What is the single most important thing I want to change about our school board? I want to bring community input back into school decisions. This cannot happen if the school board “gag order” is left in place.
Current school board policy is to not release any information until after the school board has voted on the issue:
“Prior to a school board meeting, the school board packet shall be considered confidential and shall not be released” (Bylaws 0000 po0143.1).
Prior to March 2022, the school board’s policy was to never release the board meeting packet, but, I’ve made some progress increasing community access to school corporation public information:
March 2015 – Dave Bangert wrote a Journal and Courier article describing how West Lafayette school leaders try to prevent access to public information. The article shares an example where Reiling (school corporation lawyer) charged the school district $5,500 in one instance to review four requests for the monthly school board packet as well as redact portions of an audio recording of a public school board meeting. That’s a lot of money to spend reviewing a public records request when the school board could have just provided the information. Why does the school board need to redact portions of a recording of a public school board meeting?
December 2020 – I begin submitting an APRA request each month for the accounts payable report, which lists all school spending for the month and is provided to school board members before the meeting. In other school districts (like TSC) the accounts payable report is made available to the public at the meeting when the school board is asked to vote to approve it. In contrast, our school board only provides it through APRA requests and pays Reiling’s law firm to review the report and redact confidential information. I post the report each month to my website on the documents page.
February 2021 – I learn that the first three months of accounts payable reports were incomplete. Pages listing spending on construction accounts had been removed before the document was provided to me. I re-request those reports and clarify that I meant the entire document. The school board again pays the lawyer to review the documents, but eventually provides me with the complete reports.
September 2021 – After 10 months of accounts payable reports posted to my website, the school board begins posting it to the school district website after each meeting. Rather than pay a lawyer to redact information, the central office staff just removes account numbers and names of students before posting it. I no longer have to submit an APRA request each month.
December 2021 – I begin submitting an APRA request for the complete school board packet each month. My requests in December 2021 and January 2022 are both denied. So, I file a formal complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor. The school board pays Reiling’s law firm to fight my request. The main argument in their dispute of my complaint is that there is no set of documents called the “board packet” and that I need to specifically request each document by name. This would be difficult to do given that school board policy prevents the disclosure of the names of the documents in the board packet.
February 2022 – The Indiana Public Access Counselor writes in Mumford v. West Lafayette Community School Corp that the school corporation violated the access to public records act in denying my request for the school board packet: “to deny a request for a board packet from a public meeting in its entirety runs contrary to any reasonable interpretation of the access laws.” The access counselor rebukes Reiling’s law firm by writing that “doubling down on the denial by using specificity as a cudgel is quite outside the bounds of acceptable practice.” The Purdue Exponent and Dave Bangert wrote articles about this ruling. My subsequent request for the February school board packet was accepted and I received a pdf with several documents, though they didn’t include everything. After sending another request, they shared the school bus purchase documents but refused to share documents related to the request for the robotics club to use the Happy Hollow building because they considered it “deliberative” and therefore not subject to disclosure. When I wrote back with questions about why they considered it deliberative, they responded by simply sending me that document as well. I post everything they provide to my website on the documents page organized by meeting and topic.
March 2022 – The school board revised Bylaws 0000 po0143 to allow (but not require) administration staff to post the school board packet to the school corporation website after each meeting. This policy used to read: “materials found in the School Board’s meeting packet shall be considered confidential and shall not be released without the School Board’s majority vote to do so.” This was changed to: “individual members shall not disseminate materials found in the School Board meetings packet. Requests for materials found in the meeting packet shall be governed by Policy 8310 concerning Public Records.”
August 2022 – Community complaints about excessive spending on legal fees and the school board’s lawyer’s negative community interactions finally resulted in the school board selecting new legal representation. The previous lawyer, Reiling, charged the school district around $300,000 per year for about 20 hours of work per week (see November 2021, 7:19).
The school board officers seem to think it is acceptable to bring a proposal to a vote without having shared any information about the proposal with the public. We elect school board members to represent the community and this means that they need frequent community input. How can we, as community members, give input if we do not have access to the relevant information before the school board votes? The board packet should be posted before each school board meeting and information about each issue should be projected or given as a handout so we can follow along during the meeting. I want the school board to adopt a first/second reading structure where information on an issue is presented with discussion at the first meeting and then a month later there is another discussion followed by the vote. This would allow a month for community input. The school board needs to prioritize providing information and seeking input in order to bring the community back into the West Lafayette Community School Corporation.
- The school board meeting agenda for public meetings should be posted online several days before the meeting with zero redactions and the agenda should include a link to each document in the school board packet. The same packet that school board members receive is what should be posted for the public.
- School board policies that limit public access to information should be revised.
- The school board should adopt a practice of requiring two readings for policy revisions and other non-routine agenda items. This would allow public access to the relevant documents and give school board members one month to seek community input before voting.
- Every item being voted on should be discussed and board members should ask their questions in public, not behind closed doors.
- The school board website needs a “sign up for emails” button so that members of our community can opt-in to a list that emails them about every upcoming public meeting with a link to the agenda and each document in the school board packet.