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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

10/19/11 Letters to the Editor - Clarkston News

Letters available here: http://www.clarkstonnews.com/Articles-i-2011-10-19-244034.113121-sub14473.113121-Letters-to-the-Editor.html

"Letters to the Editor

Readers respond to school-information stories


October 19, 2011 –

'Disappointed' by schools

Dear Editor,

I had high hopes that a new Clarkston superintendent would end the secrecy and arrogance that seemed to pervade the previous administration and certain board of education members.

However, it was very disappointing to read that Dr. Rod Rock believes it is "wasteful" for a district resident and taxpayer to use the law to obtain information that many school districts make public. ("FOIAs Under Fire," Oct. 12).

This is the same superintendent who recently leveraged taxpayer resources to criticize charter schools. Apparently, it's not "wasteful" when you spend the people's money on issues you support.

It is equally disaappointing that several board members have joined the "move on, there's nothing to see here" bandwagon. Diversionary tactics -- such as insinuating that the citizen in question is in cahoots with the local paper -- only reinforce the notion that there is something to hide.

Until certain Clarkston Schools leaders learn what transparency means, I don't care if Santa Claus files FOIA requests and pays for them with money from the Easter Bunny, if that's what it takes to get answers.

Kelly Kolhagen
Independence Township


Sunlight best disinfectant

Dear Editor,

There have been statements made that a member of the community is wasting the school district's time and resources by making FOIA requests for information which some on the Board and in the administration feel is a fishing expedition.

Let's be clear on a very important point: community oversight of our elected and appointed officials is not just a community right, it is a community responsibility and it can only be accomplished with adequate information in a format that lends itself to review and analysis.

In the absence of full, voluntary disclosure on the part of officials, the law provides citizens with a tool to use to obtain the needed information – the Freedom of Information Act.

This tool provides the community with access to sufficient information to be able to make an informed judgment regarding the performance of those officials who hold the public trust when complete information is not readily available to the community for whatever reason.

To those on the board and in the administration who are opposed to these requests, my suggestion is to re-examine their position regarding the voluntary release of information and to encourage members of the community to become involved at a more granular level of detail in the areas of greatest concern such as finance and policy.

If no problems are found, this assistance will still enable the district to stretch its scarce resources by engaging these additional creative minds in process improvement.

On the other hand, if there are problems they can be identified early and corrected quickly because in the words of US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis "Sunlight is the best disinfectant".

Lawrence Matta
Independence Township


Public has right to know

Dear Editor,

I am in shock at the tone and comments coming from the Clarkston School Superindent and some School Board members ("FOIAs under fire,"Oct. 12).

These are the people we assume are establishing the policies for educating our students and I presume that includes civics and law. Instead of my usual long winded complaints, I offer the following explanation from the Michigan Legislature as contained in a very good document on the Michigan Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Acts which is available for free and online from www.Michigan.gov. This is what it says:

Availability of Public Records:

Any person may ask to inspect, copy or receive a copy of a public record. There are no qualifications such as residency or age.

As soon as practical, but not more than five business days after receiving a request, the public body must respond to a request for a public record. Under unusual circumstances, the time can be extended by 10 days.

The public body or agency has a responsibility to provide reasonable facilities so that persons making a request may examine and take notes from public records. The facilities must be available during the normal business hours of the public body. A public body may make reasonable rules necessary to protect its public records and to prevent excessive and unreasonable interference with the discharge of its functions.

My opinion is that it is public information, created, compiled and maintained with public money. Therefore, in accordance with the law, the public has the right to any information for any reason, even if it is just because they are curious and want to know how their tax money is being spent. So tell the School Board to stop their whining and get back to educating the public, whether student or parent. It is not the School Board's information, it is ours.

Cory Johnston
Clarkston


FOIAs waste of money

Dear Editor,

I concur with Kelli Horst's views that Dawn Schaller is wasting our tax payer dollars on ridiculous FOIA requests. I believe this is part of a bigger effort to tear apart the fabric of public education. Now is the time to rally and support our public schools before this uniquely American success story is undermined by for-profit corporations.

