn’t even know the application had any of these other questions on it.

All of this could have been avoided with a little a bit of common sense and communication on the district’s part. Chad Lawhorn, editor.

Ken Lassman 2 months ago

Seems to me that the JW could do what it does during other board elections: send out a questionnaire for each applicant to respond to. This, supplemented with a little reporter research, is disseminated immediately after the deadline has passed and before the appointment, which should give the public enough time to voice their preferences, which will be an informal process at best anyway.

Chad Lawhorn 2 months ago

Hi Ken: The other thing we do with board elections, is we announce candidates as they file. Or at least we try too. That is all we are trying to do here as well. Thanks.

Ken Lassman 2 months ago

Have you had access to their applications in the past?

Louis Kannen 2 months ago

Why the the OVERT and quite obvious RETICENCE on the part of YOUR ( Lawrence taxpayer's ) School Board to convey pertinent information relative YOUR tax dollar's supported potential EMPLOYEE?? "...pay no attention to the man/woman behind the green curtain...the all and powerful...) Absolutely, unequivocally UNACCEPTABLE.

Richard Heckler 2 months ago

What if someone at the last minute decided to withdraw and didn't wish to have their somewhat personal history in the media?

Louis Kannen 1 month, 3 weeks ago

"What if someone at the last minute decided to withdraw and didn't wish to have their somewhat personal history in the media?" Quite simply, if an individual hasn't initially given any more thought to the possibility than that, then let the cards fall where they may...

Commenting has been disabled for this item.

loading...