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Letter: Port News Bias to Critics of School District

Concerning the exchange between you and Mr. Mirzoeff in the July 16 issue:

In April 2008 Mr. Russo withdrew his letter submitted to the Port News because you refused to include two assertions. These dealt with the number of school district employees and with class sizes.

The same month you rejected an ad submitted by the PWEA, of which Mr. Russo is president. I saw this ad later distributed by other means, and recall hearing of the Port News rejection.

In May 2008 the PWEA conducted a forum at which you were present. BOE President Rob Seiden and BOE member Mark Marcellus were among the members of the panel. I recall an informative discussion of the school budget at which many questions were addressed. Unlike previous years, no report on this forum appeared any time later in the Port News.

Three refusals to publish within one month – is anyone surprised that Mr. Russo claims he was “censored?”

Now Mr. Mirzoeff, a former school board member, says he couldn’t get his letter published last year.

In the past you have noted that one reason for deleting material in letters submitted to the Port News is that you cannot accept assertions based on “hearsay.”

How can you state that as one of your rules and then give the reasons you give for censoring these writers? Re Mr. Russo’s April 2008 letter: “…it was brought to my attention that two of his claims were misleading. I studied them and informed him that he could not include them.” Re Mr. Mirzoeff’s September 2008 letter: “…after my own scrutiny … I felt his letter contained inaccuracies from which he made a lot of ‘leaps,’ which led to distortions of the truth.”

Why would you make these decisions using anonymous comments and unidentified sourcing? Why not a sunshine standard: publish the letters, including the sources and the names of those consulted? Then publish rebuttals that meet the same standards.

Mr. Russo is a well-known contributor to debates on the school budget. He has studied the issues for years and is an expert on many aspects of the budget process. You know this, having published him for 11 years. So do the members of the school board, and so does the superintendent. They know that he gets his information from the school district through FOIL requests, which he analyzes, tabulates, and publishes on the PWEA website.

Because they know this, it’s clear that they feel compelled to address the issues he raises. Anyone following the debates on the school budget at the board meetings, PWEA forum, or in the Port News will see this. Dr. Lewis’s presentation in March on class sizes, Dr. Gordon’s “Desk of the Superintendent” articles are focused and detailed in response to the information that the PWEA presents. Very seldom do school administrators or board members say that Mr. Russo’s numbers are simply wrong. What they say is that there are many reasons the numbers turn out that way, many additional factors that must be considered.

In any event, it has become clear in recent months that different editing standards apply at the Port News to letters in support of the school district vs. letters that are critical. For this reason many residents could well conclude that it’s a waste of time to submit letters.

One example: in the April 30 issue this year we have a letter from Marie Jo Spinella, “In Defense of Port Teachers,” in which she states, “First, teachers are not absent 15 days out of the 184-day school year.” Unqualified, and false, but not corrected or explained by the paper. On average, during the 2006-07 school year, 15 days of leave per teacher, out of 184 days, were used by the roughly 485 teachers employed by the district. This would be 15 days of leave for all purposes (sick, family illness, death in family, personal), not 15 sick days. That average was established by FOILed information from the school district. That fact was not once disputed, by any board member or school administrator, during the board meetings I attended in March through May of this year. It was at times misstated, as “15 sick days” or in other ways, and the misstatements were criticized.

I think you have a problem.

Stephanie Rich