SMSD Board of Education should better handle requests for data

Staff Editorial

During the public comments section of the March 25 SMSD Board of Education meeting, community member Liz Meitl stood up and made a simple request. Concerned with discipline practices in the district, Meitl asked to see data regarding discipline levels by race and disability status. Her goal? To determine whether minority students and students with disabilities are punished at higher rates than other students in SMSD. According to Meitl, she had requested this data multiple times, even filing a Freedom of Information Act request. However, she had been stonewalled every time, with the district refusing to hand over any data.

When Meitl made this request at the board meeting, Board President Brad Stratton engaged her in an arguably confrontational dialogue. He demanded to know which groups she purported to represent, why she wanted the data and what she would do with it if she got it. Stratton caught some backlash on the Facebook page SMSD Watchdogs for the way he treated Meitl, and at the April 8 board meeting he apologized to her and to his fellow board members for his behavior during the previous meeting.

Stratton invited Meitl to have a meeting with him on April 10, which the public was invited to watch but not participate in. During this meeting, the two reviewed a list of questions that Meitl had submitted to Stratton beforehand. However, the tone of this meeting turned confrontational as well when Stratton said that he would gather the discipline data Meitl wanted, but that he did not want her to release the data to anyone at SMSD schools. He said that he did not want school principals or communities receiving the data before the district was ready for them to have it, and that Meitl would be ‘circumventing’ the system by giving the data to the schools instead of waiting for the district to give it to them. In response, Meitl raised several good points, one being: If the data will be the same whether she gives it to schools or the district gives it to schools, why should it matter if she’s the one to deliver it?

This is the same question we, the staff of the Mission, are wondering.

This data is important. The public deserves to know the extent to which the discipline disparity exists. Stratton repeatedly asked Meitl which groups she represented; however, this shouldn’t have mattered at all, and it shouldn’t be taken into account when the district decides to release data. Any community member has a right to request that data; they do not have to be part of an organization or requesting on behalf of a group, and the public deserves to know the numbers. The district is only hurting their own image when they refuse to honor what should be a simple request for data.

Additionally, the big push for the district to be the one to give the data to building principals, rather than a community member giving the data to entire school communities, is unwarranted. The data should be the same whether it’s the district or a community member putting it in the hands of school staff; there is no reason why Stratton should have been so adamant that Meitl not ‘circumvent’ the system. This response came across as unnecessarily defensive. In addition, building principals have many responsibilities, and there is no guarantee that they would have the time or resources to go over the data and create an appropriate action plan. Meitl’s plan of making the data public, so everyone within the school community can see it and become involved in creating a solution if they so choose, is logical. There is no apparent reason why Stratton would push the idea of only allowing building principals to see the data, and only once the district was ‘ready’ for them to see it. As the old adage goes, ‘Those who have nothing to hide, hide nothing.’

All in all, Board President Stratton’s response to a patron’s request for data was inappropriate and poorly handled. There is no reason why data such as this shouldn’t be public for all to see. The district should be willing to make public all data pertinent to the success of student learning, even if it doesn’t necessarily make the district look good. If there is any hope for transparency in SMSD, it should start with welcoming patron inquiries rather than discouraging them, and making all data public unless there is a legitimate pedagogical concern as to why they shouldn’t.