District 205 chief communications officer responds to Jan. 20 article

February 3, 2010

Editor’s note: The following was submitted as a Letter to the Editor in response to the Jan. 20-26, 2010, article “District 205 administrators spend nearly $2,000 on photos of themselves.” Following the letter is a response from Staff Writer Joe McGehee, who wrote the Jan. 20-26 article.

By Mark Bonne
Chief Communications Officer, Rockford Public Schools

This correspondence is in response to the article in your Jan. 20-26 edition, which appeared under the headline “District 205 administrators spend nearly $2,000 on photos of themselves.” Unfortunately, the article contained several errors and misleading statements.

With respect to the expenditure that generated the headline, professional portraits were taken of seven members of the Board of Education, Superintendent LaVonne M. Sheffield and eight members of her senior leadership team. The photographer’s fee of $1,095 included traveling to the Administration Building and setting up a temporary studio so that 16 individual portraits and two group portraits could be taken in conjunction with a scheduled Board meeting. As part of the charge, the photographer provided digital images and prints including enlargements of the two group photographs for display in the lobby, use on rps205.com and other communication purposes.

Outside photography services were necessary to accomplish administration goals including “dressing for success” in all we do and holding adults accountable. Display of the photographs in the lobby occurred as part of a modest remodeling to give the entrance to the central offices a professional and welcoming appearance; the photographs help the public clearly identify the elected officials who represent them and other top decision makers. Student artwork was not removed from the central offices; it remains an integral part of the backdrop for televised Board meetings and hangs in other prominent locations throughout the building.

The article questions the $800 expenditure to help cover the cost of a funeral repast for a student who was shot and killed during a gathering at a private residence on Halloween weekend in 2009. No public funds were used for this purpose; funds in the Community Development account come from private sources for charitable purposes including discretionary outreach. Providing financial assistance to the slain student’s grieving family was an appropriate use of these philanthropic outreach funds.

Similarly, the cost of providing uniforms and winter coats for students placed in the Leadership and Learning Academy were paid through a mix of private funds in the Community Development account and public funds under the superintendent’s discretion. The purchase of attire required as part of the alternative program is a completely legitimate use of the superintendent’s discretionary budget.

In reporting on the cost for Board members, the superintendent and members of her senior leadership team to attend the Illinois Association of School Boards annual conference in Chicago, The Rock River Times relied on information broadcast by WREX-Channel 13. In doing so, The Rock River Times repeated one error and introduced others.

The cost for 14 representatives of Rockford Public Schools to attend the conference—including travel, lodging and meals—was $17,371. That figure does not round to $20,000 as reported by WREX and The Rock River Times. It is also important to note that School Board members receive no compensation for their public service, which includes the time they invest at the conference.

Board President David Kelley was quoted out of context regarding the conference. While he personally attended a Myers-Briggs session on personality types, that was not the only session he attended and the IASB event has a much larger focus. The conference, which is attended by representatives of virtually every school district in the state, provides an important opportunity for policy education, networking and strategic planning—not only with other school officials, but with state legislators and other state policy and budget experts.

Finally, the article misidentified the author of an e-mail instructing conference attendees to submit reimbursements for personal expenses during the conference. That e-mail was sent by Julia Halsted, who is the executive coordinator to the Board of Education, not by Alice Saudargas, who serves as Board secretary.

Many of the errors and distortions might have been avoided had The Rock River Times not declined an appointment with Dr. Sheffield because the suggested time and location of the appointment were inconvenient for the newspaper’s writer.

Mark Bonne is chief communications officer for Rockford Public Schools.

Staff Writer Joe McGehee responds

The Rock River Times (TRRT) was notified Jan. 26 in a conference call with 13-WREX of inaccuracies made in the Jan. 20-26 article “District 205 administrators spend nearly $2,000 on photos of themselves” with regard to Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) annual conference in Chicago. One of the errors was originally made in a 13-WREX online report (not a 13-WREX broadcast) and then repeated in TRRT’s story. Within minutes of terminating the conference call, the necessary corrections were made to the online version of the article at rockrivertimes.com. A clarification was also published in the Jan. 27-Feb. 2 print edition.

With regard to Mr. Bonne’s assertion of “misleading statements,” every amount and every signatory cited in the article—except for the portion about the IASB conference—was derived from documents obtained by TRRT as part of a Dec. 18, 2009, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. To promote further transparency and remove the possibility of “misleading statements,” scans of the documents obtained from District 205’s Legal Department were posted with the article at rockrivertimes.com.

With regard to the rounding up of the $17,371 spent on the IASB conference, TRRT was relying on a 13-WREX report that used the term “nearly $20,000.” TRRT was not aware of the total until receiving Mr. Bonne’s letter. Upon receipt of Mr. Bonne’s letter, the amount was updated in all references to the conference at rockrivertimes.com.

The amount spent on the photographs was never questioned. Readers were simply provided with the facts surrounding the costs of the photographs.

When Mr. Bonne stated, “That student artwork was not removed from the central offices: it remains an integral part of the backdrop for televised Board meetings and hangs in other prominent locations throughout the building,” he introduced a misleading statement of his own.

The article clearly stated that: “The photographs have been displayed in an area of the Administration Building, 201 S. Madison St., formerly reserved for student artwork.” At no time did the article intimate that student artwork had been removed from the entire building.

Also, the article drew a clear line between expenditures funded by taxpayer and donated dollars. Both the $800 to help cover costs for a student’s funeral and the $948.96 spent on uniforms for the Leadership and Learning Academy were clearly cited as expenditures derived from donated funds, whether it was the Community Development Fund or the Superintendent’s Discretionary Fund.

In his letter, Mr. Bonne failed to disclose the details of the proposed meeting when he wrote: “Many of the errors and distortions might have been avoided had The Rock River Times not declined an appointment with Dr. Sheffield because the suggested time and location of the appointment were inconvenient for the newspaper’s writer.”

To suggest the meeting did not materialize because it was “inconvenient” for me completely ignores the numerous attempts made to obtain comment from District 205 between Jan. 6 and Jan. 19. In fact, the article had already been held out of the Jan. 13 edition to give District 205 officials more time to comment.

Also, as reported in the original article, Mr. Bonne was reminded of TRRT’s inquiries for comment for the story at a Jan. 11 meeting. Mr. Bonne also approached me at a Jan. 14 meeting to inform me he would arrange a time for the superintendent to speak with TRRT after she returned from a trip out of town.

TRRT did not hear back from Mr. Bonne until approximately 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 19—about an hour before press time for the Jan. 20 issue—when he proposed a meeting for Friday, Jan. 22, with the superintendent. As Mr. Bonne and I had discussed previously, TRRT had already held the story for a week to allow comment from District 205, and withholding this information from our readers for an additional week was simply out of the question.

From the Feb. 3-9, 2010 issue.

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