Local newspaper barking up wrong tree in high-school district superintendent dismissal?

The Union is grandstanding in its news pages about suing the Nevada Joint Union High School District, “seeking to force the district to release information on the March termination” of then-Superintendent Marianne Cartan.

It has filed an FOI request and now a lawsuit ordering compliance with the California Public Records Act.

The “tough guy” stance is notable for a local newspaper that is perceived more as a lapdog than a watchdog in our community. It has been hounding the teacher’s union too, not just the school district administration, for the “inside scoop” on Cartan.

But there is no “smoking gun” or “cover up” behind her dismissal, according to my sources — just an honest, professional disagreement about meeting performance goals.

It happens all the time — on school boards, nonprofits and in business. Volunteer boards often “run the show” in our community (for better or worse).

Teachers had been critical of Cartan’s performance in a survey, as reported previously. And the school already had run into criticism from accreditors about the need to improve administrative practices.

There’s not much downside for The Union in suing the school district, however. It is not a big advertiser, as Citizen’s Bank was, for example. The Union’s coverage of Citizen’s Bank was much more reactive than proactive. Other media and bloggers routinely scooped The Union on the unraveling of Citizen’s.

Come to think of it The Union got scooped on Cartan’s dismissal too.

I’m all for digging deeper, but you also have to figure The Union’s new management wants to reshape the paper’s image — albeit in a “safe” way. I doubt whether they’ll be suing any big advertisers under FOI laws.

In the case of the high-school district, don’t expect any major revelations if The Union gets the information it is seeking.

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

20 thoughts on “Local newspaper barking up wrong tree in high-school district superintendent dismissal?”

  1. I like this quote from Carl Rogers: “The facts are always friendly, every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area, leads one that much closer to what is true.”

  2. If the reason for Cartan’s dismissal is as innocuous as your “sources” suggest, why are the trustees wasting taxpayer money on lawyers to fight disclosure? I suspect it’s for the usual reason officials fight these battles: Disclosure would expose their incompetence.

    But you have rendered a public service here. There’s no need for the trustees to spend $70,000 on a PR consultant when they have you packing the mail.

  3. Jeff – I was actually heartened by the Union’s decision to do some real investigative reporting. I am not thrilled if they have also filed a lawsuit, but I think the request is reasonable. I hope you are wrong about the cynicism you suggest they might be displaying regarding who they investigate. This is a big county – I think multiple news sources are a good thing. I appreciate your good reporting, and Yubanet’s, and would like to support a re- energized Union as well.

    1. Heidi, It is not investigative reporting to file an FOI lawsuit. The Union needs to develop better sourcing to get the “inside scoop.” As for the FOI requests, I would like to see a lot more consistency. And there’s some real merit to this comment: “The District will not trample on Ms. Cartan’s privacy interests by disclosing her performance evaluations,” Duran wrote in a letter to Managing Editor Brian Hamilton on March 29, adding that the district disputed any continued “mischaracterization” of Cartan’s release from employment as a “firing.” I also believe my own sourcing will bear out what I said: No “smoking gun” and no “cover up,” just honest disagreement about meeting performance goals. It happens. Meanwhile, Ms. Cartan (or anybody in this position) has to suffer through the small town gossip.

  4. This case is getting out of hand on the “riding a high horse” index. Now, in an editorial this morning, The Union waxes on about holding the First Amendment “near and dear.” Yet when the former publisher sued a local father for $1 million in a tragic incident, the newspaper did not report on EXISTING public court documents until three weeks later (after the suit was reported on a blog).

    The Union also did not dig deeper into documents on Citizen’s Bank or the Lester case until after in-depth reports surfaced in the Bee. In the public sector, the recent fire district fiasco was handled with “kid gloves” until reports popped up elsewhere (thanks Yubanet). How about a public-records request on correspondence between school administrators and the Sheriff’s office on the MJ bust at NUHS? It might be enlightening.

    All told, it seems the local “newspaper of record” gets to pick and choose when the public has a “right to know” (and when it doesn’t).

    Let’s hope The Union also reports on the mounting legal fees of the high-school district to defend this case. It might wind up being the biggest “news nugget” of all amid all the existing financial cutbacks. The school has to go hire an out-of-town legal team to manage a First Amendment case; it’s not handled “in house.”

    I also hope the School District gets to respond to this editorial (it should have been able to do that this morning). I’m reminded of the adage “don’t argue with newspapers who purchase ink in barrels.” There are two sides here.

    There is no “smoking gun” either I believe; just an honest disagreement about meeting performance goals. It happens all the time.

    It’s been fashionable to bash government since Watergate and now the “tea people” feed into it too. But government also functions well, following the proper procedures, and at the same time protecting the rights of its administrators, who are “at will” workers, just like the ones at The Union.

    1. Terminating a superintendent near the end of a school year is very serious. If the reason for the termination does turn out to simply be “an honest disagreement about how to reach performance goals”, as you suggest, shouldn’t the public be informed about the substance of that disagreement?

  5. Greg,

    All of the other issues mentioned above are also “very serious.” What makes you think the FOI will magically turn up the substance of the disagreement beyond the public statements and other reporting?

    The media has repeatedly reported this action comes against a backdrop of accreditors criticizing the high school district’s administration (for years) for a lack of cohesive, collaborative management. We’ve quoted verbatim from the accredation reports, as has The Union. It’s all public information.

    More recent surveys also showed a “lack of confidence” by the teachers, as reported.

