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Pulitzer Prize Winner: How to Cover Stonewalling or Antagonistic School Boards and Leaders

South Florida Sun Sentinel’s Scott Travis provides tips on ways to get beyond “No Comment.”

Photo courtesy of the author.

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When a school district wants to hide corruption, mismanagement and misspending, it will do what it can to make a reporter’s job difficult.

As the education reporter covering Broward County Public Schools in Florida – a district plagued by a school massacre, an $800 million construction bond boondoggle and the arrest and resignation of its superintendent – my beat has been difficult.

Especially since the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, district officials have refused my interview requests, demanding emailed questions. And they often took days, or sometimes weeks,  to respond.  Despite their stonewalling, I uncovered that Broward – and districts throughout the state – failed to report numerous crimes on campus, an investigation that led to a change in state law and helped the South Florida Sun Sentinel win a Pulitzer.

Perhaps the most impactful story I wrote was on a $17 million classroom technology contract awarded to the friend of a top administrator without competitive bids. It led a grand jury to indict three public officials, including the superintendent.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned about dealing with difficult school district leaders:

Find Helpful People.

There are always people who want to get information out. Just look beyond the school district’s most vocal critics to find people who have valuable inside information.

For example, whenever a teacher contacts me about a problem or complaint at their school, I file their phone number and email address. Even if they contact me anonymously on Twitter, I save the conversation. When another issue comes up at their school, I’m likely to reach out to them, even if just for background. If they had faith to contact me once, and I show them respect, they’ll probably be helpful again.

I also look for grievances or lawsuits filed by employees. I write down the names and relevant information of speakers at school board meetings. If a teacher, secretary or maintenance worker is willing to complain about mold or poor working conditions in a public setting, they’re probably happy to talk to a reporter.

Make Lots of Public Records Requests and Follow Through.

In Florida and many other states, government agencies by law don’t have to grant interviews or even answer questions. But they must comply with public records requests. I especially like to request emails since they provide a voice to people who can’t or won’t talk to me.

It’s easy to forget all the requests you made. I keep a log of all of mine and set reminders on my calendar to follow through.

I use Google sheets, so I can easily update from any computer or my tablet. My columns include date, records tracking number, agency, description of my request, status of request (i.e. acknowledged, filled, denied) and dates of reminders I sent. Once the request has been closed, I change the text from black to red.

I check the list several times a week, and if I notice an unusually long time has passed, I start sending reminders every day or two. My Outlook calendar is also a godsend to remind me to check for important records.

I also take advantage of our attorneys. Sometimes one note from a lawyer is more valuable than three or four nagging reminders from me.

If your publication doesn’t have a lawyer, my best advice is to be persistent. Send a polite but firm note every three or four days. If that doesn’t work, send it daily and copy decision-makers on your requests.

Which brings me to my next piece of advice:

Keep Asking for a Response.

My school district often doesn’t comment for my stories. But instead of saying “no comment,” they will often delay, possibly hoping I’ll move on after my story is published.

But I don’t move on. They may have missed my deadline, but if there’s a chance the issue may come again some time, I want an on-the-record response available since I might not get anything the next time I make a request on deadline.

I send a message every few days asking the same questions. If that doesn’t work, I copy school board members, some of whom may want an answer for themselves. Eventually, they usually respond with something.

I try never to be rude. I don’t want to put anything in writing that can be used against me. But I am firm and persistent.

Go to Meetings, But Not Necessarily to Cover Them.

I attend as many meetings as I can fit into my schedule, especially ones at schools.

I’ve attended many school advisory councils, bid openings, union negotiations, and textbook committees – you name it.

I rarely write daily stories from these meetings. But I meet sources that might help in other stories and learn about issues or events that may be important in the future.

Screenshot Online Information.

I regularly check court websites for new lawsuits, the Auditor General’s site, meeting agendas, a teacher discipline database and  anything relevant that is regularly updated. Sometimes, great stories can be found in these easy-to-find sites, and they don’t require a cooperative school district.

Whenever I find useful information, I download it, screenshot it or screen record the video since it may not be there the next time I look.

I also use the Internet Wayback Machine and cached versions of websites that come up in Google searches to help me find “lost” information.

Use Social Media.

I tweet a lot of the quick small stuff that I don’t have time to write about (such as an incremental update or minor personnel move).  I also live tweet interesting meetings.

I’ve used Twitter to crowdsource investigations. For a recent story about a cap and gown vendor who gave perks to district administrators, the company’s prices weren’t available unless I entered information about a specific student. So I asked parents to send me their receipts for caps and gowns, and I received a dozen or so, enough to determine the prices were much higher than what the vendor agreed to in its contract.

For the most part, I devote Twitter to work and Facebook to personal stuff, but I do share the occasional personal tweet, like photos from PrideFestmy 50th birthday dinner and a message of grief over the death of my father. It lets people know that – Yes. I’m a reporter. Yes. I take my job seriously. But I’m also human.

Obviously, Twitter can be a toxic place, especially if you cover controversial topics. While I welcome respectful criticism and spirited debate, I will not tolerate bigotry, verbal abuse or harassment, and I have no qualms about muting or blocking trolls. That leaves me more time and energy to devote to my valued followers.

Don’t Take It Personally.

When you write stuff people don’t like, they may yell at you over the phone, label you “fake news,” complain to your editors to try to get you fired and threaten to have you arrested. As long as I’ve made every effort to be fair and accurate, and I’m just doing my job, I find my editors have my back. Most of the time, the issues that make school districts uncooperative are about them, not me.

In response to a crisis public relations consultant who claimed I was foul smelling, I simply tweeted that I’d never met her, “so there’s no scents to any of this.” 

In Broward, the media relations staff frequently ask my editors and me for corrections or to take down a tweet. I usually know in my gut when I made a mistake, when they’re being picky and when they’re being unreasonable and respond accordingly.

If I have any doubt, I ask my editors. I took down a photo that showed a school lock box after district officials said it created safety concerns. I refused to take down a photo of the communications chief hugging the superintendent after he announced his resignation. She said it was personal. I told her it was newsworthy and taken in a public venue.

I also try to remember the good that comes from the bad. Had I covered a cooperative school district, I don’t think I would have had the skills or tenacity to lead a Pulitzer winning team.

As I once half-joked at a state awards ceremony, “I want to thank the Broward County School District. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Scott Travis has been an education writer with the South Florida Sun Sentinel for 22 years, covering K-12 and higher education. He was a lead reporter in the newspaper’s coverage of the Parkland tragedy, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. His reporting on a questionable classroom technology purchase in 2020 led to the arrests of three Broward schools administrators, including the superintendent. The Education Writers Association has also recognized Travis, awarding him and other Sun Sentinel staffers with the Public Service and Single-Topic News awards in 2018. He graduated from the University of Alabama and previously worked at newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.