Sky-Hi Sunshine Project shines light on schools, hospital, library transparency
March 28, 2014
Last week we examined the transparency of county and town governments in Grand County, and this week we're taking a look at major districts.
The county has over 54 special districts, which include schools, water and sanitation, recreation, fire departments and natural resource protection. County residents benefit from the services of these districts, and property owners fund them by paying taxes, or mill levies. While we would have liked to shine light on the transparency of every district managing taxpayer dollars, simply put, we don't have the staff or resources.
Instead, we decided to focus on four major districts — East Grand School District, West Grand School District, Grand County Library District and the Kremmling Memorial Hospital District/Middle Park Medical Center. These districts — aside from the two recreation districts and some major water and sewer districts in the county — manage both a large amount of public funds and have the most widespread influence throughout the county.
Like the towns and counties, we analyzed these districts on their websites (30 points, plus 2 bonus points), meetings (30 points, plus 4 bonus points), budgets & financial (30 points) and the records request process (10 points). For a refresher on why we felt these categories were the most important for our project, check the Friday, March 21 edition of the Sky-Hi News, or read our Sunshine Audits story online at skyhidailynews.com. We kept our grading mostly the same, with the exception of examining whether tax burdens are on special districts' websites. For school districts, we also felt it's important to provide a breakdown of their revenue streams from federal, state and local taxes in an easy-to-locate place online and within their budgets. For school districts, we also required academic performance to be posted online. With guidance from Ballotpedia's transparency checklist on school districts, we felt each district should publish an accountability report every year that includes results from state tests. This report should note which tests are administered to students in the district and include the district's performance. Ideally, it should also provide a comparison of the district's students to others in the state and provide performance comparisons with previous years.
As we wrap up this project, it's important to note that while some governing bodies and districts excelled in certain areas, like good record-keeping, impeccable websites or coherent budgets, not one received a 100 percent score, or even a 90 percent. Only a few barely rose above the 80 percent range. Each town, district and the county have plenty of room for improvement. We encourage all our commissioners, trustees, district directors and their staff to take our analysis to heart.
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Here are the grades:
West Grand Schools: C+
WEBSITE (21.5) — We feel this school district has a good foundation for a transparent website, but there is a lot of useful information missing. The website does include meeting minutes and agendas for the past three years, and we appreciate their inclusion of the board packet along with the agendas. We also appreciate their inclusion of check registers for the current year as well as budgets, financial reports and audits for 2013 and 2014, but we would like to see budgets posted for the past three years. West Grand Schools posts personalized contact information, including email addresses and phone numbers, for all its board members and personalized emails for its staff. We'd like to see personalized phone numbers for key district staff as well.
The district could improve in posting clearer information on student performance. While the district section of the website includes a "student performance" page, it mostly just provides links to the Colorado Department of Education website. Information is available on school administered tests and individual school performance through the Unified Improvement Plan PDF document, generated through the Colorado Department of Education website. Still, the district could improve by providing an actual accountability report that explains student performance in clear terms that parents and taxpayers can understand. We found a revenue breakdown on federal, state and local taxes through the current budget, which is posted online, but we feel the district could clearly post this information on its "Financial Transparency" page so citizens don't need to do so much digging to find it. At the time of our research, the mill levy for the district wasn't posted online or noted in the budget. We should note, however, that after we brought this to the attention of Martha Schake, the district's director of finance, she immediately posted it. We commend Schake for her responsiveness.
We further encourage the district to post their open records procedures and fees on their website in an easy-to-find location. This facilitates transparency and can help make the process less intimidating to the public.
MEETINGS (28.5) — West Grand Schools does a great job providing detailed minutes, giving great insight into the discussions at board of education meetings. Votes in minutes are specifically set apart, and each board member's vote is listed in roll-call style. Agendas, however, could improve. We found they had only a bare-bones description of what would be discussed at the meetings. Generally, however, more detail on specific agenda items is included with the attached packet. We'd like to see the district list the place and address where the meetings are held and specific instructions within the agenda for the public comment period. We gave bonus points to the school district for providing automatic email notification of meetings.
