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An open government gap that is deeper than the Cerf report

The report that surfaced on Deputy Chancellor Christopher Cerf last week, coming to public light months after it was written, is one of hundreds that investigators who study the Department of Education did not publicly release in 2007.

The office that generates the reports — overseen by Richard Condon, an attorney who serves as the special commissioner of investigations for the city schools — last year investigated hundreds of alleged violations of law and department regulations, from accusations of sexual misconduct to concerns about fraud and embezzlement to allegations of cheating on tests. More than 300 of these cases were substantiated, according to SCI’s year-end statistical report (PDF). But the office only put out 26 press releases highlighting its investigations, a ratio of about 8%. The pattern was similar in 2006 and 2005:

  • 2006: 259 cases substantiated, 25 press releases — a ratio of about 10%
  • 2005: 251 cases substantiated, 13 press releases — about 5%

Without a press release, reports are sent directly to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who has authority to take action against an employee or not, whatever he decides. At that point, the only way for a report to become publicly available is via a Freedom of Information Law request. That means that an enterprising reporter, advocate, or elected official would have to know first that an investigation happened, and then would have to file a legal request for permission to look at the report on it. (Not sure how to file one? Look here.)

A spokeswoman for SCI, Laurel Wright-Hinckson, said that she does not know how the office decides which investigations to publicize and which to send on without a signal. “That’s a decision made by the commissioner. That’s not something I’m privy to, nor is the public,” Wright-Hinckson said. “Whatever he decides to publicize, then that’s what I send out to the press.”

UPDATE: I tweaked the graph so that the years would read chronologically, left to right.

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