All in, or all out: Rural MT schools struggling to keep websites

By: 
JENNY GESSAMAN
Reporter

Stanford Public Schools Superintendent Tim Dolphay searches for his school’s website on Google Friday morning. The site now shows as not found.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

At a time when the internet is permeating Central Montana schools and their curriculums, some are choosing to back away from the 21st century. At least, that is, when it comes to websites.

A rash of complaints about ADA accessibility has some schools pulling their pages, a response motivated in part by the time and money required to make websites meet the ADA-accessible standards.


Small town, small resources
Melstone is a small town that sits 35 miles east of Roundup. Despite a population of roughly 100, it hosts Melstone Public Schools, a K-12 institution with a current enrollment of 88 students and an incoming kindergarten class of four.

This is truly rural Montana, and it’s where Kelly Haaland serves as superintendent and webmaster.

Haaland started in 2008, and the distance between families and the campus is the biggest reason he took on management of the school site.

“We’re pretty rural, so people can’t really just pop in and look at the schedule,” he said.

A website helped solve that problem, according to Haaland, but may have also introduced a new one. Melstone’s low enrollment is matched by a small, 12-person staff. It’s small enough that a Billings contractor maintains the school’s technology. The company, however, does not do websites.

“I do not have a tech person in the building, so I do most of the work myself,” he said.

Haaland has revamped the website, and now he and the clerk keep it updated. After a decade of work, though, Melstone’s site is in danger of disappearing.

“It started back in December of last year,” he said. “I got a report that there was a complaint about my website, that it wasn’t ADA-compatible.”

Haaland was contacted by the Office for Civil Rights, the federal department responsible for ensuring equal access and civil rights enforcement in education. School violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law banning discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, fall into their scope.

“They wanted a website made so it was ADA-compatible, so I agreed to go through their steps to make my site compatible,” he said. “It has been an ongoing struggle on my behalf.”

Haaland is tackling the improvements on his own. That includes trying to make changes to the site’s code.

“They give you the website [with the requirements], but they don’t give you a lot of help,” he said. “There’s a lot on how to fix things, but they don’t actually do it for you.”

Haaland’s personal investment isn’t the only resource needed, however. In addition to a lack of expertise, the school is hard-pressed to find the time or the budget to fulfill its contract with OCR.

“During the process, I had to provide training for my staff,” he said. “I have to have someone who is certified do that. I also have to have a private auditor come in and look at the site. I thought I had at least that one solved, but it cost me $3,500.”

The amount of work, and money, has left Haaland overwhelmed.

“I’ve asked for multiple extensions because, being a superintendent, I’ve got other things to deal with,” he said.

Even with more time, Haaland is unsure if he will be able to make Melstone’ website ADA-compatible.

“At the next board meeting, I’m going to ask for permission to take it down,” he said.


A change too big to make
Melstone isn’t the only rural Montana school facing this issue. A rash of similar complaints statewide caught the attention of the Montana School Boards Association.

The Association released a model policy on ADA-complaint websites late this summer. They recommended school boards tailor it to their district and then adopt it, including the list of website standards it says a school website will be held to.

One look at the list was all Stanford Public Schools Superintendent Tim Dolphay needed. Although the OCR has not contacted his school, he thinks it is only a matter of time.

“We have taken down our website,” he said. “This is preemptive.”

For Dolphay, the issue a matter of ability: Stanford does not have the resources to create an ADA-compliant website. He reached this conclusion after sorting through the website requirements. They span 30 pages, and their language has even necessitated their own index for words and phrases, including “contrast ratio” and “viewport.”

The standards may be daunting, but they meet the legal requirements of ADA, according to Montana School Boards Association Attorney Kris Goss. Association staff researched how the OCR handles complaints about ADA-compliant websites. The standards in the model policy, Goss said, were the guidelines OCR was holding school websites to.

The model policy is less than a month old, so while Goss is familiar with its motivations and its construction, the policy’s effects are less well known. Part of Association membership is help with implementing policies, but Goss said the organization had not looked into some of the solutions rural schools were generating, including removing a website altogether.

“It’s going to be something we’re going to have to research and find out if that is a solution or find out how the Office for Civil Rights would interpret this,” he said.

Goss was also unsure if Facebook was a solution, or just a way to skirt the issue. Dolphay, on the other hand, knows what Facebook is for Stanford: an answer.


Alternatives or avoidance
The extensive list of ADA-compliance standards prompted Dolphay to solicit quotes from outside contractors.

“For the first year, it’s over $4,000 to have our website be developed and hosted,” he said. “It gets to be cost prohibitive.”

