How to Start a School District Watchdog Blog

A viewer who is preparing to launch a blog about a school district asked us about how to set it up. As we responded to our viewer, we realized that other people might be considering the same thing. We love to share, so here’s information about how WestieConnect operates. We’ll also show you how Gilbert Public Schools (GPS) has made some institutional and managerial changes after information was placed in the public arena.

A bit of background: we have both a website and a blog. We started the WesternConnections.com website in December 2011 to document wrongdoing by the GPS administration; it became a repository of information on many subjects dealing with HR issues (and usually, wrongdoing that was swept under the rug).

CHANGE: We attended board meetings and made our own videos, some of which we uploaded to accompany our new web pages. It took GPS a while to realize that citizens controlled important public information and used it against the district’s interests; GPS belatedly began livestreaming board meetings. Public scrutiny of GPS management has expanded as a result.

Our Westie Connect blog came about in September 2012. The website had become cumbersome and we wanted to take advantage of Google’s fondness for blogs to increase our audience. We occasionally set up a series of blog posts when we want to have an extended conversation on a particular subject.

BLOGGING TIP: Be sure to respect blogging conventions and figure out a way to “brand” your blog. We fumbled with images at first, but succeeded when we started using smilies on our posts. Now we have fun creating new smilies; we love it when viewers tell us that our smilies bring smiles to their own faces. Hurray!

Our growing readership is a result of conscious decisions and actions to expand our audience. It helps that we have experience in Internet communications, especially with search engine optimization. We have seen groups start Facebook pages, and we use them ourselves to promote our newest posts, but we believe it is essential to control conversations on our websites. We do not allow others to post or comment on our sites.

BLOGGING TIP: We scour our site statistics – commonly searched phrases often inspire us for new posts. For example, we saw a lot of inquiries about “recall school board,” so we wrote posts and created a category to capture the traffic on that subject.

We don’t have any intentions of recalling GPS board members, but we know others talk about it. It’s very costly – such as when superintendents tell boards they really, really, really need to go to the voters for a tax override and the voters say, “No more money for you profligate spenders.” Each time an override is placed on the ballot, it costs the district a lot of money – hundreds of thousands of dollars, enough to fund desperately needed teacher and aide positions and buy new school buses, as well. GPS is already discussing going for a THIRD override, embodying Einstein’s definition of insanity:  doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Here’s a situation we have been keeping an eye on, where Sunnyside citizens successfully recalled school board members:

The Sunnyside saga began last year when the Sunnyside Unified School District Governing Board voted 3-2 to extend Manuel Isquierdo’s contract causing angst within the public. Isquierdo who has been charged with tax dodging, parking tickets, and had his license suspended told the Board recently that criticism of his performance was a result of racism. He claimed he could not work with a new Board with a new makeup.
…On the subject of Isquierdo, [new board member] Quintero says, “He said at the last board meeting he told everybody he would not work with the new Board… We want him to answer to us. We want him to answer some really tough questions and we want to know what’s up. So we are not going to let him off that easy.”

If you start a blog, be sure you have records to back up your assertions, particularly if you are exposing wrongdoing or stupid management actions. We remind ourselves often of Hanlon’s Razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” We post documents online to prove our points and link to them frequently. That has led to changes and better management decisions, which is terrific from our viewpoint.

CHANGE: Change in a big organization is slow, so be patient!

We get a lot of information through public records requests.  We brought a civil rights lawsuit against GPS, which settled in our favor. That lawsuit was a vehicle for receiving a lot of internal information from GPS. We also sued GPS for refusing to produce public information and we recently settled that lawsuit. GPS paid all of our legal expenses for that effort and now responds to public records requests promptly, as the law requires.

CHANGE: GPS now tracks requests and monitors their own compliance with public records laws.

The City of Tucson recently found themselves in a situation very similar to what Gilbert Public Schools had created. The city failed in a bid for dismissal of a lawsuit filed when Tucson officials didn’t want the public to know what was going on in a major real estate transaction dealing with public funds creating a windfall for a private entity. Making matters worse, Tucson’s lawyers made misrepresentations to the Court and were sanctioned. That’s lawyer-speak for they got to pay opponents’ attorneys’ fees because they were dishonest. Hey, we know plenty about that kind of shenanigan!

The judge found that the City misrepresented its action to the Court, when attorneys claimed in their July 8, 2013 Motion to Dismiss: “The City has now fully responded to Plaintiff s public records request, except that it has withheld approximately seven documents from release.” Staring wrote, “It is now clear that the July 8 representation was not remotely accurate. In fact, the record supports the conclusion that COT either knew the July 8 representation was false, or knew its efforts in response to Ms. Cruz’s request were so inadequate it could not have had any confidence in the accuracy of the representation. As discussed below, COT’s actions, including the July 8 representation, unreasonably expanded and delayed these proceedings to an extent necessitating sanctions pursuant to A.R.S. § 12-349(A).” Staring found, “Clear and convincing evidence exists that COT engaged in “misconduct” sufficient to warrant relief pursuant to Rule 60(c)(3).” As a result Staring awarded attorney fees to Cruz in the amount of $15,800.00. Read the ruling here. In his ruling, Judge Staring noted that it was “important to reiterate that this case is about whether COT has complied with the access obligations imposed by Arizona law. It is not about the pros and cons of conveying El Rio to GCU. This is because the public records statutes impose transparency obligations in plain, neutral language.”

While GPS has made vast organizational changes, we’re still watching as closely as ever. Sometimes, GPS has made such a bone-headed move that our posts just write themselves. That makes blogging a piece of cake!


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