Majority of Districts Fail in an Audit of Public Education Transparency

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CARMICHAEL – A systematic check of how well California’s tax-supported education institutions respond to requests for public information shows a significant sample of K-12 school districts to be consistently slower to provide clearly public information than community colleges or the California State University—and earning an average failing grade on a 100-point scale.

This picture emerges in the third and final phase release of a California Public Records Act compliance audit conducted by Californians Aware (CalAware) in December, testing the responses of more than 250 agencies statewide, including half of the state’s 72 community college districts, all of its 32 public university campuses and nearly 200 local school districts.

The test queries used in the school district exercise sought a copy of the most recent pre-lawsuit claim for damages brought on behalf of a student that was settled without going to court, as well as a copy of the settlement agreement and of records showing the date of any approval given to the settlement by the board of education.

Detailed results for each campus are available on our website (follow the link from the homepage).

Overall, over half the districts failed decisively. CalAware used the email addresses provided by the districts on-line, the vast majority coming from a district’s own website. Yet a number of districts failed to reply to multiple attempts by the requester, most often to multiple email addresses for administrators at those districts. Many expressed confusion over the request for the “most recent settlement agreement entered into by the district to settle a tort claim presented on behalf of a student.” Numerous districts responded that this was “not sufficiently precise” and required more specific information, like a student’s name, before they would search for a record. Yet from those performing perfectly, this description presented no confusion and records were produced promptly. “A reasonable conclusion might be,” said CalAware Exectuve Director Emily Francke, “If you don’t want to do the job, find some way to deflect the request.”

On the other hand, more than one-fifth (21% or 41) of the 194 districts surveyed performed flawlessly (A+). A good example is Poway USD, which supplied responsive records free by email within three days of the request. Chino Valley USD and Lakeside Union SD did the same in seven days. Charter Oak USD: the same in nine days. Of those who charged any copy fee at all, Central School District supplied copies in nine days for only three cents per page.

“By their prompt and courteous responses,” Francke said, “these districts demonstrated an interest in keeping the public informed. These responses also show that a professional approach to requests for information can lead to the inference that the district is competent and cares about the people it serves. On the other hand, requesters left frustrated by the experience may well wonder who those districts believe they serve and why they are being secretive about the public information they possess.”

Francke noted that the Brown Act and some local district practices combine to make it easy for lawsuit claims and settlements to elude the public’s attention. While both claims and settlements are accessible to the public, the Brown Act does not require them to be provided unless a person expressly asks for a copy, that settlements are almost never announced after being approved in closed session, and in some cases the settlements never reach the board of education, either because they are handled by an independent joint powers insurance agency or because the superintendent has been given authority to approve settlements below a defined dollar amount without obtaining board approval.

“Even if they don’t always involve large amounts of money, settlements provide snapshots of incidents where school officials’ acts or omissions have prompted allegations of injury to students, employees or others in the community,” Francke said. “For parents and taxpayers concerned with the safe and effective operation of the schools, settlements can provide real eye-openers. But you have to ask, and as this audit shows, sometimes you have to keep asking repeatedly to get the information you’re entitled to.”

Roundup 2/21: Forum Law News, Comment

From the past two weeks:

  Free Press 

Federal appeals court finds no First Amendment right to cover crash scenes up close

  Free Speech 

Federal appeals court hears case of high shool history teacher's insult to creationism

  Open Government 

Bell administrator: I cooked up phony salary information in case someone asked

Berkeley council adopts 'sunshine lite' policies to reduce appeal of citizen initiative

  Public Information 

Lawyer's challenge prompts access to school superintendent-board president e-mails

  Open Courts 

A new bill co-sponsored by CaAware would require same-day access to civil case filings

 

 

Audit of Public Education Transparency Produces an Overall Failure Rate for UC

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CARMICHAEL – A systematic check of how well California’s tax-supported education institutions respond to requests for public information shows University of California campuses to be consistently slower to provide clearly public information than those of the California State University system—for reasons that are hard to understand.

This contrast emerges in the second phase release of a California Public Records Act compliance audit conducted by Californians Aware (CalAware) in December, testing the responses of more than 250 agencies statewide, including nearly 200 local school districts and half of the state’s 72 community college districts, as well as its 32 public university campuses.

