Other school boards are watching Duluth…

… and sending me inquiries I can’t hope to answer. Here’s a recent one:

My name is Michael Line I am on the school board in Barnum, MN. I have been read[ing] your blog. I have been trying to study whats going on with your board as a way to better understand the dynamics of my board.

I am a little confused about one thing that seems simple to me but must be more difficult than I suspect. Its in regard to you trying to get information from the school district. I see you have asked and they have not been forthcoming with said information. Under state law if you give a specific “Written” request to view the information at the school location they must present it to you within a specified time at no cost to you. They can be very selective and give “Exactly” what you ask for and nothing more so you may need to make several requests to get to what you really want but they cannot stop you from getting it. The only things they don’t have to give you are student records, employee info, and certain private contract information. Those exception however are probable available to you as a board member. That’s all based on state law regarding data privacy. If you want to go bigger you can do a federal freedom of information request then they would have to prove they need to keep it private.

To which I replied:

Mike,

I am not an expert about the details of getting public data. I simply understand that the spirit of the law is to make sure public data that is important to the making of sensible public policy is made available when requested.

I served an eight year term on the Duluth School Board from 1995 to 2003, At no time during those years did I feel that my requests for information were routinely denied. Sometimes I might ask for information that was out of reach, or had never been gathered or that was not put together the way I might want to see it. Sometimes it was prohibitively expensive to collect or it took a lot of time to collect.

I’ve not put in many requests for information myself since getting elected again but I have joined Art Johnston when he has requested things that seem obviously important like the $84 million in soft cost spending of the Red Plan. The rationale for denying this information seems to be based on the grounds that a majority of the Board would have to approve the request. I don’t know who it was that decided the majority of the Board could deny making public information available but that seems to be the case.

There are two remedies that I see for this. One, I could hire an attorney and go to court. 2. I could help elect a new school board that our administrators could not hide behind when faced with a request for information. I’ve decided that waiting two years for a new school board is easier. The election is just six months away now.

It makes no sense to me that public data would be shrouded in mystery but that seems to be the case in Duluth.

All the best,

Harry Welty

I’m cooling my heels in the blogging dept…

…until the next court session which will be on Wednesday of this week in Duluth. The public will be able to attend it. I’ll be there.

For the time being I’m witholding some scalding comment about my fellow board members who have insisted on bringing us to this pretty pass. I even when out walking the beach collecting agates this morning to kill time rather than blog. But I don’t want to completely disappoint my eight loyal readers so I’m going to let you look at a couple emails. One I sent this morning and one I sent off a few months back.

To audit or not to audit, that is the question.

I hate to disappoint Loren Martell. I thought like me he would be paying close attention to the bombs I saw dropped during the Business Committee Report but perhaps they were not so obvious to him. That, of course, will leave me with a larger responsibility to describe them which I will in ue time. I’m not in a great rush to put those posts at the head of the line for a couple reasons in no particular order. A. I’m hoping not to inflame the Board majority which has the power to find a graceful way out of the civil war which we have taken to the courts. I figure next week will be the point of no return on that slim hope. B. I’ve got two other school board related projects I’m working on the first being locating and giving pointers on campaigning to good candidates the second being raising money for Art Johnston’s legal defense fund. And C. I’ve got an easy dozen other posts to write and edit which will likely make hash of objective A. on this list.

I should have anticipated Loren’s disappointment when I saw that his column in today’s Reader was only a single page in length and not his usual two. His chief complaint was that his long standing wish for a state audit was not ardently defended by anyone on the Board this week. More galling to him were the accomodating things I had to say about a change in our policy book that he has spoken vigorously against – dropping the five year state audit.

The change to the policy we adopted drops the every five-year language, which in any event has been ignored for almost four successive five year periods. Instead we have inserted language which reminds the Board that it can request an audit of the State Auditor anytime it wishes.

I was satisfied with this language and happy to avoid fireworks for two practical reasons. First, the Auditor no longer routinely audits school districts. In fact, I’m somewhat at a loss to explain what the Auditor does these days. As I’ve written before my Grandfather was the Kansas State Auditor for 24 years running but I was surprised a decade ago to learn that Kansas abolished the office I once visited as a small boy. Second, we would have lost the vote had we pressed our case. I thought some compromise, no matter how limp, was more useful.

Loren has made a very strong case for the need to an occasional independent audit being conducted by CPA’s who don’t want to lose future business by being too rigorous. But the other side has made a strong argument that the State Auditor of old is getting out of the auditing business, and besides, we weren’t following the old policy anyway. Mike Miernicki argued that he had a hard time justifying the Board’s inaction to many people who agree with Loren and ex-Board member Rich Paulson. Mike thought this change would give him cover and I must admit, I know Rich didn’t have that policy in place in his time on the Board back in the 1970’s. It was a policy pushed by Superintendent Mark Myles in the early 1990’s following a succession of years with iffy financial management.

In my defense I do intend to push for a state audit next year if there is a change in the School Board. It won’t be a mandated every five-year audit but a state audit it will be nonetheless………if the Auditor’s office agrees to do the work. Sadly, there is no guarantee that it will.