Writings and observations

Just a few months ago the chief of police of Portland, Derrick Foxworth, was demoted (and is now at legal war with the city) and generated a local firestorm over a sexual relationship with a female member of the force. Actually, to put it more finely, the firestorm erupted from a batch of emails between them, mainly his to her, which became the subject of withering public discussion for weeks.

Bill Douglas
Bill Douglas

One obvious lesson in this: if you’re working in a public agency, watch those emails, especially any centering around personal relationships and most especially any with sexual component – those last are PR lighter fluid.

Just that has embroiled another public official, Kootenai County (Idaho) Prosecutor Bill Douglas, who neither sent nor received the mails but presides over the office where it happened.

The key emailer was Chief Deputy Prosecutor Rick Baughman, who has been accused of sexual harassment and who, according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review, sent a number of sexually explicit emails (reported at about 50) to them, some with graphic attachments. Evidently at least one of the women reciprocated.

There is, of course, much more. Most of today’s SR blog Huckleberries Online, the Dave Oliveria blog, is given over to it. Text of some of the offending emails may appear online soon, courtesy of the Spokesman. Baughman has been interviewed, to not much useful effect; most of his rebuttal was along the lines of (and this is a quote), “At some point you have to draw the line. How many times do my kids have to undergo the torments of their friends just so you can sell a newspaper.” (Leaving aside, of course, any comment about his own actions, only commenting on his distress on having been found out.)

That will probably plug the dike about as long as his boss’ comment that the whole story is simply “a distraction.” That distraction is already prompting people like Oliveria to pull up the numbers of signatures needed to force a recall, and to speculate about resignation.

Likely, this will play out ugly. We’ve been there before. So has the Spokesman (you do remember Jim West, the recalled mayor?). And so has Derrick Foxworth.

And eventually, we’ll get used to the reality, for good or ill, that emails cannot be relied upon to remain as private communications.

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After reading twice the Monday Gregoire/Bergeson press release on the math portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning – WASL – and considering its history, the chain of realistic conclusions seems clear.

The WASL was intended as a measure of how well students in the upper grades of Washington public schools are learning certain core subjects. So what do you do if the WASL doesn’t indicate what you want it to? Try teaching to the WASL – take time away from general learning so that students can do better on the test. (There’s been no lack of reportage about that tendency around the state, and even of students driven to WASL-induced stress illness over their test-taking.) And if that still doesn’t work? Change the standards, which is what the Gregoire/Bergeson “temporary alternative” to WASL math standards, to be proposed to the legislature next session, is essentially about.

State education agencies have reported “progress” on reading and writing test scores, but ongoing “diffuculty” in the math sections. That has led to protests, and elected officials – notably, officials who will be on the ballot in less than two years – have responded. Specifically: “Governor Gregoire and Superintendent Bergeson are proposing that students who have not passed the high school WASL continue to take rigorous math classes until they graduate or pass the test. Taking the test or an approved alternative would be required annually. The option of allowing students to graduate without passing the math WASL would remain in place for three years – for the graduating classes of 2008, 2009 and 2010.”

As to where that’s leading, consider the logic in this quote from Governor Chris Gregoire: “I want to let students and parents know that we are listening to their concerns and we believe this plan promotes math skills without penalizing responsible, hard-working students and teachers.” But – that formulation logically suggests – letting slide the irresponsible, indolent students and teachers.

There is in all this a clue for the legislature, which is that it might profitably begin peering outside the WASL box in consideration of a superior mousetrap.

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