Deceptions, Omissions Plague School District Websites

April 2, 2012

QCSD has not had a lot to be proud of in the past decade or so. Exorbitant salaries, failed fad educational programs, and dreadfully low student performance have caused an angry community to rise up, and replace most of the old-guard school board.

And while the problems went totally unacknowledged by the now-former directors, Superintendent Lisa Andrejko fought back against district critics, using the taxpayer-funded QCSD website as a happy-talk weapon of mass misdirection. Residents were, and still are, force-fed a steady diet of what Andrejko wants us to focus on: non-academic achievements, community events, feel-good stories, and derisive references to the district's "detractors".

And those niceties (except, of course, the overly-defensive jabs) are a part of any agency website. The stories should indeed be told. Recognition of achievement is important. And, if you never questioned the quality and content of the QCSD website, you might think that everything is peachy here. It even offers the boast, written inside an outsized blue ribbon, "PA School Board Association Website Award of Excellence Recipient". Wow, it must really be good!

Or not. What you aren't told is that the award isn't for the current school year. Or last year. Or even the one before. It was given three years ago. Since then - nothing. And for good reason....

The PA School Board Association runs a contest. Only two dozen or so websites were entered, by their own school districts. There just isn't much competition. There are no measurable standards. Pretty pictures and colorful layouts get the gold.

But when websites statewide are evaluated using real metrics, QCSD doesn't win anything. Page after page of student activities, and self-congratulations, can not obscure the real importance of any government website - to properly inform the community of the workings of that agency - in this case, our school district. The problem was never what was available on the website. It's what was missing. And still is.

A non-profit, non-partisan, national organization called Sunshine Review collects and shares information about state and local government website transparency, including school districts. The Review is nationwide in scope, with no bias against any particular town, city, state, political party, or group. The data gatherers likely have never heard of QCSD, or most of the other entities they are evaluating. They are completely independent, with no reason or motivation to mislead.

SR uses a '10-point Transparency Checklist' to evaluate the content of every state website, and more than 5,000 local government websites. The organization works with watchdog individuals and groups throughout the country "to promote an informed citizenry, and hold government accountable".

The primary focus is on transparency. Sunshine Review evaluates whether a government agency's website proactively discloses important and necessary data to its community. This covers many areas of transparency, including budget, personnel, records, and public documents. It doesn't matter how many happy-talk stories appear on the website, or how much taxpayer money is used to create fancy layouts. The ratings are based strictly on whether the sites contain the basic information that all government websites should reveal to the community.

The reviews, in the form of grades from A down to F, are objective rather than subjective. There are no opinions, praise, or criticism offered for the content or appearance, only a rating based on what data is, or is not, available on each website, using the 10-point Transparency Checklist. These points are Taxes, Budget, Meetings, Elected Officials, Administration Officials, Contracts, Audits, Public Records, Academics, and Background Checks.

It is important to note that Sunshine Review looks only at website content; it does not judge how well an agency, or a district, performs the various tasks on the checklist. Budgets may be outrageous, officials corrupt, audits failing, and academics a disaster, but if the documents reflecting the agency's actions and positions are properly disclosed on the website, for the community to see, then they are graded highly. The sole criterion is transparency - are the necessary documents posted in each category.

PA has 501 school districts. 500 of them are reviewed on the SR website, with grades ranging from A to F. Despite being a "PSBA Website Award of Excellence Recipient", QCSD received a C.

What Sunshine Review found "good":

The current budget is published.

Tax information is published.

Information on public records is provided.

The names and contact information for all administrative officials are provided.

The names of all school board members are provided.

School board meeting agendas, minutes, and schedules are published.

Current PSSA results are published.

What Sunshine Review found "bad":

Contact information is not provided for school board members. By comparison, 158 of the 501 districts fully complied, 306 (like QCSD) partially complied, and 37 did not comply at all.

The biggest negative is that QCSD did not provide any information at all to the community for four of the ten categories - background checks, contracts, lobbying, and audits. Across the state, 261 districts fully complied with background checks, 240 did not. Contracts: 10 fully complied, 28 partially, 463 none. Lobbying: 25 complied, 476 did not. Audits: 34 complied, 19 partially, 448 none. We are not alone in our secrecy.

The overall data shows that, in PA, there is a shocking lack of transparency in our school districts. Thirty-seven percent reveal almost nothing. And even including the districts that do seem to make an effort, there is still widespread indifference to the community regarding contracts (2% full compliance), lobbying (5%), public records (47%), audits (7%), academics (30%), elected officials (32%), budgets (31%), and taxes (12%).

Forget lobbying, it's pretty rare for individual school districts. But it is very distressing that 240 districts did not post anything about background checks, 463 did not disclose contracts, and 448 failed to reveal the results of their audits, which tell the community whether tax dollars are being spent according to the budgets. This information is all missing from the QCSD "Website of Excellence", and is far more important to the residents than science project winners and teacher profiles.

The reviews of the websites of surrounding districts aren't much better:

Palisades, Central Bucks: B-

Pennridge, Centennial, Souderton, Saucon Valley: C

Upper Perkiomen, Southern Lehigh: C-

East Penn D-

Judging from PA's 500 individual district grades, many schools don't take their websites - or their obligations to the community - seriously. An incredible 185 received an F, although many of them are the smaller, rural districts. Equally incredible, only six earned A's. But three of the six are from this area - New Hope-Solebury, Council Rock, and Reading. They disclosed their background checks, and their contracts, and their audit results. It can be done - if the district wants the residents to know. And if not, why not???