With executive sessions, both West and East Grand school districts performed about the same. About 38 percent of their public meetings include executive sessions. While this number is high, we recognize school districts have a large number of employees, raising the need for closed sessions to discuss personnel issues, and they also require closed sessions to discuss sensitive student issues. That said, we encourage education boards to conduct business as much as possible in the open.
BUDGET & FINANCIAL (17) — The district's budget is where they stand to improve the most. It did not include a table of contents to help guide the reader through the document, and there was no executive summary to help readers make sense of numbers and trends. We do appreciate the budget spreadsheets are broken up into clear sections with large heading pages, which helps with navigation. The budget does not include charts or graphs to help illustrate trends and it does not include the district's mill levy for local taxpayers.
We do appreciate the district's transparency in posting exceptional check registers every month. The registers clearly list check numbers, dates paid, who was paid and a general description of why the payment was made.
RECORDS REQUEST (10) — The school district does not charge a fee for research and retrieval of records. Digital copies of documents are free, and hard copies cost 22 cents per page, below the 25-cent maximum allowed by state statute. The district did not charge us for our request and completely fulfilled our request in a timely manner.
East Grand Schools B-
WEBSITE (22.5) — Like West Grand, East Grand Schools did a good job posting meeting minutes and agendas, but could improve by posting more on academic performance. It has a "student achievement data" link on its "About EGSD" page, but there is no information available after clicking the link. We eventually found this information under its "District/School Improvement Plans" link on the same page, but found the navigation confusing. The district provides several PDF documents of the Colorado Department of Education's data on School Performance Frameworks. While these documents do generally explain which state tests are administered and note the district's performance, we'd like to see an accountability report explaining what the numbers mean and tell readers, in plain language, how the district is performing. Mill levy information and a breakdown of revenue from federal, state and local taxes is available in the district's budget, posted online as a PDF document. Still, we'd like to see this information posted directly on the finance page of the website so it doesn't take so much digging to find.
Board meeting meetings and agendas are posted for the past three years, as are the district's budgets and financial information. We like that notification of board meetings is posted in an easy-to-see area on the district's homepage under "Upcoming Events." Past and upcoming board meetings are also posted on a calendar (in blue) that stays on a stagnant navigational sidebar to the left as a reader browses the site. The "Board of Education" page also has a calendar (in pink) that lists the board meeting for the current month. This calendar does not include meetings for past or future months, which we found confusing.
MEETINGS (32.5) — The school district excelled in its meetings transparency. The agendas provide a good description of discussion items, answering the question of "why should I care?" for citizens who might attend. The agendas list the estimated times each item will be discussed, and calls out when the board will likely vote. On a column to the right, the agenda includes an "action requested" column, with descriptions we found particularly useful as we scanned through the agendas. The public comment section is clearly called out as "opportunity for audience" and includes detailed instructions on how to participate. The only area for improvement is to include an address of the place where the meetings are held. Minutes weren't as detailed as some we've seen, but they did provide sufficient information for the public to understand what happened and what was discussed. Votes were called out in roll-call style with a specific record of how board members voted. The minutes also strive to follow the outline of the agendas. We gave bonus points to East Grand Schools for providing draft minutes and automatic email notification of their meetings.
With executive sessions, both East and West Grand school districts performed about the same. About 38 percent of their public meetings include executive sessions. While this number is high, we recognize school districts have a large number of employees, raising the need for closed sessions to discuss personnel issues, and they also require closed sessions to discuss sensitive student issues. That said, we encourage education boards to conduct business as much as possible in the open.
BUDGET & FINANCIAL (15) — Like West Grand, East Grand School District has room for improvement with its budget. It does include a table of contents that helps with navigation, but there's no executive summary explaining in clear language what the numbers mean and why taxpayers should care. While individual funds have clear headings, this large budget is tedious to navigate and make sense of overall. The budget's spreadsheets and figures are in eye-straining small type. We'd like to see number comparisons back to 2011 as well as charts and graphs to help readers understand what the numbers and trends mean. The district's monthly check registers are generally good, but we'd like to see them include a description of what each payment is for.
RECORDS REQUEST (10) — Also like West Grand, East Grand Schools did an adequate job fulfilling our records request. They don't charge a fee for research and retrieval or digital copies of records. Their fee for hard copy requests is 25 cents per page, which meets the state statute.
