School districts are adept at making it difficult to find out what is going on - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

School districts are adept at making it difficult to find out what is going on

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Posted: Monday, July 30, 2007 3:53 am | Updated: 7:38 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

The Internet has made public access to records and officials much easier, but the tortuous bureaucracy found in the typical school system is giving the World Wide Web a run for its money.

The Tribune devoted an entire Back to School section July 22 to helping parents understand how to wade through the morass of teachers, counselors, assistant principals, principals, superintendents, governing boards, sponsoring boards, public records requests, AIMS, IEPs, SROs and STOs, to name just a few players and papers. Society has piled more and more roles onto its schools at the same time it demands more accountability from them, so it’s somewhat understandable how this incredible paper and person trail built up behind them.

But these processes should be as transparent as possible. From the appearances of the special section’s coverage, East Valley school districts are doing a spotty job of accomplishing this, with the largest district doing possibly the worst job.

The typical Mesa Unified School District governing board meeting is about 90 percent staff and student award ceremonies and band and choral recitals. The board does cast actual binding votes, but by then all the recipients, families and co-workers who jam the meeting room, sometimes to overflowing, have filed out, dispersing into smaller cliques or their vehicles.

They aren’t missing much, since the substantive discussion the votes are based on takes place during a study session before the meeting. The study session itself is typically squeezed behind a scheduled closed session where the board discusses legal issues, so it’s difficult for anyone to plan to be there, since nobody knows when it’s going to start.

This makes it impossible for all but the most dedicated and time-flexible observers to keep track of how school policies come together, and it’s a routine which has to be changed, so parents can at least make informed choices on who they elect to the board.

The Mesa district does make its board easier to reach outside of meetings by setting up an e-mail account for each one on its Web site. Gilbert Unified provides one inbox for all of its members, and Apache Junction Unified directs all comments to a snail-mail address.

Of course, there are many other ways that parents or other stakeholders can be derailed by a bureaucracy. Tom Bookhout, a father of Arcadia High School grads interviewed by the Tribune’s Tammy Krikorian for the section, recounted how he tried to resolve a conflict his daughter had with a teacher and coach by talking to sympathetic vice principals who couldn’t do anything about the situation, and apparently didn’t inform him that their conversations didn’t constitute a formal complaint, for which he needed to fill out paperwork.

This Scottsdale Unified School District campus, and undoubtedly many others throughout the East Valley, needs to do a better job of training employees and guardians alike in the best way to efficiently navigate the scholastic bureaucracy.

It could keep more issues from reaching the schoolboard meeting level. But those board meetings must be made accessible to the parents and taxpayers who make the whole thing possible in the first place.

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