This article addresses and responds to a series of vicious character attacks by the CDA Press, which began as a “news story” in the Press’ online edition on 1/13, was furthered via Press editorials by Mike Patrick on 1/21 (online) and 1/22 (print edition) and taken to new lows in anonymous blog postings sponsored and tacitly encouraged by the Press. Claims made or sponsored by the Press were false, if not malicious.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time our Press has abandoned journalistic ethics (an oxymoron?) to feature false, defamatory attacks dressed up as “news.” Recall the eve of school board trustee elections last May when Mr. Patrick elevated as “news” a blog posting falsely charging a link between the Aryan Nations and the Idaho non-profit association, Citizens for Better Education (“CBE”), with whom I am associated. The link was asserted based on the fact that the U.S. Post Office had randomly assigned a P.O. box to CBE that had once been used by an Aryan church group back in the 70's. The Press could/should have verified that the US Postal Service controlled assignment of P.O. box numbers, but did not. The Press should have run a retraction but did not. It’s reasonable to conclude the Press ran with the false claim as “news” in an unsuccessful attempt to swing the trustee election.
The Press has often turned a blind eye in regards to citizen complaints involving our school district, on issues ranging from trustees secretly videotaping citizens at public meetings to illegally prohibiting citizen comments and asserted violations of open meeting laws.
Before we turn to the Press’ recent hit pieces, some background: I have vocally opposed a number of our CDA school board’s decisions over the past few years, including the expensive, failed IB program. I have often taken the position that our school district should focus more on core curriculum providing a solid academic education to all of our kids, instead of what I perceive as an uncoordinated, expensive, ala carte approach mis-named “schools of choice.” Because the amount of money the school district receives from the State is based on the number of students, District Superintendent Hazel Bauman has often said that the district needs to offer as many “choices” to kids as possible, ostensibly so that students do not choose to attend private, home- or charter schools, resulting in less state funding for the district’s budget. I think the goal should be excellence in education, not having maximum numbers of students in district schools (translation: money). Additionally, in defending the IB program, the District touted IB as being part of its “schools of choice” program (not to be confused with “school choice” or a voucher system which Idaho should adopt to allow parents to choose public, private, home- or charter schools for their kids).
As is my habit, I attended the school board’s monthly meeting on 1/9/12. On the agenda for consideration of the board of trustees were six proposed new non-academic high school courses, including pottery, yearbook, walking, and something called “college prep.” I decided to comment about the proposal to add new non-academic courses, using the three minutes allotted by the board for citizen comments. The recording of my three minute comment is posted on the Press’ web page and can also be viewed on channel 19. However, here is the gist of my presentation at the school board meeting:
Point No. 1: (This portion was delivered with a note of humorous satire, to reinforce the point.) Adding more non-academic courses such as pottery under the guise of more “choice” is indicative of the school district losing sight of their primary mission – to educate our kids. I made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the district should also consider adding basket weaving, “stomp” and even [root] beer-pong as a college-prep course.
Point No. 2: (Here, I spoke seriously, without satire, so indicating to the board.) My observation, from attending a 2-3 hour school board meeting last December was that the district really is a social services bureaucracy for our kids, in that they provide all sorts of things besides education – mental and emotional health services, teaching “values” (through programs like IB), physical health services, food services – even sending food home with some kids. I specifically said I do not begrudge that. I said it occurred to me that the only thing the district was not providing at this point is lodging, and raised the questions how long before they do that, and do we want that? I expressed recognition that the social services aspect may be part of their mission as dictated by the state and/or feds, and then my opinion that it is hard for the district to keep their eye on their primary mission of education (and do it well) with so much else to do. I quoted the old adage, “jack of all trades, master of none” as a polite cautionary note to them. Nevertheless, I gave them kudos for their commitment and urged them to keep their “eye on the ball” - i.e., education.
I accurately used the term “social services bureaucracy” to describe the vast scope of undertaking by our school district. I also impliedly questioned whether combining education and social services responsibilities was the best way to deliver both education and the necessary social services, stating, “I’m not sure that’s how I would do it, but that’s a fact about what our education system is today.” I did not state that needy children should go hungry or otherwise be deprived of necessary support.