The test queries used in the exercise sought specifics on the total compensation, expense reimbursement claims, credit card use and outside financial interests of the chief executive officers of each of the 10 UC and 22 CSU campuses, and yielded a ready comparison of their relative income levels and spending habits.

Detailed results for each campus are available on our website (follow the link from the homepage). Whereas CSU campuses earned a higher average grade (B) than community college districts (reported last week) when asked for the same documents using the same method, UC campus performed far worse (F average). The contrast between CSU and UC was particularly interesting given the similar statewide scale of the institutions. While CSU campuses take ownership of their requests, gathering documents from various sources within their institution to fulfill them, UC campuses take a very different approach, requiring requesters to chase down documents from different offices within their institution. The result is very satisfactory when dealing with the CSUs, especially compared to the frustrating experience when dealing with their UC counterparts.

This frustration is further compounded by the UC campuses’ unjustified and extremely long delays—in some cases giving a 3-4 month estimated turnaround time—to produce clearly public and readily available documents.

“The fact that almost half the CSU campuses achieved an A-plus perfect score is convincing evidence that full compliance with public records access law is not an unreasonable burden but a readily and frequently satisfied expectation,” said CalAware Executive Director Emily Francke. “The fact that most UC campuses scored an F is, accordingly, a sorry outcome indeed.”

Quite apart from compliance with public records laws, the audits revealed a variety of factors that may increase a UC chancellor’s full compensation value beyond the dollar figures specified in his or her appointment letter: health and retirement benefits alluded to but not spelled out in the letters, and the option to have the university hire, as a paid assistant with unspecified duties at an unspecified salary, the chancellor’s spouse or domestic partner. These additional factors would be quantifiable through follow-up records requests.

Roundup of Recent Forum Law News, Comment

From the past two weeks:

  Free Press 

CalAware board member Tim Crews cited by journalist peers for lifetime achievement

  Free Speech 

L.A.'s city attorney wants jail time for repeat protesters

O.C.'s district attorney wants conspiracy prosecution for student speech disrupters

  Open Government 

Former Bell official offers insider's tip on hiding pay rates from public records requesters

Comment: Forget new audits of local finances; give us a public records law that has teeth

  Public Information 

Court denies Sacramento criminal trial juror's request to keep his Facebook post private

Federal court issues first order to release metadata in document sought under FOIA

  Open Meetings 

BART board fumbles move to fire CEO: does quick 180 to correct Brown Act violation

  Resources 

Follow the money on a new website tracking inflows to state legislative committee members


Audit of Public Education Transparency Reveals Questionable Travel Expenditure Trend Among Community College District Officials

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CARMICHAEL – A systematic check of how well California’s tax-supported education institutions respond to requests for public information shows community colleges performing better than other government agencies in recent years. But a surprising minority of such districts fared poorly when asked about executive compensation, spending and potential conflicts of interest, and a few examples surfaced of what appeared to be questionable travel expenditures in an era of severe funding cutbacks.

The disclosures emerge in the first phase release of a California Public Records Act compliance audit conducted by Californians Aware (CalAware) in December, testing the responses of more than 250 agencies statewide, including nearly 200 of local school districts, all campuses of the California State University and the University of California, and half of the state’s 72 community college districts.

Detailed results for the community college district (CCD) phase of the audit are available on our website (follow the link from the homepage). Results for the higher education and K-12 district audits will be published in succeeding weeks.

Overall, CCDs’ performance, with an average grade of B minus, was superior to that of any other class of agencies audited by CalAware since it began such surveys in 2006. More than a third of the 36 responded promptly and flawlessly, and another quarter scored only one 10-point deduction. But one sixth failed dismally, with three districts acknowledging receipt of the request but never following up, and three others failing to produce the requested records within the 30-day deadline established by CalAware—more forgiving than the state law requirement of “prompt” availability—for records that should have been readily available, requiring no careful screening.

Quite apart from compliance with public records laws, the audits showed why closer and more consistent monitoring of even relatively routine executive expenditures may be in order if nothing else for the sake of student and faculty morale and public confidence. In the cases of San Diego CCD, Long Beach CCD and Los Rios CCD, for example, the reported travel expenses raise the questions of whether a trip was necessary, or even if so, whether more timely or less costly travel or lodging reservations—or both—might have been arranged.