After the school board meeting on April 5th, I emailed four questions to our school board members:
#1 – During Dr. Killion’s presentation in March, he shared data on special education enrollment. What explains the large jump in special education enrollment in the 2012-2013 year? Also, why has special education enrollment been gradually declining since the 2016-2017 school year?
#2 – In the April school board meeting, Mr. Ohlhaut said that our school district currently has only two transfer students who pay tuition. How many total transfer students does our district have? Of the total, how many transfer students have a parent who works for the school district? What are the other reasons why a transfer student would not pay tuition? Once a student has been accepted as a transfer student, do school district policies allow that student to be denied enrollment in future years?
#3 – Does our school district comply with Indiana Code 20-26-11-32 with respect to publishing the number of transfer students the corporation has capacity to accept in each grade level each year and the date by which requests to transfer must be received? Is this information on the school corporation website?
#4 – In the April school board meeting, Mr. Sloat said that our school corporation makes a profit from providing free breakfast and lunch that is funded through the federal program. How much profit does the school corporation make in a typical month from providing these free meals? Prior to the pandemic, how much profit did our school corporation make in a typical month from the sale of food (breakfast and lunch)?
Alan Karpick, school board president, replied. He did not answer my questions, but sent the following:
“At our next board meeting on May 3, the superintendent, and CFO (or his designate) will respond to the questions you e-mailed the Board on April 7. This allows the questions and answers to be available to all interested stakeholders. Should you have additional questions, we ask that you voice them during the public comment section (for non-agenda items) in the allotted three-minute time frame.
While it is important for the Board to be responsive to patron questions and concerns, it is also necessary that the responses provided by the administration or Board aren’t taken out of context and/or used to disparage the work of our staff and administrators on social media. Should this continue, as you have done in recent months, is is a consensus of the Board officers that we will choose to not respond further to your inquiries.”
I am happy that school administrators will respond to my questions at the school board meeting on May 3. I think that is a very reasonable approach. I am less excited about having to ask my questions during the three minutes they provide at the end of meetings. Questions are usually prompted by things that happen in the school board meeting, and I need time to be able to formulate questions. This means that I will often have to wait until the next month’s meeting before being able to ask my questions. I don’t expect school board members or administrators to be able to respond immediately, which implies that it will be another month before we get the reply. What they are asking slows things down, but that’s OK. I’ll plan to ask questions at each meeting and then after the meeting I will post my questions to my website and email them to school board members so they will have the text in writing.
One thing that I really like about this plan is that it may help create a culture of asking and answering questions at school board meetings. Providing answers to community members’ questions in a public meeting puts those answers on the public record, which is better than an email response. Of course, this means that the school board needs to open up time for audience questions at every meeting and to have a clear process for signing up to ask questions. At a minimum, the school board needs to remove this statement that has been at the top of every meeting agenda for years:
“The school board will not entertain questions during a school board meeting. All questions should be referred to the superintendent’s office during normal school hours.”
Last, I’d like to address Karpick’s threat (which he said was supported by the other two officers: Karen Springer, vice-president and Brad Marley, secretary) to not respond to my future questions and his claim that I have taken school board member and administrator responses out of context and/or have used their responses to disparage their work on social media in recent months. I’m not particularly active on social media. My social media posts this year about our school district have been to state that I have written something new and posted it to my website along with a link. Everything I write about our schools is posted to my website and I stand by it. My suggestions about how to improve our schools is not disparaging, at least that is not my intent. My intent is to make our schools better. There are instances when I may get something wrong. For example, Ross Sloat (Interim CFO) approached me after the April School Board meeting and expressed that he felt that I misrepresented his educational background in my March questions write-up. What I wrote about him not having a finance or accounting degree was correct, but he told me that he has relevant job training and experience. He previously worked at a bank as a manager and as a commercial/ag/retail loan officer and was an assistant superintendent for business before serving as the superintendent of Benton Community School Corp. I updated my website post with his experience. Making factual corrections is important because I don’t want mistakes to distract from my message. In this instance, the important message is that the school district has borrowed $95 million since 2017 (more than current debt service property tax revenue can support.) I’m frustrated that they borrowed so much when they told the public that they would only spend $50 million on the new construction.
Many parents and teachers have told me that they also don’t like some of the school board’s recent decisions or that they have concerns with things that are happening in our schools, but they fear that if they speak up there will be consequences for them or for their children. That they even have these fears is appalling. Parents, students, teachers, and community members not liking a particular school board decision is normal and school leaders should never make people feel that they can’t voice their opinion about school district policies and practices. In contrast, I recently attended a school board meeting in one of our neighboring school districts and they handed out a form requesting written feedback. Wouldn’t it be great if our school district leaders worked to change our district culture to be welcoming of feedback and dissenting opinions rather than trying to suppress any speech that is critical of their decisions. If any information that I have shared is incorrect, I want our school leaders to correct it and help our community to be informed.