School beat reporters discuss hottest topics

Reporting on issues pertaining to education and the school board is still as important as ever, as five local journalists explained during the panel called “The School Beat: Common Core, Uncommon Scandals” at the SEJC convention on Feb. 22.

The 70-minute long discussion included subjects such as Common Core and the outrage that followed; a controversy involving the implementation of the voucher program that was all but ignored; how a reporter working on a school-related article should develop his or her sources; and a $5,000 bribery scandal involving two St. Landry Parish, La. School Board members.

The panel was composed of Zane Hill, the school board reporter for the Opelousas Daily World; Heather Miller, the former education writer for the Daily Iberian; Tina Macías, the investigative reporter for KATC-TV3; Marsha Sills, the education reporter for The Advocate who has covered the Lafayette Parish School Board for the past five years; and Barbara Leader, the senior writer for The News-Star in Monroe, La., who covers K-12 beat. 

 “The school beat is a little bit different from any other beat.  It’s not like you can just walk on to a campus and go start talking to people,” said Sills, who covered the school board for the past five years.  “You have to develop sources, and one way to do that is to go to an academic pep rally or a science fair, and meet the teachers and parents.  You never know when that is going to turn into the biggest story.”

Sills added that it is important to remain objective and to get other voices for the story.  There has also been an increase in the number of attendees of school board meetings, which can be useful in finding parents or teachers with differing perspectives on a subject.  She admitted that she did not expect school and education to be as newsworthy as she first thought.

Hill recalled that not long after he started working at the Opelousas Daily World in September 2012, he had to report the St. Landry Parish School Board bribery scandal involving Quincy Richard, Sr. and John Miller, who have solicited bribes for votes for superintendent candidate Joseph Cassimere, which did not sit well with him.

 “The story was as soon as this guy threw his hat in the ring, they started meeting with him and saying ‘it’s going to take a lot more than your record to get in there,’” he explained.  “So what does he do?  He goes to the FBI, had meetings with him, and they busted them.”

The case dragged on for a while, with elections postponed a number of times, but it was not that long after until Hill remembered an important detail about Richard, and it took a story a couple of months later about a local city council member who stepped down because of his history as a convicted felon to jog his memory.

 “Right around that time, I remembered ‘wait a minute.  One of these school board members is a convicted felon.’ I wondered if he had a governor’s pardon, because if he had one of those, he would be OK,” he added.  “Well, he didn’t, so I threw that in the Sunday paper in March or in May, so he had that going for him.”

Leader said the most memorable story she did was about the voucher program and how a small church in Ruston was assigned the largest number of students in the entire state through the program.  She grew suspicious of it, so when she saw that there was hardly anything there, she learned from the school’s president that there will be a school built from the state’s tax dollars.  As Leader worked on the story, she uncovered something that the media had barely touched on.

 “What I discovered was that they had not visited any of these schools that they approved for the voucher program,” she said.  “They were so eager to implement the governor’s (Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s) initiative that they had not gone to these schools, so they were unwilling to admit that they hadn’t gone to them.”

Her story attracted a great amount of attention, enough so that during a legislative session, each member of the Senate Education Committee had a copy of it and asked Louisiana School Superintendent John White questions about it, which put him on the spot.  Leader said this made her incredibly nervous, but it also resulted in other cities investigating their voucher schools and learning that the state also did not do much for them, allowing them to hold it accountable for doing so.

 “I think the bigger papers in the state kind of failed in a larger sense than a lot of the smaller papers,” added Miller, citing other scandals.  “There were very few people in the state taking it out, aside from the press releases.  There were so many near lawsuits from people that were underreported at the time.”

The Common Core State Standards had also been a hot-button issue for months, with parents and teachers taking sides.  The panelists stressed about how it is important to find teachers and parents who are either for or against it to provide objective coverage involving both sides.

 “Back in May, we did a story called ‘Common Core for the Common Man,’ and tried to break it down into the easiest way for people to understand,” said Macías.  “One of the things we did during that time was that we went to the State Department and asked them for someone, and they kept saying to go to John White.  We basically completely bypassed them and had to go and find teachers, parents and others who actually understood the legislation.”