There were some strong comments hurled this newspaper’s way after we published a story Oct. 24 on Peninsula School District board candidate Garth Jackson not being asked back as a substitute by several teachers within the district after working in their classrooms in 2011 and 2012. The substitute evaluations were also signed off by district administrators of the schools where complaints were filed.
I received a handful of emails and voicemails, and some readers even told me in person their thoughts on the story.
Here’s a sampling of the more colorful comments I received:
▪ Jackson “is under a partisan attack by The Gateway using unsubstantiated hearsay reports that were exposed to the Gateway by someone at district headquarters.”
▪ “This is nothing more than a partisan attempt at character assassination on an innocent guy ...”
▪ “Shame on Karen Miller and The Gateway and The News Tribune for their complicity in this trumped-up story about nothing.”
▪ “Shame on you for your Chicago-style politics.”
It was hard for me to hear a lot of the negative feedback for a story that my staff and I as well as a group of News Tribune editors felt had so much important and relevant information pertaining to a school board race that has a huge effect on the community. A lot of thought over the previous two months went into deciding whether or not this was a story worth pursuing once we received several tips on Jackson’s behavior in the classroom.
After a lot of internal discussions — and an hourlong, in-person interview with Jackson at our office after we received the tips — we decided to look into the matter. Reporter Karen Miller put in a public records request with the school district in early October to see if Jackson’s personnel file couldshed any light on the situation.
Instead of allowing the Peninsula School District to release the records to us, Jackson tried to block release by filing a request for a temporary restraining order in Pierce County Superior Court. Judge Frank Cuthbertson denied the request, and the records were released to the newspaper on Oct. 30.
“How Jackson performed as a Peninsula School District teacher is of paramount concern to voters,” Cuthbertson said, citing that as a reason to deny Jackson’s request for an injunction.
Cuthbertson’s reasoning to deny the request affirmed our reasons for pursuing the story. We thought the community had the right to know about how a teacher — not just an everyday citizen, but someone running for public office — performed in a classroom in his own district.
The judge didn’t believe the information in the files “would cause (Jackson) to suffer immediate and irreparable injury,” as Jackson’s lawsuit alleged.
We believed that we needed to put the information out there — while giving Jackson multiple opportunities to respond to statements in the files — and let voters decide for themselves. We would not be doing our jobs as reporters and editors had we failed to investigate deeper or withheld this information from the community.
I also heard complaints from readers that we purposely held the story so it would have the biggest impact so close to Election Day. That was strictly how the timeline materialized; the story would have run earlier in October had Jackson not sued to block release of the records.
And I had many people tell me what a “nice man” Jackson is. In every dealing that I had with him, I have every reason to believe that.
But pursuing this story wasn’t about ruining a nice man’s political aspirations. It was about giving voters a more complete picture of the kind of teaching experience Jackson touted in his campaign.
While community newspapers often are the first to report lighter stories that larger media outlets wouldn’t consider covering, we also need to report the stories — within the man-hours our newsroom staff can handle — that have the greatest impact on our community.
We felt this story was definitely one that fit that criteria.