Tag Archives: Barb Fuller

Kansas open records examined

Here’s another outstanding investigative report by Paul Soutar of the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy. I have experienced some of the same obstacles that Soutar has encountered. Last year Wichita school district board member Lynn Rogers told me that record requests are a burden. Interim superintendent Martin Libhart’s attitude was similarly hostile towards legitimate citizen requests for records. Indications are that new board president Barb Fuller and new superintendent John Allison have a better attitude towards records requests, and I hope that time proves this to be the case.

The spirit is willing but the law is weak

Paul Soutar, Flint Hills Center for Public Policy

Government transparency in Kansas is determined largely by open records and open meetings laws which state lofty goals but offer many loopholes and exemptions and few penalties for violations of the laws.

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) starts off well. “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

Similarly the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) begins, “In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public.”

The legislation that follows these broad and lofty goals, however, is full of exemptions and loopholes that circumvent the stated intent. Ignorance of the law and poor compliance by various government bodies also limit its effectiveness according to government transparency advocates.

A 2008 Better Government Association (BGA) report ranked Kansas’ open records law 18th in the nation. A 2007 study by BGA and the National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Kansas an F and ranked the state 25th out of 50. A 2002 study by BGA and Investigative Reporters and Editors gave Kansas a D.

Citizens who believe KORA or KOMA law has been violated can file a complaint with the local county attorney, district court or the state’s attorney general. Michael Smith, a Kansas assistant attorney general responsible for issues relating to KORA and KOMA, says complaints about KORA and KOMA compliance are handled locally out of practicality. He says with more than 4,000 government units in Kansas his office would be stretched way too thin.

Smith stressed the importance of government transparency and awareness of the law during KORA/KOMA training held in Dodge, Olathe, Topeka and Wichita in June. A total of 332 people attended the training. According to registration data received from Smith’s office, 255 were affiliated with government, 46 were with the media and only 14 said they were unaffiliated citizens; another 17 did not list any affiliation.

From January 2007 to June 2008 there were 62 complaints filed at the county level according to reports submitted to the state attorney general’s office. The attorney general’s office received 78 complaints during that time, including some referred from the county.

In most cases no violation was found. Some violations were resolved by delivery of the requested material. In a few cases the offending government employee or elected official was required to attend KORA or KOMA training. None of the violations covered by documents obtained from the attorney general’s office resulted in the $500 fine that is permitted by state law.

There are some common issues leading to problems with KORA. Chief among them is ignorance of the law.

The law allows an agency to require a written request but not on a specific form and only as a way to ensure good communication. The requester can only be required to provide their name and a description of the information being requested and provide proof of identification. It is not permitted to ask for the person’s employer or a reason for the request. Governments can require written certification that the requester will not use names and addresses obtained to solicit sales or services but only when someone is requesting names or addresses.

Many times government employees or elected officials are unfamiliar with the law and their first reaction is to look for reasons to deny access or information. It can be complicated because there are 48 exemptions to KORA in the statute and more than 300 elsewhere in other Kansas laws according to Smith. Most exemptions deal with personal privacy issues and release of some personal information can result in a lawsuit against the government.

During KORA/KOMA training Smith said record custodians must be familiar with records and know which portions of a record cannot be released. “If you’re a record custodian you better know if any of those records are closed.”

Another common complaint is excessive charges for providing information. KORA allows agencies to charge requesters only for the actual cost of making copies, including staff time to gather, redact and copy the records.

Smith says the only place the law addresses fee disputes is with state agencies. In those cases the department of administration has final and binding say. There’s nothing like that for local government, so disputes over fees at the local level must go to the local county or district attorney.

Taxpayer Frustrations

Paul Driver, CEO of ATG Sports in Andover, filed an open records request with the Wichita School District seeking information regarding an April 2009 synthetic turf contract awarded to a Texas company for $371,000 more than ATG’s bid. According to Driver the district said it would cost him $800 to fulfill his request. Driver offered to bring his own copier to cut costs. “At that point, the school district said we would need to bring our own power source to make the copies.” Eventually a deal was reached for Kansas Blue Print to make the copies for $350.

The Flint Hills Center for Public Policy requested a copy of a budget report presented to the Wichita Board of Education for their fiscal year ended June 30, 2009. Flint Hills was informed that there would be a $50 charge for 2.5 hours of staff time to make an electronic copy of the report and that the money would have to be paid before work commenced.

