Wednesday, November 16, 2011

CMS made mistake in banning reporters

Tomorrow's editorial tonight:

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials have a recurring communications problem. Last spring, then-superintendent Peter Gorman acknowledged his administration had done a poor job explaining to teachers its plans and philosophies involving how they should be evaluated and paid. In previous years, parents have felt excluded from decisions about important issues like student assignment.

CMS has made progress with both groups, because officials seem to understand that with all the short- and long-term difficulties the system is confronting, it’s better for the community to approach issues with a shared understanding rather than a bewildered resentment.

But CMS took a step backward Tuesday night when officials banned reporters from a meeting between Harding High School parents and CMS staff and school board members. In doing so, CMS also broke the law.

“We screwed that up,” school board chair Eric Davis told the editorial board Wednesday.

The meeting was a previously scheduled PTSA event at Harding – a “gallery crawl” designed to kindle more parent participation at the school, which this year added hundreds of new students from now-closed E.E. Waddell High School. In the wake of academic and discipline issues involving that transition, event organizers invited Davis to the crawl to offer a brief message to parents and interact with them later. The Observer wrote Monday about the impending gathering.

But when reporters arrived, organizers said they wanted the meeting to be between parents and CMS staff only. The 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, however, forbids school officials from excluding some members of the public, but not others, from such a meeting – even if it is a PTSA-type event.

Davis acknowledged that mistake, and he expressed regret that while CMS staff chose to have reporters escorted off campus, it allowed other non-Harding members of the public to attend the event. Also, a CMS staffer tweeted news from the “private” meeting from the system’s Twitter account.

“It will not occur again,” interim superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh said of the ban, “and we’ll make sure everyone knows that.”

We share Davis’ lament that what’s been lost in the incident is how parents came away from the night with enthusiasm and optimism about Harding’s future. That, said Davis, is something he wished media were there to see and cover.

We feel the same, but we remind CMS that it’s just as important for reporters and the public to be present for the difficult moments. It’s easy for officials to see the media as nosy notebooks and cameras that want to intrude on sensitive events. But excluding reporters breeds a mistrust that has long plagued the school system.

Instead, CMS should remember that media give the public access to important conversations, and while those discussions sometimes can be uncomfortable, the public benefits from facing those difficulties together – or at least with that shared knowledge. That’s what good communication brings. CMS owes it to the public to try harder.


BolynMcClung said...


I want the government to have a healthy fear of the press. I don’t want the Press’ job to be too easy.

I would not agree with the Observer that CMS has a communication problem. It’s just that old John Peter Zinger – Daniel Ellsberg thing. Who has the rights to information and when?

Tuesday night the school system was in full disclosure mode to its parents. That the media thought it had a right to be there and CMS didn’t was just one of those things that goes to remind us that the Press should never expect to be hand fed.

Little skirmishes like Tuesday night’s, help the public to understand that the more difficult the media’s job, then the better the quality of the reporting.

The Press is the unofficial fourth branch of government. Its role is to make sure that none of the other three have too much power. Tuesday night it lost the battle but won the war on Wednesday morning.

I hope the press goes on believing governments have a communication problem and I hope government keeps right on believing it doesn’t.

Bolyn McClung