Tag Archives: Martin Libhart

They really are government schools

What’s wrong with the term “government schools?”

A recent op-ed in the Wichita Eagle read: “Some have begun to call public schools ‘government schools,’ a calculated pejorative scorning both education and anything related to government.”1

This is not the only time people have objected to the term “government schools.” Public schools bristle at use of the term. In a 2008 email from Wichita School Interim Superintendent Martin Libhart to Wichita school employees, he took issue with those who, using his words, “openly refer to public education as ‘government schools.'”2 “Openly refer,” he writes, as though it should be kept a secret.

It’s surprising that liberals and progressives object to the term “government schools.” They like government, don’t they? They want more taxation and government spending, don’t they?

When we think about public schools, we find they have all the characteristics of government programs.

Public schools are owned by government.

Their funding comes almost totally from governmental sources, which is to say taxes. (Isn’t it strange that few will donate to public schools?) If you can’t use the services of public schools and don’t want to pay for them — even if you are also paying for other schools that meet your needs — the full weight of the government will come crashing down on you.

Through laws passed by government, public schools are guaranteed a stream of customers.

Public schools are regulated — heavily — by government.

The members of their “board of directors” (the local school board) are chosen through a governmental process — elections.

Public schools are welcoming to labor unions at the time the private sector is becoming less unionized. In fact, labor unions are becoming a hallmark of government, and government only.3

Accountability of public schools, like other forms of government, is weak.

In sum, public schools have all the negative attributes of government institutions and few or none of the positive characteristics that make markets the source of continuous improvement and innovation. So I guess it isn’t surprising that public school advocates like Merritt object to being lumped in with government in general. But public schools share all the characteristics of government, and government is the worst way to supply services except in a few special instances.

What’s also troubling is how Merritt equates using the term “government schools” with scorn for education. Turning over education to government — with its litany of troubles as listed above — is scornful for children.

Merritt and others want to have the benefits of governmental institutions without accepting the reality of what government means. That’s a shame for Kansas schoolchildren.


  1. Merritt, Davis. Can traditional conservatism save Kansas schools? Wichita Eagle, May 17, 2016. Available at www.kansas.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/article77969617.html.
  2. Weeks, Bob. Wichita School Superintendent Martin Libhart: What’s Wrong With “Government Schools?” Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-kansas-schools/wichita-school-superintendent-martin-libhart-whats-wrong-with-government-schools/.
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union Members Summary. January 28, 2016. Available at www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm.

Wichita school district makes transparency effort

Recently USD 259, the Wichita public school district, placed five month’s of checkbook register data on its website. This is a good move, and we should thank the district for doing this.

But we need to remember that the Wichita school district is very late in making this transparency effort, and the district’s past attitudes towards citizens needs to be remembered.

In the past, the district has made this checkbook information available each month. It was made available as a pdf document, which is not nearly as useful as an Excel spreadsheet, which is the format of the most recent months.

Furthermore, the pdf documents would be on the district’s website for less than a week. Board member Lynn Rogers explained that the district didn’t have space on its servers to hold these documents. That explanation is total nonsense, as the pdf documents are a mere fraction of the size of video files that the district hosted on its servers.

That type of misinformation is what citizens have come to expect from Rogers and the rest of the district. Not only misinformation, but hostility towards citizens and their records requests. Rogers has told citizens that records requests are a “burden” on the Wichita school district and interfere with its ability to educate children.

Other frustrations with getting information from the Wichita district and its interim superintendent Martin Libhart led me to conclude, as the title of an article: Wichita School District: Accountability is on Our Terms.

So while citizens should thank the Wichita school district for its recent actions, we’ll have to wait a while to see if the prevailing attitude of hostility towards citizens and their requests for information disappears.

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.

Should Wichita Identify Superintendent Finalists?

When USD 259, the Wichita public school district, draws criticism from the Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman, you know they’ve really done something wrong.

