Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series looking at the transparency of school districts. Day One looked at how disclosures are handled and why gaps occur. Today’s story offers specific rankings for school districts. Day Three ranks video streaming accessibility for school board meetings.
When Chapman University journalism students partnered with Voice of OC to look at how often local school board members do their own homework and file disclosure documents about who’s financing their election campaigns, they found a disappointing pattern.
Many school board members are way behind on critical transparency homework when it comes to their financial disclosure filings.
A Voice of OC investigation found many school districts aren’t as transparent as you’d think when it comes to open meetings and official disclosures.
Some haven’t filed in years.
Meanwhile, others are missing forms entirely.
Orange County’s Registrar of Voters Bob Page, who oversees many local elections and keeps those records, said his agency only collects the information.
“The Registrar of Voters works to gain compliance from candidates and campaign committees that miss a deadline for filing a Form 460 or Form 470,” stated Page in an email to Voice of OC. “We are not an enforcement agency.”
Sonia Acuna from the Clerk of the Board of County Supervisors said her department notifies officeholders through emails and letters to try and get them to file on time.
Editors’ Note: This dispatch is part of the Voice of OC Collegiate News Service, working with student journalists to cover public policy issues across Orange County. If you would like to submit your own student media project related to Orange County civics or if you have any response to this work, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
School District Transparency Report Cards
Chapman University students designed a system for rating transparency of these records at local school districts.
The analysis found that most school district board members are filing forms on time, but these documents pose a challenge to access.
No school districts were given an “A” grade because the forms are difficult to access in all 28 districts.
School districts that had up-to-date forms for every school board member were given a “B” — or yellow — ranking since these documents are available if a resident asks but are generally not easily found on the district website and in many cases are still difficult for the public to access.
Nineteen school districts got a “B.”
Districts were given a “C” — or orange — ranking if at least one school board member failed to file one of the forms within the past two years. Some board members in this category haven’t filed since 2020 or earlier, while others are missing filings entirely. Some filed for past activity going as far back as 2020 only this month.
Five school districts got a “C.”
Districts were given a “D” — or red — ranking if there were other barriers preventing residents from accessing this information.
Four school districts got a “D.”
Since the board trustees aren’t paid a stipend for serving on the board, they aren’t required to file these forms at all after they’re elected.
Lowell Joint School District and Fullerton Joint Union High School District were also ranked red because these school districts overlap with LA County. The filings for these districts are split up between Orange and LA Counties — adding additional confusion about where to go to find these documents.
How Can Residents Access This Information?
There are two key forms that describe financial information relevant to officeholders.
Form 460s include candidate information about campaign donations. Officials who expect a low amount of campaign money could instead file a Form 470 as a replacement. These forms are filed twice a year.
Form 700s display an elected official’s economic interests, including income, businesses, stock and real estate ownership that could affect their decision-making. These forms are filed annually.
While these forms can be found easily on most cities’ websites, locating them for school districts is a completely different process.
Even knowing where to look or who to ask for these forms can pose a challenge.
Multiple records requests revealed that these forms aren’t even stored within the same county agency.
Form 460s and 470s are stored within the Orange County Registrar of voters, while Form 700s are filed to the Orange County Clerk of the Board.
The Registrar of Voters also has records for 700 forms, but only the initial filing from when candidates first submit their declaration of candidacy. Yearly forms for office-holders are instead filed with the Clerk of the Board.
But that information isn’t advertised. There’s no clear way for residents to know where to turn to find these public documents.
Trying to access the forms caused confusion between the two departments about who had which forms. Some records requests were met with instructions to contact the other department.
To get access to these forms, residents must file a records request to the corresponding agency, a process that could take up to 10 days.
The Registrar of Voters also has an online search function to locate information on campaign finance, but a records request could still be required if users are unable to locate certain forms. There is no search function for 700 forms.
“Requiring information to be filed that can’t be retrieved defeats the purpose of requiring it to be filed,” said Jodi Balma, a Fullerton College political science professor who tracks local politics and regularly monitors campaign finance forms.
“Reports should be searchable. You should be able to identify patterns so that you can search across school districts,” Balma said.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Tracy Wood Reporting Fellow. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.
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