Education The Media

Education Reporting in the Independent Record: Stenography is Fun!

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Back when I was in college, I worked at the State Capitol giving tours of building. One lazy day, while I was waiting at my station, I happened to hear a local reporter interview a lobbyist about his position on a proposed mine. After the interview was complete, this “journalist” earnestly turned to the lobbyist and asked him, in the name of a balanced story, if he could provide her with a contact person “on the other side of the issue” so she could include that information in her report. Not exactly Woodward and Bernstein there, but instructive.

Given the latest piece of journalism from the Independent Record on education, I shouldn’t have been so critical of that reporter. At least she was looking, albeit incredibly inappropriately, for an alternate point of view. When the IR covers education, it seems like they don’t even ask for another point of view; they just write down what the local school district tells them and call it news. As a result, we’re all less informed.

Let’s take a peek at this gem of reporting:

This year the district employs 554 teachers with an average salary of $57,309, including benefits, which totals about $29.7 million, eating up well over half of the district’s $48 million general fund.

There are more than 350 other staff members, including custodians, administrators, cafeteria, playground, clerical and support staff. The average amount of their salaries is harder to determine because it ranges from $7.25 an hour for paraprofessionals to $133,954…

Golly, it sure would be hard to determine that, wouldn’t it? I mean, given that OPI mandates that districts report salaries in individual categories and that the district’s own web page and personnel office have the exact number of people employed in each category, a reporter would have to–get this!– use division to determine what the average salary was in each area.

Given the IR’s willingness to describe how teacher salaries “eat up” half of the budget, I’d certainly like to know how big of an appetizer is consumed by administrative and clerical salaries.

Another delightful piece of reporting offers this bit of information:

The district’s payroll for staff members who are not teachers totals $11.2 million this year, according to Kim Harris, business administrator for the district.

“Overall you’d say there’s been no significant shift in the compensations on how the money is spent in this area,” Messinger said.

I have to say that I find that interesting, given that the district added five administrative positions between 2002 and 2007, and even more this year. Unless some of these people are working for free, I would argue that an increase of that size would have an impact on compensation. Again this would have been challenging to find, hidden away as it is on OPI reports, Board minutes, and the district’s web page.

Finally, the story notes this fact:

Teachers have seen at least a 3 percent salary increase every year for the past three years, 1 percent more than in previous years.

And how much did administrative staff receive? How much did the average worker in Helena receive? At the state? What was the rate of inflation over that period of time? All of those things might provide context for a report that seems largely to blame teachers for the budget shortfall that the district anticipates. Read the comments at the bottom of the story already, and you’ll see how this poorly researched piece has lead to attacks on teachers.

My point is not that the Helena School District or Dr. Messinger are wrong in their assessment of the budget. My point is that, simply put, the story is incomplete, because the reporter once again did not do the legwork necessary to offer a complete look. Journalism has to be more than going to one or two sources and writing down their quotes. How can this story be considered complete without the reporter having

  • interviewed local teachers or their union leadership?
  • interviewed opponents of public school spending?
  • offered a complete reporting of salaries for everyone in the district?
  • looked at the publicly available data about spending?

It’s great that the Independent Record supports education as much as they do. It’d be even more great if they offered the same kind of support based on full, accurate reporting about the school.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it’s a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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