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.

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