Everett School Board member honored for effort to improve openness

EVERETT — As a mom wanting to see what school officials were saying about her autistic son, Jessica Olson pushed the Everett School District for access to e-mails and other records.

Now, as a newly elected member of the Everett School Board, she is making the case for broadcasting board meetings to promote transparency.

Those efforts have been noticed well beyond the school district’s boundaries.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government will present Olson with its Key Award in April in recognition of her work to make government in Washington open and accountable to the public.

“She is showing a lot of courage, especially as a new board member, saying, ‘We should really be standing up and doing more,’ ” said Toby Nixon, president of the nonpartisan board.

The coalition periodically gives out “key awards” for single good acts that defend or promote open government, Nixon said.

Olson said Tuesday that she was surprised to be chosen.

“It’s pretty flattering,” said Olson, who became a member of coalition as she sought public access to government documents.

“I’m not sure it’s all deserved,” Olson said. “It does galvanize my resolve.”

Olson, who was elected to the school board in November, was cited for her efforts to promote greater transparency by the school district. She has proposed that school board meetings be broadcast via the Internet or on television.

During her election campaign, Olson was critical of secrecy surrounding school board actions and ran on a strong open-government platform.

In her race against incumbent Karen Madsen, Olson said the school district and school board had taken too many actions “behind a cloak of secrecy.”

She criticized the district for secretly recording a teacher in a classroom, piling up more than $200,000 in attorney fees related to legal battles over student newspapers and hiring a new superintendent without giving the community a chance to comment on any finalists.

Broadcasting meetings would give taxpayers more opportunities to see how the school board operates for the district with more than 18,000 students, she said.

The district recently received estimates for broadcasting its meetings online from Granicus Inc., a San Francisco-based company, said Mary Waggoner, a school district spokeswoman. It would include a startup cost of $23,249 and a monthly fee of $1,100, plus the cost of having a camera operator at the meetings.

Olson said the district doesn’t need “a Cadillac” broadcast and she believes it could find a cheaper way to air its meetings.

The district also is researching how it can put online for public review its school board meeting packets, with agendas and explanations of items to be discussed.

Olson has filed frequent public information requests of the district. In 2007, she sued the district over access issues in a case that remains open.

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