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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008 03:23 pm

Counting the wrong thing

Much-lauded newspaper series on teacher tenure blasted by union spokesman

Untitled Document Dave Comerford is unhappy with Scott Reeder and the Small Newspaper Group, a family-owned chain of Illinois newspapers. Comerford, media director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, says he’s frustrated by what he sees as dishonest reporting and the twisting of quotes to fit a political agenda. Four months ago, for example, as part of a series called “Hidden Violations,” Reeder, the Springfield bureau chief for the Kankakee-based chain, wrote: “Out of 95,000 tenured teachers in Illinois an average of seven are fired each year.” It is a claim he has made several times since first reporting it more than two years ago in his first series on teachers in Illinois, packaged by the Small group of papers as “The Hidden Costs of Tenure.” It is a claim that Comerford says is dead wrong. Reeder won three national journalism awards for his use of the Freedom of Information Act to get information from school districts for “The Hidden Costs of Tenure” series. He sent FOIA requests to all 876 school districts in Illinois asking for information on disciplinary actions taken against tenured teachers, the most senior 75 percent of Illinois teachers. Tenured teachers are teachers who have been on the job for more than four years and were rated by their school districts at the end of those four years as good enough to keep.
The number of seven firings a year comes from the number of firings upheld by state tenure-hearing officers. In the “Hidden Costs” series, Reeder wrote: “In 875 of Illinois’ 876 school districts, it is left up to a hearing officer to determine whether someone should be fired. An individual school board can only make a recommendation to this hearing officer.” He stands by that explanation. “Illinois statute allows for a school board to recommend to a state hearing officer that a tenured teacher be dismissed,” Reeder claims in a recent written statement he submitted to Illinois Times. However, that’s not what Illinois law actually says. According to state statute, a teacher who has been fired by a school board or superintendent has a right to receive a notice stating the reasons for the dismissal and then has 10 days in which to file a written request for a hearing; “otherwise no hearing is necessary.”
That is a crucial difference to Comerford, and it is one he says he explained to Reeder but Reeder ignored. It means that Reeder counted the wrong thing — the number of appeals, not the number of firings. Not all fired teachers appeal their dismissals, Comerford says. Sometimes, he adds, his union advises teachers that they haven’t a chance of winning an appeal and shouldn’t bother. Confusing the number of appeals with the number of firings is like confusing the number of criminal cases that make it to the appellate court with the number of criminal convictions, and that is just plain wrong, Comerford says.
The difference, according to Comerford, means that the foundation of Reeder’s series — the claim that, on average, only seven tenured teachers a year are fired in Illinois — is wrong. The articles built on that error — including stories that reported how teachers’ unions prevent administrators from firing bad teachers and stories that estimated that cost of firing a teacher — are wrong as well. Cicero Schools Superintendent Clyde Senters is another critic of Reeder’s reporting. In the “Hidden Costs” article headlined “Tenure Frustrates Drive for Teacher Accountability,” Reeder recounted the trouble Senters went through to fire a teacher for excessive absenteeism. He quoted Senters as saying that there is not a lot that can be done to hold teachers accountable “because of tenure.”
One problem with that story is that the teacher was fired without going to a tenure hearing, so it was a dismissal that Reeder does not count in the “seven a year” on which he based the series. Another problem is that Senters claims he did not blame the lack of accountability on tenure. Senters says he is a strong supporter of tenure, and he even wrote an article for the IFT in which he said that teachers should get tenure sooner, after three years instead of four. He says he has used Reeder’s story in classes to teach students how easily one’s words can be twisted by a reporter with an ax to grind. Reeder insists that he quoted Senters accurately. Comerford has other issues with Reeder’s articles. Reeder has repeatedly contended that it is teachers unions’ “vigorous legal defenses of teachers facing dismissal” that makes it expensive to fire a teacher, but the case he chose to write about for pushing the limits of expensive is a case in which the teacher did not use a union lawyer; he represented himself in filing lawsuits against his former employer. To Comerford, such inaccuracies are not just mistakes; they show a pattern of bias. With the “Hidden Violations” series, Comerford takes greater issue with what Reeder did not write than with what he did. The central point of “Hidden