Come Sept. 4, my rambunctious 5-year-old son will be joining the ranks of public school kindergartners across the state. Some school districts are already in the swing of things, but thanks to Kings Dominion, it will be Tuesday before the bell rings for all the schools.
School will be good for my little one. He needs the challenge of new material and the structure of a school day. He also needs someone other than his nagging mother to remind him that he is accountable for his behavior.
That’s something the schools should be doing, too, as the school year progresses: being accountable to the public they serve. We parents hope they will do the right thing without our nagging. But just as we do with our children, we must be prepared to remind them that we care and that we are watching.
There are all sorts of avenues through which to watch out for what happens in the schools, but this column is about open government, so it will come as no surprise that when I talk about monitoring our schools, I’m talking more about (a) the accountability of the district as a whole, and (b) accountability via access to records and meetings.
So here are a few thoughts on what parents and schools can do to maintain a stead flow of information.
For starters, school district records about school business are public records. That may come as a surprise, but for purposes of the Freedom of Information Act a public record is one that is used in the transaction of public business.
As a public record, it is subject to FOIA. It should be released upon request unless an exemption within FOIA or unless some “other law” prohibits its release. Any exemption or other law must be cited, in writing, to the requester if it is used to deny access to the record.
There is an exemption under FOIA and language under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that will allow schools to withhold records “containing information concerning identifiable individuals,” though parents/guardians of a kid can’t be denied access to the records about their kid. And nothing in FOIA or FERPA prevents the release of so-called “directory information,” which is lists of kids’ names, school year, and, with permission, contact information.
There are other exemptions for certain education-related records -- letters of recommendation, tests, e.g., -- as well as exemptions that apply to all kinds of other records, like personnel records, advice from an attorney, that kind of thing.
But there’s a whole lot more that can be asked and can be released. And remember that exemptions are discretionary. An exemption is never mandatory. Other laws may absolutely prohibit the release of records, but FOIA’s exemptions do not automatically reply. There are times when it will be in the school’s and public’s interest to release records that could be withheld. Sometimes public policy and public relations are paramount.
So what types of records might you ask for?
- asbestos removal from schools
- bus inspections and accident reports
- school inspections
- cafeteria inspections
- curriculum development guides
- federal and state grant program files
- monthly film and tape distribution reports
- school census
- school facility use by non-school activities
- school nutrition programs
- student policy handbooks
- employee handbooks
- Virginia High School League activities
Public records include aggregate or statistical data:
- How many kids are enrolled in cooperative education programs at other schools?
- How many kids get free or reduced-price lunch?
- How many kids have individualized education plans?
- How many kids are in gifted and talented programs?
- How many kids are using school transportation?
- How many kids getting English as a Second Language support?
- How many kids rent musical instruments from the school?
- How many parents filed opt-out forms for various school instruction programs or requirements?
- How many kids have been expelled or diverted to last-chance programs for disciplinary problems?
- How many kids participate in sports, clubs, other extra-curricular activities?
(Keep in mind that though the above questions are phrased in the form of a question seeking an answer, FOIA applies to records, not answers to questions. Your FOIA request should ask for records that compile data on the above, as well as other related records. Also keep in mind that such a record may not exist in one single form. You may have to figure it out by cross-referencing multiple records from multiple sources.)
Public records also include the bread and butter of government operations: budget data, contracts, insurance, and basic administrative records.
- How much money do the teachers, principals, administrators make each year?
- How much do they spend on security at the high schools?
- How much does the district receive in tuition from out-of-district students?
- Does the school have contracts with beverage, snack or food providers?
- How much does the football program cost?
Check the district’s website for records and information that might already be online. There’s no harm in asking them to post information that you think is of special interest to local parents.
Then there are the meetings of the school board. Whether elected or appointed, the school board must follow FOIA’s rules for meetings.
As with records, there are exemptions that allow the board to go into a closed session. But again, the exemptions are discretionary, and nothing requires them to close their doors to the public. Encourage your board to meet openly as often as possible.
And here’s something you may not know. For ordinary meetings of the full board and its committees, there is no required public comment period. I wish it were otherwise, but there it is (or isn’t). Usually there is a comment period, but often there are rules you have to follow -- advance sign up, time limits, subject matter limitations, etc.
Other than voicing your displeasure, there’s not much you can do about these limitations. But it is important to monitor how the rules are applied -- make sure they are applied evenly and not in regard to someone’s position on an issue or based on personal animosity. And always be respectful.
So, buses, start your engines. Let’s go out there and give our kids a great education, and let’s be honest and open with one another about how we’re going to get there.