we don't need no education
April 3, 2006 12:02 AM   Subscribe

Help me take down my school board!

So, I am a high school student in a small town in the rural New York countryside. Sounds boring as hell, huh? It is. Everything was well and good up until now, here in River City (not the real name of my locale...call it poetic license). The school was pretty good actually. It had its smattering of great teachers, enough clubs and activities to keep me from going home before 5PM (11PM-1AM during robotics season), and an administration that was surprisingly progressive and moderate (for a a small whitebread republican town). With one exception, the principal is an evil hag who is so obsessed with her minute power (I believe Shakespeare referenced man "dressed in his little authority) that she cares more about discipline than education. The proof is in the introduction, for at every public event, she introduces herself as the "building principle" rather than as a "school" administrator.

I say that everything was all well and good because at this point it is not. The school had an "accounting error" which lost them 900,000 dollars, give or take. This might not seem like a lot, but it would, in tandem with a reduction in state funding, make a budget in-line with the current one cause a 13% increase in property tax, one that absolutely will not pass. Thus, the school is looking for cuts and reductions, mainly in aide-staff and extracurricular activities.

As the freely school-bashing editor of the school newspaper, I feel it is my duty to keep my publication alive, as well as the other 10 or so clubs in which I participate. If this cannot happen, and we all go down, I want to take the school officials down with me.

It is not uncommon for school publications to cause major legal investigations, or major scandals in schools. Other nearby school papers have found their administrations to be conducting business in not-quite-compliant-with-New-York-State-Education-Law ways, and in finding and publishing this information, have been acclaimed for journalism, and had their school officials metaphorically paddled upon the behind.

If I were to do a little bit of muckraking, what areas of law are most common for public high schools to live in the grey area-or-beyond of? Also, how do I go about gleaning information about the school that one would need to conduct serious investigative reporting (I figure that if my clubs and teams go down, taking the school down with me will be an adequate replacement as college-resume-fodder). Can I get pretty much anything I want by invoking the Freedom of Information Act?

In essence, I want to have a plan on hand, even if I do not use it, to expose my school of whatever wrongdoing it may or may not be engaged in, especially if the budget tanks and I actually have to begin going home when the and of day bell rings (as well as lose a page or two off the old resume).

Or, you could just ignore this post and call me on any possible fouls I might be playing with entrapment, extortion, or blackmail?
posted by weaponsgradecarp to Law & Government (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not much of an activist, but I did attend the protests of the GOP convention in 2004, and attended some teach-ins on activism for college students while I was there. The most impressive speakers I heard were from the University of Texas Student Watch; they seemed very active, and very effective at digging up dirt. They distributed a nice research guide which would probably be useful for high school students too (especially since high schools are publically funded, which helps a lot regarding document access).

Off-the-cuff, the accounting error itself sounds a bit scandalous... $900,000 is definitely a lot of money. That's more than a handful of salaries.
posted by gsteff at 12:21 AM on April 3, 2006


It seems like the first logical step is away from this "let's get'em boys!" attitude, and towards a more "What kind of accounting error, exactly?" one.

So, if you know more about the details of this accounting error, share that with us. If you don't, you should immediately start investigating it. Do this by calling all of the school officials, down to secretaries, asking them for information about the accounting error. Take notes on your interviews, and compare them with eachother. Find out exactly how this error occurred, who was responsible, and what's being done to fix it and make sure nothing like it happens again.

Document and publish your findings.
posted by odinsdream at 12:33 AM on April 3, 2006


As someone who was in essentially the same situation (2 years as Photography Editor/Art Director, 1 year as Managing Editor) I'll tell you this:

If the injustice is not apparent, then either you need to adjust your world view or there is no injustice.

FOIA was always pretty boring where I lived, the school district just didn't record the things it did and knew were wrong.

My school had a lot of issues, and we just published the news, some editorials and sports. Reporting everyday events was enough to consistently get us in trouble, and even then we were the "free-est" newspaper in the district according to our advisor and anyone else in the district you asked. And our content bore it out.