Thank you,

Ann Lehman-Rittinger
Davisburg


Outraged by newspaper

Dear Editor,

As a parent of children that attend Clarkston Community Schools, I am outraged that your newspaper is supporting the crazy antics of a delusional resident of Clarkston.

Dr. Rod Rock has done an amazing job of being the superintendent of Clarkston Schools. He has opened lines of communication that were not open before. He has also gone above and beyond in keeping Clarkston residents informed about all of the changes that could be occurring in education funding and policies.

If there is no evidence of wrongdoing, please let him get back to doing what he does best – caring for the education of our kids.

Noelle Collis

 

Get behind Dr. Rock

Dear Editor,

I, too, have had many frustrations over Mrs. Schaller's relentless campaign to expose some type of fraud or misspending on the part of the Clarkston School District ("FOIA questions focus on school spending," Oct. 12). I think after 18 months and 4,760 pages of information, she should stop wasting our time and money.

I am focused on moving forward with our new superintendent and excited about the direction in which he is moving our district. I have noted the School Board members who support Mrs. Schaller and will not vote for them. I want them to move into the future and get behind Dr. Rock. He has new and exciting ideas that I want to explore for the sake of my two children currently in the Clarkson school system. The recent economic situation within our state calls for new and inventive practices, not conspiracy theories.

Of great concern to me is why the Clarkston News supported Mrs. Shaller's efforts by supplying her with money. Isn't this the time when we should be working together to create solutions and a new paradigm rather than steeping ourselves in past practices?

Aimee Baker
Davisburg"
















 

Clarkston News Editorial by Phil Custodio on 10/19/11

Article available here: http://www.clarkstonnews.com/Articles-i-2011-10-19-244026.113121-sub14473.113121-Phil-in-the-BlankA-column-by-Phil-Custodio.html

Phil in the Blank A column by Phil Custodio

Check the law


October 19, 2011 - Smart warriors the world over turn their opponents' tactics against them.

So it is with admiration that I watch Clarkston school officials and advocates use yellow-journalism methods against Dawn Schaller and the Clarkston News regarding Freedom of Information Act requests.

They ask, what's the real story behind the News and Dawn Schaller? What are your real motivations? What did you know and when did you know it?

I get it – that's what we're doing, so how does it feel, tabloid boy?

What's sad about these charges and countercharges is it's all unnecessary.

The Freedom of Information Act requires school districts and other official bodies to provide information, but it includes plenty of information controls, too. The school district isn't as helpless as the superintendent and others seem to think.

It allows the district to charge for actual costs for labor, search, examination, review, and deletion and separation of exempt from nonexempt information.

When calculating labor, the district can't charge more than the lowest hourly rate, but the law goes on to say that rate applies to the "lowest paid public body employee capable of retrieving the information necessary to comply with a request under this act."

This means the lowest paid central office employee, not the lowest paid employee overall.

Also, as Cory Johnston points out in his letter on page 20A, the law allows the district to make reasonable rules to "prevent excessive and unreasonable interference with the discharge of its functions."

If that's the case, make the rules. People will probably argue about whether they're reasonable, but that would be better than arguing why a newspaper would want information on the local school district.

Now's certainly not the time for less scrutiny of any government body, including the school district.

The School Board is considering a new program to teach Spanish in preschool-fifth grade, costing up to $750,000. And, after borrowing millions to wire the district for the Internet, it very may well look to borrow millions more for wireless Internet.

These and other stories need more questions and answers, not less."

10/25/11 status of my 9/12/11 FOIA request

I still have not received my FOIA results six weeks after the request was submitted.

The district is now three weeks (15 business days) past the expiration date of their extension (October 4, 2011). According to the FOIA specialist in the State of Michigan's Attorney General's office, the district is allowed a "reasonable" amount of time to supply the information.  I believe that six weeks exceeds a "reasonable" amount of time for 250 pages of documents.  Therefore, I believe that the district is violation of FOIA. 

