Citizen Group Analyzes School Division Engagement

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Nicki Athey, one of several C.A.R.E. members who analyzed school division FOIA data. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

A local advocacy group founded by parents and concerned residents called C.A.R.E.—Citizens Advocating for Responsible Education—used a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain county school division email data amid frustration over interactions with county staff. C.A.R.E. members say the data shows “communication failures” in the recent community engagement process surrounding a new student policy passed in August. 

“The content of the policy is not relevant to the assessment, but it is noted since it was a controversial policy with record numbers of community members engaging,” said Nicki Athey, a systems engineer and C.A.R.E. member who analyzed the FOIA data along with several other members.

At issue in this case is a set of steps taken by ACPS staff to solicit and respond to citizen concerns about a new transgender policy that is required by Virginia code to be adopted at the start of this school year. Following the well-attended School Board rollout on July 8, the division announced an online information session about the policy to be held on July 28, and established a special email address where “questions and comments can be received from the public.” ACPS stated in the same news release that “all questions will be answered and posted online” ahead of the August 12 meeting when the board would vote on the policy.

Helen Dunn, Legislative and Public Affairs Officer for Albemarle County Public Schools. Photo: ACPS.

School officials subsequently posted a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on the ACPS website that they said was responsive to the questions they’d received. C.A.R.E. members claimed that the FAQ was not representative of citizen questions and ultimately employed the FOIA process to receive copies of the emails with personal information redacted. After parsing the email content into a detailed spreadsheet, C.A.R.E. members charged that “ACPS mishandled, mischaracterized, and ignored community input.”

The group reported that during the one-month period from mid-July to mid-August, the special ACPS email account received a total of 72 unique email threads, with 22 expressing support and 50 containing questions and/or concerns about the policy. The members’ analysis documented 74 specific questions asked in the emails, but the division posted only 16 FAQ’s.

The C.A.R.E. analysis concluded that (1) many citizen questions were not answered, (2) ‘All’ questions and answers were never posted as promised, and (3) substantive questions were not addressed. “Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) misrepresented the truth in a protracted way,” said Athey. “It is emblematic of every other community engagement this summer and before, and it is an outrage.”

In response to C.A.R.E.’s data analysis and criticism of the manner in which the community engagement was conducted, division officials said they did the best they could. “I’m willing to concede that the statement [that all questions and answers would be posted] may have created some confusion,” said Helen Dunn, Legislative and Public Affairs Officer for ACPS and the person tasked with managing the special email account. “We don’t ever just publish every question that somebody asks us on a website, so obviously I was referring to the FAQ. ‘All the questions’ meant all the FAQ questions.” 

Dunn also imposed a limitation on how she chose what to post: only questions that were asked five or more times would be addressed in the FAQ. However, the FOIA’d email data showed that several questions that were asked more than five times were not included in the FAQ. In addition, due to the five-question rule, many questions that were asked only a few times went unanswered as well.

Dunn said that her email classification decisions required judgment calls. “I think a lot of what you have to do in my job is exercise discretion in receiving input and feedback from the community,” she said. “You can’t always anticipate the extent to which you’ll get what appear to be rhetorical questions. In a lot of cases I did feel at times that people—while they did use question marks—weren’t necessarily genuinely seeking information.”

An example of a FAQ policy question and answer posted online by the school division. Courtesy ACPS.

“Of the 16 questions posted in the division’s FAQ, eight were not asked by anyone in any citizen email,” said Athey, those being primarily definitions of terms. Dunn explained that those questions had been asked in other venues, such as phone calls to the division office and emails directly to staff and School Board members, and stressed that the entire engagement process was an exercise in going the extra mile for the community.

“I do want to make sure it’s clear that there was no requirement to create an FAQ, to take community feedback, or to do an information session [at all],” said Dunn. “So, all of that was really above and beyond what was required by the state. The only thing that’s actually required by the state here is the transgender policy itself.”

The most asked-about topic within the citizen emails was the issue of parental notification rights. “One FAQ was presented with a three-sentence answer to presumably cover 55 complex questions and concerns related to parental rights, yet it answered none of them,” said Athey. The FAQ in question stated that student information would be treated in accordance with federal confidentiality laws which pertain to parents’ rights to access student records, but also, conversely, that “each school shall honor [a] student’s request for confidentiality.” 

C.A.R.E. members were also irked to be charged $250 by the division for the FOIA request. FOIA rules state that an entity may require requestors to pay for “reasonable charges” for gathering the data, but the group says they wouldn’t have had to make the request if county officials had published all of the questions as they said they would do. 

Dunn said that it could have been worse. “It’s employee time [that the fee is paying for],” she said, “and actually that was a reduced fee because [Strategic Communications Officer] Phil Giaramita is the FOIA officer and he gets paid more per hour. It took five or six hours to do [the email collation and redactions], and that’s taxpayer money. I think it’s totally appropriate for them to pay for the time if it’s taking away from other taxpayer-oriented efforts.”

“This analysis proved what seemed readily obvious from other community engagements,” said Athey, “such as the Strategic Plan, the American Rescue Plan survey, the school size survey and others: that though community engagement is stated as a priority, it is conducted in a way that elicits a specific desired outcome without any true means for the community to influence it. This analysis was the first where citizens and parents were able to witness an end-to-end engagement, and it is an outrage to see how badly something of this magnitude was handled.”

School officials say they emphasize family and community in the division’s latest strategic plan and values statement, and are very sensitive to parents’ concerns regarding communication. “I feel that we went above and beyond [in our engagement process],” said Dunn. “Maybe the next step would be to do it in an entirely different way and not try to offer the extra guidance to the community, though it’s hard to imagine that that would be a better way to go.”

Email Lisa Martin at [email protected]

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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.

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