Most Local School Districts Lacking While County Commissions Embrace Meeting Transparency
Are school districts simply avoiding scrutiny or do citizens not care how hundreds of millions of tax dollars are spent?
Seventy-seven percent of Americans had faith in the federal government to do the right thing most of the time in 1965. Today, that number is less than 20%. Though not to the same extent as the federal government, trust in local government and school boards has also declined. The public expects and often demands more openness these days. If they don't deliver, confidence in them will erode.
Over the past few years, numerous counties and school systems have made significant strides toward increasing openness and transparency. Public records, such as annual audits, meeting agendas, and minutes, are all available online. But since covid, people have learned about a new kind of transparency that has been widely embraced wherever it's been introduced.
A simple and inexpensive service that governments can provide is live streaming and video recordings of entire meetings, making them accessible to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
Below is a table detailing which boards and commissions offer online viewing of their proceedings. In addition, the total revenue for each in 2021 is displayed.
Surprisingly, the school boards in Catoosa, Walker, and Whitfield counties don't offer live broadcasts or even recorded videos of their regular meetings. In stark contrast , all county commissions provide Facebook live streams, and two publish meeting footage on YouTube. This is surprising as the higher the tax dollars at play reliably predicts the public interest. Are school districts simply avoiding scrutiny or do citizens not care how hundreds of millions of tax dollars are spent? Given the level of citizen interest in county governments with just half the revenue of school systems it likely isn't the case that citizens are disinterested in school system activities.
When district and school test results are considered, it becomes even more worrying. Years of dismal performance in reading and mathematics coupled with a hefty local property tax burden point to a pressing need for more openness, engagement, and scrutiny. When you factor in the fact that some schools and districts are implementing questionable and expensive curriculum ostensibly for social and emotional learning, it's clear why there's been a push for greater transparency in school board meetings across the state and nation.
In contrast to other districts, the Dade County School Board, like the Dade County Commission, broadcasts its meetings live and archives the recordings. Discoverdade.com and local television station KWN(and their Facebook page) have done an excellent job of making this happen. KWN also airs Dade County Water and Sewer Authority and Trenton City Council meetings in addition to commission and school board sessions. Evan Stone and his team at KWN provide among the best local government transparency and audio/video production quality in the region and among the best in the state.
County Commissions Shine
When Chairman Whitfield and Joe Legge showed up in 2017, Walker County's government records were either hard to find, nonexistent, missing or stored on papyrus scrolls in a remote mountain cave. They set about changing that. Since 2017, Walker County has been a pioneer among local governments in digitizing documents and providing online access. There is now a wealth of county documents available, including audit reports dating back to the 1990s, monthly statistics reports, and the county codebook, complete with all ordinances, resolutions, agendas, packets, and minutes. In comparison to 2016, transparency has improved equally as much as the county's turnaround in finances.
The Walker, Catoosa, and Whitfield County Commissions deserve praise for their work to make government meetings more accessible to the public, but there is still room to improve transparency by, for example, following Dade County's example and adding other governmental board and commission meetings to their video offerings.
Additionally, no local government or school board is providing adequate financial transparency yet. Citizens should be able to see a list of every transaction(expenditures) updated every month. It's glaring when liberal havens have open checkbook ordinances that easily provide this but fiscally conservative areas still don't.
The Major Failing Is With School Districts
Do you want to know how your school districts are spending the millions of dollars you've given them, as well as what plans are being considered and implemented with that money? Make phone calls or send emails to the local school superintendents and board members. Contact information and links below.
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Walker County Schools Superintendent: DamonRaines@walkerschools.org
Catoosa County Schools Superintendent: firstname.lastname@example.org
Whitfield County Schools Superintendent: email@example.com