I addressed this at the 10/24/11 board meeting and Dr. Rock retorted at the end that the district's attorneys say that the district is not in violation because FOIA does not say how soon documents have to be supplied.  However, according to the AG's office, a "reasonable" amount of time is assumed.  I guess this must mean that they will supply it when they are good and ready, like when I am 95 years old...

I believe that Dr. Rock does not want the information I requested to become public.

My comments at the 10/24/11 meeting

I would like to talk about two things tonight.

  1. My FOIA request from September 12, 2011 was “answered” on September 20th and a 10 day extension was taken by the district to October 4th. 
    1. On October 4th, I was “answered” with a package price of $254.95 and an estimated 250 pages at 10 cents per page, and 15 hours of staff time at $15.33 per hour with no reference to when the documents would be available to me.
    2. Requests to the district FOIA officer for a date when the documents would be available were answered with legalese citing FOIA statute numbers and a follow on answer that said, “We have responded to your request and stated that it would be granted.  There is no statute within FOIA that states requirement of when the FOIA request is fulfilled.  We are working to fulfill this request, as we have done with each prior FOIA request you have submitted.  We have consulted with our legal counsel and are in full compliance with the requirements of FOIA.”
    3. To date, I have not received the documents I requested 6 weeks ago, nor been advised when my documents will be available. 
    4. According to the Attorney General’s FOIA specialist at the State of Michigan, the district has a “reasonable” amount of time to provide the documents.  I believe that six weeks to provide 250 pages of documents is beyond a “reasonable” amount of time and I would like to know when the documents will be ready for me to pay for and pick up. 
    5. Therefore, I believe that the district is in violation of FOIA.      
  2. I wanted to discuss Missing board packet documentation
    1. Check registers –
                                                              i.      The May check register is on the 7/11/11 board packet and there is a link to it on the district’s home webpage.
                                                            ii.      September’s check register is on today’s board packet.
                                                          iii.      June’s, July’s, and August’s check registers are missing from all of the board packets and the district website.  Are there things on those check registers that the district doesn’t want the public to see?
    1. There have been missing documents from multiple board packets for presentation items, Superintendent’s updates, and reports that have been promised to be updated in emails and comments during board meetings.  However, most of the missing items were not added later and none of the Superintendent’s updates were added.
    2. Neither of tonight’s discussion items were in the board packet, although the board obviously had the data.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

My comments at the 9/26/11 CCS Board Meeting

"Regarding the Capital and Technology Needs List and Review, I am concerned about a few things.

  1. There was no BAR (Board Action Request Form) for this report on this meeting’s Board Packet, just as there were missing BARs and missing documentation on the September 12th meeting's board packet. 
  2.  I am concerned that several of the items on the Capital Needs list appear to be items that would be covered in the normal operating budget and wonder why they are being moved into a bond.   Buses are listed under furnishings and equipment, yet the buses have been leased in the recent past and those funds have come from the general fund. 
  3.  Has there been any coordinated technology and curriculum agreed upon by the board?  
  4.  If purchases that might have come from the general fund are moved to the bond, what impact will that have on the general fund?  Will those general fund dollars that would have been used for those items be loosened up to purchase whatever administration wants because they have the approved budget for that total amount in the general fund?  If so, then the general budget should be adjusted downward so as not to allow administration to spend like drunken sailors on leave. 
  5. Are there any funds in the capital needs list for the Baylis house?  That building appears to be a white elephant.  For the small amount of use the building has and the high cost of maintaining it, it would make more sense to sell that house and it’s out buildings as it is an expensive place to have a retreat for Team Rush once a year and to serve as a storage unit for boats and antique vehicles for district personnel.  I have photos of vehicles being stored in one of the outbuildings.  There has already been work performed on the building in the last month in excess of $10,000.00.

