Letter to the Editor: LFHS School Board Member Criticizes Patch Story
Member of 115 Board of Education takes Patch to task over articles reporting on capital improvements at Lake Forest High School.
Dear Mr. Sadin:
I am writing to you as the sole incumbent candidate running for re-election to the Lake Forest High School Board of Education and out of concern with the recent trend in High School related "reporting" in your publication.
On January 11, following a Board of Education meeting at which the topic was discussed, you published a story (titled “School Board Considers Spending $5 Million”) about a $5m capital improvement and maintenance initiative developed by the school administration and ultimately requiring the approval of the Board of Education. Included in the program is the strategic use of debt financing to fund the longer-lived elements of the program, a prudent and accepted business practice. While generally accurate (there was no proposal for the use of reserve funds and no discussion of early retirement of the debt), the presentation of the story was needlessly alarmist and served to generate a number of mostly anonymous and negative comments.
More troubling, however, was your later repackaging of select quotes from a few of those negative comments and publishing that material, on January 14, unchallenged or researched, as though it was “news” of a "community" response to the original story.
Your site's profile for the "author" (Jacob Nelson) of the second piece contains a statement of his beliefs, which reads:
"At Patch, we promise always to report the facts as objectively as possible and otherwise adhere to the principles of good journalism. However, we also acknowledge that true impartiality is impossible because human beings have beliefs. So in the spirit of simple honesty, our policy is to encourage our editors to reveal their beliefs to the extent they feel comfortable. This disclosure is not a license for you to inject your beliefs into stories or to dictate coverage according to them. In fact, the intent is the opposite: we hope that the knowledge that your beliefs are on the record will cause you to be ever mindful to write, report and edit in a fair, balanced way. And if you ever see evidence that we failed in this mission, please let us know."
To republish, as news, the selected comment segments, and to do so without challenge smacks of yellow journalism and does not come close to adhering to the beliefs expressed in Mr. Nelson’s profile. The highlighted comment from “Bob” regarding the “$75m” spent for the "Apple Store hallway" is both factually incorrect and a gross mischaracterization of the District’s 2006 referendum achievement. Left unchallenged, the inaccuracies of that comment were then perpetuated and further exaggerated by Nancy J. Thorner, a frequent blogger on your sight. Ms. Thorner is also a regular speaker during public participation at meetings of the Board of Education. The Board has an obligation to allow her often foolish and misinformed ranting. Your publication is under no similar obligation, yet regularly serves as a platform for the advancement of her agenda…whatever that may be.
With very little effort, you could have learned that a) the cost of the work performed under the referendum was $54 million, not $75 million as “Bob” and Ms. Thorner suggest (a 39% misstatement), and b) the work completed under the referendum, in addition to the commons area (a.k.a. the “Apple Store hallway”), included re-purposing more than 68,000 square feet of educational space, construction of 20 new classrooms and student support spaces, added science labs, relocated and expanded the library, updated and expanded technology throughout the buildings, renovated the dormant West Campus to house the Administrative offices for Districts 115 and 67, added the new Varsity Field and more.
Details of the referendum were widely communicated prior to November 2006 when it appeared on the ballot. More than 12,000 people voted in the local election in November 2006 and more than 65% of them voted in favor of the referendum’s passage. By comparison, a referendum for the construction of a replacement elementary school in my own and Ms. Thorner's community of Lake Bluff was passed the following April (2007) with only 50.4% of the vote cast in favor and a margin of only 20 votes.
With respect to the proposed replacement of the track at East Campus, there were several comments expressing disgust with the Board, which you also published as “news”. That disgust is apparently with the Board of Education for rejecting the Lake Forest Booster Club’s Diamond Campaign offer to pay for the same work last year. Again, with very little effort, it is easy to learn that the Diamond Campaign offer was to cover the cost of installing two artificial turf fields and NOT the track replacement, a cost the District would have had to absorb. It's also easy to learn that the Campaign, while conceptually very generous, failed to deliver on its promise. In the end, the Campaign sought to make a gift of something that they did not have. Neither the cash nor the pledges needed to fully support their "gift" existed. The plan would have required the District to borrow the funds necessary to pay for the entirety of the project (both the replacement track and the new turf fields) with a promise of future pledges to the Campaign to be used for reimbursement of its share of the project related debt (roughly $1.7 million). Acceptance of Campaign’s offer would have been somewhat akin to being the lender on a subprime mortgage. District borrowing on behalf of an outside entity (i.e. the Boosters), having virtually no assets and against which there was no realistic recourse in the event of default, simply on the promise of some theoretical future revenue stream would have been reckless and wholly irresponsible. Today, the track needed replacing a year ago is still needs replacement. It is the Board’s responsibility to ensure that the replacement occurs in the most cost effective and efficient way possible.
Your publication does the community a disservice when you publish and promote the false, and often misguided disenchantment of a select few. Factual evidence to the contrary of so many vitriolic comments and blogs is easily available and your journalist integrity should call upon you pursue it and to include it in your reporting. To do otherwise is simply lazy, unprofessional and/or reflective of another agenda, which, if it exists, should be disclosed.
Finally, since the economic crisis of 2009, the Board of Education and the District administration have worked extremely hard to maintain the highest quality of education and facilities possible while honoring an exceedingly generous 2006-2011 contract with the teachers union. Non-teaching staff cuts have been significant and important maintenance of the facilities, into which such significant investment has been made, has been delayed...all in an effort to minimize the erosion of financial reserves, the impact on students and the impact on taxpayers.
In the meantime, the Board of Education, working collaboratively with our colleagues on the Lake Forest District 67 Board of Education and with significant staff and community input, conducted a search for a new superintendent to replace the retiring Dr. Harry Griffith. The result of that effort brought to the Districts Michael Simeck whom both Boards unanimously supported and who enjoyed tremendous approval from the staff and community. Within three months of starting in his new role, Mr. Simeck oversaw the first walkout of the teaching staff in the school’s history during difficult contract negotiations. The Board and the teachers ultimately reached agreement with a long-term contract that served to bend the cost curve of teacher’s compensation and to align it with existing economic conditions.
Simply put, the "tax and spend" label, applied to the Board of Education by a small portion of your readership, and seemingly cultivated by you, has been proven false time and again. While people can disagree with decisions made, the facts are stubborn things. I would encourage you to focus on those more so than on the fringe thinking and agenda driven opinions of a few.
You are welcome to publish this communication. However, I ask that, in doing so, you publish my comments in their entirety.
Todd R. Burgener