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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:

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.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - Dave Comerford - Thursday, Feb 28, 08 @ 2:57 pm:

    First of all, the Illinois Times decided who would write that story and Mr. Downs contacted me, not the other way around.

    I have consistently said that the IFT’s average cost was $50,000 and I stand by that figure. Mr. Reeder knows that, but he continues to spin that. I did question why it costs districts so much moire than it costs the union. Mr. Reeder did not want to ask the attorney’s like TJ Wilson what they bill per hour or why the cost is so high. Attorney’s like Mr. Wilson make a very good living off of high bills for school districts. He is certainly going to support his clients wishes. Hardly an unbiased source. Yet Reeder quotes him like it’s gospel.
    Even still, Mr. Reeder’s stated average cost for school districts is very skewed because he uses a $1,000,000 cost for Cecil Roth, who represents himself, is not backed by the union or any attorney and is a very unique case. If you take away that one case, the average drops over $60,000. I pointed this out to Reeder, but he chose to use the more sensational number.

    I spoke with Superintendent. Senters and Mr. Kuba and my conversations were different from Mr Reeder’s. Kuba did acknowledge that there are cases where children make up stories about their teachers. He did say that an investigator “should” be able to see through that, but there’s no guarantee.

    The work of Dr. Manos clearly shows that false accusations can destroy teachers careers. Dr. Manos is a school administrator who Reeder spoke with, but chose to ignore in the series.

    Reeder supports the court system 100 percent if a teacher is found guilty, but he questions that same court system if a teacher is found innocent.

    Eric Robinson has been promoting Reeder’s series across the state and lining up interviews for him. One of Robinson’s clients is the school administrators among others. This is an obvious conflict of interest. Reeder did decline to speak to the reporter about this.

    Reeder also received a $10,000 “award” from the Institute on Political Journalism (IPJ)[1]. One of IPJ’s stated goals is to make sure reporters, “have the tools to accurately cover issues involving economic concepts and free market principles.”[2] One of IPJ’s more notable names on the Board of Visitors is former White House spokesperson Tony Snow.[3]

    IPJ is part of The Fund for American Studies (TFAS), an organization funded by large corporations including Northrup Grumman, Motorola, Caterpillar and Pfizer, just to name a few.[4] The fund is praised by Websites such as the Conservative Voice[5], while scrutinized by others such as Media Transparency.[6] One of TFAS’ honored Alumni is Clint Bolick, President of the Alliance for School Choice.[7]

    Obviously a group that wants award those who will write anti-union stories. Every other reporter I know goes out of their way to even have the slightest appearance of conflict… not Reeder.

  2. - Scott Reeder - Thursday, Feb 28, 08 @ 4:40 pm:

    Just for the record, here is results of FOIA requests for attorney billings. The story ran in June 2006.
    Illinois school districts that hired outside lawyers in an effort to dismiss these tenured teachers spent an average of $219,000 in legal fees.

    Robert Gilbert, Township $1,373,236

    Cecil Roth, Geneseo $450,000*

    Sandra Betts, Joliet $251,969

    Karen Horwitz, AVOCA $225,138

    Estherlene Holmes, Cook County $188,824

    Lauri Buchna, Illinois Valley Central $178,849

    James Leonard, Orland Park $149,337

    Susan Copeland, Northbrook $135,617

    Stephen Wright, Downers Grove $134,799

    Bruce Gilbert, Rich Township $102,601

    Kirk Barton, Auburn $95,117

    Georgeann Davis, SPEED $92,875

    Robert Kosten, Collinsville $66,629

    Carmelina Impellizeri, Leyden $37,158

    Joe Landis, Nokomis $24,601

    Curtis Portelli, Chicago Heights $5,319

    * Reflects an estimate of $160,000 spent by the school district in the dismissal case and $290,000 in attorney fees to handle subsequent litigation brought by Mr. Roth.

    ** Appeals are pending for 7 of the 16 individuals listed.

  3. - DumberThanYouTHink - Thursday, Feb 28, 08 @ 4:45 pm:

    You guys are having all the fun…One must wonder if the SpinSisters have adopted you as BoyToys to divert attention from POA?

  4. - Michelle Flaherty - Thursday, Feb 28, 08 @ 5:20 pm:

    That Eric Johnson was a guitar god in the early 90s. I still love Cliffs of Dover. I’d always wondered what happened to him. Guitar genius to pr flak — who knew?

  5. - Bruno - Thursday, Feb 28, 08 @ 7:48 pm:

    The idea that teachers deserve tenure, protection from competition, or any other form of benefit greater than the average employee has always been a wonder to me.

    The entire purpose of a union is to extract the maximum amount of money and benefits for the least amount of effort. (this is not debatable)

    So here is the question for all you citizens, parents, and taxpayers out there. If your goal is an educated populace, why would ever have acquiesced to paying the most money for the least education?


    Fund Children, not Bureaucracies.

  6. - Rich Miller - Thursday, Feb 28, 08 @ 7:52 pm:

    ===The entire purpose of a union is to extract the maximum amount of money and benefits for the least amount of effort. (this is not debatable)===


  7. - Bruno - Friday, Feb 29, 08 @ 5:46 am:


    Let me clarify. The purpose of an employer/Corporation is to extract the most work out of every employee for the least amount of pay and benefits.

    So, one is true, and the other is not?

    There are many ways to shift the semantics, and no one would argue that people shouldn’t have the right to join a union and bargain collectively for better pay, benefits, and conditions.

    But really, if we want the most education for the least amount of taxes, then why should we (as taxpayers) put up with tenure, unwarranted pension benefits (which younger teachers simply must know can’t be sustained), and worst of all, strikes.

    Don’t get me wrong. Teachers should have the right to strike, but parents should have the right to fire them when they do.

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