Grand County Library District: F
WEBSITE (22.5) — The library district has an excellent website overall, but we had to dock points for only posting agendas, minutes and budgets for the past two years instead of the past three years. We'd also like to see them publish their open records request procedure and fees online.
We commend the district for posting information about mill levies with useful explanations under the "Library District" page. They also did an exceptional job posting information about their board. The website lists the names, titles, phone numbers and mailing address for each member. Terms for each trustee are also listed with bold type, and the district website goes a step further by explaining the trustee selection process and providing trustee job descriptions. The trustees don't have personalized email addressed, but they do have a general one. We also like the clearly listed schedule of upcoming board meetings, which includes the time and place.
MEETINGS (16) — The district's agendas are sparse with detail, providing little useful information to the public. We appreciate that the agendas list the place, address, time and date of each meeting along with estimated times each agenda item will be discussed. Meeting minutes could provide more detail about some board discussions, which are sometimes noted only generally. We'd also like to see votes and action items more clearly called out so readers can quickly scan the document and see how the board voted. Occasionally, the minutes don't provide enough detail on motions and whether they were approved.
The library district has held a lot of executive session in the last two years, with almost 100 percent of board meetings including closed sessions. We contacted Mary Anne Hanson-Wilcox, the executive director for the district, to find out why. She said most of the closed sessions were due to ongoing litigation over the Granby Library roof repairs. The case has since been settled, and Wilcox expects the executive session levels to return to pre-2012 levels, which averaged about one executive session each year.
BUDGET & FINANCIAL (9) — The library district's budget has no executive summary, table of contents or other navigational tools to help the reader sift through the numbers. The spreadsheets are in a headache-inducing small font. We do appreciate the "budget notes" column to the right of the spreadsheets, which does include some notes to help readers make sense of the figures, but we feel it could include more information. There are no charts and graphs to help make sense of trends.
The district provided us with a balance summary, which includes deposits and withdrawals from the library's account. The withdrawal information includes an identification or check number, date the payment was made and the amount, but there's no information on who the payment was for or why.
RECORDS REQUEST (4.5) — When we asked for specific information on fees, executive director Wilcox sent us a document noting $1.25 per page for copies and $30-$40 for "record search" fees. The copy fee is well above the state statute of 25 cents. Hanson-Wilcox checked and found the $1.25 fee to be a mistake, saying they should only be charging 25 cents, adding that in the few instances the district has had records requests, it has not charged fees. The research fee is well above the $0-$25 rate deemed "reasonable" by the Colorado Court of Appeals. The library district director said in an email the district would not charge us for our records request, but wrote: "Just for your information, it has cost the district about $500 in staff wages to process this request." We think our records request was information that should easily be at the disposal of any clerk or finance manager, or already be posted on its website, so we asked why. The director said the district needed to respond quickly, and since the library district is short-staffed right now, she had to reach out to the technology director — a higher-paid employee — for the information, who accessed the server to bring up old data. The district did respond to our request in a timely manner, and provided all requested information within the 3-day deadline.
Kremmling Memorial Hospital District: F
WEBSITE (9) — The district's online information is combined with the Middle Park Medical Center's clinic and services website, which isn't unusual for a hospital district. Overall, the site is well-designed and easy to navigate. Board information is available under the "About" menu option at the top, on the "Board of Directors" and "BOD: Minutes/Agendas/Documents" pages. Minutes and agendas were only available since 2013, although there are two months' worth of minutes from 2012. We'd like to see them going back three years. No budget or other financial information is posted on the website, including the district's mill levy and who the tax burden applies to.
The website includes the names of each elected board member, but has no contact information for them. We appreciate the board president, vice president and secretary have their terms listed, but we wonder why this information isn't included for the two other board members. For the district's key staff, phone numbers are available for the chief executive financial/executive officer, chief nursing officer and executive assistant, but all this information appears outdated. We'd like to see contact information for the public
information officer as well. Meeting notifications are generally explained a PDF document "Annual Notice of Meetings – 2004," but specific meeting dates aren't easy to find. It's not clear where notification would be posted about special meetings or if meetings are canceled. Meeting dates seemed to be a point of confusion among some board members at a recent district meeting.
