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Little Eddie’s Transparency Soap Box

I love flashlights. I can remember many nights spent reading under my Batman sheets with a flashlight well past the time I should have been asleep. And just last week, I used a flashlight to hunt down the final Lego block I needed to finish my replica Millennium Falcon. It had fallen under the bed. As an added bonus, I also found three socks, two pennies, and a Superman action figure while I was down there.

As useful as real, physical flashlights are, though, I think metaphorical flashlights are even more powerful—especially when they’re used to shed light on political processes. That’s I celebrated when my Independence Institute friends successfully opened the door on district-union negotiations with Proposition 104 this past November. The proposition passed with a 70% yes vote, which to me says that Coloradans really, really value transparency in government. Who can blame them?

But district-union negotiations are only one part of the puzzle. School boards conduct a lot of business that falls well outside direct interactions with local unions. And although Colorado’s Sunshine Law requires school boards to provide “full and timely” notice of public meetings, a recent story from the Colorado Springs Gazette highlights the fact that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the public is given all the information they need to be fully involved:

” … The courts have said that ‘full’ doesn’t necessarily mean there needs to be a precise agenda for each meeting,” says Jeffrey A. Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

School boards also are not required by law to supply accompanying information to the public before meetings.

The way I see it, transparency in government has three main goals: Building trust, promoting accountability, and facilitating meaningful participation.

So sure, you know the meeting is going to happen. But you may not know exactly what is going to be discussed. And even if you are given a detailed agenda, the inability to access relevant supporting documents will make it hard for you to fully understand an issue, formulate an opinion, or contact the board with comments or concerns ahead of a major policy decision. It may also make it tough to engage in what I think is a very cool (though admittedly sometimes senseless and hostile) direct interface between the public and elected school boards: Public comment.

That’s a pretty big blow to the goal of facilitating meaningful participation.

Not providing detailed agendas or supporting documentation may also have the effect of damaging public trust in local officials, especially if community members feel as though a board is deliberately keeping secrets. Take this comment from a parent in the Gazette story, for instance:

It’s a deterrent. There’s a lot of information that they’re trying to not put out in order to not have people have enough information when they come to a meeting

That doesn’t sound like trust to me. And, of course, incomplete or inadequate information can make it very tough to hold elected officials accountable in any meaningful way. The same parent goes on to say that even if a board has good intentions, a lack of complete information damages the ability of the public to hold them accountable.

It’s pretty clear that withholding basic agenda information or supplemental materials doesn’t help further any of the goals of transparency. So why do it?

Some districts will tell you that they withhold information due to privacy concerns, and there are sometimes very good legal reasons for doing so in specific situations. For others, it’s a lack of access to technology like BoardDocs (which is way, way cool). And in some districts, resistance stems from less philosophical interpretations of the Sunshine Law. While some of these reasons are more convincing than others, I know this for certain: All school boards should strive to provide as much transparency as possible to their constituents.

Admittedly, sharing full information can sometimes be painful. Remember that last September’s Jeffco ruckus was spurred in part by public access to a proposal that had not even been formally introduced at a meeting. Still, more transparency is always better than less, and any move toward more trust, accountability, and participation can only strengthen Colorado’s education system.

Alright. This has been an uncharacteristically long post, so I’m putting away my soap box for now. I’ll see you next time!