News & Opinion » Currents Feature

Report Card

TUSD re-examines its media policies after previously clamping down on openness

by

comment
After a major misstep, officials with the Tucson Unified School District are retooling their policy regarding dealing with the media.

"We want our schools to be open," Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer told a gathering of reporters last month. "'No comment' is not acceptable."

A brouhaha between the district and the local media broke out in early November. Apparently reacting to what it considered unfavorable coverage by Arizona Daily Star education reporter George Sánchez, TUSD instituted new media policies.

Previously, the press was asked to contact the district's Communications and Media Relations Office to arrange interviews. However, the new policy required written questions to be submitted in advance, and TUSD's "leadership team" even went so far as to forbid district employees from talking to Sánchez.

Those changes obviously didn't sit well with journalists in town, and a large number of them complained. Some even publicly mocked the decision.

As a result, TUSD Communications Director Chyrl Hill Lander, at a Nov. 15 meeting, announced the revised media-contact policy was "off the table."

In its place, Lander indicated reporters were free to contact school officials directly, but asked that her office also be notified. "People can talk first," she emphasized.

Pfeuffer and Lander also told the assembled reporters that they would communicate the new policy to district officials.

Several weeks have passed. Have things actually changed?

To find out, the Tucson Weekly called a dozen TUSD principals to answer an innocuous question concerning telephone and Internet service. TUSD's communications office was notified first, but wasn't told which schools would be contacted.

Of the 12 schools called, three principals responded and freely answered the question. Six principals, on the other hand, didn't return the phone call, while three declined to comment until obtaining approval from TUSD administration.

"They told us we need to clear everything with the communications office," one school principal replied. Backing up that perception, another added, "Before we talk to the media, we're supposed to clear it."

When told of the results of these calls, Lander said the principals were free to talk if they wanted to. "No, they don't (have to clear it first), but they should let the communications office know.

"Most educators," she continued, "don't want to talk to the press. They want to work with students instead. Working with the media is foreign to them. This is a new way of thinking."

Acknowledging that some TUSD officials will never implement the new media-contact policy, Lander also said: "It is going to take some time to change."

According to Lander, about four years ago, the district began working on an official School Board policy for media contacts. But, she told those at the Nov. 15 meeting, after reporters complained about the suggestions, "they died a quiet death with no consensus on what to do."

Thus, Tucson's largest school district has no formal written policy for media contacts. School Board Member Judy Burns said she's comfortable with that arrangement.

"I believe in a free press," she said, "and think district officials should just be open with the media. I'm afraid a board policy would just be more restrictive. People shouldn't be afraid to tell the truth."

Admitting that many teachers and others are afraid of talking to the press about TUSD, Burns listed two reasons she sees their fear. "First, they're afraid what they say will come back to bite them, and they'll be reprimanded," she said. "Second, they're just unsure of what they know.

"I think everybody's afraid," Burns said. "Many, but not all, teachers are afraid of talking, because they don't want to be in the middle of a controversy. Then things happen. They have good reason to be fearful, but it shouldn't be that way."

While TUSD is without an official policy concerning media relations, three other school districts in town each have specific adopted guidelines.

At the Amphitheater School District, media questions are sent through the Legal Services Office. Todd Jaeger heads that department and said the district policy is to have media contacts come through him so he can arrange interviews.

Because of its size, the Catalina Foothills School District does things a little differently. Their official policy reads: "All communication with the news media for the purposes of seeking or arranging news coverage, providing official statements from the district, or responding to requests from the news media shall be channeled through the office of the superintendent."

That is also basically the policy of the Sunnyside School District. But in practice, inquiries from the media are forwarded to their Public Relations Office for routing and a response.

If employees will talk, current TUSD practice is obviously more open to the media than those three examples. But at the same time, it is subject to interpretation based on who is involved, and is subject to revisions in the future.

For the time being, however inadvertently, TUSD may possibly be the most media accessible school district in Tucson.

"We're trying to understand how to deal with the media," Pfeuffer told reporters in November. "We're trying to be as transparent as possible."

Add a comment