Attorney General’s office says school district had right to keep review of $50 million iPad/Macbook program closed to press

Administrators Drew Lane (at podium) and Christy Ziegler served as co-chairs for the task force, which was closed to the press and public.

The Kansas Attorney General’s Office on Wednesday issued an opinion saying that the Shawnee Mission School District did not violate the Kansas Open Meetings Act when it barred the Shawnee Mission Post from observing a meeting of its Digital Learning Task Force last year.

The publication filed a formal complaint against the district after its communications office denied a request to attend and report on a meeting of the group charged with reviewing implementation of the district’s $50 million-plus 1:1 technology initiative, which provides an iPad or Macbook to every student K-12.

In a letter outlining the decision, Assistant Attorney General Lisa Mendoza said the office’s open government enforcement unit had determined that the Digital Learning Task Force created by Superintendent Mike Fulton was merely an advisory group and did not fit the definition of the type of “subordinate group” subject to the state’s open meetings law.

Key to the decision was the district’s argument that the body was not created at the direction of the elected members of the Shawnee Mission Board of Education, and that the report the group ultimately issued made no “binding” recommendations that the superintendent or school board would have been required to adopt.

“There is nothing to suggest that this task force was created to determine what course the board or the superintendent should pursue, or that its findings were intended to be binding on the board or the superintendent in any way,” Mendoza wrote.

However, in her letter Mendoza encouraged the district to review its use of groups that are permitted to meet behind closed doors.

“We urge the district to carefully consider the need for and purpose of groups that meet outside of the public’s view,” she wrote.

The message was echoed by Max Kautsch, attorney for the Kansas Press Association, who commented on the Attorney General’s Office’s decision.

“The public interest is not served when $50 million of taxpayer dollars are spent in an absence of transparency,” Kautsch said. “As the Attorney General’s Office suggested in its letter, the district should think long and hard before adopting policies in the future that allow for groups like the Digital Learning Task Force to meet outside the public’s view.”

Shawnee Mission Post, Digitally Wise Parents respond to ruling

Shawnee Mission Post Publisher Jay Senter said he was disappointed with the decision, and that the organization would be reviewing the specifics of the information provided by the district to the investigators about the task force to ensure it synced up with communications that the district had made to patrons. The Attorney General’s office did not contact the Shawnee Mission Post with clarifying questions about any of the information the district had provided in response to the complaint.

Regardless, Senter said, the publication stands by its contention that the group’s work should have been done in a public setting — whether it was legally required to do so or not.

“The district chose an extremely expensive program to address its schools’ technology needs, and to date it has failed to produce any evidence whatsoever that these devices have had a positive impact on student learning and outcomes,” Senter said. “If the district expects its patrons to continue to support these kinds of initiatives with their tax dollars, it needs to hold itself accountable for how these programs are implemented. Doing this kind of work behind closed doors just fosters a sense of distrust.”

The Digitally Wise Parents Group that has lobbied the district to address a host of problems associated with implementation of the program responded to the AG’s decision by saying the district should never have empaneled a group that wasn’t going to work toward concrete recommendations:

The opinion of the Kansas Attorney General’s Office confirms our view that a ‘Superintendent Advisory Group’ should never have been tasked with evaluating the 1:1 Digital Learning Initiative. By characterizing the Digital Learning Task Force as an ‘advisory’ committee, the SMSD Board of Education avoided any oversight of the $50 million initiative, while those responsible for implementing the program avoided any accountability to district patrons and taxpayers. At the end of the flawed ‘advisory’ process, we have a list of unenforceable recommendations, devoid of any student performance data or broad patron feedback. We thank the Shawnee Mission Post for challenging the task force process. This time around, the board must exercise direct oversight in evaluating the 1:1 initiative with a thorough, independent audit of the 1:1 program, and unfettered media access.

In its defense against the complaint, the district had argued that the task force was more like a “work group,” which was not created by the school board, lacked a budget and had no administrative or legislative powers.

Two months after the Post lodged its complaint about the closed meeting, the task force completed its work and submitted its report to Fulton in July 2019. Since then, the district has redefined some terms for the various district groups. The district now defines a “task force” as a group created by the board or superintendent that makes recommendations and is subject to open meetings laws. Meanwhile, a “work group” now refers to a group engaged in research that makes advisory recommendations.

The Post has reached out to the district communications office for comment on the decision. We’ll update the post if we hear back.