Her column of today (Identify finalists for superintendent) requests that the Wichita school district make public the names of the finalists in its search for superintendent. Her request is likely to remain unfulfilled: “And board president Lynn Rogers was less than reassuring Wednesday when asked whether the public would have an opportunity to learn the names of more candidates than just the winner.”

What we’d really like to know if Martin Libhart, the present superintendent — interim, that is — applied for this job. Whether he did, and whether his application was considered seriously by this board, will tell us a lot about both parties.

Wichita-area Legislators Hear Pleas From Government

Yesterday I attended a meeting of the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation, held at Wichita State University. This meeting is billed as an opportunity for local governments to make their case to local legislators. Scheduled to start at 1:00 pm, it actually started at 1:20. Senator Carolyn McGinn chaired.

This meeting was better attended by area legislators than the meeting Tuesday evening for citizens. Still, some legislators spent a lot of time outside the meeting room in the lobby. The activity there was described to me as “networking.” That means interplay between legislators and lobbyists and local government officials.

(It seems that a running joke is how governments are calling their lobbyists their “representatives” or some other term besides lobbyist. This, I believe, reflects diminished opinion the public holds of lobbying.)

A theme of most speakers was “please don’t cut our funding.” This reflects the situation in Topeka, which is that the state is running a deficit this fiscal year, and the projections for the next fiscal year are not good.

Alan Conroy, Director of Kansas Legislative Research Department, was the first speaker. He presented an overview of the state general fund and provided some informative handout materials. There’s no good news in terms of the state budget. The financial crisis introduces uncertainty into the consensus estimates the state uses. News: The official consensus estimate from November places the deficit for fiscal 2009 (the budget year that ends on June 30, 2009) at $141 million. But the real number is likely to be closer to $200 million. This is the number that ultimately must be dealt with.

(The consensus revenue estimates are produced by Kansas government officials and university economists, and are the figures that must be used in the budget process. This prevents “battles of the estimates,” where different groups use different estimates of revenue.)

The materials presented contained a page of “revenue enhancements” that might be used to balance the budget. If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s a euphemism for increasing taxes. Here are some examples of various taxes and estimates of how changes would increase revenue for fiscal year 2010 (the budget year that starts July 1, 2009, and ends on June 30, 2010):

Increase by one mill the unified school district general fund tax base: $28.7 million.
Repeal the $20,000 residential exemption (additional local effort): $43.4 million.
Increase the sales and use tax rates by 0.1 percentage point: $38.1 million.
Increase the sales and use tax rates by 1.0 percentage point: $349.7 million.
Increase the individual income tax rate by 1.0 percentage point: $349.7 million.

(From the Kansas Department of Revenue: Compensating Use Tax is a tax paid on merchandise purchased from other states and used, stored, or consumed in Kansas on which no sales tax was paid. It is also due if the other state’s rate is less than the Kansas rate of 5.3% paid at the time of purchase. The tax protects Kansas businesses from unfair competition from out-of-state retailers who sell goods either tax-free or at a lower tax rate.)

An interesting question came from Senator Les Donovan asked about the school bond funding that the state must provide. Representative Brenda Landwehr asked a similar question. It seems there’s been some thought that this might be an area for cuts.

Don Beggs, President of Wichita State University, spoke about how the university has prepared to face cuts in funding.

Martin Libhart, Interim Superintendent of USD 259, the Wichita public school district spoke next. The bond issue, he said, was a significant victory, because it allows the district to enhance student achievement. The most significant component of the bond issue, he said, is the effort to reduce class size. He promoted the WSU study of the 2000 bond issue. He believes that bond rates will come down and the district will be able to sell bonds at a favorable rate. It also creates a stimulus package for the city of Wichita. He believes that K-12 students should be college-ready when they graduate. The real dilemma school districts face is the mandates placed on schools by NCLB. When schools don’t hit targets, there are consequences. The district can’t scale back its production during tough economic times. The challenge is to preserve the infrastructure, which is mostly salaries and benefits. Reduced funding would undo the significant progress we’ve made.

Representative Huebert asked about universities expressing the need for remedial classes for incoming students. Libhart replied he believes the situation is getting better.

