After several controversial issues left parents and citizens feeling silenced and left out of the process, a citizen asked the school board to investigate community engagement practices. Seeing no action, members of C.A.R.E. set out to investigate the matter.
Significant issues were observed with recent community engagements for the Strategic Plan, the ARP funding survey, the school size survey and others. But one particularly controversial policy, with record community engagement, offered an in depth observation of the process from start-to-finish.
A policy was released for public comment for an unusually long comment period of one month. In a press release, ACPS set the expectations for the comment period, which were:
- A one-way live stream would be offered to present the proposed policy
- An email inbox would be established expressly for this feedback.
- “All questions will be answered and posted online prior to the August 12 school board meeting.”
That is what was outlined as the expectation, but what actually happened was as follows:
- A special email inbox was established
- A live stream was held
- An FAQ was posted
- The policy passed unanimously
But that is not the whole story.
Community members throughout the comment period emailed C.A.R.E. asking if anyone had received any answers to their questions. Crowdsourcing turned up nothing, so they started emailing to press the communications office. The promised Questions and Answers were never posted to any website. The live stream addressed none of the questions. The board did not respond to queries. Record numbers of people signed up for public comment, to which the board responded by instituting a cap on speakers and a lottery. After weeks, an FAQ was posted with a short list of 16 “frequently asked questions” that, based on what the community knew had been asked, seemed sparse and incomplete.
Citizens became exasperated at the lack of any actual answers, dialogue, or fair representation of their concerns and questions.
The ACPS administration, and board, were alerted to these failures during the comment period. They were told that they were mistaken and some were admonished for being unkind when they stated that the FAQ did not represent any of the community questions submitted.
And, at the end of the month, a board meeting yielded a unanimous passage of the policy. None of what was represented by ACPS lawyer Ross Holden at the board meeting, or by the chairman of the board, reflected what actually happened and citizens were in disbelief.
- At the August 12 School Board Meeting (begin at time slice 1:57):
- Ross Holden says to the board, “[We] responded in writing to questions that were asked.”
- Chairman Graham Paige reiterates, “There were quite a few opportunities for engagement.”
C.A.R.E. took action
A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was submitted to obtain ALL emails in or out of the special email account as well as those to or from the communications POC for the effort. Essentially, asking for what has been promised in the press release. A charge of $250 was assessed.
This document is attached here, as evidence of all claims made in this post. Also attached is the analysis performed by C.A.R.E. members to validate ACPS statements about the community engagement.
Raw FOIA Data From ACPS
C.A.R.E. Analysis of FOIA Data
Prior to the one-way live stream presentation of the policy, 35 unique email threads were received into the special email account (see tab labeled “FOIA Emails (sort by sent date)” where all emails received by ACPS prior to the live stream are annotated with an X in column F).
16 of 35 email threads, a little less than half, contained general affirmations of support. The remaining emails contained approximately 100 substantive questions and/or concerns about the policy. All were received with ample time for inclusion in the live stream discussion.
The data, not available to the community at this time, was presented this way during the live stream :
- 3 slides were dedicated to the positive feedback received in the 16 emails
- 2 slides labeled “Misconceptions about this policy” addressed what ACPS referred to as misleading “themes in feedback and media”
- 0 slides addressed the nearly 100 substantive questions/comments from the community – implying that ACPS viewed all input to date as misconceptions and/or misleading themes.
Responses in writing to emails submitted:
Recalling that Ross Holden told the school board that “[We] responded in writing to questions that were asked,” the C.A.R.E. analysis provided otherwise (see tab “FOIA Emails (sort by sent date),” Column C).
- Over 90% of the emails with questions or concerns received this and ONLY this (or a minor variation of this) in response to their questions and concerns:
“Thank you so much for sharing this feedback with us. I will make sure that our school board and administration see it before the August 12 board meeting. Additionally, there is an informational session that will stream tomorrow at 6:30 PM (more information on our website) if you would like to watch that, and we will be posting an FAQ by this Friday to share further details on the proposed policy with our community.”