MEETINGS (6.5) — Board meeting agendas include little detail, and give the public no indication as to why executive sessions are being held. They list the place of the meeting, but not the address. Listing the address could be helpful for first-time meeting attendees. Instead of listing estimated times, specific agenda items will be discussed and the agenda lists the length of time they'll be discussed. We appreciate the agendas have a clear "public comment" section with specific instructions on how to participate. We also like that they include an explanation of what a consent agenda item is, and that they list upcoming meetings on the agenda.
The district's minutes are the worst we've seen and deserve special attention. They're laid out in a chart, which was probably designed to help with navigation, but it's poorly executed. Figuring out how to read the minutes in the chart is frustrating, and information often spills across columns. The actual minutes are a short one-sentence explanation or bulleted list of what was discussed. These minutes provide very little useful information and often raise more questions than they answer. As part of the chart, the minutes have a "actions/follow-up" column, which rarely contains information. It seems to unnecessarily hog space. All board votes are unanimous in the minutes we analyzed, so it's difficult to tell if dissenting votes would be assigned to specific board members.
Minutes on discussion before and after executive sessions, as well as description of legal rationale for closed sessions, are especially lacking. More than half of the hospital district's meetings have contained closed sessions in the past five years, with nearly 100 percent of meetings including closed sessions in the past two years. Each time an executive session was held, according to the minutes we analyzed, the legal explanation was always the same with general jargon. There's next to no clarity on what's being discussed in these closed sessions beyond the bare legal requirements, and there are no notes before or after providing any insight. We implore the hospital district to be more transparent in the process, and give the public at least some insight on why they're closing their discussions to the public.
We asked the district's public information officer, Michelle Balleck, why the district held so many closed sessions.
"We have held several executive sessions over the past few years because the hospital has been undergoing a number of exciting changes, such as the opening of the Granby hospital, our negotiations with Centura Health and many other opportunities," she said. "These opportunities necessitate contract negotiations and legal counsel, which are conducted in executive session."
BUDGET & FINANCIAL (13) — What the district provided us as a budget appeared more like a two-page summary spreadsheet. It didn't provide detail on specific departments or different expenses, and we docked substantial points for this. The district's public information officer explained why the budget is so sparse. "That is the most detailed budget we have at this time," she said. "This is the same budget we provide to the Department of Local Affairs." The district is currently in the process of defining department-specific budgets. Along with the budget spreadsheet, the district provided both the board's resolution to adopt the budget and a DOLA budget submission letter, which serve as a sort of executive summary and help summarize and explain the numbers very basically. We would've liked to see comparisons to previous years in these summaries. We also feel the board's resolution to adopt the budget could serve as a good summary for the community and taxpayers. We'd like to see it include specific information on the mill levy as well as the district boundaries, detailing who, exactly, pays taxes to the district. We do appreciate the resolution provides a breakdown of federal, state and local tax revenue.
We realize hospital finance is complicated, and local taxes only amount to 5 percent of the hospital district's revenue. Still,the district residents paid $1.2 million in property taxes to the district last year, which is no small sum. The district receives other public funds through federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid. With that in mind, we feel the district should strive for as much budget transparency as possible, especially in light of its recent financial troubles.
Balleck noted that tax dollars collected as part of the district's revenue are not earmarked for specific expenditures, but she did provide the district's check ledger for all expenses. The information provided included check numbers, vendor names the amount paid and the date it was paid, but it almost never included a description of what the payment was for.
RECORDS REQUEST (3) — The district did not fulfill our request. After the required three days, the CEO had only directed us to their website for agendas and minutes, for which only some we requested were posted. Instead of a budget, the CEO provided the board's resolution to adopt the budget. We also received only a general estimate of the number of board meetings and executive sessions over the last five years, which we found to be incorrect. There seemed to be internal confusion about who should handle information requests.
We should note that things seem to have improved since the district hired Balleck, its public information officer. We essentially submitted our request to the district a second time weeks later, and she fully responded to our request in two days. According to Balleck, the district does not have a public records request policy, so they do not charge for these requests. We encourage them to develop a policy to conform with Colorado's Open Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act.