Representatives of Wichita’s aircraft industry — Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft in tis case — delivered a presentation that highlighted their economic importance to Wichita and Sedgwick County. It also emphasized, several times, the subsidy that other states (and countries) are giving to lure manufacturing industry, including aircraft, to their states. This question was asked: As you go back to Topeka, ask this question: What would other places pay to get the jobs that are here?

Bryan Derreberry of the Wichita Metro Chamber of commerce spoke. The Chamber, he said, markets economic development. Make our area the best possible place to locate a business. There are three priorities: 1. People. 2. Attractive and stable state economy. He said there is a need to provide incentives to business, and for business tax reform. 3. Quality of place. People seek community and state dynamics. Air transportation, particularly low-cost airfares, is vital. The Equus bed project is necessary to secure our water supply. Finally, grow our small business base. Fund Kansas small business development centers.

Carl Brewer, Mayor of Wichita spoke. He said our community makes a plea for sustained funding. We need low-cost airfares, technical training, and water supply. We want to present the City of Wichita as a partner in the battle of budget problems. He wants to aggressively seek our fair share of an upcoming federal stimulus package. He presented these two plans as being without major cost: allow cities to create entertainment districts, where alcoholic beverages can be consumed outside on the street. We must keep pace with other urban communities that have this. Traffic safety corridors, such as Kellogg (U.S. Highway 400), can save lives. Fines on these corridors are higher. He concluded with “The Wichita city council stands ready to work with state policy makers for positive change.”

Dave Unruh from the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners spoke. Please maintain a sensitivity to our problems, he urged. Please support affordable airfares. He cited a CEDBR study of benefits. The aviation cluster is also important. We are one of five aviations clusters in the world. The county is also supportive of a comprehensive transportation plan and the economic stimulus it brings. Any reduction in support for human services will affect a vulnerable population. The jail is overcrowded. The county opposes efforts to shift inmates from state facilities to county jails.

Representatives of Kansas Regional Area Economic Partnership spoke. Kristey Williams, the mayor of Augusta, spoke about the need to maintain the affordable airfares project, citing a study by WSU of the huge benefit of this program.

The meeting ended at 4:50 pm.

Wichita School Superintendent Martin Libhart: What’s Wrong With “Government Schools?”

In a recent email from Wichita School Interim Superintendent Martin Libhart to Wichita school employees, he took issue with those who, using his words, “openly refer to public education as ‘government schools.'”

It seems as though Mr. Libhart regards the term “government schools” as derogatory. Or at least as something that should be used only in secret, instead of “openly.”

Why, I wonder?

Would you please explain this, Superintendent Libhart?

Raising Wichitans’ Taxes in a Recession is Not A Good Idea

“Democrat Barack Obama says he would delay rescinding President Bush’s tax cuts on wealthy Americans if he becomes the next president and the economy is in a recession, suggesting such an increase would further hurt the economy.” (Associated Press, September 7, 2008)

Contrary to assertions by Wichita school interim superintendent Martin Libhart and school board president Lynn Rogers, Wichita can’t tax and spend its way out of a recession that may or may not be forthcoming. Not even Barack Obama believes that, as shown in the news story quoted above.

Still, bond issue supporters say that’s what happened after the last school bond issue. There’s even a Wichita State University study to prove it.

(There’s no doubt that some individuals and firms did well after the last bond issue. No doubt Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, one of the firms most prominently pushing for the current bond issue, fared very well.)

But what they don’t tell you is that the WSU study doesn’t account for the payment of the bond issue. All it looks at is the spending. Spending, of course, drives economic activity. If government spends money, economic activity happens. But without mentioning the cost, the study is meaningless.

In fact, it’s worse than meaningless. It’s dangerously misleading. It leads citizens to believe that government spending can save us from harm. If that’s true, why don’t we go for a bigger bond issue? Why stop at $370 million? Why not go for the full $550 million in needs that was identified?

Is the Wichita School District Hoping For Recession?

