In April 2008, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman stood with student activists on the steps of District headquarters holding a “Transparency” sign.
She and the District still have a long way to go.
The latest obstacle to transparency came to our attention when we asked about some proposed District contracts. As we reported on our blog, the District ruled that it won’t release the full language of any resolution that the School Reform Commission is reviewing until it’s been voted up or down. All that the rest of us can see in advance is the one-paragraph summary.
The District recently rejected a request submitted by the Notebook under the state’s Right-to-Know law to see the full text of several resolutions before the SRC acted on them. Convinced we have the law on our side, the Notebook is preparing an appeal.
Regardless, it is shameful that the District chooses to hide behind a legal argument. They can make SRC resolutions public once the commissioners get them, whether legally required or not. Declining to do so makes us wonder whether District leaders really want the public to be fully apprised of how they deal with important issues.
That said, Superintendent Ackerman has taken steps toward transparency. Public presentations by her staff on key issues are now a regular part of SRC meetings – and posted on the District website. She has also made herself accessible across the city through frequent “parent roundtables.”
But the press and the public still encounter obstacles to getting questions answered. The flow of information is tightly and centrally controlled, and requests can languish for weeks. Contact with the press is restricted – it’s rare to get an interview with a School District employee that isn’t approved and policed by the communications staff.
These practices do a disservice to both the District and the public. They interfere with the public’s right to know. Denying media access to the employees closest to the facts and delaying release of timely information are inconsistent with basic principles of openness and democracy.
The School District cannot win widespread trust of the community if it continues to operate in a secretive and defensive manner. One of the superintendent’s core beliefs is, “It takes the engagement of the entire community to ensure the success of its public schools.” Engagement without information is an empty vessel.