Charles Responds to BEA

[WARNING: Local Politics Ahead. Fortunately, the election is today, so after that we can return to our regularly scheduled blather.

By the way, if you’re a local, do get out and vote. We’re projected to have a low turnout this year, which makes every vote cast that much more precious.]

I wrote last week about the attack ad the Beloit Education Association (our local teachers’ union) took out in the Stateline News to slam two of the people serving on our school board: Pam Charles and Shannon Scharmer. Pam posted her response on her website and then paid for a full-page rebuttal ad that essentially mimics exactly what’s on her website.

Today, the Beloit Daily News ran an article in which it investigated the allegations in the attack ad. The BEA refused to say anything to defend the ad, preferring to let it stand on its own. I think that was a mistake. If you’re going to publicly start an argument, you should have your sources all lined up and ready to back you up. I suspect that some of their sources only spoke up on the condition of anonymity, but that’s a thin shield in a city the size of Beloit.

Charles does a good job of refuting some but not all of the claims against her, but Scharmer doesn’t manage to do much other than to explain her some of her actions away as the results of errors and ignorance. Both of them claim to not be the bullies they’ve been depicted as, but this is a difficult issue to prove either way. They both put their kids’ tears on display in an attempt to show how mean the BEA has been to to them. I think it’s tough that any kids have to deal with this sort of stuff, but when many of the accusations involve the parents supposedly exercising undue influence on the kids’ behalf, it’s hard to tell who is the root cause of those tears.

In any case, the interview still leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

1) The paper states that it’s false that Pam used her influence to get her son on the high school jazz band, despite the fact he attends a private school. Pam posted a letter from the band director Chris Behrens disputing this, and the paper quotes him about it as well. Of course, it’s easy to see how this might be trouble for Chris too if it turned out to be true. The paper should also have checked with the supposedly unbiased Wisconsin State Music Association to see if the BEA’s claims of sanctions were true.

2) The paper states that only Aldrich Middle School has ever complained about Pam. However, it doesn’t elaborate on the nature of the complaint, nor what prompted it. I’d love to know more about this.

3) I found it ironic that Pam cited the confidentiality of student records when discussing her own children, about whom she’s at liberty to speak as she likes. Shannon, for instance, spoke freely about her kids. The paper should not have let Pam use such an excuse. She could have just said, “That’s none of your business,” and that’s legitimate, but that’s not what she said. Call her on it.

4) The paper does a poor job of exploring the accusation about Pam’s kids and Shannon’s kids using school district scholarships to attend camps for the gifted and talented. Pam doesn’t seem to have been asked if she applied for such a scholarship or not. It’s just noted that she paid for her child’s camp and provided a scholarship for another. In her rebuttal ad, she notes that she never applied for money for summer band camp, but she carefully calls that out as opposed to other programs, and the paper doesn’t seem to have asked her about it directly.

Also, was this scholarship Pam paid for given out based on merit, need, or being a friend of the Charles family? Any of those are legitimate ways for Pam to spend her money—it’s hers—but calling it a scholarship implies certain things.

The school district scholarships were originally only offered to kids who qualified for free or reduced lunches, but that changed at some point. Why? And after it happened, why wasn’t this information disseminated to other parents in the district? How many other kids applied for the money that went to Shannon’s kids?

Also, if one of Shannon’s sons received scholarship money but doesn’t go to school in our district, is that proper? I’d think our scholarship money should go to kids who actually attend our schools.

5) The paper seems happy to ignore the fact that both Pam and Shannon—who help oversee our public schools—have children in private schools. Why have they decided that our schools aren’t for their kids despite the fact that they’ve supposedly been working so hard to improve them?

6) Apparently Nancy Mayhew, our school district’s former human relations manager, is suing our school district over a job that Shannon applied for initially, before withdrawing her name. I’d love to see more details about this, or even an interview with Nancy. A web search didn’t show any news on this at all, although I don’t think the Daily News‘s archives go back very far, so I can’t tell if they’ve ever covered this story in depth or not.

7) The BEA ad mentions that Shannon filed a claim to be reimbursed for lost wages as part of her going to a school board conference. Never mind that she and Pam both filed for reimbursement late and then had the board waive the deadline. I understand that part. But did the school district really pay her salary so she could go to the conference?

On the front page of the paper, editor Bill Barth states, “we do not feel obliged to check facts in every ad appearing in our paper, political or otherwise.” He goes on to explain why they made an exception here.

Bill’s rationalizations are beside the point. A newspaper’s job is to dig up the truth. The accusations the BEA made have been flying around our city for months. The Daily News shouldn’t have needed a third-party ad to drag them into reluctantly making a belated attempt to nudge people for the facts. It should have been out there weeks ago, tracking down the truth, aggressively and unprompted.

For this reason, I’d still like to see a full and unbiased investigation—like the one that Pam and Shannon backed last year when we had a film crew come in and try to shoot a music video purportedly backing Barack Obama’s candidacy. The paper helped them loudly raise a lot of concerns over something that was ultimately found to be simply bad judgment on the part of our (now outgoing) superintendent.

I expect nothing less be done for these far more serious accusations, immediately.

If the results of that independent investigation clear Pam and Shannon, then they and the city can all rest easier. If not, though, we should see appropriate consequences dealt out. Until one of those two things happen, there’s no way we can just move on.