I realize the general opinion of opinion columnists is that we sit by our flat panel displays while emitting evil cackles as we wait for the next juicy tidbit to come our way. Once we get that gossip in our grubby little hands, performing no due diligence whatsoever, we proceed to exaggerate, excoriate and exacerbate.
But the reason so many of you adhere to this implausible journalistic model is you rarely hear about the ones we let go. The sad truth is, the average socio-political opinion columnist spends more time on stories that go nowhere than on those that bear fruit.
Here’s a perfect example.
Geneva For Accountable Tax Spending (FACTS) member Rich Hayhurst sent me a copy of his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for District 304’s current enrollment numbers, Superintendent Kent Mutchler’s denial of that request, and a subsequent Mutchler memo outlining the cost of processing that denial.
As you can see from the memorandum, between staff and outside attorney time, it looks like the district spent $805 just for the privilege of saying no to the simple petition. Though that apparent silliness would’ve made a great column, I wasn’t buying it.
All you really have to do is apply a little logic. District 304 administrators know Hayhurst and his FACTS cohort Bob McQuillian are always out there. They know the Kane County Chronicle, the Daily Herald and yours truly are out there, too. There’s no way they'd spend that kind of cash just to issue a terse “no.”
So despite the district doing their best to make themselves look silly, with a little effort, I determined that Hayhurt’s request wasn’t that cut and dried (they never are), District 304 denied it because accurate enrollment numbers have to come from the state (long story), and I really should’ve become a lawyer who can get away with charging $190 an hour to review simple FOIA requests.
If I were to take District 304 to task here, it would be to ask Mutchler and communication coordinator Kelly Munch how the heck they let that misleading memo make it out there in the first place. Munch, a former reporter and capable columnist for the Chronicle, really ought to know better than to wave that kind of red cape in front of FACTS folks like Hayhurst and Bob McQuillian (or opinion columnists like me, for that matter).
If I am going to lower the bigger boom here—and I am—it would be on Hayhurst and McQuillian for creating the kind of atmosphere that allows a simple FOIA request to balloon into a full-fledged front-page Daily Herald story.
Rich and Bob! While I certainly appreciate your stop-the-schools-from-spending-too-much sentiment, it’s time to grow up and knock it off.
I’ve been pussyfooting around you two for the past year in hopes that you’d finally understand you’re actually doing more damage to your cause than good, but, having failed, it’s time to take off the gloves.
Here’s how the dynamic works.
It starts with a simple e-mail to business services honcho Donna Oberg asking for the current enrollment. If I were Oberg, I would have explained the numbers weren’t final, ballpark it, and be done with 'em. But because FACTS tears into every perceived District 304 “malfeasance” like a monkey on a cupcake, administrators didn’t want to “make the mistake” of passing along inaccurate information.
So now this denial causes our two relentless FACTS friends to get their hackles up and turn it into a full-blown FOIA request. So now the district decides to dig in and wait for the official numbers. So now this whole thing has to be the result of a conspiracy between the board and a school district clearly bent on world domination.
Rich and Bob! By your incessant haranguing and harrassment, you’re creating the very District 304 behavior that you then so bitterly complain about. And now it’s become a self-fulfilling feedback loop. People can take constant criticism for so long before they’re afraid to make a move for fear of the next mortal blow.
And sure enough, there I was discussing the situation with School Board member Tim Moran when another e-mail from McQuillian came in claiming that if that memo was incorrect, then “How many other memos written by the administration are also wrong?”
And here we go again. Stop it!
I hate to tell you this guys, but everything you don’t like in life doesn’t come down to a conspiracy. On rare occasion, the CIA or FBI may be able to do it, but most of us can't keep our mouths shut long enough to pull it off. Whenever the nefarious faction of the Kane County Board tries to come up with something, I typically hear about it a mere 10 minutes after it’s been hatched.
Rich and Bob! People make mistakes! And being a semi-reasonable citizen, the second I saw that memo I knew there had to be some sort of error. But to then take advantage of that mistake by turning around and shouting, “See! You can’t trust them with anything” shows how morally bankrupt FACTS can become.
Another interesting irony is Hayhurst’s and McQuillian’s persistent FOIA requests might cost District 304 as much as 20 grand this year. In six years as a columnist, I’ve filed a few FOIA requests myself, but I’d be shocked if their total cost came to anything near $1,000.
Loyal readers are well aware of my own disagreements with certain School Board spending decisions. Those Williamsburg School windows show that Geneva champagne taste in a beer economy, Fabyan School was an unnecessary mistake, and their aversion to proactive thinking can drive me nuts.
I just got my “Notice of Revised Assessment” from the county, and if the school portion of my property tax bill doesn’t decrease by something approximating that 4 percent decline, I'm probably going to make Rich and Bob look like Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Theresa.
But those are philosophical differences! And the fact that we have those ideological disagreements doesn’t automatically mean that any district administrator or School Board member is inherently evil. And if I consistently conduct myself as if they were, then what does that say about me?
So Rich and Bob, from this point on, whenever I think you’ve crossed the line and you’re making the situation worse, I’m going to let you know.
But alas! Despite my rational attempt to show them the error of their ways, I don’t think they’re about to change anytime soon. And since we can’t fix other folks, what we’re ultimately left with is self-examination.
Part of the reason we find ourselves in this endless loop predicament is the School Board’s propensity to take things too personally. Don’t get me wrong, I love former president and current board member Mary Stith, but she’s the poster child for the “victim” response. And once that “poor me” blood hit the water, FACTS just couldn't resist going for more.
School Board members! For better or worse, you took the job, and at the end of the day, you have a job to do. Trust me! No one knows the feeling of having folks constantly hammer you better than me. (Try writing about Internet anonymity!) But regardless of any feelings you may have for FACTS, you need to respond to Hayhurst and McQullian as reasonably and unemotionally as you would to any other concerned citizen. If you choose to come from a place of fear and disdain, the cycle will only perpetuate itself.
So stop it!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again! When I’m the only adult in the room, it really ought to scare the crud out of the rest of you.