On Full Transparency
Written by Sean McEvoy
We moved to Ridgefield over 20 years ago, from Norwalk, when our youngest daughter was just one. Like many families, we looked at the "personality" of surrounding towns, the look and feel of the place we would be raising our kids, and most importantly, the school district that our kids would spend their formative years learning in.
Our town has built a great asset in the Ridgefield Public School system. While standardized test scores may vary by a few percentages each year, we consistently turn out a high percentage of graduates that are ready to take the next step, whether that be college, employment, military or a trade.
The past 2 years (since the last election) our school district has been through more than a bit of a rollercoaster. Multiple Superintendents (and interim Superintendents), and significant turnover in Principals and senior administration, a budget nail-biter last year that went from a nearly $1m deficit to break even just a month later with insufficient explanation. We also saw budget money shifted around during a budget "freeze" to pay for outside consultants.
Throughout all of this turmoil, we've often struggled to gain enough information from our Board of Education, or the schools to understand each issue, and as a result have had to use FOIA requests to attempt to get to the root causes. On more than one occasion, the documentation provided to fulfill the request was incorrect or incomplete, and needed to be amended.
As with most interpersonal interactions, it’s either lack of information, or poor communication that leads people to either fill in their own information gaps based on what they *do* know, or to act merely on the information provided. The way that our current Board of Education engages with the community is inadequate.
Closing in on $100 million annually, the RPS budget encompasses roughly 2/3 of Ridgefield's overall spending (two thirds of your property tax bill) and school spending growth is outpacing the non-school spending. Despite this, we have significant facilities issues, important programs being deferred for years, and are still spending less per pupil than any of our neighboring towns.
What would we change to improve our District's transparency?
1. Full transparency. We'd like to see a facility where questions from the community, and the associated answers and backup documents are posted in a central, online location for all to see. Barring personnel, FERPA/HIPPA, security, individual student information or extenuating privacy reasons, this information is the public's information.
2. BoE meeting tone and tenor. Current BoE meetings come off as more scripted than a "reality show". Public comments and interaction are kept to a minimum, and no questions are answered in real-time (or afterward) without a written request. In short, comments from interested stakeholders appear (to a community member) to be useless.
3. BoE meeting community engagement. We know that recently, the BoE has experimented with Facebook live in addition to their traditional livestream, but I'd like to see something a bit more like we have in the corporate world. A true videoconference, with sidebar chat capability, for the community to not only watch and listen, but engage in the discussion with each other. Ask questions. Get answers in real-time, or have their questions taken offline and responded to...for all to see the answers. We're preparing our students to thrive in a technology-focused world, but our meetings seem to be stuck in the 1990s.
Just this week, parents are vocally advocating for their incoming 5th grade students across multiple elementary schools due to the number of teams being reduced, and as a result, classroom sizes being increased. It’s our contention that a proper community engagement, and communications plan would have helped the Board better understand the impact before the parents became mobilized. Conversely, a communication plan would serve to help the parents understand the “why” of a policy or change...early, and allow a dialog to open on the topic.
We have a slate of 5 accomplished professionals who live and work in a world where communication and transparency are paramount. We look forward to improving Board to Community communications and bringing a new level of transparency to our great school district.
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