Anyways, hit up the SPLC and try to attend some JEA events.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 12:42 AM on April 3, 2006


I feel it is my duty to keep my publication alive

Hustling sponsorships, donations and new ads for the paper might be more fruitful than going on a fishing expedition for unspecified wrongdoing that "may or may not" be there. That might be less fun, though. :)

how do I go about gleaning information about the school that one would need to conduct serious investigative reporting

Leads really help. You seem to be starting from scratch here, so try asking knowledgable people in the community about their experiences with the school board. Interview former members. Search the archives of the local paper going back a few years. Talk to local education reporters. In general, you can't beat the old adage, "follow the money." There've been a number of juicy embezzlement scandals recently, with officials using fake invoices to funnel school money into trips, jetskis, personal businesses, etc. School budgets and purchase records are public information; you don't need a FOI request to see them, although you might need help understanding the jargon, or getting past someone who likes being a roadblock.
posted by mediareport at 12:47 AM on April 3, 2006


if you wish to remain anonymous remove your profile link to your information.

(I tried to email you this instead of posting but could not find an email address on your myspace page)
posted by Izzmeister at 12:56 AM on April 3, 2006


Everything your school does should be a matter of public record. You need to educate yourself:

Find out how your school gets its money (county or municipal funding via millage or some other method). Find out who sets, approves, and oversees the school's budget. Find out how the school board is governed and how its members are selected or elected. Who can vote on matters relating to the school - city, township, county residents?

From there, you need to decide what to do and develop a coherent reason for your goals other than the principal being a 'jerk.'

You need to find reasons why voters in the relevant district should care, because elections will be the best way to deal with a corrupt, seated local administrator. Actually trying to get them to co-operate with a 'freelance' investigation will probably lead to nowhere without filing a lawsuit or developing intense public pressure.

You need to see if there are any local, already established media outlets that are interested but unaware of the situation. If not, start a website. If the school is proposing a tax increase to supplement their budget, I can almost guarantee you they will attempt to send their own propaganda home with the students about how all these horrible things will happen if the new budget does not get approved. To wit, young Susie goes home, wide-eyed to Mom and Dad and tells them how the textbooks won't ever get updated again and how the music will die, etc, and gives her parents a brightly colored handout telling her parents when and how to vote. Use this as an opportunity for children to rebel against the school - run a pamphlet of your own pointing out the accounting error and decrying the lack of public accountability, as well as a need for change - be it with the school board administrator or the principal or whomever.

Don't lose focus - ignore issues not directly connected to gaining this information (i.e. griping about how the principal has a funny way of explaining her job title), and try to find adults sympathetic, who can help you.

Present yourself as a concerned citizen who wants to find out what happened to the budget and wants kids to have access to the same extra-curricular programs that have benefited you. Be respectful and informed, even well-dressed (you will be amazed how simply dressing well alters the way people will treat you).

Also, if the school tries to discipline you, understand that while you have First Amendment rights, you do not have a right to break school rules or the law, and from a P.R. standpoint, especially rules that appear reasonable to the majority of the community. Do not give them an excuse to silence you via discipline, or give critics an excuse to call you out as a simple troublemaker.
posted by tweak at 12:59 AM on April 3, 2006


I'd second the suggestion to think about whether you want to link to your myspace page from the same account that posted this question. Might be fine, but you should think about it.

Btw, searching for info about school boards near your city yields some articles in the local paper about the "substantial budget gap created by some rather sloppy accounting" and angry letters about the hiring of a $120,000/year assistant for the superintendent and the need for him to make good on the error from out of his own salary. If I've got the right area, there's some good muckraking potential there, and lots more to follow up on, too, from big discrepancies in the budget for a new elementary school to the need for the five small districts near you to start thinking about consolidating into one. With an election coming up next month, you might have the beginnings of a decent series of stories about what's gone wrong at the top. Definitely dig into the local paper over the last year for leads that have gone uninvestigated.
posted by mediareport at 1:20 AM on April 3, 2006


No offense, but this sounds like a typical highschooler "quest without knights." That is to say, it's easy as hell to get worked up about injustice!-this and scandal!-that when you're a teenager, and see every act done by the man as yet another attempt to push you down!, when in fact there are mitigating circumstances at play and the man is really nothing more than everyday people like you and me, only older and with mortgages, bills, a family to feed.

