Saturday, May 23, 2009

Conflict of Interest?

Typically we withhold the names of ALL who write into SP-EYE to protect them from even the potential for retaliation. Those that don't march in lock-step with Tim Culver and his supporters live in fear of administrative reprisal. That is a grim reality. We hear it nearly every day, "I'd love to speak out...but I fear for my job..." We see it most clearly at the annual elector's meeting. With district administration present in force, which district employee wants to come to the meeting and raise their hand in favor of anything that district administration opposes??? So, this past week, SP-EYE received an anonymous letter. Hard copy with no identifying marks... delivered to a go-between's address. Is this what our fine country has come to? Someone so fearful of backlash that they don't even want to rely on their First Amendment right to Free Speech to shield them? Sadly, at least in the Sun Prairie School District, yes.

We offer the following because at its root, it represents a concern shared by many--albeit not a concern that is freely vocalized. Some allegations are made. We neither support nor refute the allegations.

I am a district employee who wishes to remind the SP-EYE people that there is a strong conflict of interest between the STAR and how it deals with school issues. As you know, [STAR editor] Chris Mertes is the husband of Janice Mertes, a high school teacher.

How stories are written, the positions the STAR takes on all school issues [sic]is strongly influenced by what the Mertes's feel will best promote the agenda of Janice Mertes. There are countless examples of this in the past. Janice Mertes is an expert on self-promotion. The reason Tim Culver praised Janice Mertes in his first blog was to win the support of the only newspaper in town.

I would love to sign my name but [I work in the district and] I don't want to be harassed.

Thanks for listening.

p.s. Janice Mertes is the chairperson of the SPEA [teacher's union] negotiations committee; watch how the STAR reports on negotiations.

An interesting opinion, no?

The dictionary defines conflict of interest as:

a situation in which a person has a duty to more than one person or organization, but cannot do justice to the actual or potentially adverse interests of both parties.
Clearly, a case can be made that the STAR frequently reports on school issues, as is expected in a "small town" newspaper. Certainly, Chris Mertes has written editorials on school district issues. Editorials are given a little more latitude, as they are covered by the disclaimer that they may not necessarily reflect the views of the newspaper or its parent company. Generally speaking, coverage of school district business and meetings is handled by a STAR reporter. But of course that can be countered with an argument that, as editor, Mr. Mertes reserves the right to edit how that information is reported.

The American Business Media, Editorial Code of Ethics states that,
Editors, reporters and writers employed by American Business Media publications adhere to the highest standards of journalistic practice. In doing so, they pledge to:
a. Maintain honesty, integrity, accuracy, thoroughness and fairness in the reporting and editing of articles, headlines, and graphics.
b. Avoid all conflicts of interest as well as any appearances of such conflicts.
Certainly, there could be an appearance of conflict, of which we're equally certain Mr. Mertes is well aware. I think a ship's captain might say, "Proceed with caution".

We will add one observation that we made years ago, and it still rings true today. File it under your "Things that make you go 'hmmm'" directory.

Longtime readers of the STAR we're sure have noticed that during every election year, the candidates which are endorsed by the STAR are decidedly Republican by trade. Kinda strongly says that either Mr. Mertes, the STAR, or both have a Republican lean on issues. Then there's the School Board races. Now...we know...the office of School Board is non-partisan. Yeeeeaaaaah...right. There are NO politics in school issues. Please! School Board races only non-partisan because you don't have to declare a party for them.

Go back and check the STAR records, and the STAR inevitably supports school board candidates that are (A) supported by the teacher's union and (B) those that don't come off as fiscal conservatives. Anyone remember a couple of years back when the STAR endorsement column was titled, in bold, "Anyone but Gibbs" [for school board]? Gibbs did, notably, go on to win re-election with the highest vote total in SP history for a school board race. Gibbs was (and is) a strong fiscal conservative that deeply supports education...but didn't particularly care for the fluff built into school district budgets. Mertes might say that his dislike for Gibbs was due to [opinion] the tone of board meetings at the time. But someone else might say that Gibbs provided the lone voice of 'common sense' and that he had to struggle mightily to even have his opinion heard.

Why would Mertes almost routinely support Republican candidiates for elected offices and then support candidates of a more Democratic stance when it comes to school board? Is he just a staunchly pro-education Republican? Or is it that the Mrs. is a member of the teacher's union whose star is on the rise and supporting pro-union board candidates ensures nice raises? This is where things get a little squidgy. Particularly now that Ms. Mertes is on the SPEA Negotiations team, what may have been a clouded appearance of potential conflict of interest is getting a little clearer as to the potential. It would not be out of line for someone to express concern that the STAR will be less inclined to vigorously report transgressions of the school board and school district when it may be feared that doing so may hamper Ms. Mertes' chances for continued advancement, or negotiations with the teacher's union.

With respect to politics and teachers unions, an article from the Brookings Institute states
Politicians generally view teachers unions according to their political affiliation — Republicans are critical, Democrats are supportive.

An article from the Rasmussen Reports states
While 78% of Republicans and 66% of unaffiliated voters say teachers’ jobs are the chief focus of the unions, only 55% of Democrats agree. Two-thirds of U.S. voters (66%) say the teachers’ unions – the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers – are more interested in protecting their members’ jobs than in the quality of education. Only 23% of voters say educational quality comes first for the unions, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national survey.

Only time will tell. But clearly people are watching and putting two and two together.