Response to Illinois Times
Thursday, Feb 28, 2008
By Scott Reeder
SPRINGFIELD – A recent article in Illinois Times is more than a bit perplexing.
The writer, Peter Downs, repeats some old claims made by David Comerford, a publicist for a teachers union, the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
First of all, who is this writer Peter Downs?
Illinois Times describes him as a member of the St. Louis School Board and a freelance writer. That’s accurate as far as it goes.
If one does a quick Google search you’ll find that Mr. Downs worked extensively for teacher union publications and received substantial campaign contributions from American Federation of Teachers affiliates.
In fact, here is how Mr. Downs is described in a 2006 article in AFT’s magazine “American Teacher”
“Peter Downs and Donna Jones can thank the St. Louis Teachers & School Related Personnel Union for their election to the city’s school board earlier this year. It was the unwavering support of the AFT affiliate that helped these parents overcome the odds and beat their heavily favored—and funded—opponents.”
It’s clear that Mr. Downs should have disclosed his obvious conflict of interest instead of writing such a piece.
Unfortunately, responding to Mr. Comerford’s erroneous claims and counterclaims has become old hat.
For example, Mr. Comerford questioned in a magazine article, a news release and an internet posting a statement in “The Hidden Costs of Tenure” that a school district could reasonably expect to spend $100,000 in a tenure teacher dismissal case. He contended it rarely costs more than $50,000 and added:
“The point I’m making is that Reeder blew the dollar figure way out of proportion to add even greater slant to his hit piece.” (Capitol Fax, Dec. 7, 2005)
In response, I filed Freedom of Information Act requests for every attorney billing paid by an Illinois school district over a five-year period in a tenure teacher dismissal case. The average came out at $219,000. (44 percent of those were still under appeal, so the ultimate cost will be considerably higher.)
I invited Mr. Comerford to come over to my office and review these attorney billing documents. For some reason, he never took me on the offer – or publicly corrected his earlier assertions.
Now he’s making another flawed claim that somehow the investigation understated the number of tenured teachers fired each year.
Among the findings of the 2005 series “The Hidden Costs of Tenure” was that an average of seven tenured teachers are fired each year. How do I know this — by reading every tenure hearing officer ruling over an 18-year period.
As a practical matter, an Illinois school board can only recommend to a tenure hearing officer that a teacher be fired.
When a school board recommends the dismissal of a teacher, there are two choices: go before a hearing officer and fight to keep the job or quit. In theory, they could forego a chance to remain employed or the possibility of a severance package and do nothing. (But the investigation focused on realities, not legal theories or aberrations.)
“If someone is contending teachers are choosing to get fired rather than fight it or quit, there must be something in the water they are drinking,” said T.J. Wilson, an attorney specializing in education employment law.
Quotes used in the series were based on audio recordings, meticulous notes and emailed statements. At times when quotes were ambiguous, sources were re-contacted for further clarification.
In the case of Cicero superintendent Clyde Senters, specific quotes were discussed and approved prior to publication to ensure not only their accuracy but their context. (An unfortunate reality in journalism is that occasionally someone making controversial or inflammatory statements will try to back away from those comments.)
Mr. Comerford also claims the Illinois State Police investigator Dennis Kuba was misquoted. It’s an interesting assertion considering Kuba doesn’t contend he was misquoted.
I quoted Kuba saying: “In all the years I’ve investigated sex crimes I have never found a case of a child lying about being abused by non-family member.”
When I talked to Dennis recently, he acknowledged making the statement but added what he meant was: In all the years he’s investigated sex crimes he has never had a case prosecuted in which a child lied about being abused by non-family member.
The distinction may seem subtle, but we had no problem running the clarification in both our online and print editions.
He also said Mr. Comerford’s comments that children frequently lie about being sexually abused by non-family members as ridiculous. But don’t take my word for it, you can listen to a voicemail message he left in that regard at: www.hiddenviolations.com.
Also in the Illinois Times article Mr. Comerford is quoted three times as saying Small Newspaper Group hired Eric Johnson and his company, Frontline Public Strategies, to promote interest in the investigations.
The only Eric Johnson I know played basketball at Galesburg High School back in 1983. Perhaps, Mr. Comerford is referring to Eric Robinson. We did indeed hire his firm.
The truth will fit any place.
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