    And as board member Coulter said in public at the time: ““She has attempted to affect many things that needed correction and worked tirelessly for the students and schools, and to my knowledge has done a good job, and I thought that things could be worked out. She should have more time, but the board didn’t vote that way, so we had obviously difference of opinion.”

    To me, that sums it up well. It’s never going to be spelled out in a press release.

    Ms. Cartan has her legal rights too, and the District has its legal rights to preserve the integrity of its processes. I doubt The Union or Swift would be too eager to release its performance reviews, correspondence from the EDD or whatever else exists for its current crop of managers, who also are public figures as “the newspaper of record.”

    1. I agree, Jeff, if your point is that this information may not lead to the important changes that are needed at NU for it to get back on track. It might if it was part of a thorough job of investigative reporting, and hopefully this will take place.

      Perhaps a more important discussion would be how to effectively bring about constructive change at NU.

  6. Although out of the loop for awhile I think it is the same person. Superintendent Cartan was very pro-administrator and anti-teacher. I have heard that she would take little to no input from those on the ground, teachers. I know of a couple administrators who were either forced out or removed due to their ability to work closely and advocate for their teachers. I could be wrong but I think it is the same person.

      1. I haven’t followed the Cartan story, but whatever the “facts” are subjectively determined to be by the various people involved or taking sides, it is certainly true that the working relationship between BOEs, superintendents and teachers can and usually is, contentious.

        And, as Mr. Anderson’s link notes — in essence — fragging is a weapon with dire consequences. Having been in the same unit, USMC 3/1 as the subject of the article, I had a fragging happen on my watch, at dawn. Unfortunately for the desires of the grenade thrower, his intended victim, the company commander, was not in the tent. Fortunately, a popular Lt. was only slightly wounded. Having gone through AIT and flown to Nam with the Captain/Co. Commander, I knew his character all too well. I doubt if many of the Marines at our position, not far from Hill 190, would have shed a tear if he had been hit. Like too many officers, he tried to earn promotions by virtue of high enemy body counts, which naturally resulted in deaths and maiming of many of our company, too.

        I don’t know who is trying to frag whom in the Cartan situation, but do believe “fragging” is a weapon, usually, of last resort. And the field of battle in modern education is vast and controversial, with so many spurious stories attacking teachers as the enemy. When asked, I absolutely tell young people not to go into education, unless the person is seeking a masochistic career.

        So many experts and profit seekers in the field, with incompatible agendas. A very ugly battle, exemplified by the Texas GOPs stand against ‘Critical Thinking skills’ being maintained as an official, educational standard.

        Truly incredible.

    1. Ben I would tend to disagree with the assumption that Mrs. Cartan was or is anti-teacher. Her husband Mike is a teacher at NU and one of the finest at the school. Education has been a very high priorty for the Cartan family. I think more small town politics were in play.

      1. Thanks Ken,
        It might have been another person and I am just mixing up their titles.

  7. This whole affair is about petty small town politics that have been going on for years as evidenced by the turmoil and turnover at the top levels. How many principals and superintendents have there been in the last few years? This is not normal. There is a divisive political clique in the district that fractures the cohesiveness and any administrator who has tried to remedy the situation has met the same fate as Cartan. According to teachers I know, the hastily implemented faculty vote of confidence was a sham and was worded and conducted in such a way as to come up with a negative outcome. The issue was about performance, but not Cartan’s, and those clique members whose performance was in question sought her ouster to protect their own jobs. I applaud the Union, as the whole sordid affair needs to see the light of day. The ‘good ole boys’ network that Jeff constantly refers to with regard to local politics is also at work in our schools.

  8. In my time, in Nevada County, I have seen very few cases of good in depth investigative reporting by the union. I would welcome a change.

    1. George,
      You’ve ignored the district’s role in protecting the privacy of its workers. The Union would do the same. Stay tuned.

    2. As someone who has hired local young people who were thrown away by the high school district and sent to the “alternatives,” I think a large variety of proctology reports are entirely appropriate for NJUHSD. While they do a fine job with the upper echelons of students, they should be held liable for what they have done for many years to the lower tiers.

      Sure, the parents are ultimately responsible and I realize that for some crazy reason it’s everyone’s god-given right to procreate and blame incubus for not raising them worth a crap. But that does not address the detritus and upset to society.

      If you’re going have a public school, you need to be held responsible to educate every one of them. No “special” schools allowed to make your numbers look good. That’s cheating. Otherwise, let’s realize that a public school system is an ideal from another era, privatize the whole thing, and let the chips fall where they may. It will be cheaper, leaner, and a much more pleasant experience for everyone involved.

  9. “An ideal from another era, privatize the whole thing, let the chips fall where they may . . . more pleasant experience for everyone involved,” are extremely dubious statements, IMO, and certainly un-validated. Having spent most of my teaching career at “special” schools, I firmly believe in their value.

    Once an entity becomes privatized, the overarching goal becomes profit; it has to be to survive. And, there is no reliable evidence that eliminating public education and replacing it with only private schools — a huge task for our large, diverse student population — will benefit students and society in general.

    Whatever the Union does, I can’t believe it will produce any solutions or an unbiased presentation of the reality of the entire Cartans chapter of the local education story. After subscribing to the Union for several years, I finally cancelled. The few times I’ve read the Union under the new management, I’ve felt it has declined in value even more.

    An extremely complicated problem producing so many plans for change.

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