No news is good news for the North Smithfield School Department?
A wise man once said, “never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”
The source of the quote is disputed, and the message can be both liberating and cringe-worthy for journalists. Professional integrity requires that journalists strive to rise above the political infighting and accusations that sadly seem to come with too many elected offices. But a reporter ultimately choses what goes into print and what stays out. A single reporter at a well-established publication can sway public opinion and guide the conversation of the day.
It's a huge responsibility and one that I take very seriously, as does the newspaper I work for. But recently, some members of the North Smithfield School Department have sought to discredit The Valley Breeze, and to convince members of the public that I'm biased against the school district. They have done so through comments at public meetings, email campaigns aimed at promoting their agenda, and whenever they find the opportunity, through angry tirades that are critical of my reporting.
This week, one school official took that policy to new lows and launched a personal attack against me in a public meeting where I was not allowed to speak to defend myself.
Now, despite my commitment to staying neutral and to keeping my own politics and opinions separate from my profession, I have no choice but to speak out.
I am not, nor have I ever been, biased against the North Smithfield Education Department. I do not live in town, I have no idea what level of funding is appropriate for the school system, and I certainly do not “pass notes” to Budget Committee Chairman Michael Clifford as School Committee Chairman Robert Lafleur (bizarrely) claimed this week.
If I have a “horse in the race” - so to speak - in the North Smithfield education funding issue it's this: I believe elected officials should be held accountable for their actions and discourse should be civil, even when people disagree. The education department, led by Lafleur and Supt. Stephen Lindberg, has been having trouble with those basic principles over the past year.
Both have often refused to provide comment to the press, but then later lamented that coverage was one-sided. I've watched both dismiss, speak down to, and even insult anyone who disagrees with their views. I've sat, pen in hand, through meetings where other officials in town were made fun of (just this week Lafleur called Town Council President John Flaherty “Mr. Wishy-Washy.”)
And from my perspective it seems as though it's that very arrogance, that defensiveness and determination to control the message, that led to the district not receiving more funding from the town last year. This year, between the $240,000 that was added to the town's maintenance of effort through the deficit debacle, a $425,000 allocation from the town, and an increase of $207,000 from the state, they've been given the authority to spend more than $850,000 more. Add on the capital improvements of $247,675 and, if the bond referendum passes, another $4.3 million....
Is it enough? I'm not qualified to answer that question and I don't intend to try. What I do know is that from the language at their meeting this week, you would have thought they'd received nothing. You would have thought that members of the Town Council did not care about funding schools and hadn't made a sincere effort to try to be fair.
I believe that whether or not their final determination is best for all involved, that they were sincere, and that they are hard working public servants who did their best, and that they do deserve some basic respect.
In response to Mr. Lafleur's outburst this week, in which he publicly claimed that I “don't call” him and called me “an embarrassment” and “biased,” I would simply like to share an email I sent to him on Feb. 25. Asked to comment on George Hemond's resignation from the School Committee, Lafleur had said that I “prefer to sensationalize without the other side.”
Here was my response:
I do have to point out that I have never once written an article without either directly quoting a member of the school board or reaching out to someone from the department. Often, I receive ‘no comment,’ or my call or message is simply not returned. Still, I attend and include commentary from all of your meetings on a weekly basis and even use information from the website and weekly newsletters to fill in the blanks.
I am extremely easy to reach via phone or email and will be glad to accommodate whatever you might have to say. During a tense budget process over the past two years, members of the municipal side of government have utilized that accessibility and provided me with information on a pretty constant basis. If you feel you've seen their perspective represented more often, that may be why. In contrast, after two years of reporting on the town, you've never provided a phone number at which to reach you.
334-9555 ext 138
I never received a reply or a phone number.
What I did receive from him, months later, was an 800-plus word letter to the editor that discussed the findings of auditors hired to look at the School Department deficit. I asked Breeze Editor Marcia Green if we could run it despite the fact that its extensive length made it well outside newspaper policy. (Because while it's true we buy ink by the barrel, we also have to pay for that ink, and we try to use it in a way that's both entertaining and useful to our readers.)
At my very next encounter with the chairman, he insulted me and called for my firing.
And apparently, I'm not the first reporter Lafleur's had a problem with.
As part of his angry rant against me, he said that The Woonsocket Call had a reporter “like me” that eventually got fired, implying that he had a part in it. I don't know why The Call no longer sends reporters to North Smithfield Town Council or School Committee meetings. I always assumed it was because of cutbacks, but the chairman's comment made me think: What person in their right mind would want to take that sort of abuse and public insulting for a living?
One commentator on The Breeze website this week observed that “the past three” reporters at our paper have been biased.
It kind of makes one wonder who, if anyone, will be fit to write the news in a way that's acceptable to the North Smithfield Education Department.
Or maybe what they're really hoping is that we'll all get left in the dark.