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Dealing with a potential conflict

June 18, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

This past December my son graduated summa cum laude from Frostburg State University, on a day when the sharp winter gusts in that mountain town brought tears to our eyes. Inside, as the sound of the wind was drowned out by a few parents who had mistaken the solemn occasion for a noisy family reunion, I sat in the audience, quiet and proud.

Now my son would get a job teaching art in a place like Allegany County, where the small students he'd student-taught loved him and cried out "There's Mr. Maginnis" when they saw him at the mall.

He would become a beloved mentor to many, even as he kept me informed about the latest trends in education, suggesting questions I should be asking the school system's top officials here.

The only problem, of course, was that when you graduate in the middle of the regular school system's year, you can either do something else until the next school year begins, or hope that someone resigns or retires at mid-year.

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Then a fine arts position opened up at Washington County's Alternative School, since renamed the Antietam Academy. My son applied and was accepted.

And so instead of being in another county's system, he's right here. And instead of having classes full of little country kids, his students are children who, for one reason or another, couldn't get along in their regular schools.

Well, if you're going to try to climb Mt. Everest, you might as well do it in your 20s. He'll do fine, I think, because he sees the possibilities in these children and wants them to succeed.

I can't help him with that, nor can he help me with the dilemma I now face - dealing with the potential conflict of having a relative involved in an important local government agency.

It won't be easy. If my son were a correctional officer, I could resolve not to write about the prison system.

That's not an option in this case. The school system spends more than 75 percent of all local tax dollars. If it does not do its job well, companies that might provide the jobs of the future will avoid this area. And Washington County will be left with the kind of jobs that might provide a living of sorts, but which are not the kind of employment we dream our children will have.

No parent says this, for example:

"Oh, yes, Bruce is doing very well, packing boxes on the night shift at Ship-Way Enterprises. Next year he might get his very own tape dispenser." You get the idea.

So not writing about the schools is not a possibility, although I will have to consider carefully how to do it without making the potential conflict worse. Beating the drums for higher teacher salaries is probably not one of the things I'll do, though I've spent enough time around classrooms as a mentor at Fountaindale Elementary to know it's an underpaid profession.

Try to entertain your grandchildren for a couple of hours and you get an idea of what's involved. You must be interesting enough to keep your students involved - but not let the fun turn into chaos. And instead of one or two grandchildren, you'll have 20 or 25, although if one or two are hyperactive, it can seem like 40 or 50.

No one who advocates for year-round school realizes how much teachers need the time between the end of one school year and the start of the next to recharge their batteries.

Okay, back to my problem. Although I know that I would not take advantage of my position at The Herald-Mail to help my son, my colleagues and the members of the editorial page advisory committee agree that readers need to know that the potential for conflict exists, so that they can call me on it when they feel I'm getting close to the line.

Nor will my son be a source for me, on or off the record. His supervisors and colleagues need to know that the conversations they have with him and the things they talk to him about won't become fodder for my columns.

Writing commentary is not always easy, because I always have to weigh the importance of getting out whatever information the public needs to know against the potential damage that could be done to someone's career if they're exposed as a source.

That's not to say I'm going to bite my tongue or hold back. There are two or three education-related topics on my front burner right now, but I need to do some research and listen to other people's opinions before I can comment on them.

One of those "other people" won't be my son. He may help me mow the lawn, or carry a load of brush to the dump, but this is one job he can't - and shouldn't - help me do.

Do you have a question or comment about this column or another feature on the editorial page? If so, please send it to Bob Maginnis, Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, 100 Summit Ave., Hagerstown, MD, 21740, or e-mail it to bobm@herald-mail.com. If you want your letter published, please include your name, address and daytime phone number.

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