Instead of discussing the myriad legal and academic issues currently surrounding Spokane Public Schools, the editors for the daily newspaper The Spokesman-Review and the weekly publication The Inlander seem determined to drum up stray rumors and unsupported accusations against AP English teacher Jennifer Walther, who perhaps was caught TWC (Teaching While Conservative).
In October 2011, Walther's Leadership Class at Ferris High School put on the annual political forum "Face-Off at Ferris." Writers for The Spokesman-Review (SR) and The Inlander have since accused Walther of allowing her political views to sway the Ferris forum in favor of mayoral and school board candidates who are thought to be politically conservative.
The accusers have not been able to support their claim by pointing at actual questions that were asked. Sitting at the Ferris forum last October, I heard people all around me saying, "Those are great questions." What does a conservative question even look like? Are only conservatives concerned about accountability, transparency, outcomes, Otto Zehm's death, water rates, union clout and misspent finances? I know plenty of Democrats and progressives who are concerned about these issues.
Real education issues defy political labels, and yet, our local print media persist in labeling. Is it now shocking, illegal, immoral, unethical, or inappropriate to be a conservative thinker? Can a teacher not freely ask questions of people she knows? Can her acquaintances not offer ideas to her when asked? Can students not freely choose questions they believe to be pertinent?
Oh my, please read this condescending, sanctimonious, hypocritical, unintentionally hilarious Dec. 16 piece on Walther by the SR's Shawn Vestal. Vestal claims Walther and I were "vigorously bashing" one candidate and promoting another in an exchange of emails. Despite never once having spoken with me prior to writing his article, he calls me a "conservative math curriculum critic." Vestal doesn't know my politics – no one does – and why do they matter? Does Vestal go around calling administrators "progressive math curriculum supporters"? The person showing political bias here is Vestal, whereas I advocate for accountability, transparency, fiscal responsibility, academics and the truth.
I asked Vestal for support for his description of me. You'll love his response. Without any salutation, such as, oh, I don't know, perhaps "Dear Mrs. Rogers," he begins with this:
"Well, I'll do this once, but it's my last homework assignment: I see the following as essentially conservative positions: opposing the âexplosion' of school spending in recent years; arguing that there is no money shortage in the public schools; working to discredit unions and seeking bits of incriminating evidence against them; supporting the conservative candidate in the school board race; advocating a return to more traditional curriculums (sic); an alliance — at least a glancing online one — with the Alton anti-levy and bond group. Let me say this: I don't intend conservative as a perjorative (sic), though I don't agree with most of your views. But it seems to me a fair characterization. You may not have spoken with me personally, but you've made a lot of public statements."
It was Vestal's responsibility to give me a fair chance to comment, prior to publishing his Dec. 16 column. He declined to honor that responsibility. He has zero support for his claims that I've worked to discredit unions, or that I've sought bits of incriminating evidence against unions, or that I have an "alliance" with any anti-levy and bond group.
I asked Vestal to support the phrase "vigorous bashing," with respect to communications between Walther and me. This is what he said: "Bashing seems to me to be a conversational equivalent to criticizing or attacking rhetorically. â¦ my intent was not to suggest that it's improper, necessarily to have an opinion about Brower, but that in fact the key debate organizer had expressed clear support for one candidate and clear opposition to the other, in strong terms."
So what? So the forum's main organizer privately expressed a preference for one candidate over another. The SR also preferred one candidate over another, expressing that preference publicly and repeatedly. Did their preference influence the outcome? The SR has not proved that Walther's preference swayed the Ferris forum. In the SR's case, the paper's editorial preference clearly has affected — and continues to affect — its news and editorial coverage.
As for the word "bashing," does anyone believe it to be synonymous with "criticizing" – especially when paired with "vigorous"? Vestal refused to provide me with more proof of this supposed "vigorous bashing," saying, "I quoted one line of Walthers' (sic) in the column, and am not going to hunt down other examples in the e-mails again."
Well, how handy. I know what's in those emails. Vestal has nothing else of substance to report. Near the end of his Dec. 16 column, Vestal – a veritable prince of irony – writes, "Maybe next year part of the lesson can include something about conflicts of interest and impartiality and not stacking the deck."
Ha, ha, ha. He cracks me up. If ever there is a class on impartiality, he should definitely attend.
