This is how you “open” data

u4_cash_expenditures_top_10

I am halfway through a project of making all Unit 4 check regsiters truly accessible online. First, let me briefly provide an overview of what curretly exists, why it is not enough, and what I am doing about it.

 

Since about 2010, the Unit 4 Finance team has been posting check registers online via the district’s BoardDocs portal. If you have ever looked at the portal, you know that it is obscenely difficult to find documents unless you have some idea of where to look. For instance, Check Registers are always posted during the Regular Meeting under the Action agenda item “Bills and Treasurer’s Report”. It will always be for the prior month; so for the June Board Meeting, they posted the check registers from May. So, to give credit where credit is due, kudos to Unit 4 for posting check registers online – not many school districts do that.

But here is the problem – who looks at them? Among the small handful of people that actually take the time to hunt them down and scan through several pages of checks, who actually can make any use of it? If you want to hunt down all the transactions for a given “vendor”, you have to manually find and open each month’s check register yourself. I tried it once – it was quite painful. 🙂

 

In May of 2013 I asked Unit 4 to provide an index or some type of archive for all check registers. Stephanie Stuart and Matt Foster quickly responded and now we have a very tidy Check Register Archive. It isn’t perfect (some months are missing), but it is yet another step in a good direction, so for that I give Unit 4 another kudo. There is still an issue of tracking vendors and payments across months, which is a very manual process. Several times in the past year I have asked for read-only access to the data in one form or another, but I am always hitting legal obstructions along the way.

 

So here is my solution. Given that Unit 4 is providing a very nice central repository for check registers, and given that the PDF documents are true exports from a reporting tool (as opposed to those notorious PDF images of data that are so prevelant), without asking Unit 4 to lift a finger I can now provide the entirety of those check registers via a mildly reverse-engineered database. This is the first half of my project. The next half is to provide a handy dandy php-driven web page to allow dynamic access to those who have no idea how to connect to a database and write queries.

 

Sounds exciting, right? You are anxious to go look at the data, right? Unfortunately, the pretty stuff isn’t my forte. I can provide excel spreadsheets of the data for you, which is probably “good enough” for most everyone:

 

Why two different files? About the time I asked for the check register archive, it appears that Unit 4 changed the format of the output. The PDF files are in what’s called “fixed-width fields”, and the number and size of those fields changed near May of 2013. So another nice thing about having a database is that I can combine all these lines into one resource and make the formats a moot point.

 

More fun stuff to come later this week. I have been inspired by Adam Andrzejewski and his “Open the Books” campaign.

 

Technical details

connection string = jdbc:mysql://onyx.csit.parkland.edu:35002/u4finance

user = u4reader/redaer#4

Number of records: 50,868

data loaded with perl using CAM::PDF modules; dynamically reads all PDF’s available on Unit 4 website, parses, cleans and loads the data.

 

 

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Letter to the Board

update: edited for better formatting (curse you WordPress!!)

Good evening,

I know each of you has been extremely busy with many different topics related to Unit 4; I thank you for serving on the board and fulfilling a much needed role.

I would like to take a moment and remind the three board members that were voted in during the April elections what you said you were going to do as a board member. The full list I culled together can be found here:
https://thecitizen4blog.wordpress.com/2013/04/13/another-look-at-the-school-board-candidates/

From that list, I would highlight a few things, especially as tensions rise around the topic of the CFT contract negotiations. The questions I ask below I ask out of respect and sincerity – I ask because I truly wish to learn.

Mr. MacAdam: You said you were committed to fiscal responsibility, especially given your background and experience with Busey Bank. One of your goals was to develop strategies so the school district can be financially sound. You also spoke about being transparent and speaking in public. What strategies have you developed in the past 6 months? How do you intend to communicate those strategies out to the community? How have your plans and efforts contributed to teachers feeling appreciated and valued?

Ms. Bonnett: Your campaign spoke significantly of engaging the community, earning trust, being transparent and having quality communications, among other things. I thank you that you have retained your facebook page as an effort to remind us of your goals and also to have an extra open door of communication. As the Board President, you are the voice of the Board. How have you striven to build, earn and keep trust and engender accountability with the community and among your colleagues on the board? How have you encouraged communication and aided community members in gathering and checking facts?

