I was sitting in a parlor meeting to hear a presentation by Todd Roberts (AAPS Superintendent). The purpose of the meeting was to promote the need for the schools millage (yes, that schools millage), and the audience was fairly friendly to the cause. One of the people present asked, “I keep hearing people talk about the need for more transparency. What do they mean by that?”
Todd Roberts answered (and despite the quote marks I am paraphrasing here), “I have no idea. We have a lot of information, including our budget, on our web site.”
“Holy clear plate of glass, Batman!” Seriously, Todd, you have no idea what people mean by transparency?
Well, I have a few ideas (and I shared one of them at that meeting), and here’s a little detail.
When my friends talk about transparency, they (we) mean multiple things.
First, we mean being able to find information that they need/want, when they need it. Hopefully by the end of the year I will be able to put up some ideas for how to improve the web site (which is an impossible mess, for the most part). But having a year-old budget on your web site, in pdf format, when the landscape has changed so dramatically, does not constitute transparency. Where do I find the ideas about what changes might happen? Without the information, what is left is FEAR. Fear that—for example—schools will be closed, and we will be the last to know.
Second, we mean being able to figure out who to contact to find something out. I just had someone email me who said, “Nobody ever answers my calls and I can’t figure out who to ask.” (That itself is quite an indictment, but in case you are interested, I sent her to my catch-all person—Todd Roberts’ administrative assistant. She should know, but if she doesn't know, she can probably find out for you.)
Second, we mean process. I have written about this before (here), but if I want to get involved in city or county government, there is a clear way for me to get involved in city/county commissions. There are plenty of public meetings. I can try to get appointed to a committee.
That is not so in the school district. Above the building level, there are virtually no public commissions or committees to sit on or even attend as a visitor. Making presentations about the budget to people (and answering questions at a meeting) is no substitute for having a committee where people can discuss, and come up with ideas. And no wonder those meetings are sparsely attended. They are poorly advertised, and they are seemingly meaningless. It’s not just about the budget, though. Are there any ongoing district-wide committees—open to community members—that look at high school policies and configuration, elementary school libraries, buildings and infrastructure, web design, extra-curricular activities? If there are, I can’t find them. If there is one thing that Ann Arbor has, it is a wealth of experience and knowledge. Why, oh why, doesn’t AAPS tap into it?
The lack of transparency, the lack of information, the lack of process, the lack of approachability—all of these create an atmosphere of frustration and distrust. Sure, I know what to do at the building site level, but—try to move beyond that, and it’s like knocking your head against a brick wall.
[Up Next: Transparency, Part 2: An Example]