What I'm saying is, get your priorities straight. If there was an accounting error that resulted in the loss of some programs, that sucks. By all means investigate the error (that's a shitload of money to just "lose", but stranger things have happened). Unfortunately, assume that finding the source of the problem isn't going to bring the money back. Which means programs will have to be cut, unless you can somehow rally the people in your town to get together and accept a 13% property tax hike (good luck with that!)

You think your principal wants to shut down all these programs? Like she's holed up in her office all day, rubbing her hands and thinking up ways to foil those pesky kids in the Gay and Lesbian Alliance and the Art Club and newspaper, because "That's where the trouble-makers are!" Are you crazy?

Good schools have extra curricular programs. Those programs can win the school prizes, get them in the paper, generate publicity, etc. That kind of attention brings new familes to the neighborhood. That brings more money to the school. See where I'm going with this? No principal wants to see programs cut on their watch, but, well... Welcome to Bush's America. It happens. Spend your resources trying to save the programs you love, not looking for a scapegoat to "take the fall."

If you really cared about the programs, you'd drop your personal vendetta against the principal. It's petty and, well, childish.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:02 AM on April 3, 2006


I dropped him a MySpace message informing him of the comments on here regarding anonymity, though at this point the cat's already out of the bag for a variety of reasons.
posted by onalark at 2:08 AM on April 3, 2006


You now have to be even more careful that everything you write can be backed up by evidence, even your opinion pieces. You have essentially established malicious intent with your posting here, which is generally a very difficult thing to prove.

What this means is that if you write something damaging about an administration member that you are unable to back up with evidence, you may have a difficult time defending yourself against accusations of libel.

Check out the Student Press Law Center, they are your friends in times of scandal.
posted by spaghetti at 5:58 AM on April 3, 2006


I agree with what Mediareport and Civil_Disobedient are saying--throwing a lot of shit around to see what sticks is not what you school needs right now. Any fool can cause controversy and tear things and people down. But can you build something?

Start by rounding up sponsors and coming up with a plan to make your student newspaper self-supporting. Write up the plan and present it to the school board. You'll be a community hero. Then bust out the school budget and write some articles along the lines of "where do we cut $900,000?" to get a public discussion going, so the decisions are not all made in a back room. Attend the school board meetings, they are public. Good luck.
posted by LarryC at 7:03 AM on April 3, 2006


Following LarryC's idea, you could announce that to "help the school through the budget crisis" the student newspaper wants to stop funding from the school and become funded through donations, etc. Every little bit helps, and if you present yourself nicely through this, you'll get a lot more useful information to report.
posted by shepd at 7:50 AM on April 3, 2006


throwing a lot of shit around to see what sticks is not what you school needs right now.

Agreed, but the deeper point is that (if the district is the one I think) there is indeed enough going on to merit investigation. At least one local grand jury has subpoenaed wide-ranging financial records in a fraud investigation. Bottom line: if weaponsgradecarp wants to act like a serious journalist and focus on facts, there's probably more than enough to fill a good investigative series that asks hard-hitting questions. In a small town, there just might be a niche he can fill.
posted by mediareport at 8:34 AM on April 3, 2006


No offense, but this sounds like a typical highschooler "quest without knights." That is to say, it's easy as hell to get worked up about injustice!-this and scandal!-that when you're a teenager, and see every act done by the man as yet another attempt to push you down!

What I'm saying is, get your priorities straight. If there was an accounting error that resulted in the loss of some programs, that sucks.

If you really cared about the programs, you'd drop your personal vendetta against the principal. It's petty and, well, childish.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:02 AM PST on April 3


Please give your user name to someone who deserves it. The lesson you're imparting is that a) activism is pointless if one person unfamiliar with the circumstances disagrees with it and b) young adults have no business caring about the adult world. Here's a person who cares enough to make an effort. Thanks for discouraging him.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:01 AM on April 3, 2006


If there's one thing I've learned from occassionally working in a school district, it's that people that work in the school district like to gossip and complain about what other school district employees are doing.

Use this to your advantage. Don't come in telling people you're doing an investigative report, just start talking to people you know already (teachers, janitors, administrative assistants), casually mention the budget short fall with a "Gee this is horrible, I wonder how it happened," and there's a chance people might open up to you. Once you here some of the rumors, rather than quote the people who helped you, track down facts to establish the truth of what they said.