A recent Wichita Eagle article (Economy now is right to support the school bond) USD 259 written by Wichita school district Interim Superintendent Martin Libhart makes me wonder if the school district isn’t hoping for a recession.

Here’s why I wonder: right now long-term interest rates for the types of bonds the district will be selling (if the bond issue passes) are rising. That makes the bond issue much more expensive. (Much more expensive. See Wichita School Bond Cost Could Rise in a Big Way.) Back when the district sold bonds from the 2000 bond issue, interest rates were lower than estimated. Mr. Libhart seems to be hoping for a similar scenario to play out.

But what made interest rates lower back then was the recession resulting from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Do we want another recession, just so Wichita school bond interest rates will be low? Mr. Libhart’s unfortunate analogy makes me think so.

Wichita School Bond: Time Is Not Right

In a Wichita Eagle article Economy now is right to support the school bond, USD 259, the Wichita school district, Interim Superintendent Martin Libhart reminds us of the study prepared by Wichita State University that touts the economic benefit of the previous bond issue. My analysis of this report can be read at Wichita School District Economic Impact. This study has several problems, besides the fact that USD 259 bought and paid for it.

Perhaps the primary problem with this study is that it treats the cost of the bond issue as though it doesn’t exist. The study presents evidence of the benefits of school district spending, but mentions only in passing school district taxation:

An opportunity cost exists for the use of public funds for education. If public funds were not used to provide public education, they would be available for alternative use. Estimating the potential economic impact of alternative uses of these opportunity costs was beyond the scope of this analysis. (Page 6)

Proponents of public spending always conveniently forget the other side of the equation: someone has to pay for public spending, and those dollars are not available for private use.

Mr. Libhart’s argument that the state of Kansas will pay for 25% of the bond issue is true — at least for now. I wouldn’t be surprised if state lawmakers look to unburden themselves from this obligation. This year, the Kansas state budget starts with a huge deficit that must be overcome. For school districts to burden the state with even more spending creates a large problem. Contrary to some what some bond issue supporters have stated, the 25% is not already in a fund, idly waiting for Wichita to claim it. This money will have to be raised in the form of higher taxes or reduced spending. One state senator mentioned that special education might be a place to look for spending cuts to pay for this bond issue aid.

Regarding growth in parts of the city: A recent newspaper article (Projecting school size an inexact science) explained how difficult it is to accurately project growth. Perhaps the school district could better serve the city by developing ways to flexibly adjust school boundaries. The alternative is to build new facilities, which takes time to do and results in costly waste if the guess is wrong.

I realize the district makes the claim that adjusting school boundaries disrupts traditions, etc. This small inconvenience to some families must be weighed against the tremendous cost of building new space, and the waste that is incurred if the guess is wrong.

At Wichita Chisholm Trail Elementary School, Why is Increased Enrollment a Problem?

Today’s Wichita Eagle reports Wichita area schools’ enrollment increases.

Featured in this story is Chisholm Trail Elementary School, which added 112 students. The enrollment there is now 576. Interim superintendent Martin Libhart and other officials held a press conference there, presumably to emphasize the plight of this school.

Someone has already mentioned to me today that the capacity of this school is 600 students. I looked in the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for USD 259, and the most recent report does state that the capacity of this school is 600.

How can 576 students be a problem if the capacity is, in fact, 600?

If 576 students are a problem, why is the capacity of this school given as 600?

Why didn’t Wichita Eagle reporter Lori Yount mention this?

Why didn’t a Wichita Eagle editor suggest this fact be included in the story?

Wichita School District: Accountability is on Our Terms

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, wants to be held accountable. They say so. It’s a theme of the proposed bond issue, as recently stated by celebrity spokesman George Fahnestock: “…the district’s accountability is strong…” (See CARE launches Yes For Kids campaign)

But what happens when citizens seek information from USD 259 that will let them verify claims made by the district?