Ms. Stuckey: You have a goal specifically tailor for the CFT negotiations – one of your goals was to attempt to support budget talks with the CFT early in the process and to ease cooperation between the Board and the CFT. How did that go? You also spoke frequently of working to make sure that any budget cuts would have the least negative impact to children (or impacting the least number of children). You also spoke of motivating community members to get involved and (along with the other board members) board transparency. What work have you done to make sure children are impacted as little as possible? How much success has your efforts to increase community participation met with? Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts this week about the school board

Walking in reverse direction down the path of my thoughts of the school board this past week:

Who are we?

I subscribe to a feed of the Wake County School District blog, and just this morning is a post about the new school board chairman of the Wake County school district (which, by the way, is frickin’ HUGE!). What is fascinating about his “acceptance speech” is that he casts an identity for the school board that unites it with the community; he readily acknowledges the rocky road they have been through (you think Champaign has an issue with Schools of Choice? Ha!) and the challenges going forward.

“We the Wake County Board of Education will provide the kind of exemplary leadership that is expected of us by this community, and I intend to lead us in that direction. I ask my colleagues around this table to join me in this commitment and this effort for we are Wake County.”

2013 Board Candidate John Williams, III

I am going to be reaching out to candidates as I find out who they are. Last night I had a great facebook dialog (be sure to click the tiny “See More”) with Mr. Williams. I am impressed by his convictions and desire to tackle some big issues. Better yet, not just desires but ideas on how to make them come to fruition. I asked him further about two points (getting the community to show up at meetings and pedagogy); he responded to the first by admitting there is a lack of community participation that is not solved by free food, the need to build relationships and the need for more open communication; to the second he agreed there is no “one size fits all” and very much wants to move away from lecture-laden approaches to engaging the students more thoroughly. What’s cool is that I see a number of excellent teachers already doing this. Hearkens me back to the Sir Ken Robinson video shown at the Futures Conference. Having said all this, don’t take my word for it – go read about John Williams yourself, or better yet, ask him some questions of your own.

As I find out who other board candidates are, I am going to make it a point to drop by and get to know them. Laurie, I have some questions for you next. *grin*

Transparency

I already shared how I attempted to address the board at Monday’s board meeting. Dr. Joe Davis was kind enough to follow-up with me (and CC: Dr. Judy Wiegand). He mentioned Gene Logas’ previous efforts to spell out “Where does all the money go?” I agree that this is a good first step in breaking down the complex tongue of finances, but it only goes so far (it is, after all, a first step). I responded with an example of Jess Bachman’s now famous “Death and Taxes” poster which gives an awesome overview of the Federal Budget. On top of this, I followed up with a member of the Promises Made Promises Kept (PMPK) committee; here is an excellent example where the district communicates a ton of information to a group of people that is open to the public, but the public has next to no clue what is going on because 1) very few community members attend the PMPK meetings, 2) the “transparent” reports take a REALLY long time to make it up on the website. In fact, the last one I can find is from December of 2011. So, first hurdle is to get this information in the public sphere, second hurdle is to get these reports so that we the common people can understand them. 🙂

Transparency is not about pointing fingers. It is about collaborating towards a common goal. As John Williams implied, accountability is a good thing, when done right. It helps all of us.

[PS – I hope that a letter-to-the-editor I submitted on this topic is printed soon]

More about 2013 Board Candidates

Meg Dickinson wrote an article on Tuesday in the aftermath of Tom Lockman stepping down from his position on the board. One particular quote of Mr. Lockman that I really like is:

I truly believe that public education is the most critical aspect of a community’s ability to succeed and develop…

Most. Critical. Those are big words, ones that should challenge our community. But back to Meg’s article about the candidates. She relates the Stig Lanneskog intends to run for the 2-year slot. She also says that seven people to date have checked out petitions from the Mellon Center. Note that the petitions actually come from the County Clerk’s office and that the Mellon Center merely provides the forms as a courtesy; since the forms are downloadable from the internet, there is no telling the maximum number of people that have expressed an interest. On top of that, just because someone picks up a packet does not mean they will get all the signatures and actually submit it by December 26th. What is most curious to me is, of the people that have picked up a packet, we only know about three (Ileana Saveley, Laurie Bonnett, John Williams and Stig Lanesskog). Personally, I really want to find out who the others are because I want to meet these people who are so interested in the school district that they want to serve on the board, which is not all fun and games. 🙂 Very worthy, no doubt, but a sacrifice none the less.

December 10th Regular Board Meeting

Another quick post: the agenda for the Dec 10th board meeting is posted. Looks like a an amazing number of recognitions (Holy Achievements, Batman!), and an equal load of financial reports that are next to impossible to understand. 🙂 Some other things about School Assignment – of course, I am personally interested in that topic. What is interesting is that it is on the Consent Agenda, even though nobody has talked about it, yet. I have asked several questions (and emailed more questions this morning), but I am not getting much.