As for The Inlander, in a Jan. 4, 2012, column, associate professor Robert Herold also proves to be politically biased as he accuses Walther of being politically biased. He provides no sources other than the SR as he accuses Walther of not citing her sources. He provides no data as he questions the data in the Ferris forum questions. He provides no proof at all for his accusation that Walther condoned and promoted plagiarism. And Herold — in an ultimate hypocrisy — did not speak with Walther before publishing his column.
Herold's column is an argumentation and journalistic mess, but if I were his editor, I would have rejected it as being potentially libelous to Walther and/or the Ferris Leadership Class.
These media charges of political bias in the Ferris forum are hypocritical and disingenuous. Spokane-area residents get the media's political agenda with their breakfast. Public-school children are force-fed the district's political agenda EVERY DAY – in their classes and in curricular materials, including in math. The district's K-6 families get an extra dose of political agenda in the union president's column, which is published in the KIDS Newspaper, and which the district helpfully distributes regularly to elementary students at the schools and to the public in elementary schools and in the downtown office.
What do Vestal and Herold say about the district and union's political activism that permeates, saturates, and drowns out academics? What do they say about the media's conflicts of interest, lack of impartiality or stacking of the deck? What do they say about the district, the union and the local media having displayed persistent favoritism toward board candidate Deana Brower? What do they say about letters to the editor and newspaper columns that verge on libel toward Walther and board candidate Sally Fullmer?
Of course Walther has opinions. Everyone does. Editorial staff for The Inlander and the SR obviously had strong opinions about the 2011 candidates, and their election coverage generally appeared to favor those opinions. The issue with the Ferris forum – the one valid question – is whether Walther's opinions unfairly influenced the forum in favor of particular candidates. No one has shown that to be the case. Meanwhile, during the forum, newspaper-endorsed board candidate Brower kept saying things like, "That's a good question; I'm glad you asked me that." The straw poll after the debate favored Brower, and Brower narrowly won the election.
The real stories here are the legal issues surrounding the school district and the clear and persistent political bias in Spokane's daily and weekly newspapers.
As these two papers unfairly criticize Jennifer Walther, they decline to report on the district's meetings with this teacher. They haven't told you that, as a certificated employee, Walther is covered by the Collective Bargaining Agreement (see Section 1, page 6), and as such, is entitled to all rights and protections afforded under the Agreement, including the noteworthy sections on Nondiscrimination (see Section 2, page 6), and on Progressive Discipline (see Section 22, page 61). Walther pays dues to the union, but is refunded the part of the dues that would pay for union political activity. This makes her an "agency fee payer" (which the union noted in its snippy criticism of Walther in October on the SEA Facebook page).
The papers haven't explained that Walther also is entitled to all protections and rights under the school district's own policies, including those in the First Amendment policy, in the Unlawful Discrimination and Harassment policy, in the Disciplinary Action policy, in the Civility policy (especially items IV and VI), and in the Settlement of Grievances policy. They haven't told you that Walther is allowed freedom from harassment or bullying, and freedom from discrimination for her political viewpoints. She's allowed representation; to know the accusations made against her; to see the complaint against her; and to not be ambushed by people with an axe to grind.
In addition, America has a Constitution and Bill of Rights. (The disturbing National Defense Authorization Act notwithstanding), citizens cannot be plucked from their lives and grilled without due process or legal representation. (I doubt even the union would try to call Walther a terrorist sympathizer.)
The SR and The Inlander haven't explained that the district and union appear to have violated the Collective Bargaining Agreement, multiple district policies, and/or the law as they campaigned for ballot propositions, campaigned or assisted with campaigning for board candidate Brower, and pursued some perceived issue with Jennifer Walther. The papers haven't questioned why the superintendent unexpectedly announced her retirement just five months after her contract was renewed.
If the SR and The Inlander are believed, there is nothing to talk about in this district other than 1) an alleged need for more money, and 2) this one teacher, whose forum was well-run and whose students asked excellent questions of candidates who were campaigning to be stewards of the future.
Spokane desperately needs a print news source that will tell the whole story – about education and about other issues of interest to this community. It needs a news source that will stand up for accountability, transparency, truth and the law; that will give all sides the opportunity to explain their position; and that will stand up for We, the People, regardless of our political affiliation.
What a fair and helpful change that would be.
Besides serving on the executive committee for Where's the Math?, Laurie has a background in finance, journalism and child advocacy. She has volunteered in schools – tutoring children in literacy and math, and teaching chess, argumentation and knitting. She lives in Spokane with her husband, daughter and two cats.
Contact Laurie Rogers at [email protected].