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Wichita Public School District’s Taxation Without Information

Taxation without information. I wish I could take credit for inventing this phrase that I recently heard someone use. It captures very well the key characteristic of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, and its campaign for the proposed 2008 bond issue.

As highlighted by Wichita Eagle columnist Mark McCormick in his column District’s public files ought not cost $1,000, the Wichita public school district doesn’t like to release information. Mr. McCormick accuses some bond issue opponents of using Kansas Open Records Act information requests simply to “make hay for another ‘No’ campaign straw man.” I’ll explain another day why he’s wrong with the straw man argument, but even if he was correct, the people still have the right to know some basic facts.

The district does release a lot of information, of course. Whether it is useful in making a decision about the proposed bond issue is up to each voter. Sometimes these facts have been expressed unclearly. This was the case when I and a number of journalists used an incorrect figure for the cost of the safe rooms. The district issued a clarification, so now we have the correct information -– maybe.

Other needed clarifications, however, are not easy to obtain. The number of classrooms at each school, the subject of one records request, is an example. It seems that people intuitively understand the number of classrooms. They reason like this: “For school A, the district may estimate an enrollment of B students. The goal for class size is C students per class. Currently school A has D number of classrooms. So let’s do the arithmetic and see if school A needs more classrooms.”

Is it as simple as this, or is the situation more complicated? Doesn’t the district go through a process similar to this when it figures how many teachers are needed at each school?

More importantly, since overcrowding is given as one of the most important reasons why the Wichita school district needs a bond issue, shouldn’t facts and figures like these be known by the district, readily available, and shouldn’t the public be able to see them?

Recently I attended an event hosted by Citizens Alliance for Responsible Education, a citizen group that supports the bond issue. By way of what I considered to be a slightly bizarre method, a handful of experts from USD 259 addressed citizen concerns and answered questions. If you attended the event and knew little or nothing about the bond issue, you would have learned something, at least USD 259’s take on the issue. For those familiar with the issues, there was no new information presented.

Afterwards, the friend I attended the event with was pressured by a representative of the school district’s architect. Now that we have given you the information, he said, will you support the bond issue? This was a slightly better offer than what Wichita school board member Betty Arnold made to me, which was, as reported in The Wichita Eagle “So if you had the correct information, then would you support the bond issue?” My response was “If I had correct information, then I could make a decision.”

Sometimes even simple tasks regarding information are either difficult to perform or simply overlooked. As of today, June 19, 2008, the website for Citizens Alliance for Responsible Education at vote4kids2008.org still states the bond issue special election will be held on May 6, 2008, when at CARE’s own request, the Wichita school board canceled that election on April 7, 2008.

The Wichita school district’s attitude towards the public is demonstrated by two events. One, as related in In Wichita, Don’t Take Photographs of the School Administration Building! which tells how a citizen, standing on a public sidewalk taking a photograph of the Wichita school district administration building, was ordered by a district security guard to stop.

The second, much more serious, is the district’s willingness to rewrite its own rules when it feels things aren’t going its way, as explained in Wichita School Board Poisons Democracy.

I have several basic requests for information pending at the Wichita school district. Simple things like where on the district’s website can I see test scores? Where can I learn the definition of a “violent act” so that we can properly understand statistics made available at the Kansas State Department of Education? I will report on the results. Until then, it is taxation without information.

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