Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Flying Blind on CCSD School Closures

Community meetings will begin within the month on yet-to-be-named proposed school "restructuring" and closures. New Charleston County School Board member Ann Oplinger managed to get dates out of Superintendent McGinley at CCSD's last meeting: "Charleston County residents who want a say in which schools are closed and restructured should mark their calendars for Dec. 10, 11, 15, 16 and 17."[See School Closing Hearings Planned in Tuesday's P & C.]

One aspect that district staff have refused to share without FOIA is their projections on the school population for the district, data that should loom large in any decisions made. For example, what if two elementary schools downtown were closed and only five years later the remaining school (Sanders-Clyde) became too small to serve its community?

Think it can't happen? You might check out what's been going on in Seattle District 1 for the last few months. Other parts of CCSD, such as McClellanville and Awendaw, should be equally nervous. Undoubtedly, McGinley and Bill Lewis would say "oops" and try to convince the taxpayers that more schools needed to be built. Naturally.

Here follows the labyrinth of excuses produced so far by district employees to emails from a concerned "stakeholder":
  • to Clara Heinsohn on October 9th: "I wait for your response to the request I made on Monday [October 6] for the data CCSD intends to apply to its "school redesign initiative"; . . . It would seem specific data should be presented to the public at some point and in time for those who attend to develop specific responses to the challenges the superintendent said the county school district is facing. . . . At what point will the public have a chance to discuss the appropriate data? If the public is to be part of this process, the process appears to have been set up to allow participants at the next meeting to discuss and apply that information in support of the criteria that was discussed at the last meeting. Ultimately the goal would seem that the superintendent should want the public to make some sort of recommendation to the administration before she presents her report to the full board. . . .When is the meeting where the public will be able to review the data and make its recommendations based on factual information and reliable measurement standards?"
  • to John Emerson on October 13: "I am resubmitting my original request for specific information and data in accordance with FOIA.. . .Most of it relates to a request that was made through the office of communications on or before April 21, 2008. . . I am asking that you make available via electronic transfer the data Nancy McGinley, Bill Lewis and Elliot Smalley have officially said, on several occasions, was available and being used by their offices in preparation of the proposed redesign, reorganization and/or closure of schools."

    "The information requested involves demographic and financial data relating to each school within the county system. Nancy McGinley said in mid-September at the Burke meeting this information was already being tracked, so no trouble or additional expense should be associated with this request."

  • from John Emerson on October 16: "I am still reviewing your request. In the meantime, I wanted to make sure you know that, consistent with the FOIA, you will be charged for the costs incurred in gathering and copying any documents and information we provide."
  • to John Emerson on October 16: ". . . the superintendent and other members of her staff have said this information was already available. I requested an electronic transmission of the same data and documentation because the administration regularly moves this type of information internally. . . . It would be reasonable to assume that no costs should be associated with this request since the information is already available. These documents and the described data have been referenced repeatedly by administration officials during their presentations to the public and the board relative to the reorganization plan. It's not unreasonable for a member of the public to be given access to the same information the superintendent says she is using. I hope you aren't attempting to invoke this feature of the FOIA in order to get me to withdraw my request."
  • to John Emerson on November 4: " With an attached copy of my original message to you for your reference, this is to mark the passage of 15 business days since I submitted this specific FOYI request. Since I have received no notice to the contrary, I will conclude that all of the information originally requested will be forthcoming."
  • from John Emerson on November 5: "I recognize that you want electronic copies of these documents. I am rechecking to verify the cost for a PDF copy. The quote I have is for hard copies."
  • from John Emerson on November 5: "I am sending you a package of documents. I am still waiting on some of the information. Please note that it will cost approximately $60.00 to photocopy the documents responsive to question #12." [Note: see below]
  • to John Emerson on November 6: "I suggested electronic transfer in order to save time and reduce costs in time and paper. The requested information was for data that should already exist in some assembled form. I may have described it differently, but I am open to any suggestion that might save time and effort. This would include a presentation in a different format."
What was request # 12? Here it is:
"12)
The McKibben report has been described as only applying to District 20. If population trends are being considered as part of the county-wide school reorganization plan, then it is requested that population and demographic data CCSD is using to measure every school and attendance zone within the county also be made available as part of this request.
"

The delay-linger-and-wait strategy rules in CCSD, the intent being to hold meetings for public input without giving the public the ability to make informed comments or decisions.

