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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Paper declines to inform voters about critical school-district election issues

By Laurie H. Rogers

This article is second in a series of articles regarding media coverage of public education. This article and its predecessor in the series show that Spokesman-Review coverage of the 2011 school-board election in Spokane was biased in favor of a particular candidate and a particular agenda.

On Sept. 28, I filed a Public Disclosure Commission complaint regarding election activity in 2009 and 2011 by Spokane Public Schools administrators, board directors, (new school board director) Deana Brower, and bond and levy advocacy organization Citizens for Spokane Schools (CFSS).

According to Washington State law, articulated in RCW 42.17.130, school district employees and school board directors are prohibited from using public resources to promote – directly or indirectly – elective candidates or ballot propositions such as bonds and levies. This is what RCW 42.17.130 says, in part:

“No elective official nor any employee of his [or her] office nor any person appointed to or employed by any public office or agency may use or authorize the use of any of the facilities of a public office or agency, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of assisting a campaign for election of any person to any office or for the promotion of or opposition to any ballot proposition. Facilities of a public office or agency include, but are not limited to, use of stationery, postage, machines, and equipment, use of employees of the office or agency during working hours, vehicles, office space, publications of the office or agency, and clientele lists of persons served by the office or agency.”Public records show that Spokane Public Schools appears to have used public resources to campaign for the 2009 bond and levy (in schools and elsewhere); worked with CFSS on the promotion of ballot propositions; and allowed the use of public resources to promote Deana Brower’s board candidacy.

On Oct. 11, I sent The Spokesman-Review (SR) a Letter to the Editor that described the PDC complaint. Opinion page editor Bert Caldwell acknowledged receipt of my letter, and I later also received a confirmation phone call from a newspaper staff member. Caldwell never printed my letter, but he did forward the letter to education reporter Jody Lawrence-Turner.

The SR sat on the PDC complaint. On Oct. 19, the ballots for the general election were mailed. It wasn’t until Oct. 25, two weeks after I sent the SR my letter and nearly a week after the ballots were mailed, that the SR finally published a single passing comment about the PDC complaint. In this comment, the SR declined to credit me or my letter for the information, gave the district and Brower a free pass, declined to explain the issues surrounding the law in question, and again used much of the space to make an unsupported insinuation against board candidate Sally Fullmer.

Asked in public about his … uh … redirecting of my letter, Caldwell said it “became news” once he sent it to Lawrence-Turner. I’m sure my jaw dropped. At other newspapers, this kind of activity would have led to disciplinary action or firings. Proper attribution of a source is a must-do for any writer. Reputable media do not mix opinion pages and news pages.

The PDC called Nov. 8 to say that, after reviewing the complaint, it was launching a formal investigation of the district’s activity during the 2009 and 2011 elections. This is a big deal. Spokane Public Schools spends a half-a-billion dollars a year and employs more than 3,200 people. Board candidate Brower and city council candidate Ben Stuckart likely benefited from what appears to be illegal district activity on their behalf during the 2011 election. Following is a brief description of some of the 2011 activity.

During the 2011 election, the president of the teachers union wrote columns endorsing Brower, Stuckart and city council candidate Joy Jones. The columns were published in September and October in a local publication called KIDS Newspaper. The district distributed the KIDS Newspaper to each elementary school, where copies were handed out to each elementary school student. The district also provided copies to the public in school offices and at the downtown office.

Facing criticism of these actions, the union president and a district representative acknowledged that the distributions shouldn’t have happened, but by then, the newspapers were delivered and the damage was done. Final results of the Brower/Fullmer and Stuckart/Hession races were so close (a difference of 1.09% and .60% respectively), the district’s distributions of the union endorsements could well have pushed Brower and Stuckart into the win.

What has the SR said about the PDC’s decision to formally investigate these and other district election activities? To the best of my knowledge, nothing.

At a Nov. 10 Breakfast for Community Leaders, Superintendent Nancy Stowell praised the SR’s Lawrence-Turner. Holding up a newspaper, Stowell said, “This is the wonderful work of Jody Lawrence-Turner, who really keeps looking for the good stories, the wonderful things that are happening with our young people.”

Meanwhile, the SR continues to promote the school district. On Nov. 29, it promoted the district’s proposed 2012 levy in a full-page display called “Anatomy of a Levy.” This display looks and reads like an advertisement – on the front page, no less. There was no accompanying article, no questioning and no alternate view.

On Dec. 15, the SR said Stowell had announced she would retire, effective June 2012. The SR didn’t explain why her announcement came just five months after board directors unanimously renewed her contract. It didn’t mention the PDC investigation or any benefits Stowell might receive in retirement.

Stowell walked away from a freshly inked contract and a near quarter-of-a-million-dollar salary because, according to the SR, she wants to cook, speak French and play the piano. There was no real reporting on a superintendent who unexpectedly announced her retirement in the midst of an investigation by the Public Disclosure Commission.

Note from Laurie Rogers: This is Part 2 of a series of articles on local education coverage. The third article in this series will discuss district and union political agendas, and district employee rights. This series articulates part of the reason Spokane needs a new print news source. –

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:

Rogers, L. (December 2011). "Paper declines to inform voters about critical school-district election issues." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:  

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