The people should have the real power

Published 7:48 am Friday, May 1, 2015

On this very page, a reader and former school board member argues that I misquoted her, and then she went on to imply that has something to do with the fact that some members of the school board won’t call me back.

In the article, “Constitution is guiding principle for FPD,” Johnetta Nichols claims to have asked Chief Phil Hardison about a hypothetical situation where a person refused to get out of a car. And that it was Hardison’s decision to make her the hypothetical person in the car. My notes, however, have Hardison placing her in the car because Nichols put herself there, in a hypothetical situation where she refused to get out.

For the record, I did not misquote her, and Frank Davis, the president of the Berkley Neighborhood Watch group, and Franklin Police Department’s Capt. Tim Whitt, who was seated next to her, remember it as written in the story.

She uses it to go into my relationship with the school board, and that she senses I’m frustrated because of having to print “no comment” or “cannot be reached for comment” so often.

It has been a while since I have spoken to school board chair Edna King, at least beyond something simple in passing. The last time we truly talked, she also accused me of misquoting her. It was the difference between have and has in the following quote: “My awareness of school law and the standards of quality have proven to be an asset to our board.” That statement dates back to an article in July titled “Franklin School Board readies to elect chair.”

For the record, I did get this one wrong. Looking back at my notes, she said “has,” and I either typed it wrong when I wrote the story or it got corrected wrong on the page. Either way, it was my fault.

When she brought it up in August at Franklin’s welcome luncheon for new teachers, I apologized. A month removed, I had completely forgotten about the conversation and that article, but she had held onto the memory because she believes that The Tidewater News intentionally tries to make her sound “stupid.” Since then, each time I’ve reached out to her over the phone, the call has neither been answered nor returned.

At the time, I pondered why she’d be worried about sounding “stupid,” as she had never brought anything like this to my attention before. The only instance I could come up with had nothing to do with a grammar mix-up. It was in Richmond at one of the Virginia Department of Education meetings in regard to the Division-Level Review. On-her-way-out superintendent Dr. Michelle Belle was sitting beside her, but she let King answer the majority of the questions.

It wasn’t even so much what The Tidewater News put in the story, as what was not reported. Website commenters who had gone out of their way to view the video went on about how King really made the Franklin City Public School system look bad in front of the board and that she was “stupid.”

I felt bad for her because if I would have had to face that onslaught of questions and anger from VBOE, I would have probably run out of the room crying. But then again, I’m not the school board chair in a system where the state authority felt the school board was part of the problem.

Understand that I would be lying if I characterized my relationship with King and the school board as “good,” but at that point most of them still returned my calls. At least, until July they did. Then, it seems like a group decision was made amongst the majority of the school board to not deal with The Tidewater News.

Thankfully it wasn’t all of them, but these days I’m down to Will Councill and Nancy Godwin. I wouldn’t characterize these relationships as “good,” either, but at least they will be professional.

It’s a hard situation to characterize. You see, the newspaper had a “bad” relationship with the school board long before I arrived in 2013. I didn’t make it any better for myself because a few months in, I started reporting on a lot of the negative things going on in the system.

I could feel the relationship change from mostly pleasant to having to deal with pointed looks, bad vibes and all the ugly things they could think of to say in meetings about The Tidewater News after we had done a story on the School-Level Review.

I dreaded going to the meetings, but I did it for the readers. I tried to be positive and not add fuel to the fire. But if I could have filed a workplace harassment suit based on my time at the school board, I might have had a case.

Yes, we wrote negative stories, but we also published a lot of positive news. So much so that someone with the Southampton County Public School system actually complained about the front-page treatment Franklin got.

That’s because of all of the positive stories that were coming out of the system, not because this person wanted to see Southampton dragged through the mud.

It’s our place to highlight the good, but it’s also our job to highlight what’s going wrong. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know it’s there. Everyone in Franklin knew there were problems with the schools, but truly learning what the problems were helped even more. Once the community understood it, many Franklin High School graduates and community stakeholders reached out to the system to start making a difference. Many of them have said they did so because of those “negative” articles.

If it makes someone look bad, it’s because they made a mistake. What they need to do is learn from it. Everyone makes mistakes, and I’m certainly one of them. And similar to the school board, my mistakes are on display for a lot of people to see. At the end of the day, the important thing is to figure out what process or work flow is causing the mistake, and to correct it for the future. Hiding it only leads to trouble.

I’ve tried to explain in this way and more why we have to do “negative” articles, but I guess if it has to be explained then it’s one of those things the person just won’t get. Short of apologizing for all of the “negative” stories and promising to not write another one, the relationship could not be fixed. And so it has been what could be characterized as “bad.”

And so it has been frustrating, but not for me personally — for the readers. Every time I type “no comment” or “could not be reached for comment,” it’s robbing the community at large of getting a better understanding of the situation from the person who is supposed to be representing them.

Then it frustrates me because there’s nothing the public can do about it. School board members don’t have to answer to the people, as the Franklin City Council puts them in place.

School board members don’t even have to answer to council according to a lawyer hired to tell them that. Once an official is in place, in short council can’t remove them before the term expires. And when the term expires, and no one else shows up to be nominated, council has shown a willingness to put the same people — accused of being part of the problem by a state regulatory board, and who do not even feign answering to the people — right back on.

An elected system with an impeachment clause in place may not produce better candidates, but at least it puts the power where it belongs — with the people.

That’s much better than where it currently resides, with a local government agency that has no reason to fear what the people think.

Cain Madden is the managing editor of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at 562-3187 or