Transparency in DougCo School District: Toward a Happy Ending to the Story

Update, 3/25: Happy endings don’t usually come so quickly. But just one week later, Dougco has made and received confirmation on a number of online transparency improvements to now receive an A-minus grade.

If you’ve followed little old Eddie for any length of time, you know I’m a fan of the following two things: open government and the education reform pioneers on the Douglas County school board. So needless to say, when I learned that the group Sunshine Review gave DougCo a ‘D’ letter grade for transparency, I did a double-take. Huh?

After all, this was the first school district in Colorado to open and advertise all its union negotiations so the public could look on. They showed that honest discussions about important but sometimes controversial policies can be held in the light of day without causing any harm or great expense. Sunshine Review didn’t seem to take that much into account.

Going back even further, before the law required them to do so, DougCo and Jefferson County were the two premiere leaders in creating a searchable online database of all expenditures. And if anything, it’s even better and more user-friendly today. Not to mention all the other financial information they’ve appropriately posted online. DougCo also has gone above and beyond with a series of videos to explain the budget and budget process. Shouldn’t that be given more weight?

So what in the Sunshine Review formula downgraded DougCo so badly? Union leaders and other reform opponents hang their hat on a complaint the extra amount of time the Board has to spend behind closed doors in executive session dealing with legal matters. One Board member, Craig Richardson, explained the situation aptly: “I particularly find difficult to swallow the concept that parties can sue and then complain about the amount of time we spend talking to our lawyers.”

Or as my Education Policy Center friend put it, the hand-wringing about time spent in executive session is akin to the “way that a Mafia enforcer might be concerned about his victim spending too much time in the hospital with broken knees.” Interestingly, though, a look at Sunshine Review’s Transparency Checklist (aka grading sheet) doesn’t mention the amount of time spent in executive session as a factor. And Sunshine Review correctly gives DougCo full credit for “Meetings.”

All of which just goes to show how opportunistic and unconcerned with basic facts the anti-reform crowd happen to be. It also makes me wonder why the local news decided to focus so much attention on the executive session issue when it’s not even a true factor in the assigned letter grade.

Meanwhile, it looks like the Sunshine Review folks goofed in giving other districts credit in the “audit” category for having their Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports online, but not giving DougCo credit for the same. Throw in an open records request link Sunshine Review says is broken but has been functional for some time, and the district at least should have an average grade.

At the same time, several small legitimate items also show up on the checklist that account for the overblown Our Colorado News headline. And they represent easy actions DougCo might take to conform with its larger track record of transparency. I’d like to see how much the grade would improve if the website incorporated contact information for the Board members and superintendent, to go along with her blog, regular interactive telephone town hall meetings, and weekly community radio show.

If DougCo also posted online all “contracts and bids over $10,000” and “information about required background checks,” it would be right there with the best of Colorado’s largest school districts. Since I’m a fan both of DougCo and government transparency, I am confident that Sunshine Review will fix its mistakes and the district will make some easy but key changes on its end.

I’m less confident that those who dislike the school board will get off their self-inflicted hobby horse any time soon. My parting question is this: If next time Sunshine Review gives DougCo an A, will the local newspaper assign comparable headline and coverage?