DCPS online budget survey seems to be magnifying one person's voice

DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson has said that this year she wants to involve the public more in the budget process. But a DCPS online survey platform confusingly highlights one person's views, even though officials say they've gotten 200 responses.

Photo by Victor1558 on Flickr.

In past years, school system officials have waited until the spring to announce the details of the following school year's budget. That timeline has sometimes left principals and members of the public frustrated, with only days to respond to proposals that can have significant consequences for school offerings.

This year, Henderson says she wants to engage the community in the process earlier than in the past. At a budget hearing in late November, she announced her three top priorities for the next school year: improving middle schools, raising achievement levels in the 40 lowest-performing schools, and increasing student satisfaction.

The hearing itself was sparsely attended, with only about a dozen people signing up to testify. According to the Washington Post, some parents said the hearing wasn't widely advertised. It probably didn't help that it was held on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the eve of the heaviest travel day of the year.

But the hearing was only supposed to be the beginning of a conversation. Since then, DCPS has been collecting public feedback on its budget priorities via an online survey and discussion platform.

Six questions appear on the site, two for each of the three priorities. Above each question is a headline that appears to be summarizing the responses below it. And given the number of responses listed, the headlines look like an interesting exercise in creative writing.

The first question, focused on middle schools, is: "Which program would students benefit from the most?" The headline above it reads: "Nearly 50% of survey respondents cited a need to have some type of honors, gifted and talented, or IB programs."

But the box below the headline and question indicates that only three individuals have submitted responses. One of them, "Daniel D.," suggested the IB (or International Baccalaureate) program, and another respondent, "Erin M.," more or less agreed with him. It looks like whoever wrote the headline decided to count Erin M. as half a person (or "nearly" one).

Each of the remaining 5 questions has gotten only one response each on the website. Given that low number, the headlines seem unduly grandiose. One headline says, "Many respondents cited a greater need for the arts." Another says, "A common theme in survey responses was a greater need for parental engagement in our 40 lowest-performing schools."

On closer examination, it becomes clear that the lone respondent to each of the 5 questions was none other than Daniel D., who also responded to the first question.

When asked about the survey, DCPS spokesperson Melissa Salmanowitz said that the school system has actually gotten "a couple hundred responses." Apparently almost all of those came in while the survey was still posted on DCPS's own website, before it moved to the Engage DCPS site where it is now. School officials are now going through those earlier responses, which, according to Salmanowitz, were never intended to be made public.

So it seems that the headlines above the responses on the site actually refer to results of the earlier survey, and the questions are now asking for additional input. But the Engage DCPS website itself doesn't mention that there are any other responses.

Anyone looking at the headlines without knowing about the earlier responses would probably conclude, as I did, that they're basically talking about the site's most faithful correspondent, "Daniel D. of Bolling Air Force Base."

DCPS has other plans to solicit public input on budget priorities. On the website there's a budget timeline that calls for workshops with "school leaders and community members" to be held in late January. Salmanowitz says they will begin the week of January 27th, and that more information about them will soon be available to "school communities."

But the online survey will continue, according to the site, for another 38 days. Not to knock any of Daniel D.'s suggestions, but it would be nice to have a few more people chime in while they still have the chance. And if you're a member of the general public rather than the "school community," this may be your only opportunity for input.

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


Jeez - talk about burying the lede. You start with how confusing it is that they seem to be highlighting only one person's view, then later you have to admit that after calling them you found out that the titles were the results of the earlier survey. And then a half-hearted plea for engagement.

The titles of the topics are VERY clunky, I will give you that. But you could at least omit the title and first paragraph of this post which declare things that you later find out are untrue.

by MLD on Jan 15, 2014 2:13 pm • linkreport

MLD -- I wouldn't say I "declare things" that are untrue, and I do think the misleading wording on the website is part of the story. It took me numerous emails, plus a phone call, before I got something approximating an explanation from DCPS (and they never actually told me the titles referred to the earlier survey -- I had to deduce that myself). Still, you're right, this post could be clearer. I'll try to do better in the future!

by Natalie Wexler on Jan 15, 2014 3:59 pm • linkreport

Isn't the bigger issue here that so few people responded? I know this issue is a huge topic in the Ward 3 school my kids attend. This was widely distributed link, it appears to me that most people don't think that DCPS cares or results were not captured.

by DC Parent on Jan 16, 2014 2:17 pm • linkreport

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