After being barred from covering Digital Learning Task Force, Shawnee Mission Post files open meetings complaint against SMSD

With dozens of apps available to put on district-issued iPads, it’s been difficult for teachers and parents to manage potential access to inappropriate content.

On Monday, the Shawnee Mission School District explicitly barred the Shawnee Mission Post from attending a meeting of the Digital Learning Task Force that is reviewing the district’s multi-million dollar 1:1 technology initiative, which provides an iPad or Macbook to every student.

It is the strongly held belief of this news organization that the meeting was subject to the Kansas Open Meetings Act and should have been open to the press and public. Consequently, the Shawnee Mission Post filed a complaint against the district with the Kansas Attorney General’s office today.

“The Digital Learning Task Force was charged in part with advising district leaders on policy related to the 1:1 initiative — an undertaking in which the taxpaying patrons of the Shawnee Mission School District have invested substantial resources,” said Shawnee Mission Post Publisher Jay Senter. “There is a great deal of public interest in the task force’s work — in understanding what steps the district will be taking to ensure the devices are a benefit, not a detriment, to student learning. The meetings should have been open and observable.”

Millions invested in devices — but problems from the outset

In 2014, then-Superintendent Jim Hinson told community leaders the rollout of the 1:1 initiative was going “better than anticipated.” However, many teachers complained they weren’t getting adequate training on the devices.

In 2014, the board of education approved the expenditure of approximately $20 million on the devices on the recommendation of then-Superintendent Jim Hinson — and the district has spent millions and millions more in the intervening years to update and replace them. Administrators at the time extolled the virtues of the initiative, saying it would provide boundless learning opportunities for Shawnee Mission students. Hinson noted that it was “one of the largest rollouts Apple has been a part of.”

From the outset, however, the 1:1 initiative has been beset by problems. Many teachers complained that they did not receive nearly enough training on how to incorporate the devices into their classroom plans. The network used to connect the devices to the Internet or to classroom display screens was often glitchy, forcing teachers to troubleshoot technology issues instead of focusing on teaching. Other teachers found that the devices proved a serious distraction in the classroom, with students surfing the internet or watching videos instead of paying attention to class. Dozens and dozens of parents have expressed concerns about their students being exposed to inappropriate content — from sexually explicit advertising to violence to pornography — on their district issued devices. Even students have raised red flags about the amount of time Shawnee Mission kids are spending on the devices each day.

Brandon Richard, a 6th grader at Brookridge, told the board of education in April he’s concerned with how much time students at his school spend on iPads in the classroom.

In November, a group of parents frustrated by the lack of improvement in the program and continued concerns about screen time, inappropriate content and distractions came before the board of education and asked them to undertake a thorough review of the 1:1 initiative.

A month and a half later, Superintendent Mike Fulton’s administration announced the formation of the Digital Learning Task Force to “support and advise the continued development of digital learning across the Shawnee Mission School District.” More than 350 people submitted applications to participate. The district administration chose 30.

The group began meeting in February — but the dates and times of the meetings were never made public. According to Shawnee Mission Chief Communications Officer David Smith, the group established “ground rules” early on that included items like “subordinate personal agendas,” “have fun,” “honor the process,” and “respect confidentiality.”

“The ground rule around confidentiality was specifically mentioned as a way to ensure that members of the group had the opportunity to explore difficult issues, without concern that comments which were exploratory in nature or not fully thought out, would be attributed to specific members of the group, outside of the Task Force meeting,” Smith wrote. “Such a norm is frequently used when a group is working on challenging issues, to encourage group members to think freely, without fear that exploratory thoughts that do not represent their final thinking on an issue would be attributed to them outside of the room.”

However, the manner in which the meetings were conducted caused serious concerns from some of the parent members, who said they believed the administrators leading the effort were not taking the problem areas with the devices seriously enough.

“The very same administrators who rushed the initial rollout are now slow walking the process to reach a predetermined outcome designed to protect their own reputations when they should be focused on protecting kids,” said task force parent-member Gretchen Shanahan earlier this month.

District’s justification for closing meetings

Administrators Drew Lane (at podium) and Christy Ziegler serve as co-chairs for the task force.

In hopes of getting a clearer understanding of the work of the Digital Learning Task force and to observe how the meetings were run, the Shawnee Mission Post on May 13 asked for permission to attend the group’s May 20 meeting. The district did not respond until being prompted the day of the meeting, with Smith saying that the “Digital Learning Task Force is an administrative meeting, and as such is not considered an ‘Open Meeting.’…[T]he ground rules developed by the Task Force do not allow for media coverage of their meetings.”

Smith contends that because the task force was not created at the explicit direction of the elected members of the Board of Education, it is not subject to Kansas Open Meetings Act requirements.

“The Digital Learning Task Force…is not a committee formed by the Board of Education; rather, it is a committee formed by the superintendent, tasked to report back to the superintendent,” Smith said. “As such, the members of the Task Force have the right to meeting without media present, in order to do their best work.”

However, substantial precedent suggests that the act extends beyond just groups created directly by a board of education or other governing body. The Kansas Attorney General’s KOMA guidelines note that:

  1. All subordinate groups, such as boards, commissions, authorities, councils, committees, subcommittees are covered by act if:
    1. The parent or controlling body meets funding test (State ex rel., Murray v. Palmgren, 231 Kan. 524 (1982), and
    2. Appointed by parent body to weigh options, discuss options, present recommendations or a plan of action.
    3. It is the nature of the group, not its designation, which determines if it is subject to KOMA. AGO 86-92; see also AGOs 86-38; 80-201; 77-53; 76-140; 76-122; 73-235.

Those guidelines specifically note a “School District Advisory Board” as an example of the kind of group that would be subject to KOMA.

What’s more, a Kansas Attorney General’s opinion from 1984 deals directly with the differentiation between a subgroup appointed by a board of education and a subgroup appointed by a superintendent in a public school district. In the opinion, then-Attorney General Robert Stephan noted that groups that provide advice or recommendations to a superintendent should be considered a body subject to KOMA:

There is little doubt that the school district board is such a body; its functions are administrative and it is funded by the public. The office of superintendent, on the other hand, presents a more difficult problem. It has been observed that “the Act has been applied only to groups of persons who exercise authority as a ‘body’ and not to subordinate staff personnel who gather together but do not take collective action.” Smoot and Clothier, 20 W.L.J. at 250. A school superintendent does not, however, merely glean advice and recommendations from a committee for his own personal information and benefit. He may use such advice and recommendations to form an opinion which will eventually be carried into action. The superintendent together with his committee form a body and, according to Coggins, supra, the meetings leading to his final decision should thus be covered by the Act.

The Shawnee Mission Post filed its complaint with the Kansas Attorney General’s Office this morning.

“We continue to encourage the Shawnee Mission School District to lean toward transparency whenever possible,” said Senter. “And we expect the district to fully comply with the Kansas Open Records Act and Kansas Open Meetings Act in every instance.”