Photo by Victor1558 on Flickr.

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.

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 is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.