- 8 submissions received NO response (see tab “FOIA Emails (original order)” Column C indicated with red coloring). These responses received no response before the vote, after the vote, or after a complaint was lodged (see same spreasheet tab, email thread 71)
- Several other submissions received no response until complaints were lodged – and those responses came in after the vote
- NO SUBSTANTIVE QUESTIONS WERE ANSWERED IN WRITING, in direct contrast to what Ross Holden stated as fact to the board and re-affirmed when asked by Chairman Paige – Only questions such as, “Where are the Q&As posted” were answered.
- It should be noted that the FOIA revealed 41 comments complaining about how the community engagement was handled.
Additionally, the School Board and/or Dr Haas was notified by at least five members of the community that no answers had been sent to questions/concerns and that the FAQ was completely unrepresentative of their issues – these emails went unanswered or the citizen was told that their question was answered in the FAQ (these emails are available upon request).
“Frequently” Asked Questions (FAQ):
When ACPS was pressed on the lack of answered questions, as promised in the press release, Ms. Helen Dunn offered the following in the private exchange (see tab “FOIA Emails” and in Column A see thread 71). This information was never announced publicly via a modified press release or bulletin:
“Regarding how questions for the FAQ were handled, I can assure you that I added every question that was posed by members of the community at least five times along with its answer to the FAQ that’s currently on the website. As is the nature of any frequently asked question guide on a website, only questions that are asked with some frequency are included; five was my threshold. I’d certainly appreciate more information related to your belief that the FAQ “in no way relates to questions posed by the actual community,” as you say. I can assure you that I only used questions that were sent through members of the community. I am rather meticulous in such matters. “
Meticulous? C.A.R.E. checked it out and our suspicions were confirmed.
The “FAQ Eval” tab, which cites references to any email thread that either directly asked one of the FAQs as well as any question/comment that could reasonably related to the FAQ. It also includes the response that ACPS provided for each FAQ. Judge for yourself whether the answers provided met the intent of the questions.
- 16 “Frequently asked Questions were posted” by ACPS
- 8 of 16 (50% of the Frequently asked questions) were never asked
- Only 3 of 16 “FAQs” were asked more than 5 times
- 8 of the answers were literal copy and paste out of the policy
- 1 FAQ was presented with a three sentence answer to (presumably) cover 55 complex questions/concerns related to parental rights – yet answered none of them
What was REALLY asked?
19 recurrent themes appeared in the data. See tab “Actual Questions Asked” to see the comments decomposed from emails and categorized. A sum was taken for each category with a relevant question or comment. Those are represented in below in the image titled “Actual Recurrent Themes (Concerns) in Policy Feedback.” A second image shows the “ACPS Frequency Asked Questions” in a similar graph. Note the variation in scale for the number of times asked. These graphs offer a very quick refutation of Ms. Dunn’s claims about the FAQs being frequently asked.
- ACPS promised answers to all questions, and to post all questions and answers – this was never amended through the month
- Questions were never answered – this was suspected by the community and proven by the C.A.R.E. analysis
- Questions and answers were never posted
- Zero substantive questions were addressed in the policy — not even to address board member Oberg’s concerns
- Exasperated citizens pushed back on the administration and were forced to pay $250 to get the raw questions and answers that had been promised
- Citizens proved that ACPS mishandled, mischaracterized, and ignored community input and the board (warned in advance) did nothing
It should not have required a community member to take this much time to prove what was obvious to everyone who participated in the community engagement for this policy. But unfortunately it was necessary.
There are major changes happening in the schools and parents are utterly powerless and have been ignored over and over. Furthermore, they are being gaslighted and told the exact opposition of what is objectively observable.
Do not expect that what you are being told by ACPS is the full story, or even the correct story. Do your own homework. Read. Ask questions. And let us know if you find something that doesn’t pass the smell test.
How was the spreadsheet generated:
- The FOIA PDF was converted to Word
- Email email was copied into a spreadsheet
- Each thread was captured and each thread only counted as a single unique community-member response
- Each email was dissected to distill individual thoughts/concerns/questions
- Each thought/concern/question was categorized into recurring themes
- Tabs of the spreadsheet:
- Conclusions (contains the most salient distillation of material)
- FOIA Emails (original order)
- FOIA Emails (sort by sent date) – produced to see which emails had been available prior to the lives tream
- Actual Questions Asked