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The IR Continues Its Embarrassingly Bad Coverage of Education

Just an astonishing story today in the Independent Record about the proposed mill levy and budget cuts in the Helena School District. Once again, the education reporter at the IR only went to District and Board sources, without pursuing one quote or bit of information from other district stakeholders. Why does that matter? Because it leads to shoddy, half-assed reporting that does not reflect the perspective of all groups impacted by the proposed cuts.

One of the “savings” projected by the administration is reduced staffing of teachers. According to the factually challenged piece:

The first budgetary reduction is in staff. The district plans to not replace some teachers who are retiring at the end of this year — to the tune of five positions at the elementary level, three at the middle school, and 1 ½ positions at the high school.

According to documents provided to the Helena School Board of Trustees earlier this week, the recommendations are based on enrollment forecasts; therefore they don’t anticipate the decrease in staff to have an impact on students or services.

That’s an interesting claim. It’s especially interesting when one looks at the Helena School District’s web page, which actually tells a different story. According to the projections we paid Dodge Data Systems to produce, every elementary school in the Helena School District will have more students next year and the year after than they currently teach. Every single school. The total number of elementary students in 2008-09 was 3,396. Projections for the next three years? 3,476—3,514—3,594. The high schools will have three less students next year, obviously enough to justify the elimination of a position.

It seems to me that the idea that ‘enrollment reductions’ can justify staffing cuts with no impact is intellectually dishonest. In fact, the district’s superintendent, Dr. Messinger, told the district staff and public that “when an employee is not replaced there is a potential impact on the services provided to students, if the services cannot be provided in an alternative manner.”

The district is making a claim that is absurd on its face. According to the article:

Messinger said the changes would not affect class sizes, physical education or music instruction.

Now, I’m just an English teacher, but if you teach more students with less teachers, wouldn’t the number of students in each class have to go up?

And, of course, there’s no discussion in the article about reductions in other staffing areas. This, despite the fact that Dr.  Messinger, also publically said:

At the work session this week I will present options that are being considered and describe the anticipated impact. The use of vacancy savings to balance the budget will be considered across all employee groups throughout the next budget year.

That means one of two things: either the Board work session did not consider reductions in other staffing areas or the IR’s education reporter was too tired to actually stay for the whole meeting or to read the entire document. I honestly don’t know which is more likely.

These are, no doubt, challenging times for budgets. When the media abrogates its responsibility to critically examine institutions and their budgeting priorities, though, difficult decisions are even harder to make.

This is Journalism 101: check the claims your sources make, talk to multiple stakeholders, fully report the information. It’s harder than writing a press release, but it’s what journalists are supposed to do.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a 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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  • You're right, Pogie. The IR coverage was embarrassingly shallow. No surprise. However, the school district is equally at fault. I vote by mail and have already voted against the mill levy increase for the school district. Why? Because the school district has been equally negligent in explaining exactly what will be sacrificed if the mill levy does not pass. If they want my support during these tough times they are going to have to offer more than the standard throwaway arguments of "our children deserve the best" and "we need to increase salaries in order to attract the best teachers". I need to know precisely what my extra dollars are going to buy.

    Do I expect to prevail? Of course not. The school district election deck has been stacked for as long as I can remember, and that goes back to the days when if a mill levy failed they simply kept holding new elections until it passed.

    Sorry for the rant, but until the powers that be (including the county as well as the school districts) start treating voters as intelligent adults my vote will be "no".

  • One thing Mr. Pogreba apparently doesn't comprehend is this story was specifically about the mill levy, with a very small snapshot of what's happening with the budget to provide some context. You can't have a 5,000-inch story, and you can't tell every aspect of every situation in one story. That would be like Mr. Pogreba trying to teach the entire AP English curriculum in one week's time. It's interesting to note also that in the first story the IR published about the details regarding teacher positions being eliminated, many teachers were interviewed and sourced in the story — and many more will be sourced in stories when we continue this discussion in the newspaper. It's also interesting to note that Mr. Pogreba didn't return phone calls to the IR seeking comment for that story.
    Once the mill levy passes, or fails, the district will have a much clearer picture of the budget shortfall, and a much clearer opportunity arises to dive deeper into how and why the district is going about its cuts.
    If this was the one and only story on the subject, then, yes, Mr. Pogreba could blast away. But it's not. So, Mr. Pogreba's rant is quite shortsighted.
    John Doran, IR editor

  • It's interesting that Mr. Doran would choose to call attention to the first story about district negotiations this spring, since it contained a factually incorrect claim about the level of compensation that the district planned to offer teachers next year.

    I certainly will not be holding my breath waiting for any in-depth reporting from the Independent Record, and I think most readers have long since given up any hope of expecting that. Once there is an in-depth look that actually examines publicly available information before reporting contradictory claims as fact, I will gladly commend the IR for its work.

    In the meantime, I'll expect to keep reading stories and defensive, self-serving excuses like this.

    On another note, John, I'm not sure that you're likely to have too many more sources when you decide to 'out' people who didn't end up being in your story. When your reporter sends an e-mail that reads "Would you like to comment?" without any context or even explanation of the story, you might not be getting the best responses, either.

    • I think the school levy debate highlights an issue that, hopefully, all sides will accept in the future. Given the very real vote-by-mail contingent, if behooves all sides of an issue to make their case and get it before the public well before election day. I think both the school district and the IR grossly erred in this respect on this occasion.

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