Upon delivery of the check, the report was burned to a CD in less than 15 minutes. Allowing $5 for the cost of the CD the employee’s time was effectively charged at $180 per hour. When asked to explain what work was actually done to warrant the charges the employee said he would not answer without a written request for review, which Flint Hills has filed.

Material provided to Wichita Board of Education members at their public meetings is available on the district’s web site a few days preceding the meeting and is taken down the day of the meeting. Former board president Lynn Rogers said the short availability may be because of space considerations on district Internet servers. The district web site does contain marketing newsletters from 2006.

When asked about the incidents involving Flint Hills and ATG Sports, Wichita School Superintendent John Allison said after less than one month in the job he was unfamiliar with the specific incidents or the district’s policy and how procedure is determined. “My intent would be to meet the requirements of the open records law and do that on a timely and equitable manner for everybody that requests.”

Kansas State Board of Education member Walt Chappell used KORA to try to extract information from the Kansas State Department of Education about claimed achievement test improvement as a justification for more taxpayer money. Chappell also asked for information to explain a large discrepancy between state and national student achievement test scores.

Chappell made the request to Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Alexa Posny in a letter dated June 9. He asked for, “any KSDE research report or independent contractor research report provided to the KSDE which supports your claims.”

Chappell says responses to his request from KSDE and its lawyers did not provide what he was looking for and believes their response may indicate that no such report exists. KORA does stipulate that only existing documents are covered and agencies are not required to generate reports, explain or answer questions.

It’s also noteworthy that an elected member of the state’s school board had to resort to an open records request to get answers from KSDE, part of the education system he was elected to help oversee.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Gwen Welshimer says government should be open and everything possible made accessible at little cost to the public. But she’s concerned that the law doesn’t apply equally to all levels of government. “I think local government elected officers and appointees are treated in a different manner from some state officials.”

Of particular concern is recent legislation prohibiting serial meetings. A serial meeting covers “… a series of interactive communications of less than a majority of a governing body that collectively involve a majority of the body and share a common topic concerning affairs of the body and are intended to reach an agreement.” Meetings in person, over the Internet, phone or via e-mail are included.

Welshimer said some open meetings requirements, such as a prohibition on serial meetings, have a disproportionate effect on local government and has the opposite effect of what the law was intended to do. “Tight regulations on county commissioners make it extremely difficult to carry out policy and reach decisions.” She says most of that work is done behind closed doors by county managers who work up an issue and create the agenda before giving commission members a short briefing preceding the vote.

“We can’t talk to each other so we can’t discuss anything. So I don’t know what the reasoning is for my colleague to vote one way or another,” Welshimer said in a recent phone interview. “Sometimes that’s a totally new subject and we haven’t been able to talk to each other to see what each other knows about it.”

When asked about opportunities to ask questions in open meetings Welshimer said commissioners, like most elected officials, are reluctant to appear uninformed in public.

State legislators can order research from the Legislative Research Department. That research is not open to the public unless released by the legislator.

Welshimer, a former state representative, wants to know why state legislators aren’t held to the same standards as local elected officials. “The legislature has serial meetings constantly. They go along and count votes.” She says this allows legislators to research a topic, write a proposal, gather sufficient support for passage and spring it on the legislature. She says city and county managers have similar opportunities. “Every group in town can talk with the county or city manager about some item and then the manager can spring it on the commission. So where in this process do we have openness?”

Welshimer says anything the legislature does should apply to them and believes the state’s open meeting law should be rewritten.

Wichita school district turf vendor selection process unlawful, board members told

At last night’s meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, citizens learned that the process used to select the vendor for artificial athletic fields was flawed and violated Kansas law. The district will start over, almost from the beginning, and use a competitive bidding process to select the firm to install the fields at five high schools. The result is that the fields will not be available for the coming football season.

Interim Superintendent Martin Libhart announced that a hearing committee had been working all day, and that its recommendation was to reject and revoke the award of bid to Hellas Construction, and the the project should be put out for competitive bid.

During time for citizen comment, speakers mentioned that the board promised that the bond money would stay local and the hope that taxes would be spent wisely.

