Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series looking at school district transparency. Day Two offers specific rankings on financial disclosure documents. Day Three looks at video streaming accessibility for school board meetings.
Orange County’s school boards are getting more political than ever, with election campaigns becoming more costly and contested.
Yet it’s really tough for parents to check on who’s financing the politicians vying to oversee the educators administering local kids’ education curriculum.
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.
There’s no central location to look up public information about school board members’ financial interests.
And school districts don’t post this information online for easy access — unlike many cities across OC.
Those are the central findings from a year-long look by Chapman University journalism students working with Voice of OC to assess the transparency of local school districts across the county.
For many school districts across the county, parents aren’t able to do their homework on elected school officials without filing a public records request with the county government — a process that could take up to 10 days for an initial response.
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.
In a previous investigation, Voice of OC and Chapman University students ranked Orange County cities and how easy it is for residents to access two forms that clue them into their elected officials’ financial interests.
Over the course of several years, that project has seen most Orange County cities set a practice of posting these key forms on city websites with varying degrees of accessibility.
But for school board members, this information isn’t found on district websites.
The look into these kinds of disclosures comes just as one of Orange County’s top education officials is facing current allegations in state court for failing to publicly disclose relevant economic interests.
A retired federal judge has brought a civil lawsuit against Orange County Board of Education member Mari Barke for allegedly failing to disclose $14 million in income and economic interests since her election.
“Defendant claims that her principal professional endeavor is to educate local elected officials such as herself on critical issues including government transparency,” the complaint reads. “And yet somehow she, as a local elected official, failed to be transparent with more than $14 million in income, investments, business positions, and real property, which the Act requires to be disclosed.”
Barke declined to comment when reached by phone earlier last month.
Why Are These Forms Important To Disclose?
At a time when school boards are becoming increasingly political, Fullerton College political science professor Jodi Balma said accessing this information is more important than ever.
“The extreme polarization and weaponization of cultural issues have provoked fear and outrage and anger that we saw really revealed during the pandemic,” Balma said.
“We’re seeing the schools being put in the middle of that.”
Orange County has seen its fair share of political issues popping up in school board meetings.
Last year, the Placentia-Yorba Linda School District voted to ban critical race theory from schools despite officials repeatedly saying that it isn’t being taught. Earlier this year, the school district proposed a policy to review and vote on books before they’re considered for use.
Most recently, the Orange Unified School District passed a parental notification policy that requires schools to notify parents if their child requests to go by different pronouns or identify as a different gender.
That policy was passed despite a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Rob Bonta to a different school district in San Bernardino that passed a similar policy earlier this summer.
The Placentia-Yorba Linda School District also voted to pass a parental notification policy on Oct. 10. The Capistrano Unified School District voted against the notification policy last month. Board members Lisa Davis, who proposed the policy, and Judy Bullockus voted in favor of parental notification.
The board members bringing forward these policies are often well-funded, according to their 460 filings.
In Orange Unified, Madison Miner received over $90,000 in campaign contributions in 2022.
Rick Ledsema, who brought forward the parental notification in collaboration with Miner, received almost $30,000 in contributions in the same year.
In Capistrano Unified, Davis’ most recent campaign finance form is from 2021. Both filings from 2022 and 2023 are missing. But in 2021, she received over $34,000 in contributions.
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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