Test scores, enrollment, finances online in Miss.

Published 11:21 pm Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Years ago when Richland real estate agent Bill Watkins showed a house to a young couple, he brought brochures with information about local schools to help seal the deal.

These days, the handouts stay in the office.

“You don’t have to do that now because there are sites on the Internet for statistics for schools in the area,” he said. “Most people who move here that are professionals generally have done their homework about the schools.”

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In a recent survey conducted for Sunshine Week, a campaign promoting government openness, Mississippi came in dead last in making government information available over the Internet. While the Magnolia State has a long way to go, there are some notable bright spots.

“There is not much that you can’t find out about a school district from going on our Web site,” said Hank Bounds, state superintendent of education.

The Mississippi Department of Education’s voluminous Web site is chock full of data on student achievement, enrollment, district finances and demographics. In fact, one of the problems with the site is the amount of information.

“We cover so many topics that you can be overwhelmed by how much is there,” Bounds said. “We are in the process of trying to figure out how to make it much more user-friendly.”

For most states, education has been one of the trailblazing areas pushing government information onto the Internet. While most of the information has been available for just a few years, consumers keep setting the bar higher.

Lee Rainie, director of the Washington-based nonprofit Pew Internet and Life Project, said consumers surveyed about their expectations for government sites report they are pleased but hungry.

“Many people have told us that they are fine with what is available to them online, but they would like more,” he said.

Pamela Weaver, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, said “more” is a guiding principal for the Secretary of State’s Web site.

“If we see a demand come in, we’ll put stuff up,” she said. “Anything that people want that is feasible, we’ll get it up there.”

Hosemann inherited legacy of online information on the Web site, which was created in 1994.

The site has a searchable corporate information database, campaign finance reports, election results and regulatory matters. In fulfillment of a campaign promise, Hosemann added a database of 16th Section public lands.

Weaver said Hosemann is planning a redesign of the Web site to make it easier to use.

Rainie said government sites have been slow to embrace the Web 2.0 philosophies that demand sites do more than dump information on the user. People expect the sites to make information accessible and intuitive, he said.

Innovation generally starts at the federal level where agencies have more money and expertise to throw at a Web-based project. Rainie singled out the National Institutes of Health’s MedlinePlus health information site as a good example.

Innovation aside, the key is knowing what people really want, he said.

“One of my happiest experiences was renewing my driver’s license online. I didn’t have to schlep to the DMV and wait in line,” he said. “That was a big day.”

Sandi Beason, spokeswoman for the Clinton Public School District, said she spoke with the presidents of the local Parent Teacher Associations about what they wanted from the district’s Web site redesign.

“They want access. They want to know what is going on and they want something easy to use and easy to navigate,” she said. “They want the walls to come down.”

Beason said the district hired an private contractor to redesign the district’s main site and seven school-specific sites to be more user-friendly and interactive. When complete, parents can create a “my family” page where they can correspond with their child’s teacher, get information about tests and homework, and sign up for e-mail alerts.

The redesign, which is based on a template used in other districts, costs about $1,000 per site and will be maintained by school-level webmasters, Beason said.

“For right at $10,000 we are going to be able to give our parents and students something they really are going to be able to appreciate,” she said.