LJWorld.com weblogs Town Talk
District’s failure to release information about school board applicants is a disservice to the public
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.