EDITORIAL: Make no mistake about it

YOU MAKE PLENTY of errors as a newspaper editor–I once endorsed two opponents running for the same school board seat. Humbled by the memory, I still climb back on my high horse weekly to find fault with others. Amazing how fast humility wears off.

Because of my editorial on state school funding last week and a letter in that same edition faulting my sub-headline and some facts in an earlier news story on the huge fire at the TCI plant in West Ghent, it looked as if once again I faced a large order of boiled crow on my menu. Or maybe not.
The school spending editorial suggested that instead of reducing the state aid to school districts that operate more efficiently, “the state should offer incentives that encourage even more savings.” The way to do that would be to let the districts keep some of the savings at least for a while, I wrote.


If I had done my homework I would have known about the state’s 2012-2015 School District Management Efficiency Competitive Grant Program, through which the state Education Department  offers competitive grants to school districts that save funds through “investments in comprehensive and innovative strategies that lead to improved results for students, long-term gains in school and school system capacity, and increased productivity and effectiveness.”

So here was a plan by the state officials that already supports exactly what the editorial said the state should do. It was an “oops” moment because my editorial was insufficiently researched. Then I read the lead story in the Times Union, the Albany newspaper, which reported the day before the editorial appeared that only 38 of the 700 school districts statewide had applied for these grants to improve school efficiency and only  16 had received the money. Millions of dollars remains unspent.

You don’t have to look much farther than the 37-page application for the state grants. Districts must have realized it was an inefficient use of their time to fill out the form. The people who thought up the grant undoubtedly had the best of intentions, but they worked from the wrong premise. Except for athletics, school districts should not have to compete with each other for funds. They are not businesses vying for shares of a free market, they are charged with educating our children. They should compete against their own performance to meet the standards expected of all students.

Districts that improve their efficiency should be allowed to retain some of what they save as a form of state aid. They don’t need bureaucrats in Albany awarding them points for good behavior. Some of the savings should be theirs as a matter of right.
My research on this was flawed, but the conclusion remains valid.

The other case involves a letter to the editor from Brian Hemlock, president of TCI of New York, LLC in the February 21 edition. We encourage people to write to us even when they criticize our reporting. So let’s start with his point about my headline on reporter Matt Bathrick’s story, which called TCI “a PCB oil recycling firm.” Mr. Hemlock said it was inaccurate.
TCI’s business was draining oil containing small amounts of PCBs from old electrical transformers; another company, an independent contractor, processed that oil to remove PCBs. But at a recent meeting of the Ghent Planning Board, as reported in our story, Mr. Hemlock referred to the work of the oil processing company as routine; it turns out that the oil processor had routinely worked at TCI’s site for more than two years. The headline was imprecise but it wasn’t inaccurate.
The letter also says the TCI facility did not explode. Mr. Hemlock will have to take up that issue with the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control. Page 1 of its report on the fire says: “… several massive explosions occurred….”
Before the fire, TCI had applied to the state for permission to handle oil with higher levels of PCBs. The letter says our story implies TCI withdrew its application because activists disclosed it. The story did note the timing of the withdrawal, but the timing is a relevant fact, not a misstatement.
We do our best to give readers enough information to make up their own minds. When we make mistakes, we publish corrections. We welcome, and print, the views of our critics. But once again, as is usually the case, we stand by our story.

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