May 7, 2008

control the information, control the discourse

It's not profound, at least not anymore, and certainly not shocking that those who maintain the databases run the show.

At last night's community forum to discuss the Olympia School District's budget cuts, I saw exactly how that works. In the utter absence of malice, the district has inherited a system of budgeting that hierarchizes and decentralizes information so that only a handful of people know the scope and character of the entire district budget.

So, when 200+ people sit down to go over cuts, they're at a huge epistemic disadvantage. They don't have each building's budget in front of them--where the real details hide--and the district-provided handouts are vague, excepting the specific proposed cuts. How much cash would it save to trim 5% from every WIAA sports or activity program? How much would it raise to implement a $5 pay-to-play increase? How much does Marshall Middle School spend on photocopies? Unless we're the assistant superintendent, we don't know.

I've tried to make things easier on the average citizen by creating an interactive spreadsheet so they can try balancing the budget on their own, but I've only included proposals that I've heard about. Anything truly novel has to spring up out of the void of imagination, rather than the rational crunch of numbers.

District officials, when shown the spreadsheet, have been uniformly excited by it. My next goal is to work with them in an official capacity, to bring the power of information to the masses. Someday, I hope that every district in this state--and everywhere--would be that data-transparent.


Anonymous said...

I don't believe there is no malice behind the fact that no one can get their hands on the budget. Board directors have asked for it and been denied, parents have asked for it and been given the OSPI F-195 budget document (too high-level to use for any meaningful budget cuts). When questioned about other more detailed budgets utilized by the district, Peter Rex responded that the only budget the district uses is the F-195 document. If that is true, which I seriously doubt, that is most likely the root of the budget crises.

The district is a PUBLIC entity and if they want the public's help in determining what to cut (or at least enough help to put the blame on the public when the cuts are made), they need to give the public all the facts surrounding the budget. If you'll recall, last year the BAG committee voiced their frustration in not getting a copy of the budget and only having set recommendations for cuts by the district in which to prioritize. The district has abolished the BAG committee (that's what happens when a budget group asks for a copy of the budget) and given the public an hour to determine by consensus what to cut (from a short list developed by the district).

It doesn't matter anyway because Bill Lahmann will present his own budget in a month.

So . . . whether it is malicious or not, the district continues to ask for money from taxpayers but has no transparency to reassure the taxpayers that the district administrators are being fiscally responsible. Knowing they've been in budget troubles since 2006, it is apparent they are not fiscally responsible.

Having a superintendent support or require that the district budget remains confidential is grounds for dismissal in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Actually have to agree with anonymous that if the F195 truly is the only budget that OSD works from, I think I know what the problem is!