 

Again, I have not been able to go over the agenda with a fine-toothed comb – I will do that later. Go read it for yourself and come back and comment on it. 🙂

Unit 4 BOE putting agendas online

Back in May, Mr. Tommy Lockman informed me that Unit 4 was going to start putting the BOE documents online:

www.boarddocs.com/il/champil/Board.nsf/public

 

I meant to make a post about it, but never did. *sigh* Anyway, when I received the latest note that the BOE put their agenda for the September 12th meeting up, I went to take a gander. And I am impressed. While it is understandable that some agenda items are merely placeholders, there is a good amount of detail in things like 4.B. “Recognitions”, 8.B,C,D (Reports/Discussion), and others. 8.B. caught my attention. Administrative Salaries and Benefits. I am not going to witch hunt right now, but I know others have had to FOIA this information in the past, so I see it as a good step that Unit 4 is putting it out there. A good step, I said. 🙂

 

Other goodies in there. 8.C Report on the EEE. I am torn about this. Here are the posted “top recommendations”:

  • Provide high quality professional development for both academic and non-academic staff focused on teaching and supporting students of diverse backgrounds.
  • Create safe and competent spaces for staff to engage in ongoing discussions of diversity issues (particularly, but not limited to race and racism).  One model is Learning Communities.  It could be organized to make opportunities available
  • Create safe and competent settings for students to express what they are experiencing in school.  Provide opportunities for students to develop and express voice and resistance.
  • Develop and provide elective for credit courses at the high school level that identify and develop venues for students to critically engage issues of social history and race.

 

So these are all good. But here is the problem. Dr. Mark Aber recommended these back in 2000 and again in 2009 (which did not get “published” until 2011). Where are the “safe settings”? I mean, come on! All I see is talk. Where is the walk?

 

But this isn’t a post about the EEE, per se. That really needs its own post. Glad to see more information available online. 🙂

 

8.D. Preliminary report on finances. Holy documentation, Batman! A 67-page report!? Yikes. My hat is off to whomever put this massive thing together. But 67 pages?!? Who is supposed to read that? Again, I give credit to the author(s) for making these 10lb doorstops (funny old anachronism, eh?) a little more palatable; a sprinkling of graphs, some “slightly-easier-to-read” pages, and especially the last 7 pages, the “Conclusion”. In very “Promises made, Promises kept”-esque fashion, each objective of the report is detailed with examples of how the goal was met. I like that. And then I start to read them a little closer. Let’s take a look at that last objective:

5. secure community understanding and support of the fiscal requirements of a good educational program.

Examples of How the Board’s Goals Were Met:

  • Budget Presentation – “Where Does All the Money Go?”
  • … [ skipped because I have to type all this by hand ]
  • Implemented “Promises Made, Promises Kept” Committee to increase confidence in the District
  • Implemented “Facilities Committee” to continue work of the Vision Committee
  • Quarterly meetings of the Key Communicators Network to keep parents informed of Unit Four news

 

Each of those are old. I mean, that does not make less of them, but they are not new by any means. One could copy’n’paste this exact same thing into next year’s 2012-2013 Budget document. And yes, I am picking on this one for a reason. The other objectives have more concrete goals that have been achieved (and accompanying examples).

 

Why am I picking on this one? Well, let me ask, was the community’s understanding and support of the fiscal requirements of a good educational program secured? And is it appropriate that the measure of this goal having been attained are things that the Board and Administration did several years ago?

 

Unit 4 has an image problem, among other issues. Putting the Agendas and all this information online does indeed increase transparency. Due to this increased transparency, we can see some holes. What do you do when you see holes. Hopefully you patch them up. 😉 Putting all this stuff online does not instamagically mean that everyone knows the score. In fact, I only stumbled (in the true sense of web stumbling) upon these items because I was curious. Finding golden nuggets buried in Meeting Minutes and Agendas does not seem optimal. Depending on bloggers, online magazines and news papers to tout your qualities (and/or expose your weaknesses) also does not seem optimal.

 

So here is my own conclusion. Kudos to Unit 4 for moving in this direction. I realize it is a small step. Now it is the obligation of the community and the school district to collaborate (which means “work together“, to co-labor) on patching up the holes. Or tear it down completely and start anew. *grin*