Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Check's in the Mail

Someone at the newspaper must have read my little blog. Yesterday, all out of proportion to the urgency of a third-day school board story, a rewrite appeared, over the fold, five columns wide. The nice editors must have asked Our Man in Arcadia to please, please, please tell that annoying lady which line items had been cut from the school district's budget.

The nice newsman, it appears, may have taken offense at being told to try, try again. In the rewrite, he sounds almost testy when he calls the budget cuts "state mandated." Twice. As I pointed out yesterday, this just isn't so. (see No News is Good News, just below.)

By parroting the official rhetoric -- "state mandated" -- ("Don't blame us; they made us do it) the reporter perpetuates, with emphasis, a major misrepresentation of the state's role in local education. Readers get a false picture of the way government works and the things it can and cannot do.

For details, turn to page 2.
Over at the schoolhouse, boardmembers, nice people one and all, cut some $500,000 from the local budget. The line items they selected for whacking were killed because state found it has less money to distribute to the local districts for education.

Way back in March, the folks in Tallahassee estimated they'd have about $71 billion or so in the state coffers. By September, it started to look like they were going to be short a billion, give or take a couple million. Less for the state, less for the school district. -- Take a Letter: Dear DeSoto County: Enclosed please find half-a-million dollars less than we promised.

After reading in the news story (both of them) about "state mandated" budget cuts, I called the school board chairman. It was dinner time, but he took my call anyway.

I asked him: "If I asked you to come over and get my check for $500,000, could you put back all the things you took out?" That made him put his dinner roll down: "Sure! Yes! Of course!" When I thought I heard his car keys jingling, I had to confess this was a hypothetical check.

But my fictional check is factual proof that the budget trim, however necessary and unavoidable, was not state mandated. It had to be done only because I was flat out of that kind of cash. But, had I the money, then the school would still have a travel budget and the cafeteria manager would still have a cell phone.

Yes, this is a small town, and the school board chairman is a nice guy. Report his face-saving quote. But somewhere nearby in the story, do the journalist's job of composing a sentence or two to help readers understand the facts behind the rhetoric. There are, indeed, mandates in Florida's complex school-funding formula, but this is not one of them. Readers appreciate an accurate picture of how government works and the things it can and cannot do.

School board members did their jobs. The reporter should do his.

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