I worked for a long time in daily newspapers and understand the pressures of delivering an account of something one knows little about in a very short time. I also understand the basic frightened stupidity of your average assistant city editor, who will always lead the news in the direction of appeasing the powers that be. But this story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune is a journalistic travesty, even by the low standards of the Times-Picayune.
Let’s track back a bit. Here are the basics of a previous post of mine about my brother-in-law, Folwell Dunbar (conflict alert: yes, he’s my brother-in-law), caught in the act of serving the public interest:
You could put this one in the “no good deed goes unpunished” file, or simply roll your eyes, sigh and mutter “Louisiana” on the exhale. If you read my last post, you know my brother in law, Folwell Dunbar, is a public-interest hero. While working at the Louisiana state agency that regulates charter schools, Folwell reported being offered a $20,000 bribe by someone apparently connected to Abramson Science and Technology Charter School in New Orleans, which he was in the process of auditing. Folwell turned down the bribe and did exactly what a good public servant should do — he wrote a report documenting the offer, and he reported the attempted bribe to the police. During the audit, he found the school had been grossly mismanaged and recommended that the state board of education take away its charter.
The state did nothing for a year, but then the New Orleans Times-Picayune dug up Folwell’s report via a public records request and wrote a story about it. Suddenly, the state decided it was time to suspend the school and investigate its performance.
But because this is Louisiana, Folwell did not receive the award or promotion he deserved for doing his job well and ethically and bringing a problem to light in the proper way, so it could be dealt with. Instead, a few days after the original Times-Picayne report (which, by the way, Folwell had no role in inspiring), he was fired with no real explanation.
Now, because the state education department has written a posterior-covering report, the Times-Picayune has written a story parroting the official, ridiculous line that Folwell was the problem, somehow. Here’s the unquestioning, clueless bottom line, as recounted by the Times-Picayune:
The [state education department has] tentative plans to transform its charter office, known as the Office of Parental Options, into more of a policing arm rather than a means of providing support for schools. In fact, that process began shortly after the Abramson case hit the news, when the department fired Folwell Dunbar, who served in the charter office as an academic adviser. Responsibility fell to Dunbar for both investigating the accusations against Abramson and helping the school improve, state records show. In its report … the department makes clear that it will look to draw more of a line between those roles. Without mentioning Dunbar by name, the report says, “The previous field staff position, which focused on academic support of charter schools, will transition to a charter monitoring role.” Instead of an academic adviser, the department plans to hire a “school accountability and oversight manager.”
This story is not just a journalistic travesty — and yes, I’m calling out the so-called reporter, Andrew Vanacore, directly on this — it’s a public dis-service. Any reporter worth his journalistic salt would question, just a bit, the premise here. A state employee reports a bribe offer from someone connected to a substandard charter school and recommends that the school be closed; just as he should, the employee reports the bribe offer to law enforcement. This response qualifies for “heroic” status, especially in Louisiana, where whistleblowers are an endangered species. After reporting on Folwell’s heroism just two months ago, the Times-Picayune now has decided, because state officials who are attempting to cover up their failure to deal with a problematic school issue a report blaming the messenger,to fall right in with the official, incredible line. Yes, the whistleblower who reported wrong-doing was the problem. An ephemeral shuffling of the bureaucratic chairs will solve everything. Pigs will fly any day now.
The problem here isn’t some unfortunate overlap of regulatory roles. The problem is that someone connected to a bad charter school tried to bribe an honest state employee — and now the state wants to scapegoat that employee for doing exactly what a decent public servant ought to have done. Shame on the Times-Picayune, and on Vanacore.
Let me repeat it here, so there’s no misunderstanding: Folwell Dunbar is my wife’s brother. I have a conflict of interest as I write this post, because I think I know Folwell pretty well, and I think he’s more honest than the longest day of the year is long. But it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t know him from Adam Sandler. This Times-Picayune “report” is baseless smooching of the powers-that-be, and it includes holes an M1 tank could drive through. Why did it take state education officials a year to respond to Folwell’s report saying the charter school should be closed? Why did they respond only after his report was made public, through no effort of his own? Why didn’t the state education department report the attempted bribe to the FBI? Is the FBI investigating this situation?