It sounds like you're an incredibly busy person, find other people to help you out. Try contacting a reporter who covers the school district. They might see a little of themselves in you and give you some of their info.
posted by drezdn at 10:02 AM on April 3, 2006


As the managing editor of four years at my former university's paper, I'd recommend the following, based on my own recent experiences:

- Research, research, research. You have to approach this kind of story not as, "Let's get 'em" but more, "They've already done it to themselves." If they are truly guilty of wrongdoing, you'll be able to turn it up in the records. I'm not exactly sure how it works, but since you go to a public school, things like finances should be a matter of public record (and you can always have a sit-in in the records office if they deny you). Try this link and see if it helps you.

- Directly contact reporters at your local paper who cover similar beats (education, high school, your neighborhood, whatever). Explain that you're an editor and ask for help -- who to contact, what info to look for, etc. It's likely that they started out in exactly the same position you're in now, and they are usually more than willing to help -- this can be an invaluable resource. Get their numbers off of the paper's website, or call the news section desk and talk to the head editor there.

Some general advice...never publish a single sentence that is your opinion. Everything you write should either be a fact, or someone's quote, preferably talking about how they feel about that fact. And you need to get both sides of the story. True journalism, and the kind of journalism you mentioned that your peers are being rewarded for, is reporting facts and letting people decide opinions for themselves.

Also...this will save you from any kind of association with "entrapment, extortion, or blackmail". It's kind of a common idea that these are the things required to make a great piece of journalism, because those kinds of stories tend to become the famous ones...but it really comes down to the facts of the story, which can usually be had through simple, legal means.

All that said, losing high school extracurriculars, etc. because of faulty accounting is a big story in itself, separate from nailing the admins or school board. I'd definitely do a front page feature on that, if I were in your position (and it's the kind of thing that would make me rub my hands gleefully). People really hate to see education/arts/etc. fall to the wayside because of administrative missteps. Do a report about how this is a possibility, so that if it actually does happen, you'll already have a lot of the material you need to follow up on it. Talk to everyone who is involved or affected -- start with the top administrators, the people who handled the budget, the expensive aide, the principal, the teachers who run the activities, the students, the parents. Find facts about the benefits of after school activities on students' lifestyles and well-being. Get quotes about how people are worried it will affect their college applications. If anyone declines to comment, go ahead and put that in there: "X declined to comment on this situation." I'll stop listing examples, but my point is that there is a wealth of material for you to pick from to make your points.

P.S. this is a really great link, in general. Also, if you have any more questions, my e-mail is in my profile, and I'm happy to help.
posted by lhall at 1:32 PM on April 3, 2006


What (FIRST right?) robotics team are you on?
posted by phrontist at 1:53 PM on April 3, 2006


The lesson you're imparting is that a) activism is pointless if one person unfamiliar with the circumstances disagrees with it and b) young adults have no business caring about the adult world. Here's a person who cares enough to make an effort. Thanks for discouraging him.

Ahem.

If there was an accounting error that resulted in the loss of some programs, that sucks. By all means investigate the error (that's a shitload of money to just "lose", but stranger things have happened).

Did you catch that? Did you see that bold part? You see? Where it's bold. Let me give you a couple of seconds to soak that in. You did see that, right? You didn't just, say, selectively ignore it, did you?

Ass.

Now, here's the important part:

Unfortunately, assume that finding the source of the problem isn't going to bring the money back.

See that? That's called reality. Flail all you want at windmills. Raise a stink. Go fucking nuts. But please don't lose track of the big picture, which is that your favorite programs are probably on the chopping block. If you just want to make someone look bad, go through her garbage or take photos of her while she's on the toilet. Making someone look bad is easy. Building up is a lot harder than tearing down.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:33 PM on April 3, 2006


High school is largely irrelevant. Be creative and operate the best you can within a system you can't change (because you can't). After you get out of college and into the real world you'll quickly forget about high school.
posted by cellphone at 5:57 PM on April 3, 2006


Any updates on this?
posted by divabat at 11:27 PM on May 10, 2006


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