I only had a few minutes during the meeting to see the new documentation administration put together for the 9/26/11 board meeting (they changed the board packet sometime Monday afternoon before the meeting).  They added more detail to the bond request.  I will put that on the blog.  The Baylis house is the farmhouse that is at the corner of M-15 and Hubbard Rd, at the corner of the parcel of land that Independence Elementary is on. 

My comments at the 10/10/11 Board meeting regarding the 2011 Plant & Moran audit

My comments at the end of the 10/10/11 CCS School Board meeting:

Here is the link to the audit.
  1. I am disappointed in the results of the district audit by Plante and Moran.
    1. Following finding significant violations of district policy and improper coding of charges to the district purchasing card through my FOIA requests that I have brought to the attention of the board and nothing was done with it, I submitted an email to the lead auditor prior to the start of audit to request that the audit analyze:
                                                               i.      the use of the district purchasing card by one teacher who allowed three other people to use her purchasing card,
                                                              ii.      account coding of trip expenses for an extracurricular group that were charged to district account codes (vs. the group’s account codes) by the same teacher as above,
                                                            iii.      and the district not following policy in regard to obtaining multiple bids, and/or not obtaining board approval for large purchases as mandated by policy.
    1. The audit did not address any of the items I brought forward to Plant & Moran.
    2. The audit noted that the district had policies and administrative guidelines in place regarding the use of district purchasing cards.  However, the district website does not reflect that the district has any administrative guidelines for the use of the purchasing card.      
  1. On the organization chart in the 2011 audit on page 100 of the board packet, I found many interesting things as compared to the October 8th, 2010 org chart I have from last year. 
    1. There are many changes in titles and the apparent staff shown from 2010.  Although there have been no requests from Administration to the board for new employees or promotions for employees, there are many changes in titles.  However, the board must approve "Administrative, Instructional and Non-Instructional Staff Changes" in an open meeting. 
                                                               i.      Although the Superintendent has advised that there is a pay freeze on all of the employees of the district, the titles of several positions have changed since the 10/8/10 org chart, I suspect that the pay for these individuals have also increased, and the Board of Education has not been asked to approve promotions for these individuals:
1.       After only one year in the position and several Human Resources issues in this audit, the 2010 "Director of Human Resources" is now the 2011 "Executive Director for Human Resources and Communications.
2.       The 2010 position of "Supervisor, Assessment, Research, and Evaluation" with a secretary working under her in 2010, is now the 2011 "Chief Academic Officer" with "subject area coordinators, State and Federal Programs, staff development, student data management, and program evaluation" under her.
3.       The 2009 "Communications secretary", became 2010’s "Community Relations / Communications", and 2011’s "Communications Coordinator”.
4.       There is a new position in 2011 called "Executive Director of Operations".  I am not sure who is in that position, but the position did not exist in 2010. 
5.        Have the promotions resulted in pay increases for any of those employees?

"FOIAs under fire" - editorial in The Clarkston News 10/12/11

FOIAs under fire


Officials question school Freedom of Info requests, funding

October 12, 2011 - School officials facing several Freedom of Information Act requests have some questions of their own.

"We have limited staff and limited time to take on these resources and it seems wasteful," said Superintendent Dr. Rod Rock at the Sept. 26 school board meeting.

Responding to FOIA requests submitted by Dawn Schaller of Independence Township, the school district printed 4,760 pages, with 26.75 hours of staff time. At a cost of $15.33 per hour and 10 cents per page, the cost was $886.08, Rock said.

School board members are mixed.

"We are one of the finest school district in the state and this activity has gone on too long with nothing to show for it," said board President Cheryl McGinnis. "Times are difficult enough with reform legislation being thrown at districts daily to deal with one person's unsubstantiated intentions."

Trustee Joan Patterson disagreed.

"I don't fault her at all – she's a citizen trying to help," Patterson said. "Dr. Rock should bring her on board to help with the reporting."