The president of Hellas Construction spoke and thought that the bid process was very thorough. He believes that the proposal process had been commingled with a competitive bid process, and that leads to the question as to whether anyone but the second-low bidder has standing to challenge the process.

Board member Kevass Harding asked whether the process — 400 hours of time plus travel expenses — was wrong? Board counsel Tom Powell said the process was thorough. The question, he said, was whether the Kansas bid law applied in this situation. The decision of the committee was that we couldn’t come to a conclusion as to what had been done complied with the bid law.

Board member Connie Dietz asked why this process must be a competitive bid rather than a request for proposal. After a follow-up question, Powell said that this process should have been a competitive bid.

Dietz asked what happens to the timeline, if we support the committee? The district had wanted to have the field in place for the fall, but now that goal is not achievable.

She also asked what happens if the board stands by its previous decision? Powell answered “we’ll go to court.”

After an executive session of about 30 minutes and a few additional questions, board member Barb Fuller moved that the bid be revoked and the turf fields be put out for competitive bid.

Board member Lanora Nolan warned against “buying the cheap.” She said her greatest frustration is when “adult” issues get in the way of what’s best for kids. She also noted that none of the citizens who spoke to the board on this matter mentioned what’s best for kids. That’s heartbreaking, she said, to talk about taxpayer money and not what’s best for kids.

The motion passed unanimously.

After the meeting, citizen John Todd said “How is it that you [USD 259] can break the law — violating a state statute — and anyone that advocates for the taxpayer get criticized because they’re against children.”

It is now apparent that the process of acquiring these turf fields was flawed from the start. Somehow, the district started an expensive selection process that is contrary to what is now apparent the law requires, according to Powell’s interpretation. 400 hours of time plus travel expenses (my request for these expense records is being fulfilled) is now largely wasted, although some of the experience gained will be used in writing the specifications for the bid process.

Also, a season will go by without new artificial athletic fields.

If the board wants to assess blame, it should investigate who it was that authorized this expensive and flawed process. In particular, was the process approved by the district’s legal counsel, either internal or external?

Certainly the district has legal staff at its disposal. Last year during the bond issue campaign the district’s lawyers had time enough to threaten to sue a citizen group because the apple they used was similar to the apple the district uses in its logo.

If the district has the legal resources to harass citizen groups about the use of a generic apple logo, why can’t they get these big things right?

The Wichita school district talks about accountability. Here’s a chance to show that they actually mean it. Investigate and find who is responsible for this.

Coverage from the Wichita Eagle is at Wichita district nixes turf builder’s contract.

Barb Fuller: Feds should pay, and leave us alone

In an op-ed piece printed in the Wichita Eagle (“Barb Fuller: Feds should facilitate, not dictate, on education,” February 20, 2009 Wichita Eagle, no longer available online), Wichita school board vice president Barb Fuller makes, indirectly, the case that the U.S. Federal government should fund education, but keep its nose out of how local school boards spend the money.

Her piece explains that USD 259, the Wichita public school district, like most school districts, are chafing under the “unfunded mandates” that the No Child Left Behind law calls for. She concludes that “Consequently, it makes sense for immediate suspension of the current NCLB sanctions.”

The fact is that the Wichita school district has tremendous funds at its disposal, some $13,000 per pupil per year. Board members don’t like to talk about that, as evidenced by board member Lanora Nolan‘s answer to a question at a recent Wichita Pachyderm meeting. She denied the numbers and the simple arithmetic behind a question.

Fuller writes “The federal government should be involved in helping make measures consistent throughout the states.” This is something that she may someday wish she hadn’t asked for. Here’s what education writer Diane Ravitch wrote in The Obama Education Agenda “Despite White House press claims to the contrary, NCLB has been a huge disappointment, and its failure is not due to lack of funding. Although states are reporting impressive test-score gains, most of these ‘gains’ are inflated by home-grown, low standards. The gains on the highly respected federal National Assessment of Educational Progress have been meager since 2002. In fact, the gains on the federal test have been smaller since 2002 than in the years preceding NCLB.”

It would definitely be useful to know whether the rising test scores in Kansas are genuine. In particular, the Wichita school district claims 11 years of rising test scores. I don’t think that people who have to deal with Wichita high school graduates year after year would think these gains are reliable and valid measures of the quality of the product produced by the district.