So will the Superintendent and School Board be making informed recommendations? Who knows?

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

That's fantastic. Belabor this minutae with a $100K+/yr lawyer. Let the guy practice law instead of this drivel, for crying out loud. They are going to release the data when they are good and ready.

Park said...

Demographics is not drivel. It's the nail CCSD will attempt to use to close and sell downtown (D20) schools.

But you already know that Buttson, or is it Smelley this time?

Anonymous said...

Guys according to FOIA they have to do it within a certain time limit. Do they, NO. So file a complaint federally. In addition if she is not using this info for monetary gain they can not charge for it.

West Ashley said...

Almost every other school district is South Carolina is more than happy to share information with the public. They consider that to be part of winning public support for their schools. Only the goof balls running the Charleston County public schools have chosen to operate this way. This is no way to run a railroad, unless of course they are intending to do just that to the public. Eventually the truth will get out. McGinley and Lewis may have moved on to greener pastures where the pickings are richer by that time. Even so, there still will be some locals who can't duck out so easily who will have a lot of explaining to do. At least some people are trying to do it right while they can still make a difference. Or would it be better to just wait until later to say "I told you so" after our school system becomes a total mess. It may already be too late.

Anonymous said...

CCSD should close no school until the public has the facts, not just talking points. They should sell no school property until the public has been fully informed about why such a sale would be a good idea for the next 30 years and how selling assets now would provide a better investment for the future of public education. Brenda Nelson has done a good job of keeping these questions off the table. She would be the wrong person to run the next round of meetings.

It's also pretty clear recent board members have not been informed with anything more than variations on "perfect storm" weather reports from the district office. New board members should insist on getting much more than just another highly selective and redacted version of the state of our school buildings by Bill Lewis. The public should insist on getting accurate information before these meetings are held and before the die is cast on what will become of every one of our public schools.

Anonymous said...

Maybe a legal eagle could jump in here, but I think it's state law that no public property can be sold, including school properties, without giving local governments and other public agencies the right of first refusal to purchase them. I know this law is seldom envoked, but I'll bet any attempt to do a sweetheart deal between CCSD and a private developer, even if city hall attempts to offer a cover, will be met with legal challenges and a lot of bad press for the people involved. You could also guess that a charter school board formed and operating in accordance with state law might like to be recognized as a public agency if CCSD insists on going forward with a real estate selling spree. CCSD may get more answers than it wants on the staying power of charter schools if it pushes too hard for answers to these legal questions.

Anonymous said...

It's Friday and Dr. Nelson, CCSD's Community Outreach Director, still doesn't know where the 1st meeting will be held. We know the date, but not the place.
Call your school board members and complain. Please.

Anonymous said...

Here are the dates. You can thank Marvin Stewart for circulating this memo via e-mail...not CCSD.
THANK YOU,MARVIN!!!
Wednesday, December 10, 2008: District 1 (McClellanville)
Location: Lincoln High School - Cafeteria
Time: 6:30 PM – 8 PM


Thursday, December 11, 2008 – District 4 (North Charleston)
Location: Burns Elementary School – Auditorium
Time: 6:30 PM – 8 PM


Monday, December 15, 2008 – District 9 (John’s Island, Wadmalaw, Seabrook Island, and Kiawah Island )
Location: St. John’s High School - Auditorium
Time: 6:30 PM – 8 PM


Tuesday, December 16, 2008 – District 20 (City of Charleston)
Location: Burke High School – Auditorium
Time: 6:30 PM – 8 PM


Wednesday, December 17, 2008 – District 23 (Hollywood, Ravenel, Adams Run, Yonges Island, Edisto Island)
Location: Baptist Hill High School – Cafeteria
Time: 6:30 PM – 8 PM

Wednesday, December 10, 2008: District 1 (McClellanville)
Location: Lincoln High School - Cafeteria
Time: 6:30 PM – 8 PM


Thursday, December 11, 2008 – District 4 (North Charleston)
Location: Burns Elementary School – Auditorium
Time: 6:30 PM – 8 PM


