Anaheim Elementary School District Needs A Transparency Transfusion

Increasing transparency has been a watchword for good government for the last several years. Apparently, no one at the Anaheim Elementary School District has gotten the memo.

A basic element of local government transparency is making it simple and easy for the citizenry to witness their elected officials conducting the public’s business. Thanks to modern technology, there is no technical or even financial barrier to live-casting city council or school board meetings over the Internet, and archiving the video online so the public can watch board meetings, discussions and votes at their convenience.

Not so with the Anaheim Elementary School District. The AESD doesn’t provide a live video broadcast of Board of Education meeting. While the board meetings are audio recorded, those recordings are not archived online for easy public access. In other words, if someone is unable to attend an AESD Board of Education meeting but wants to know what the trustees said and how they voted, they have to contact the district and request an MP3 audio recording.

Even that isn’t simple.

At its May 10, 2017 meeting, the AESD Board of Education voted to appeal the appellate court ruling ordering it to proceed with converting Palm Lane Elementary to independent charter school status.

OC Daily e-mailed the the district Communications Director Keith Sterling on May 12 asking for the audio recording of the meeting. Sterling acknowledged the request on May 15 and stated the “audio technician is out for a few days, but we will provide the copy as soon as possible.”

A week later, on May 19, Sterling e-mailed the link to the audio recording of the May 10 Board of Education meeting.

This is a district that has spent nearly a million dollars paying lawyers to fight a group of parents who are lawfully trying to convert their school to charter status – and yet they won’t invest a fraction of that amount in bringing the Anaheim Elementary School District into the 21st Century in terms of baseline public transparency?  The district could mount an iPhone on a tripod and broadcast the Board meetings on Facebook Live for free.

It’s difficult the avoid concluding the district’s leadership is uninterested in transparency and conducting its business under the public eye.

Public Record Act Runaround
This indifference to transparency isn’t limited to putting sunshine on Board of Education meetings. It also extends to simple requests for comment.

As the name suggests, the California Public Records Act was passed to give the public the right to access government documents and records. Yet, the Anaheim Elementary School District is using it to deflect straightforward media inquiries.

OC Daily published a story on May 23 about  AESD Superintendent Linda Wagner and her cabinet crashing – in the middle of the work day on May 18 – a private meeting for parents supporting charter school status for Palm Lane Elementary. Their presence was confirmed by eyewitnesses and the article included photographs of them at the location. Among those district staffers was Communications Director Keith Sterling.

OC Daily e-mailed these questions to Mr. Sterling on May 19:

Former Sen. Gloria Romero had a meeting yesterday with a number of Palm Lane parents, to update them on next steps re the charter conversion and the District’s decision to appeal the appellate court ruling to the state Supreme Court. The meeting was at 1:30 p.m. at Palm Lane Park.

According to Dr. Romero, about eight or nine AESD administration officials showed up to the meeting, standing around and watching  the parents. These included Superintendent Linda Wagner; Assistant Superintendent Mary Grace; Assistant Superintendent Michelle Harmeier; Senior Director of Leadership Development Louie Magdaleno; AESD Board of Education member Jackie Filbeck; and yourself.

Please provide the names and titles of district personnel and associated individuals who came to Sen. Romero’s parent meeting.

What was the purpose of having the district’s senior leadership attend a private meeting to which they were not invited?

Is this standard procedure for AESD senior administrators when groups of parents meet privately?

How did the district learn about the meeting?

Our e-mail also contained a separate public records request:

Also, please provide me with any electronic communications, including e-mails and texts on both district and personal devices, pertaining to yesterday’s Palm Lane parents meetings at Palm Lane Park, sent between/to/among Linda Wagner, Mary Grace, Michelle Harmeier, Louie Magdaleno, Jackie Filbeck and Keith Sterling.

Five days after sending our request for comment, Mr. Sterling replied on May 24:

“Matthew – I will treat this email as a public records request and process accordingly.”

I responded the same day:

I understand treating the electronic communications as a PRA, but the following questions were simple requests for comment, and there’s no reason to treat them as PRA requests:

– What was the purpose of having the district’s senior leadership attend a private meeting to which they were not invited?

– Is this standard procedure for AESD senior administrators when groups of parents meet privately?

-How did the district learn about the meeting?

If you could provide responses to those questions today, I would appreciate it. Thank you.

There was no further response from the district for another week, and a letter that Mr. Sterling e-mailed on May 30 make is it clear the district is determined to give my media inquiries the full bureaucratic CPRA treatment, despite my protests.

Here’s the key passage from the district’s letter:

The District notes that most of your requests do not “reasonably [describe] an identifiable record or records,” but, rather, appear to seek answers to questions.  (See Gov’t Code § 6253(b).)  The CPRA does not, however, require the District to answer questions or interrogatories.  Rather, the CPRA only requires a public agency to make an initial determination whether it possesses disclosable public records responsive to the request(s), and provide the estimated date when the records will be made available.

The AESD treats my questions as records requests, even though the questions contained no record requests and even after I pointed out the questions were not records requests.  The district then states the obvious – that I was “seek[ing] answers to questions” – while claiming they aren’t required to answer questions.  So, because I didn’t “reasonably” identify records that I wasn’t requesting, the District used the CPRA as an excuse not to answer several reasonable questions.

In other words, the Anaheim Elementary School District used a state law intended to force transparency to block transparency.

Compounding the weirdness, the district, in the same letter, stated its intention to comply with the separate, actual public record request.

Amazing.

A few simple questions about why the AESD superintendent and her senior staff showed up, uninvited, in the middle of the work day at a private parents meeting in Palm Lane Park – and still no answer almost two weeks later.

A total lack of effort to make Board of Education meetings transparent and accessible to the public.

Is it any wonder the AESD has trust and credibility issues?

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