In her piece, Fuller also makes the case to “not deny accountability.” This is quite an irony, as Fuller’s previous role of president of the teachers union was to do just that: avoid accountability. Furthermore, the Wichita school district’s opposition to meaningful school choice means it dodges the only accountability that will really make a difference: the ability of parents, particularly poor parents, to escape the Wichita school district.

In Wichita schools, smaller classes mean adding on — and subtracting

Today’s Wichita Eagle contains a story about the need for additional classroom space to support the initiative of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, to reduce class size.

Presenting to the board was Kenton Cox of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, the school district’s favorite architect. This firm stands to earn millions in fees and commissions if the bond issue passes. Their motives must always be kept in mind.

Smaller class sizes seem like a great idea. Teachers like them, as it means less work for them. Teachers unions like them, as it means more teachers paying union dues. Parents love them. Who doesn’t like the idea of more individual attention given to their child? This is the reasoning that Wichita school board member Barb Fuller uses, and mentions constantly.

But what does evidence tell us about the effect of small class sizes on student achievement? After all, that’s what counts. It’s not about the teachers or the parents. It’s about the students — or at least it should be.

The Tennessee STAR experiment is the most frequently cited evidence that small class sizes are better. But this study has many problems, and these are not mentioned by the education bureaucrats and teachers unions that rely on it.

For one thing, the study shows that incentives make a difference in education, something that many people deny. The teachers in the experiment knew that if it was judged a success they would get more funding for small class sizes in the future. Researcher Caroline Hoxby writes “More importantly, in the Tennessee STAR experiment, everyone involved knew that if the class-size reduction didn’t affect achievement, the experimental classes would return to their normal size and a general class-size reduction would not be funded by the legislature. In other words, principals and teachers had strong incentives to make the reduction work. Unfortunately, class-size reductions are never accompanied by such incentives when they are enacted as a policy.”

Researcher Eric Hanushek found these problems with STAR’s methodology, which serve to overstate benefits from class-size reduction:

  • Between 20 and 30 percent of the students quit the project each year, with less than half the original number remaining at the end.
  • The students who quit tended to be below-average achievers, giving the smaller classes a perceived boost in achievement.
  • No pretests were conducted on any students upon enrollment, which provided no benchmark to assess their level of achievement.
  • Neither the teachers nor the schools chosen for the project were selected randomly.

So relying on the Tennessee STAR experiment as a basis for formulating policy in the Wichita school district is unwise.

What about the new teachers that will be hired to support smaller class sizes? If the district hires the most-qualified teachers first, then by definition the new teachers to be hired will be the least qualified. So more students will be in classrooms lead by less-qualified teachers.

Further, class size reduction is very expensive. What Wichita school bond supporters don’t tell us is that the bond issue is just the start of the costs of class size reduction. There are ongoing costs: maintenance, utilities, janitorial service, and the personnel costs of more teachers, teachers aids, and instructional coaches.

Reducing class size is great for teachers and their union, school administrators, architects, and construction companies. But for taxpayers and students, it’s a different story.

How to Pass the Wichita School Bond Issue

For tonight’s meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, a resolution has been prepared that calls for a vote on a proposed bond issue to be held on November 4, 2008. I don’t know if the board will vote to approve this measure or if they will even take a vote tonight, but I suspect the resolution will pass.

Randy Scholfield’s editorial Put school bond issue to public vote is correct in its assessment of the feckless campaign in favor of the bond issue. But it’s not all the fault of the school board or the district. That’s because the school district is constrained by laws that prohibit campaigning directly for the bond issue. It can undertake educational and informational campaigns only. (Not that this has stopped board members from making their opinions known. Connie Dietz: “I will do just about anything to ensure this bond issue is passed.” Barb Fuller: “I think our goal is to get this bond issue passed.”)

This law leads to the present situation where the development of the bond issue plan and its associated campaign is placed in the hands of either a citizen group with believability problems or Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, an architectural firm with a huge financial incentive for passing the largest bond issue possible. See Wichita School Bond Issue: What We Don’t Know.

Citizens can have confidence and trust in government when it acts in an open and transparent manner. As shown in my post Wichita Public Schools: Open Records Requests Are a Burden, transparency is not a strength of the Wichita school district. This confusion over who is in charge of formulating the bond issue plan and running the campaign further harms the district’s reputation.

