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Commentary: A message from McKenna that he has nothing to say

Michael Janofsky | March 12, 2015

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George McKennaClose readers of LA School Report might notice how infrequently LA Unified board member George McKenna is quoted in any story, apart from comments he makes at board meetings.

There’s a reason for that, as I was reminded again yesterday in an email from him, and it’s a reason that both saddens me and, I believe, deprives the public.

Let me start from the beginning.

About a year ago, in the closing days of his campaign for the school board, McKenna was questioned at a candidate forum about his level of support for then Superintendent John Deasy and his overall performance. He declined to answer.

As reporters approached him after the forum, LA School Report pressed him under the assumption that voters might want to know his position, just as appointments to the Supreme Court and the cabinet undergo questioning on key issues prior to confirmation.

Again, he wouldn’t answer, saying, “I cannot tell the voter what my position is on John Deasy. I’ve never supervised him, I never have.”

That was the beginning and the end of LA School Report’s access to the newest board member. Weeks later, another of our reporters approached his chief of staff in hopes of establishing a line of communication, and she was told that neither McKenna nor his staff would ever speak to us again.

In the months after the election, McKenna moved seamlessly into his role as a board member, revealing himself to be a studied, compassionate, and thoughtful contributor on a wide variety of subjects. Listening to his observations on contentious and complex issues, I’ve been impressed by points he made and questions he raised that have elevated the debate, adding perspectives unseen by other board members.

I was especially struck by a comment early in his tenure, during a discussion over the impact of charter schools and how they are drawing so many children out of district schools. It’s an issue that never goes away and came up again this week.

In that earlier discussion, after the usual backing and forthing of praising and attacking charters, McKenna suggested that maybe it’s time for the district to look in the mirror and figure out what can be done within district schools to make parents less eager to remove their children into charters.

Now there’s a constructive way to approach the issue, I thought at the time. And that was only one such observation that made me a McKenna fan. Over the months, I’ve come to appreciate his wise insights, delivered in an avuncular manner, often with humor and bereft of the heavy educational jargon that makes so many board discussions unbearable.

As an editor, I feel it’s my responsibility to present as many sides of an issue as possible, given the constraints we have as a small website operating in the shadow of a big city newspaper, the LA Times, and a public radio station, KPCC, with far more resources to cover LA Unified.

I am also aware that there are people with an unshakable belief that LA School Report is biased, that we hate teachers, that we are tools of the “billionaire reformers,” in concert with them to destroy public education.

George McKenna may be somewhere in that camp. He told me as much in an email yesterday, when I sought to reopen a door with him in the aftermath of Tuesday’s board discussion of charters’ contributing to LA Unified’s steady decline in enrollment. I asked if he would talk to us to elaborate on his thoughts about improving district schools, as he suggested many meetings ago.

This is what he wrote back: “The past is the present. I have observed the articles and the political and slanted personal preferences in the editorial positions. I remain status quo.”

I am really sorry McKenna believes we are slanted with political and “personal preferences,” although I’m not sure what he meant by that second part. But I’m sorrier for readers, even the ones who agree with him — especially the ones who agree with him — who are denied his thoughts.

Because here’s the problem: In examining any contentious issue, the public is best served when all sides are presented. When only one side contributes, it deprives readers a fuller airing of opposing positions and alternative ideas.

In the case of LA School Report, it also feeds what I believe is a false perception that we are one-sided. So, absent giving readers the counter argument, we’re left with a vacuum that is generally filled with “so and so declined to comment” or “so and so did not respond to a message seeking comment.”

It’s anybody’s prerogative to decline an interview request. But it’s not the media outlet that suffers by the refusal. It’s the public. Especially in the case of elected officials, the public has a right to know where they stand for the sake of a better informed electorate.

Some people will never be convinced we have no agenda in covering LA Unified. They will persist in thinking we are the pawns of one group or another, working secretly to carry out some grand scheme. That’s what’s so great about conspiracy theories, of course: They answer every question.

But there is neither a conspiracy nor an agenda here, and if those who think they see hidden hands at work would see instead, their words in print, maybe they’d believe they were getting more equitable treatment. The public deserves as much.

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