Kelli Horst, president of Clarkston PTA Council, sent a letter to the editor ("Questions about FOIA questions," page 6A).

"If nothing concrete has come from 18 months, nine FOIA requests and nearly 5,000 pages of documents, then it's time to stop chasing conspiracy theories and let our school administrators return to the business of educating our students," Horst said.

The district is required to charge the lowest hourly rate even though an employee with a higher hourly rate completes the request, said board Treasurer Steve Hyer

"This causes the district to spend money that could be spent in the classroom on FOIA requests instead," Hyer said. "This is troublesome to me and I would imagine to all of the parents who see these dollars going to FOIA requests instead of their classrooms."

Residents should focus on legislative activities in Lansing, said board Vice President Elizabeth Egan.

"All of us should understand the impact on our local schools and contact our legislators," Egan said. "That's where the real action is regarding how education will change - for better or worse."

"We are one of the finest school district in the state and this activity has gone on too long with nothing to show for it," McGinnis said.

Trustees Susan Boatman and Rosalie Lieblang support the FOIA effort.

"(Schaller) has discovered some inconsistencies that have provided the opportunity for the district to tighten up some procedures and provide more transparency to the public by updating information on the district website," Boatman said.

Taxpayers have the right to inspect and request public records, Lieblang said.

"In this environment of reduced state and federal funding and continual district budget cuts, I'm not surprised that people in our community want to make sure we are spending our limited resources wisely," Lieblang said. "I welcome the involvement and feedback from our community."

"She is asking for information we should have had on hand, available to the public, and she had to pay for it," Patterson said. "That makes me very uncomfortable."

Schaller filed her first FOIA request on March 16, 2010 for district credit card and check registers, bond contract information, central office job descriptions, receipts, and other documents.

She organized a group of volunteers to look at about 12,000 pages of ledgers, contracts, and other documents on March 31 ("Parents dig for school information," April 7, 2010).

She submitted additional requests in April and June to look into irregularities she found including inaccurate information on the district website under "Transparency Reports," using school funds improperly, and purchasing and contract bidding policies not being followed.

When Rock took over as superintendent in October 2010, Schaller sent him an email.

"I would like you to consider providing to me gratis, all of the information that I originally FOIAed on June 17 to allow me to finish the evaluation of the data from the district," Schaller said in the Oct. 25 email. "I would then present my findings to you for you to act on."

Rock responded with a bill for $606.60.

Schaller asked publisher Jim Sherman Jr. for financial assistance on Oct. 27, 2010, to support the FOIA request, and Sherman sent a $300 check – his only donation to the effort.

Rock, who started as superintendent on Oct. 6, 2010, still has questions.

"If Mr. Sherman offered to pay for Mrs. Schaller's FOIA request because of his interest in the previous superintendent, what is the motivation to continue now that the district employs a different superintendent," he asked. "Why wouldn't Mr. Sherman submit the FOIA request himself?"

For Schaller's FOIA request, Sept. 12, 2011, the district charged a processing fee of $254.95, based on an estimated 250 pages at 10 cents per page, about 15 hours of staff time at $15.33 per hour.

Plante and Moran's audit report presented to the school board, Oct. 10, includes the Certificate of Excellence Award from the Association of School Business Officials-International (ASBO) for 2010.

"I believe this is the 13th year our audit report has been submitted to receive this award of excellence," McGinnis said. "It is therefore difficult to understand under what grounds Mrs. Schaller continues to request massive amount of district information."

For Patterson, the report raises more questions, including an updated organization chart for the school district.

"It has new titles – when was this approved," she asked. "Do they get a raise? Nothing came through us."

Administration officials have new "executive director" titles – another new title is "chief academic officer."

She submitted her own request for more information on this and other issues with Plante and Moran and Bruce Beamer, executive director of business services.


Phil is editor for The Clarkston News. He is a veteran of the first Iraq war, having served in the U.S. Army.