Published Oct. 5, 2023
Carmel Unified School District has been through a lot over the last several years and without a break between crises. A pandemic, fires, storms, staffing shortages and high turnover in leadership positions have continually presented new challenges and inflamed tensions all throughout the community.
It’s only natural that those currently in leadership positions would be cautious–cautious with the statements they make, cautious with the terminology they use, cautious in the people they speak to, cautious in the changes they commit to. Yet even with this understanding, the lack of transparency and communication from the district has been thrown into sharp relief over the last few months, to both the public and to local news outlets.
Why do those in charge continue to note the importance of openness, trust and communication with the community when they are repeatedly unwilling to speak with the press, unable to voice individual perspectives and reluctant to provide insights into their decision-making and processes?
This isn’t what transparency looks like.
It is alarming for the community to see hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars spent without an explanation as to why; it is confusing for students to watch large personnel changes unfold while other pressing issues are sometimes unaddressed; it is frustrating for employees within CUSD to live in a constant state of uncertainty, awash in a sea of red tape. And it is crippling for a student newspaper to be cut off from reporting on its own district.
Ever since last winter when former principal Jon Lyons was placed on administrative leave, interviewing board members and district officials has become a challenge. The Sandpiper’s requests aren’t always responded to in a timely manner and are regularly deflected to other officials. Requests for in-person or phone interviews are consistently denied. Written responses to interview questions frequently contain minimal information, often ignoring specific and pertinent questions completely. Personal opinions and differing perspectives unique to specific roles have been completely eliminated from the conversation.
Since the second semester of the 2022-23 school year, staff writers for The Sandpiper have been faced with the choice of attempting to wrangle unhelpful comments from the district in an attempt to thoroughly report on important news or avoiding writing about district issues entirely. A student newspaper exists to serve its school and community, and fulfilling that role becomes difficult when the only two options are the ones mentioned above.
Both the community and local newspapers understand the district’s desire to tread lightly and speak carefully. But all the district’s talk about transparency needs to be backed up with greater communication to the press and thus the community.
What does that look like in the context of newspapers?
There are some across the district, including those in leadership positions, who do respond to media outlets with prompt or in-depth clarity, something both valued and respected by local journalists. This should be the norm, not the exception. Board policy 1112 includes the line “the Board and Superintendent shall reasonably accommodate media requests for information and provide accurate, reliable, and timely information.” Instead of vague and delayed answers, adhering to this policy would be a significant step in the right direction.
Another part of that same policy deserves attention: “Spokespersons designated to speak to the media on behalf of the district include the Board president, Superintendent, public information officer, or district communications director.” In the past, board members had always been individually accessible. Observing this policy now, however, does not preclude board members from sharing personally held opinions in that capacity. And in the absence of a public information officer or communications director, an unreasonable burden is placed upon the remaining two roles to handle all media relations.
Either adopting that interpretation or altering the policy to expand the media’s access to district members would go a long way toward ensuring that those who respond to requests for interviews and comment have the time and relevant expertise to do so.
And finally, the district should not shy away from interview requests. In-person interviews may seem daunting, but they are a necessary part of communication. It’s standard journalistic practice to refrain from printing unfounded speculation or sensitive information about personnel or minors, and to honor information given off the record. Speaking to media representatives is worth the ability to offer a district perspective beyond blanket statements made at meetings or in mass emails.
CUSD has learned to navigate myriad challenges over the last several years. The current community outcry from parents, students and teachers is for greater communication and clearer transparency. The district has the ability to meet this need. In order to do so, it needs to be more forthright with the press.