There is a solution, however, that would give the pro-bond group needed transparency and leadership.

There are two Wichita school board members whose terms of office end next year. These two members presently hold or recently held leadership positions. Either or both of these members — current president Lynn Rogers and immediate past president Connie Dietz — might consider resigning from the board so that they could lead the bond issue campaign.

Then, they could run for their former positions on the school board in the primary and general elections next March and April.

It would be a shame that the board would have to make do without their membership for a while. But given the difficulty in finding someone to effectively lead the bond issue campaign, something needs to happen if there is going to be a real debate about the bond issue this fall.

Distaste for tax increases faded quickly on Wichita school board

In a candidate questionnaire from the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce before the recent USD 259, the Wichita public school district board member election, Kevass Harding answered “No” when asked if he would support a tax increase for Wichita schools. The other successful candidates — Betty Arnold, Jeff Davis, and Barb Fuller — were more artful in their responses, promising “financial responsibility” and the usual empty pledges to spend wisely and efficiently. Ms. Fuller did say “I would not want to raise these taxes,” referring to local property taxes.

The election took place in April 2007. In August 2007, just four months later, all Wichita school board members, including those mentioned above, voted to increase taxes. It didn’t take long for Kevass Harding to reverse his position. It didn’t take long for Barb Fuller to overcome her dislike for raising taxes. Power has a way of doing these things.

In February 2008, all members except Jeff Davis approved the idea of a $350 million bond issue, asking voters to decide the issue. There is no doubt, however, what position the board members take on the necessity of the bond issue and its tax increase. And before you get the impression that Mr. Davis was overtaken by a sudden wave of wisdom regarding tax increases, he voted no only because he felt his district wasn’t slated to get enough. He later changed his vote.

What passes for reform in Wichita public schools

Two middle schools in USD 259, the Wichita public school district, have performed so poorly for the past six years that they must be restructured, as required by the No Child Left Behind Act. (“2 Wichita middle schools must start over,” Wichita Eagle, February 29, 2008) Four other Wichita middle schools are within one year of suffering this sanction, and another is two years away. So before long, seven of the 18 middle schools in the Wichita school district could be in the most severe category of remediation as defined by NCLB.

NCLB sanctions are progressive, meaning that these troubled schools have been receiving special attention and remedial measures for several years already. These measures have, evidently, failed to produce positive results.

What does the restructuring of these schools mean? Everyone, including the principals, must reapply for their jobs. That sounds severe, but in practice, it may not mean much at all. The superintendent of the Wichita schools says “… he expects leadership teams at both schools to remain.” The teachers, being members of a union, are guaranteed a job somewhere in the Wichita public schools.

Are these tough sanctions? When people fail this spectacularly in private enterprise, they usually are fired. That’s not happening here. Still, the sanctions are, somehow, painful. Wichita board of education member Barbara Fuller, herself the former president of the teachers union, “is most concerned about the restructuring plan’s emotional impact. ‘It’s going to hurt, and it’s going to hurt deep,’ Fuller said.” I wonder how hurt the parents of children who attend these failing schools feel.

The Wichita school district, I have been told, wants to be held accountable for results. This “restructuring” of these middle schools, while perhaps an abrupt change compared to what school reform measures usually call for, will probably not produce the desired results. The system will still be the same. The same bureaucracy — from the superintendent to the school principals — is in place. There is still the same lack of meaningful competition, the same insulation from market accountability, and the same lack of entrepreneurial discovery process.

Market accountability is what the Wichita public schools need most. It is one thing for the school superintendent and the board of education to say they want to be held accountable. They appear noble and courageous for saying so. But if they truly want to held accountable they would allow competition through school choice funded by vouchers or tax credits.

In Kansas, most parents don’t have a credible threat of sending their children to a non-public school. School choice implemented through vouchers or tax credits would give parents the ability to send their children to almost any school they want. This is accountability. Losing your customers is a sanction that really hurts.

It’s easy to say you want to be held accountable when the penalty for failure is that described above. It is an entirely different matter to actually be held accountable by parents who have the credible threat of taking their children somewhere else — the same market accountability that private enterprise is subject to. This is the accountability that the Wichita school district will not submit to.