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Education coverage is not negative

July 28, 2002|by Terry Headlee

In today's Opinion section is a letter written by Washington County School Board member Mary Wilfong listing two reasons why she is not seeking re-election.

Wilfong takes aim at the County Commissioners for being unwilling - in her view - to provide adequate funding to the school system to transform it into a "world-class educational system." That's a topic open to debate since some taxpayers have argued that spending more money doesn't always translate into an improved educational system and higher test scores.

Her second reason - which is of great interest to me - is her allegation that the local print media (that would be us) has been "foolishly, even selfishly, shortsighted by constantly firing up and fueling anti-public school sentiments."

She continued to write: "Bit-by-bit, headline-by-headline, story-by-story, the press has recklessly and undeservedly chipped away at public confidence in an institution that is essential to overall economic growth, individual opportunity, and safety of the community."

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Wilfong's letter comes on the heels of recent remarks by other School Board members, namely Bernadette Wagner and Herb Hardin, expressing their frustration with articles and editorials published by The Herald-Mail. Both said the treatment by the newspaper was a major reason why there aren't more candidates for School Board.

For the record, Hardin has filed for Washington County Commissioner which, arguably, is a higher-profile job that brings with it more scrutiny from taxpayers and the media.

But before you start thinking Hardin must be a glutton for punishment, please allow me to make a few points.

The newspaper publishes an extensive amount of positive news involving the school system, employees and students on a daily basis. In May, one of our editorial assistants clipped every school- and education-related news article - both locally written and from the Associated Press - that ran in our newspaper in April.

The stories were then sorted into three categories: positive, informative and negative.

Needless to say, the positive and informative stories numbered in the hundreds. There were only 18 negative stories. Most of the negative stories were from the AP wire service that we republished, and not a single one pertained to the Washington County Board of Education.

(I am willing to share these clippings with any individual or group at any time. Please call or e-mail me and I will be more than happy to meet with you to discuss and review our coverage.)

This is not to say there weren't stories published in other months that board members could argue placed them in a bad light. But to make the point - as Wilfong has done - that we have recklessly published story after story that hinders our local educational system is not only irresponsible, but is nowhere even close to being true. The research will back me up on this.

The articles not included in the April clippings are columns written by our editorial department and letters to the editor submitted by readers. The reason they are excluded is simple: They are opinions expressed by individuals.

Any reader or any School Board member can submit a letter expressing an opinion. Editorial Page Editor Bob Maginnis and columnist Tim Rowland - who are a separate department from the newsroom - also write on a variety of community topics, including education.

There's no question that letters and columns on our editorial page have taken the School Board to task on a wide variety of issues. But these are opinions expressed by individuals who want to make things better, not worse, as Wilfong and others have implied. We have also published letters from School Board members - such as the one running in today's paper by Wilfong - that have criticized us.

Any elected official should realize that often some of the best ideas come from the people who don't always agree with your position. Thus, a difference of opinion and criticism should be embraced, not discouraged, because ultimately the best ideas will often win out in a democracy.

Anyone running for office should know this simple truth because it's nave to think that everyone will agree with all, or even most, of your decisions. I do believe that most current officeholders know this.

Those elected officials and potential candidates who have a hard time adjusting to this reality may be better off watching from the sidelines.

Terry Headlee is executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131 ext. 7594, or by e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com.

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