In comparison, the school’s textbook costs, which can vary greatly each year, totaled $1,057 for 2016-2017. Dolphay said monthly website charges and staff training expenses would add to the overall cost. Social media, however, is free.

“We already have a pretty active Facebook page,” he said.

Combine the social media with a web tool lettings parents view everything related to their students, and Dolphay feels the website will not be missed.

“My understanding, from visiting with the trustees, is that we don’t think our website gets a lot of activity anyway,” he said.

Dolphay does not think Stanford Public Schools will be the only district turning to Facebook. At a recent regional Montana Association of School Superintendents meeting, he heard other schools finding similar solutions.

“There were several administrators that told me at that time, they had voted at their board meetings not to adopt [the model policy] and to take down their websites,” he said.

While pulling sites is one option, Haaland finds it frustrating to lose that form of communication with the Melstone community. He finds it equally frustrating that Facebook might have to be his answer.

“I don’t feel it’s a good use of mass media, but what other alternatives do I have?” he asked.

As rural schools across the state start to pull down websites, the question some people are left with is, is this the result those filing complaints wanted?


Advocacy
Marcie Lipsitt is a Michigan woman dedicated to civil rights. On the clock, she is an independent non-attorney lay advocate focused on education. That means she assists parents in standing up for their children, and a majority of her clients have children with disabilities or special educational needs. Off the clock, Lipsitt calls herself a civil rights advocate.

“I am always on,” she said. “It’s seven days a week and seven nights a week, to the point my husband tells me to put the iPad down.”

One of the ways Lipsitt has chosen to fight is with OCR complaints. Her campaign started with a complaint filed in February 2014, but Lipsitt said her efforts started in earnest roughly a year later, in January of 2016.

“Today, I’ve filed 1,800 complaints, and that’s only the ones on web access,” she said.

Two equally weighted motives push Lipsitt to file complaints on websites’ ADA-compliance: access and the value of civil rights.

“My goal … is very simple: That every child and adult deserves access to information on the web, and on websites,” she said. “The other opportunity with this is to help people understand civil rights are important in America.”

Her campaign of complaints does not target districts, states or even regions: Lipsitt attempts to post all the schools she files OCR complaints against on Facebook, and the lists include everything from universities to grade schools, located across the nation.

“When I began this in earnest, filing hundreds of complaints, I began looking at how I could have an impact,” she said.

She started by reviewing state department of education website, then moved to the 100 largest school districts over the last two years. Now, Lipsitt receives anonymous tips, requests from parents or even looks at the websites of schools that make the news in a negative way.

Lipsitt checks the sites for ADA compliance using the same set of standards named in the Montana School Board Association’s sample policy. With every complaint, Lipsitt’s goal is to make the information on school websites as available to the disabled as it is to everyone else.

“They don’t have the same access to the same information that neurotypical children and adults in America have,” she said. “Children and adults who are blind, have vision impairments or low vision, including learning disabilities, who are deaf or hard of hearing, who have fine motor impairments: They are all treated like third-class citizens in America right now. They have no access to information.”


And rural Montana?
Lipsitt still believes her goal will be reached if school websites disappear.

“I know that, in some cases, there will be school districts that will either pull websites or limit information,” she said. “I very much believe that short-term pain will get long-term gain.”

Schools will restore their sites, Lipsitt explained, and she is betting those sites will be compliant when they reappear. For schools like the ones in rural Montana, who are choosing permanent removal over compliance, Lipsitt was blunt.

“It hasn’t had to cost a lot if schools would do it right the first place,” she said. “I believe that they’re not understanding what it’s like to be denied access to information.”

Limited resources are a larger issue, according to Lipsitt.

“That comes down to a much bigger national dispute about public education in America,” she said. “We are living in a time where voters are not valuing public education.”

And as for an immediate solution?

“Parents need to talk with their school board about their priorities,” she said. “It’s way too often where school districts spend a lot of money on sports. Typically, children and parents with disabilities are on the short end of their list.”



What standards?
The ADA-compliant website standards mainly deal with a website’s behind-the-scenes structure. These standards, available at https://www.w3.org/TR/2008/REC-WCAG20-20081211/ , make the pages “readable” for the disabled and their specialized devices, such as keyboards for the deaf or blind. Some examples are:

• Making all non-text items, such as images, have a behind-the-scenes text alternative describing what the item is or looks like

• Ensuring everything a website can do, including things such as expanding menu bars, can be done from just a keyboard

• Verifying nothing on the website will cause seizures with excessive flashing

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