One of the things I and others have been looking at is the number of classrooms in the district’s schools. We made a records request asking for this number, and we were told this information would cost us $860. (See Wichita School District Values Its Information Highly)

I wondered if the district actually knows how many classrooms it has. Interim superintendent Martin Libhart told me at a May 12 school board meeting “We do know how many classrooms we have, I can assure you of that.” Follow-up correspondence with Mr. Libhart revealed that the count of classrooms is a slightly more complicated issue than it might appear at first. Still, no count is available. So Wichitans are left with this message from USD 259: We can’t tell you how many classrooms we have, but we’re sure we need many more.

Even simple requests post a problem. Asking for the definition of a “violent act” in the context of statistics for USD 259 that I collected from the Kansas State Department of Education requires weeks of waiting and follow up messages. Finally, a request to be placed on the agenda of a board meeting produced the answer I was looking for.

On top of this, citizens who request information like this from USD 259 are made to feel guilty. That’s right. Lynn Rogers, now Wichita school board president, says these records requests interfere with the board’s mission of educating children. (Wichita Public Schools: Open Records Requests Are a Burden)

I recently made a request for records from USD 259. It was rejected. This week I revised the request and narrowed its scope. We’ll have to see how this request is handled.

Recently, a top investigative journalist told me that with the declining resources of local newspapers, many government agencies routinely deny records requests or slow-walk them, as agencies know that newspapers don’t have the resources to vigorously pursue requests.

USD 259 consumes huge resources. Its budget is larger than either the City of Wichita or Sedgwick County, and it grows rapidly. It now asks for Wichitans to support even more spending in the form of the proposed bond issue. But when asked for information that Wichitans can use, the district’s answer is clear: accountability is on our terms.

Wichita public schools: Open records requests are a burden

Listen to an audio broadcast of this article here.

I recently learned that USD 259 (the Wichita, Kansas public school district) considers it a burden when citizens make requests for records. At least that’s what Lynn Rogers, vice-president of the board of USD 259, told me at a May 12, 2008 meeting when I was invited to express concerns regarding my opposition to the proposed 2008 bond issue. I suspect the other board members and administration officials agree with him.

As a government institution, the Wichita public school district is subject to the Kansas Open Records Act, which requires it to respond to citizen requests for information. The ability to smoothly and competently, with a minimum of fuss, provide records to any requesting member of the public is a core competency that we should routinely expect of a public agency.

It is not the fault of a member of the public if a government agency is thrown into disarray by a few public records requests; rather, that suggests that the agency has not yet developed a professional competence in records archiving and management. The budget of the school district is $544,384,275 a year (2006-2007 school year). If they spent 0.01% of that on records management, the annual amount available for records management and retrieval would be $54,438.

I’d encourage the Wichita school district to follow the practice of District 300 in Illinois, which not only provides copies of records requested in a professional manner but posts all records requests and records retrieved under those requests on its own website, so anyone can see them. In this way the effort of the district to produce records is leveraged, and more citizens can become aware of school district information. The Illinois District 300 site may be viewed here: The District 300 Freedom of Information Act Online Program.

In order for school districts to effectively educate their students there must be a strong bond of trust between the school and its stakeholders in the community — parents, students, taxpayers, and district employees. These bonds of trust are undermined when the school district carps about providing records to the very public with whom it needs to build strong bonds. No better example of this is the scolding that interim superintendent Martin Libhart delivered to me at the May 12 meeting. “We do know how many classrooms we have, I can assure you of that,” he said. So Mr. Libhart, why not share those numbers with us?

Wichita school district officials say they want to be held accountable. Responding to records requests is one way for them to fulfill that desire. But the district’s attitude when faced with requests filed by citizens reveals a different attitude.

As Randy Brown recently wrote in The Wichita Eagle: “Without open government, you don’t have a democracy.” I rely on a greater authority, Thomas Jefferson, who said: “The same prudence, which, in private life, would forbid our paying our money for unexplained projects, forbids it in the disposition of public moneys.”