Now let’s examine the Press’ assertions: The “news” story on 1/13 (curiously without writer’s attribution) was subtitled, “Duncan Koler criticizes programs that help needy children.” This is false. The story claims I, “found fault with some of the services the school district offers children in need of food, clothing and health care.” This assertion, along with the subtitle, falsely charges that I argued for stopping aid to needy children.
Mike Patrick’s editorial ran online on 1/14, and in print as his lead editorial on 1/15. First the title: “Empty stomachs, vacant hearts.” Are you kidding me? (I considered titling this My Turn “Bleeding hearts, empty heads,” but decided that would only be half-true.) Mr. Patrick then sarcastically referred to me as the man “leading the charge against subversive education.” I would have found that funny, but for the dual standard Mr. Patrick employed subsequently, accusing me of sarcasm in my comments to the school board. Additional mischaracterizations which Mr. Patrick somehow divined from my comments are as follows:
• That I “railed” against the social services bureaucracy with a “sarcastic rant.” I did not “rail,” but simply pointed out the obvious. The Oxford University Press dictionary defines “rant” as “to speak or shout at length in an angry, impassioned way.” Watch the video or listen to the audio – there was no shouting or anger expressed, and three minutes can hardly be considered “at length.”
• That I am against the privately-funded backpack food program (I am not);
• That I “packaged feeding, clothing and providing health care for children into [my] list of mistaken steps the district is taking, leading it down the slippery slope of socialism.” (I did not.)
• That my position is “that compassion and the opportunity to actually educate less fortunate children is a cross that should not be borne by public schools.” I did not – I simply stated, “I’m not sure if that’s how I would do it,” and “I disagree with parts of it.”
Those who stay informed know that Mr. Patrick’s hit piece inspired a firestorm of similar attacks on the Press’ blog. Many of these were shameful personal attacks, made by anonymous bloggers using assumed names. I recently met with Mr. Patrick to discuss these matters, including the cesspool called the Press’ blog. Mr. Patrick explained his belief that it’s more important to have an open forum that involves routine defamation and character assassination (which results from the ability to post anonymously), than to have an identification requirement that results in far fewer postings. (What did we ever do before blogs?)
Now, let’s attempt to put this matter into perspective. I believe two critical but distinct issues are at play here: The first is where to draw the line on “extra-academic responsibilities” for the school district (including social services), factoring in the needs of the children and society. The second issue relates to the manner in which our Press elects to treat civic discussion of important issues.
As to the first issue, no one yet has disputed my assertion that our school district has become a social services bureaucracy. It is a fact. It is also a fact that society as a whole and taxpayers specifically have the right (obligation?) to question whether the manner of delivery of education and services to our kids is the best we can do. Since the need is there, this discussion should necessarily include the specific social services our schools are now providing. Is the school district the best provider of these services? Aren’t other state and local agencies tasked with some of this? If Johnny routinely comes to school on Monday hungry, shouldn’t someone look into why?
I discussed this briefly with Mike Patrick when we met recently to discuss my concerns. He agreed that tasking the schools with social services is not the best scenario for education, but he insisted that it’s the ONLY practical way to do it. Apparently, he is so sure about this that even raising the topic publicly justifies his editorial wrath. This leads to the second issue: the Press’ over-the-top and mean-spirited reaction.
The Press as our local newspaper, and Mr. Patrick as its editor, are vested with the public’s trust. The Press can and should provide, in addition to impartial news information, a forum for discussion of important issues. A skilled editor can encourage and guide thoughtful discussion, or – as happened here – provoke unnecessary rancor that actually chills discussion. After all, who wants to step forward if they will be subjected to the kind of insults and falsehoods that the Press has delivered here and then sponsored on its blog?
I believe Mr. Patrick’s false attacks were inspired equally by his dislike of other positions I have taken, and his desire to squash discussion of an issue that challenges his favored status quo. Respect for the truth is a key element of the ethics of journalism. Mike, you crossed the line by twisting my words, mischaracterizing my comments and inspiring unjustified attacks on my character on your anonymous blog. The public served by your newspaper deserves better.