Tales out of school

The Traci Davis matter is proof positive that demonizing one school board and replacing it with another is no way to conduct public affairs. This new school board suffers from the same maladies as the previous board.

From the beginning of this latest dispute, the school district and the school board tried to dig their toes in the sand and claim, Aw shucks, nothing to see here. Davis, we were told, was just on leave.

Yet now, here we are, with Davis and the district in a state of virtual war. The Reno Gazette Journal describes Davis’ “mysterious disappearance,” as though she were buried in a ditch on the edge of town, and the school district has only itself to blame for creating a situation in which such melodrama could thrive.

Journalists, including the RGJ, This is Reno, and broadcast reporters, have done a terrific job of keeping the pressure on closed-mouth district officials and board members to be more forthcoming. They have pieced odd items together to give the public a better picture than people with titles wanted them to have. Some of those items conflicted with the business-as-usual picture the district and board were trying to convey.

There was no excuse for the district’s behavior. There was no saying, “This is a personnel matter” that could pass muster, because this is not a matter of a civil service clerk. This is a matter of a high level appointment of a policymaker, and if her contract does not make plain that she is a public figure who will not be protected from publicity, it sure should—and it darn well better in its next update, whether Davis stays or leaves. When what’s at issue is a policymaker, there needs to be disclosure and accountability, not confidentiality, and that need is subverted when those inside are trying to cover up.

There are anxious parents out there who are entitled to more information than the district was willing to part with. For days on end, rumor and innuendo have circulated.

The whole matter also suggests there is something wrong with the way news is now gathered in this valley. While reporters have shown initiative and have pulled together the story in spite of the district, covering the school district episodically doesn’t work. There was a time when every Reno television station with a news department had education reporters, court reporters, health reporters, city council reporters and so on, and they had their stations’ support. They worked their beats, in this case by attending every school board meeting. Now, with the metro area’s population twice the size of when it was that way, they attend only when something particularly newsworthy surfaces. Their news departments depend on maps, viewer-contributed footage or still photos, and none of the depth of knowledge that comes from working a beat. Instincts and sources cannot be developed about a beat while chasing car accidents and doing six versions of the same off-the-beat story in one day. The owners of those stations are letting their reporters and photographers down by starving the news departments. This is not good corporate citizenship.

If their employers had allowed them to act as reporters, what has unfolded would not have been a surprise, and the public would have gotten a lot more information, whether the school district liked it or not.