Monday, December 15, 2008 – District 9 (John’s Island, Wadmalaw, Seabrook Island, and Kiawah Island )
Location: St. John’s High School - Auditorium
Time: 6:30 PM – 8 PM


Tuesday, December 16, 2008 – District 20 (City of Charleston)
Location: Burke High School – Auditorium
Time: 6:30 PM – 8 PM


Wednesday, December 17, 2008 – District 23 (Hollywood, Ravenel, Adams Run, Yonges Island, Edisto Island)
Location: Baptist Hill High School – Cafeteria
Time: 6:30 PM – 8 PM

Retired Teacher said...

Flying blind is a good analogy for this. CCSD is moving forward with resources that would match that of a small country, yet its objects aren't clear and its standards define excellence and average as the same thing.

The public is being asked to trust them because they are data driven; but when reasonable people read the available data, the numbers don't add up or make sense.

Every time we turn around they have another report or study in hand, or so they say. They study everything from the school climate (that would be attitudes and not weather) to school library content. Many of these reports and studies, if read completely, will say something very different from what CCSD officials are telling the Press and the public. Some studies look like they are being used out of context by top CCSD officials, conveniently justifying a particular political agenda that is ahead of anything remotely driven by the education of our kids.

An example of how both senior staff and school board members have both misused this information to justify sound bites would be what the current chairman said about recent improvements made to all 80 public school libraries in Charleston County. While reaching for an example of improvements during the campaign last month, she said the administration had acted on a policy to purge all school libraries of books published before 1975. As if these had somehow been replaced with relevant new books published since 2005, she didn’t say that.

She said nothing about most school libraries currently having almost no relevant subscriptions to news magazines and newspapers, not even to the local daily. She also failed to mention that serviceable copies of “Tom Sawyer” or the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” published before 1970 aren't likely to become obstacles to improving the intellect of individual students.

This odd bit of information about publication dates of library books (without differentiating between literature, history, geography, math or science), does reveal how CCSD and CCSB officials think. School report cards, not actual student learning, are graded using this kind of minutia. Annual budgets and individual political careers are being driven by this kind of data. Reaching those objectives may not be the best route for advancing public education in Charleston over the next 30 years. In a city like Charleston, there are many experienced parents and professionals who can intelligently comprehend the facts if given the opportunity. All the “experts” aren’t just the ones hanging out at 75 Calhoun St.

It's become a cliché among those who follow public school governance in America, but it's true: Education leaders in too many situations will cherry pick the data they want to justify whatever agenda they want to push. Never mind that the data doesn't say what they say it says. Mind you, the best leaders in public education don't do this, but the more mediocre ones do it all the time. Just ask your favorite, better than average classroom teacher about this and they will probably give you many more examples of misusing data to support administrative goals that make no sense.

Public schools have become a profit center for outside contractors and independent consultants. Too many of these are using public school budgets to generate paper and too many public school administrators are more than happy to keep the money flowing to them as long as they can find cherries within to be picked in support of some future administrative objective. Why else would a former high school principal choose to work for $1200 a day or an architectural firm contract to moderate public meetings for $77,000?

All of these services can be of value, but the public has an obligation to ask if they are being used properly and interpreted correctly. Trusting others to tell us what all this means won't absolve any of us of the consequences if today's agenda or the administrations dire warnings turn out to be a big mistake in 5, 10 or 30 years.

The purpose of these meetings is very important. It remains to be seen if CCSD intends to give the public all the information available trusting ordinary parents and taxpayers to then draw conclusions that are in their best interests. Successful public schools can and should be measured by more than just the yard stick the legislature, the Dept. of Educ. or the political extremes are using. And when they quietly change the measurement to a meter stick, shouldn't someone point that out? If we have to fly this blind, at least let an independent navigator tell us what’s going on.

Oh, and here’s an answer to the first comment. The attorney in question is paid a bit northward of $100,000. It's closer to $150,000. That’s just his gross salary and doesn’t include office overhead, support staff and benefits. Good lawyers are supposed to appreciate the importance of minutiae, but in this case "belaboring" such things may be just what this position was designed to do.