Remember the TV game "Password"? One contestant would give a one-word hint to a partner. The partner, in turn, had five seconds to ponder the meaning of that hint in the hope of being able to guess what the password might be.
So here's a hint to the Kern High School District: "transparency." For the moment, it appears KHSD leadership has no clue what the word means. Or maybe doesn't want to know.
A colleague of mine at Eyewitness News, Kyle Harvey, recently completed a most revealing investigation into spending practices by the KHSD. Harvey focused on KHSD employees using school credit cards to see if school money was being used on student needs. And what Harvey uncovered raises more than just a few questions -- not just on how much was spent but who did the spending and how the district does or doesn't track taxpayer dollars.
To begin with, the district has 48 active credit cards issued to employees. According to financial records the district provided in response to a California Public Records Act request, close to $741,000 was charged to district credit cards in 2014.
More than half of that amount funded travel expenses including hotel stays, flights and restaurant meals. From the information provided, staff and administration appear to take numerous trips to conferences, tournaments and symposiums. And at times, the hotel bills from where they stay can be pretty steep.
Records show staff staying at places with nightly rates of more than $250. One particular conference seemed a bit high. Five district people attended a conference on "Learning and the Brain" and stayed four nights at the Fairmont Hotel San Francisco. The cost for the room alone was $309; add taxes and parking and the total was $423.25 per night. The grand total came to $8,465.
So who exactly goes on these trips? Who precisely spent $580.50 at Chipotle? How about $393 at La Rucca restaurant in Sacramento?
And for whom did the district buy 214 airline tickets last year at a cost of $67, 886.91?
KHSD is keeping that information secret.
The district did release the names of employees who have a district-issued credit card. But it redacted the names of the people who attended conferences and the like, as well as the identity of anyone who made a specific purchase with a district-issued credit card and the name of the person who signed off on approving the charge. Also redacted were the credit card numbers, which is understandable for obvious reasons.
What does not fly, though, is covering up the names.
In a written response, KHSD Associate Superintendent of Business Scott Cole maintained the names are exempt from release under the CPRA because the public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of the names outweighs the public interest in disclosing them.
When pressed further, Cole said, "We have redacted these documents for you because we don't want to put you in a position where you have to contact individuals in the district. We like to coordinate that through this office here."
Cole also said, "I think the only reason it's redacted is to allow you to do your job, and allow us to do our job in the best possible way."
Such bizarre reasoning is hard to understand. Releasing names holds public officials accountable; covering them up festers suspicion and mistrust.
"This kind of transparency is certainly vital so that the public can know what officials are doing with their money," said Nikki Moore, staff attorney with the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
And as far as KHSD claiming that the information is legally exempt?
"That might be true for the credit card numbers, but it does not apply to the names," Moore said.
Or maybe the district is trying to save someone from embarrassment.
Turns out one administrator went on a camping trip on his own time to Lake Tahoe and used the district credit card to charge $259.50. Cole said the administrator mistakenly used the district credit card for the charge and recently reimbursed the district.
Thing is, the charge was made in July 2014. And the administrator reimbursed the district by personal check on Jan. 13, 2015. The reimbursement was made only after Harvey requested to see the credit card statements -- six months after the camping trip.
"Why didn't the district catch that?" said Terry Francke, general counsel of CalAware, a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen and defend open government laws. "At the very least, it calls into question whether the district takes any steps to review use of the credit cards by its administrators."
This is not the first time KHSD has tried to shield information from the news media.
Just recently, the district denied a Californian reporter access to observe classroom teaching for a story on how Common Core standards are changing instruction. The district said the reporter would be a distraction.
By contrast, the Delano Joint Union High School District allowed reporter Lauren Foreman into several of its classrooms.
And when Harvey requested credit card statement costs from the Delano district, it released the information without any names redacted.
KHSD has had more than five seconds to ponder the meaning of transparency. And the password is accountability.
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.