What appears to be no news can be news after all

Saturday, August 11, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:40 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Scott Swafford: Public life editor
Telephone: 884-5366

Dear Reader,

On Tuesday, your Missourian published a story about the refusal by leaders of Columbia Public Schools to provide a list of property owners they contacted during the search for a site for a high school. The article appeared on the front page, below the fold, but with a headline large enough to grab your attention.

Was this news? It’s a valid question. Let’s face it. This was a story about something we didn’t know. Not a whole lot of facts beyond the report that your Missourian had requested the list under the state Sunshine Law and that school administrators, citing a section of the same law, had declined to hand it over.

Two experts on the Sunshine Law sided with your newspaper, declaring that the district’s refusal to provide the records violates the law. Although the state allows governmental bodies to close records related to discussions of real estate transactions, it requires that those records be made public once a transaction has taken place. In this case, the school district months before had closed the deal to acquire 80 acres from Turner Vemer. Therefore, records related to the sale should now be public.

Not so, says Assistant Superintendent Lynn Barnett. The records remain closed, Barnett wrote to our reporters, because the district is “always in the process of looking at locating land that would be appropriate for building schools or other related structures in Columbia.”

Your Missourian had no list to share, and it still doesn’t. So what the heck was that story doing on the front page? A cynical headline writer could accurately have written: “No new info on high school land search.”

There was little debate on this question in the newsroom. Certainly, our editors agreed, it was important for us to report to readers — who have demonstrated insatiable interest in the selection of the Vemer site — that administrators would not disclose the list. Doing so fulfilled our role as a watchdog over government.

There was considerable debate, however, over whether this news should play on the front page. Some among us felt it was an obvious choice. Others, however, worried that we might be perceived as thumbing our noses at school administrators, punishing them on page one for declining to fulfill our request.

In the end, we cast the latter notion aside. The Missourian has never set out to punish anyone or to make them look bad. Our goal has been simple: to provide as much explanation and transparency as possible about the high school decision. The fact that school officials are blocking that effort is news. Plain and simple.

At least that’s how we see it. We hope, dear reader, that you agree. Let us know either way.

Scott Swafford

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