Sunday, April 20, 2008

School district needs to open the books

When reporter Sylvia Lim was assigned to examine how the Manatee school district’s budget-cutting would affect each school, she requested the relevant documents from the school administration. Those included:

• Documents, proposals and/or suggestions submitted by each Manatee County public school on how they will or would cut their budgets for the 2008-09 school year;
• Documents, proposals and/or suggestions submitted by each Manatee County school district department on how they will or would cut their budgets for the 2008-09 school year;
• Summaries, notes and other paperwork generated after April 7, 2008 that are related to the proposals and documents mentioned above.

Sylvia requested those documents as a reporter, under rights guaranteed by Florida’s Sunshine law. She didn’t have to give a reason or her position -- those rights are guaranteed for every citizen, regardless of occupation or intent. So the school district’s standoff against supplying the documents was indefensible at any level -– and the arguments perplexing, at the least.

Sylvia originally requested them verbally -– again, within the letter of the law. When she was told it was a work in progress, she documented her request in writing. Days later, when she still hadn’t received any documentation, she filed the request a third time.

This time, Sylvia received a call Thursday afternoon that Superintendent Roger Dearing, school board attorney John Bowen and others would meet with her at 9 a.m. Friday to “clarify” her request. The reason: The request was too vague and sweeping, the district stated -– in fact, the estimate was that the Herald needed to provide a $1,000 deposit for the district to begin the paperwork because it would be so costly.

Nonsense. Sylvia’s request was crystal clear. Just to be sure, I asked Sylvia to run it by the First Amendment Foundation. “This is certainly clear to me -– a request for any and all proposal submitted pertaining to the 2008-09 budget,” responded FAF Director Adria Harper.

We placed another round of calls to the superintendent, saying we needed access to the documents, not a meeting. When Dr. Dearing called back, he was clearly upset by the request, accusing us of wanting to “pick through the bones.” Again, our reason for asking for the documents should never have been the issue. That said, Sylvia needed those documents to critically examine what’s at stake, how cuts are being decided, and to help our readers -– teachers, principals, students, local business owners, parents, anyone -- see what their students would sacrifice, how their tax dollars would be spent, how their elected officials are responding, and what impact to expect.

Dr. Dearing relented, but not before he and the school board had countered the proposed cuts with a salary-cut alternative. Our reporters were allowed access to the documents Friday morning, just as Dearing’s new proposals were on the table. Even if that’s coincidental, we think the Manatee school board and superintendent violated the spirit of the Sunshine Law.

Here are links to the reports last week:

Friday's report on salary cut requests.

Saturday's report on the documents.



Charlotte Greenbarg said...

Thank you so much for telling it as it is regarding the Manatee School Board's abuse of power. This Board isn't alone; M-Dade's Board Member Marta Perez had to sue Sup't. Rudy Crew for information she requested. She won, but he's still stonewalling her. We expect the Governor and Attorney General to enforce the law, if the State Attorney in Manatee won't.

Anonymous said...

Kudos to reporter Lim for hanging tough. We need that unbiased look at what's being cut -- it's our right and our tax dollars.

Hooter1 said...

This is common place activity in with the Manatee County School District. Our children are faced with cuts while the Dr. Dearing defends his $220K per year salary claiming he "earns that everyday". I do ponder why then after 5 years in the position, Manatee County Schools is ranked 54 out of 69 ranked Florida school districts by School Digger? How much would we need to pay a Superintendent for an "average" school district? Great job Dr. Dearing, thats a cool million well spent!!!