howardnlby Howard Stephenson

A recent Salt Lake Tribune news story blasted one former(Glenn Way) and two current legislators(Jim Ferrin, Mike Morley) for their business partnership which builds and leases school buildings to some of Utah’s new charter schools.  Reporter Rebecca Walsh wrote an inflammatory article containing half-truths and innuendo which made the trio look like self-serving hucksters.  The paper followed up with an editorial based on the article.

Walsh described the developers’ efforts as “self-serving development deals,” and said they benefit from “particularly cozy relationships.”  As judge, jury, and executioner, she said the legislators “are greasing the skids of charter school development as part-time legislators and lining their pockets with the public’s money in their full-time jobs.”

Walsh was sure to quote Utah Education Association president Pat Rusk, a long-time foe of parent-choice in education, “What we see behind the scenes . . . This is about making a profit.”

I suppose Walsh and Rusk think district schools are built by non-profit contractors? Why hasn’t Rusk criticized the millions in profits made by contractors who build the districts’ lavish schools? Charters are getting their schools built in about half the time of a regular public school and for about $15 million per high school while a district spends about $30 million.  You’d think the president of the teachers union would be thrilled to know these charter schools are built for about half the cost per student of a new district school.  Rather than criticizing charter schools, you’d think the teacher union would demand that the government schools spend less on construction frills and leave more for educating kids.

I’m amazed that the dozens of educators and public employees who serve in the legislature and vote to fund their own budgets, salaries, benefits, and working conditions, are not criticized by Ms. Walsh.  Some of these public employee legislators sometimes even sponsor the legislation which ends up “lining their pockets with the public’s money in their full-time jobs,” to borrow a phrase from Ms. Walsh’s criticism of legislators who build charter schools.

The fact is, with a part-time citizen legislature everybody has a conflict and most legislators end up carrying legislation which affects their livelihoods.  All of them inadvertently end up voting on legislation which affects their pocketbooks.  Most of the lawyers in the legislature serve on the Judiciary Committee and all lawyers in the Senate vote on the confirmation of judges before whom they may appear in court.

Walsh wrote, “The relationship between Way and Morley is long-standing. Morley took Way’s seat in the Utah Legislature when Way resigned three years ago.”  What she didn’t say was that Morely had to campaign and win the support of party delegates in a special caucus to take Way’s seat.  She also failed to mention that Way first met Morley three years earlier when Morley was recruited by detractors in a failed attempt to defeat Way.

But perhaps the worst error with Walsh’s story is her omission of the fact that without the various charter school constructors willing to risk their own money on the success of unproven new charter schools, none of these schools would ever be able to open their doors.  Charter schools have been denied the opportunity to purchase or lease district schools facing closure and charter schools don’t have the luxury of relying on the full-faith-and-credit of the property taxpayers which the districts use to back their building bonds.

These builder/owners of charter facilities are saving taxpayers millions of dollars by assuming the risk which taxpayers would otherwise bear.  When a contractor builds a district school, the company has no direct stake in the success of the students who attend there.  However, when a charter development company builds a charter school, their ability to get back their investment is directly tied to the success of these schools of choice.  In that sense, I suppose Ms. Walsh is right in calling these arrangements “particularly cozy relationships.”  Is it any wonder charter school developers are so interested in ensuring the school founders have the best plans for success, and work to ensure they have an education model which will attract parents who like the school?

The process used to build and lease charter schools is very similar to state government’s arrangements through the Division of Facilities Construction and Management as they advertise and procure lease-back facilities for many state offices.  Requests for proposals are received and judged based on the individual members of each team and the per square foot lease rate.

As usual, when stories like this appear in the print media, the various local radio talk show hosts discuss it like brain-dead gerbils – spoon-fed propaganda from the newspapers lining their cages. Seldom do any of these radio personalities broadcast original reports.  Instead, they allow newspaper reporters to decide their topics for the day.  But then perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh.  After all, it must take some effort to decide which of the many newspaper stories to focus on.

When an inflammatory story like this appears in one of the state’s newspapers, we often see the same article – often word for word – appear in other papers around the state.  This is accomplished by a “cozy” arrangement between the dailies and the Associated Press which picks up the story from one paper and, without attribution, sends it to the others with an AP byline.  This happened with the charter school construction story.  On August 14th the original story appeared in the Tribune and the next day it was in the Provo Daily Herald with an AP byline.

This is a disturbing arrangement which makes me wonder why these newspapers pretend to be competitors in bringing the most accurate and important news to their readers.  Why not openly admit they don’t compete for stories – they merely compete for advertising dollars?   With unmotivated journalism like this, we might as well have one daily paper for the whole state.