by Sarah Squires, editor-in-chief, Winona Post
In 2015, after a years-long campaign by the Winona Post, Winona County became the first county in Minnesota to take a bold step toward transparency: The County Board voted unanimously that it would not charge the public fees for copies of 100 or fewer pages of data. “I think this is just going to be further proof that this particular County Board, as a whole, and the staff that Winona County has, are committed to making sure that people have full access to their government,” Winona County Board member Steve Jacob said at the time.
This move came against the wishes of the former county administrator, and it came after the county for years had overcharged citizens for copies of public data. In one instance, the county attempted to charge a county resident more than $1,000 for data — far outside what is allowable under Minnesota state statutes. I remember citizens turning to me for help when they tried to access government records — in one case, a resident believed they were being harassed by law enforcement, in another, a mom needed records so she could fight for custody of her children.
So I helped them.
It took years, but it was refreshing to find that elected county officials — who campaigned on transparent government and who wholeheartedly believed that county government is owned by and funded by and exists for the people it serves — embraced the effort, even over the stuttering objections of county bureaucrats.
I juxtaposed the county with Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) last week, and here I am doing it again. Because we find ourselves facing the same kind of pushback to our request to access WAPS’ important committee meetings: administrators who, instead of recognizing that they work for taxpayers, have somehow fallen into the belief that theirs is a private club, that they may reign over their work on the public’s behalf and that their hope that the clubhouse door hits us all in the behind is acceptable, or legal, or ethical.
Apparently, WAPS administrators think they can kick us out of meetings (see story page 1a), important committee meetings like the Diversity and Equity (DEC) Committee, one we’ve covered for literally years and years. And the superintendent’s one concession — well, maybe the committee itself will let you in — falls flat when you consider we’ve been asking administrators for contacts and meeting dates for all these committees since July 1 and have yet to receive it. They won’t even give us the information we would need to go begging to be let in the door.
Ironically, school leaders resisting the public’s right to access these committees’ work still pledge that transparency and accountability are primary tenants of their work. But just the other day, a friend of mine was trying to get a handle on the important work of the DEC, and asked the district for its meeting minutes. The district’s reply? The DEC isn’t public, so you’ll have to provide a formal data request to see them. (Be careful, dear friend, that you don’t ask for “copies” of the minutes, or they might try to charge you a bunch of money, like the county used to do when it didn’t want people access to public data.)
The reality is that WAPS will not accomplish what it needs to do without all of us. One DEC member said at the last meeting (we had to request a copy of the video, since administrators have decided these committees can now meet in secret) that without outsiders looking in on their work, saying, “Hey, you guys were working on this thing; what’s going on with that?” they wouldn’t get the work done they so desperately need to do. Coincidentally, the DEC had been trying to get funding for a sweeping plan to address discrimination in the district, but was told it needed to wait to get it included in the coming year’s budget. They waited, and then asked again at that June meeting. It didn’t make it into the budget that was just approved, so I guess WAPS will wait another year before it does any comprehensive racial justice work. Had we been in those meetings, and written about that funding request, perhaps it would have made it into the budget.
We’ve had this conversation with WAPS leaders before. The last time was two years ago, under a different superintendent, who attempted to exclude a Post reporter from a DEC meeting. At the urge of the members of the committee, he was allowed to stay. Later, when questioned, the former superintendent denied ever questioning the public’s right to access that meeting, telling us that of course committees are subject to the Open Meeting Law, and must be open to reporters, and parents, and anyone else who wants to be there.
This time, however, we’re meeting more resistance. Our request, that WAPS simply let us into its meetings, is on this Thursday’s agenda. While we might not be as interested in the district’s Calendar Committee or its Wellness Committee, the work of the DEC is crucial. WAPS can’t afford to wait another year before it funds real equity work. But apparently, if none of us are watching, it likely will.
Please contact your School Board member and tell them transparency is important to you, and that committee meetings must be public.
Nancy Denzer (chair): firstname.lastname@example.org
Tina Lehnertz (vice chair): email@example.com
Michael Hanratty (clerk): firstname.lastname@example.org
Karl Sonneman (treasurer): email@example.com
Steve Schild: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim Schul: email@example.com
Allison Quam: firstname.lastname@example.org