Controlling Information

Democracy must be built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is enlightenment. When there is debate, there are solutions. When there is no sharing of power, no rule of law, no accountability, there is abuse, corruption, subjugation and indignation.”

-Atifete Jahjaga

During the last Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee meeting the LAUSD Charter Schools Division (CSD) claimed that they provide “high-quality charter school oversight”, are “stewards of the public trust” and take “stakeholder questions, concerns and claims” seriously in their efforts to bring “transparency” and “accountability” to the publicly funded but privately run charter schools. There is no denying that these catchphrases look great in a Powerpoint presentation and hold great promise for the students, taxpayers and other stakeholders of the district. However, to have any real meaning these words need to be backed up with actions by an agency that itself has transparency to the public. Unfortunately, when tested the CSD’s actions do not conform with their stated mission.

One would assume that in order to provide “responsive oversight”, the CSD must catalog complaints about the schools under their jurisdiction and that these files would be readily available. This is the only way that each new complaint could be cross-referenced with previous reports to find out if patterns of misbehavior exist. However, the LAUSD says that this “assumption is incorrect.” Instead, by the districts estimation, it will take almost two months to provide copies of “any complaint filed with the LAUSD Charter Schools Division about Granada Hills Charter High School along with” their responses during the period of January 1, 2014, through November 2, 2015. If it takes this long to find the records for one school, how is it possible to conduct investigations of complaints with any level of thoroughness, provide requested information to School Board members or notice trends among all the schools the agency regulates? Of course, this assumes that the information is actually inaccessible and their request for more time is not an attempt to delay an investigation by the public.

As another part of the same request, I tried to determine if former Board member Tamar Galatzan is lobbying on behalf of any of the charter schools by asking for “any e-mail to or from anyone in the Charter Schools Division that was addressed to or received from” her after she left office on May 31. The Office of the General Counsel found this request to be “overly broad and burdensome”. Despite the fact that this request only required a search of email address headers for the name “Tamar Galatzan,” the District asked me to narrow my request to the correspondence for specific charter schools. They also requested that I limit my search to specific employees of the CSD without explaining how I am supposed to determine who Ms. Galatzan is trying to influence. According to the District, these records should be available for my review “on or before March 31, 2016.”

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the LAUSD has sandbagged my efforts to obtain information that California law makes available for inspection. For example, an August request for information on the number of Disruptive Parent Letters that have been issued by the District is still outstanding. With a promised availability date of December 23, 2015, at least it is still possible that I will receive this information. After numerous delays, the District refused to provide information about reported Superintendent candidate Michelle King and the “LAUSD I’M IN” marketing campaign claiming that “any all matters relating to on-going investigations are exempt from disclosure.” They have refused to tell me who is conducting this investigation.

In comparison, when information may help the District make its case, it has shown a willingness to release it quickly to the public. During the investigation of Rafe Esquith, they regularly provided updates that included the unproven allegations against the award winning teacher. As they defend themselves against a $1 Billion lawsuit related to Esquith’s firing, the District continues to selectively release information meant to discredit him. Apparently, matters related to on-going investigations are only exempt from disclosure if that information can hurt the district.

Open records laws help to ensure public access to government agencies so that they can be held accountable. When the Office of the General Counsel ignores these laws and acts as a gatekeeper of information it betrays the public trust, encourages suspicion of the District and fosters an environment that is ripe for corruption. If the LAUSD really wants to foster “parent and community engagement” it needs to be more open with the information that it shares.