Wichita School Bond Issue: The Election That Wasn’t, and Maybe Shouldn’t Be

Wichitans for Effective Education wish to remind the residents of USD 259 (the Wichita, Kansas public school district) that on February 11, 2008, the board of USD 259 passed a resolution declaring that a special election was to be held today, May 6. That resolution asked the citizens of this community to approve a $350 million school bond proposal. On April 7, on the advice of an allied citizens group, the board decided the election should be delayed until some yet-to-be-known date.

The board originally argued that it was imperative to vote as soon as possible instead of waiting for the August primary or November general elections, even though the special election would cost $75,000. As evidence, Chief Operations Officer (now interim superintendent) Martin Libhart delivered to the board on January 28 a presentation titled “Time Is Money” which explained that if the bond issue election were delayed until November, the cost of building just one high school would increase by $360,000 -– far more than the cost of the special election.

The district also argued that if the election were delayed until August or later, the opening of the new high school would be delayed by one full school year.

Nevertheless, on April 7, the board abandoned these arguments.

Much effort went into preparation for the May special election. News outlets devoted extensive coverage. Three citizens groups formed to campaign for and against the bond issue. Expenses were incurred.

Opposition groups have had to deal with a shifting landscape of facts emerging from USD 259. We relied on figures supplied by USD 259 regarding the costs of building safe rooms, only to be told we didn’t understand the true situation. We relied on figures published by USD 259 in its most recent Comprehensive Annual Financial Report reporting school capacity and enrollment, only to be told those numbers are out-of-date.

Sometimes getting any information from USD 259 is difficult. We asked for a count of classrooms and portables for the last two school years and were told that information is available at a cost of $860, with most of that cost paying for 40 hours of staff time. Since school overcrowding is one of the reasons given by USD 259 as the need for this bond issue, we wonder why these figures are not readily available.

The changing schedule of the bond issue election as well as the unreliable facts provided by USD 259 make it difficult to thoughtfully consider the merits of any proposal at this time. With the possibility of looming economic recession and the lack of a permanent superintendent in place to lead the Wichita schools, perhaps the best idea yet is to pull the question altogether. This would give the district time to research and locate all significant data, and then both opposing and supporting groups could base their decisions on accurate and timely information.

Martin Libhart is qualified in what way?

When Bob Corkins, a lawyer with no classroom experience, was named Kansas Commissioner of Education in 2005, newspaper editorialists and education bureaucrats throughout Kansas condemned the action. How could a person with no classroom experience and no traditional education credentials possibly manage the state’s schools?

“Bob’s in way over his head,” said Winston Brooks, superintendent of USD 259, the Wichita public school district.

But what about Martin Libhart, the man who succeeds Winston Brooks, if only as the interim superintendent? According to a news release on the USD 259 website: “Because Libhart does not currently possess a district level leadership certificate, the district is working with the Kansas State Department of Education for a restricted certificate as permitted by the department.” (emphasis added)

It seems that lack of formal credentials was not an obstacle to the promotion of Mr. Libhart. But Mr. Libhart has worked for the Wichita public school district for 20 years, and it seems that loyalty is now paying dividends. Evidently it is enough to overcome his lack of classroom experience and traditional education credentials — the same inexperience that made Bob Corkins, in the minds of Kansas education bureaucrats, unfit to serve.

What exactly did Mr. Libhart do for the Wichita school district? Again, from the USD 259 news release: “During his 20-year career in the Wichita Public Schools, Libhart served for 13 years as director of the Facilities Division prior to being appointed chief operations officer.”

It seems, however, that the facilities and operations of the Wichita school district are managed somewhat less than efficiently. I say this because if you submit a records request asking the district how many classrooms and portables the district owned for the previous two years, you may get this answer, as did one citizens group:

The information is available. In order to prepare the information, it will require 40 hours of staff time @ $20.00 and 300 copies @ $.20, for a total cost of $860.00.

The Wichita public school district is telling us that in order to count the number of classrooms it possesses, it will take someone an entire workweek to produce this number. Does it seem like the district is effectively managing its resources when it will take one week to simply count the number of classrooms?