Violations” is that Illinois does a poor job of handling teacher misconduct. Reeder reported that in the last eight years the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services found 323 credible allegations of abuse by teachers, or about 40 credible allegations a year against the state’s 127,000 public schoolteachers. Some of those cases are relatively minor, he noted, and some are more serious, but “the certification board has not once suspended or revoked any teaching certificate based solely on DCFS finding,” he added. Reeder reported that the Department of Education lacked any staff to investigate those allegations. He failed to report that the state police investigate the cases DCFS finds credible. “They refer the cases to us,” says Master Sgt. Brian Ley, a spokesman for the Illinois State Police. “Every post has a squad of specialists assigned to DCFS cases.”
Reeder wrote that teachers should lose their licenses even if there is not enough evidence of abuse for a criminal conviction. The question, then, is what the standard of proof should be. Comerford says Reeder promoted a “presumption of guilt,” and that, he says, raises a concern that false or malicious allegations could ruin a teacher’s career. In his “Hidden Violations” articles, Reeder wrote that Dennis Kuba, a retired sergeant with the Illinois State Police, dismissed such concerns as ridiculous and added, “In all the years he’s investigated sex crimes he has never had a case prosecuted in which a child lied about being abused by non-family member.”
Kuba denies that he dismissed Comerford’s concerns as ridiculous and says that after reading the article he asked Reeder to print a correction. Although the characterization of “ridiculous” was not technically a quote, Reeder writes in his statement to Illinois Times that he stands by the quotes he used. He adds that Kuba did ask him to “clarify one quote.”
Another expert interviewed by Reeder says his treatment of concerns about false accusations was one-sided. Mary Ann Manos, assistant superintendent of the Community Unit School District 140 (Congerville-Eureka-Goodfield), and a former professor of education at Bradley University, says she spent some time talking to Reeder about instances of false allegations of abuse or sexual harassment and how those allegations can ruin a teacher’s career.
While at Bradley, Manos authored Rumors, Lies, and Whispers: Classroom “Crush” or Career Catastrophe? — a book, she says, that was inspired by a false allegation against a teacher in Peoria. She says she told Reeder about cases in Illinois, New Jersey, and Texas in which teachers lost their jobs because of allegations that students later confessed to making up. She mentioned one case, reported in the Chicago Sun-Times, in which a third-grade student angry with his teacher paid classmates a dollar each to tell the principal that the teacher had touched them inappropriately. “Students know how to get rid of teachers,” she says. “Remember that kids are just being kids and they do not understand the damage they do when they just say something because they want to get a new soccer coach.”
She says she told Reeder that there will always be headlines about pedophiles “but the headlines do not represent mainstream education.”
Manos says Reeder’s failure to quote her does not upset her but the one-sidedness of his reporting does. “I thought professional standards dictated that you at least say there is another point of view,” she says. She adds that his article on “passing the trash” — letting a teacher who has been accused of sexual harassment resign and get a good recommendation ­— is outdated. Reeder focused on a case from 1996. Manos says the state superintendent of education long since issued a policy directive to local school districts to immediately report any teacher who resigns under an allegation of sexual misconduct to the Illinois State Board of Education. If any district is still “passing the trash,” she says, “they shouldn’t be.”
Setting aside the questions of whether Reeder interpreted data correctly and whether he fairly represented both sides of the issue, Comerford says that the way in which Reeder’s work was promoted raises additional questions about bias. Comerford notes that Small Newspaper Group hired Eric Robinson and his company, Frontline Public Strategies, to promote interest in Reeder’s articles. Frontline Public Strategies is an “association management” company that counts as one of its clients the Illinois Association of School Administrators, an organization that often finds itself at odds with teachers’ organizations. Robinson has advised that association on how to get its message out in the media. Robinson is a former spokesman for former Gov. Jim Edgar, was director of the Bush-Cheney 2004 Illinois Victory Committee, and worked for the gubernatorial campaign of Judy Baar Topinka. Reeder declines to answer questions about bias or his or his employer’s relationship with Robinson.
Peter Downs, a veteran freelance writer and    editor, is also president of the St. Louis Board of Education. He can be reached at pdowns@speakeasy.net.

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