Score this editorial in the "loss" column.
Incredible as it may seem, we taxpayers have been paying the Palo Alto school district's "communications coordinator" to go through local press reports each week, enter them onto a spreadsheet and rate them as "win," "lose" or "tie."
For the last four months, 108 media stories and editorials, most from the Weekly, have been monitored, scored and cataloged by Tabitha Kappeler-Hurley and reported to Superintendent Max McGee, principals and other administrators.
The practice became public this week when McGee gave the school board his first quarterly update on how staff is progressing on the board's annual goals, established in August.
Ironically, the goal this activity is supposedly supporting is to "anticipate, respond, and promptly resolve potentially distracting and disruptive issues in order to maintain focus on the District's vision..."
McGee's idea, he said, was simply to demonstrate that there is more good than bad written about the schools, data he thought would help correct misconceptions he found when he arrived.
The win-lose-tie record so far, according to Kappeler-Hurley's scoring system? 52-10-46
But the scorecard, which lacks any clearly thought-out criteria, resulted in ratings that demonstrate one of the many fallacies of this task. For example, stories about recent suicides were rated a "tie," a story about a school-board candidate forum was rated "lose," as was a report on the amount of money being spent on legal fees, and a Weekly election editorial endorsing Terry Godfrey and Ken Dauber was rated a "win." Huh?
Kappeler-Hurley told the Weekly that a story categorized as a win successfully shared the "good work that the district is doing."
"Even if it's something that you could say is a negative story or a story that highlights a problem or an issue, it's still very much possible for it to be a 'tie,'" she explained. "Is it fair reporting? Is it balanced and give good information? It may still highlight a problem and that's fine. That's the role of media, to share information."
She added that a story that might have left out information the district provided to the reporter "might slide it over to the negative."
McGee initiated the rating activity, he says, because when he arrived in August he found a "bunker mentality" about the media's coverage of district activities.
"When I first got here, what I heard from members of the community and especially from the leadership team is, 'We are under fire from the media. We have a bunker mentality. We are paralyzed by all the negative press,'" he said.
McGee said he had similar data prepared when he served as superintendent of schools in Illinois.
Monitoring media coverage (not the rating of stories) is common for large companies and public agencies where many diverse media outlets over a large region are covering them. In the old days, the result was a "clip file" of news stories that would be circulated to key people within an organization.
But for a local school district to do this is not only a mistaken use of resources, but leads to exactly the kind of distraction that McGee has so correctly targeted.
It was one of several such distractions just in recent days that generated completely avoidable controversy, including a nonsensical proposal to modify the district's conflict-of-interest rules and a serial meeting Brown Act violation caused by McGee consulting with three board members on an issue and then informing a fourth of the majority's opinion.
To his credit, since he arrived McGee has been trying to coax the board into realizing the harm that can come from distractions like these. He has underestimated, however, his ability to steer board members away from them, and has contributed a few of his own by being too eager to please each board member and then too defensive when the issue comes to light.
McGee is still learning how to lead in a community weary of controversy and tired of political gamesmanship. And he has the difficult job of still having a board majority who won't let go of past controversies even as he is strongly urging them to move on.
With a long break for the holidays, we hope McGee and the board will reflect on how they can work on real issues in a productive way. If they do that, the "wins" in press coverage will come naturally.