Dog in the Manger or Mangy Dog?

How the News-Press Just Screwed Public Schools

Thursday, June 7, 2012
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IGNORE ANTS: Ever been bit by a dead dog? Stung by a dead bee? Guess what? You just were. And the Grinch just stole Christmas even though it’s only the beginning of summer. I’m speaking, of course, about the Santa Barbara News-Press, now approaching the sixth anniversary of its much fabled meltdown, when most editors and reporters either quit or were fired over ethical differences with owner Wendy P. McCaw. I don’t have the energy to summon the details of Miss P’s pathological dyspepsia right now. But if the New York Times is known as the “Gray Lady” of journalism, the News-Press should be tagged as the Crazy Aunt Locked in the Closet. Santa Barbarans have responded accordingly. Before the meltdown, the News-Press’ daily circulation was in the neighborhood of 45,000; today, it’s in the ballpark of 22,000. You do the math.

Angry Poodle

With these numbers, it’s tempting to dismiss the News-Press as a complete and total nonentity. Who can forget, for example, the breathless front-page exposé the paper recently ran about a local grade-school boy who ​— ​to the horror of his father ​— ​painted his fingernails in class? As syphilitically deranged as the News-Press might be, the fact remains it still has impact. While vastly diminished, it has just enough influence at the margins to really screw things up. Sometimes that’s all it takes to inflict major damage. Look at Tuesday night’s election results. Yes, it was wonderfully hilarious how the News-Press endorsed Orly Taitz, the deranged Orange County dentist who clearly sniffs too much of her own laughing gas and insists ​— ​certified birth certificates notwithstanding ​— President Barack Obama is a foreigner. Yes, it was fabulously ridiculous how out-of-touch the News-Press endorsements proved to be ​— ​yet again ​— ​with how the community actually voted. But I ain’t laughing. That’s because there’s nothing the least bit amusing about the $4 million in property tax funds that will not be available to the local public school programs next year ​— ​and for the three years after that ​— ​because the News-Press saw fit to oppose Measures X and W. Those measures, it should be duly noted, only lost by the hairs of their chinny-chin-chins. But without that money, school administrators will be forced to cut, hack, mutilate, and spindle some very successful math, science, arts, and music programs. Perhaps Wendy P. McCaw, famously having no children of her own, need not be concerned about what happens to the children of everybody else. But for the rest of us, the loss of Measures X and W will be nothing less than catastrophic.

That $4 million would have helped inoculate S.B. students from the $20 million district administrators have already cut since the stock market crashed. Governor Moonbeam, bracing for more budgetary bad news, just sneaked language into his proposed state budget that would cut high school science requirements by half.

It was in this context that the S.B. Education Foundation proposed the two modest property tax bumps known as X and W. Written into the measures were opt-out provisions for people without kids in the schools, stingy misanthropes, and others claiming an undue financial burden. Structurally, tax increases like these face an exceptional burden. Simple majority rules do not apply; a two-thirds “supermajority” is required to pass. That’s really hard. Even though Assemblymember Das Williams was running against such an utter nonentity that even he couldn’t remember his opponent’s name, Williams only won with 58 percent. By contrast, Measure W won 64.3 percent of the votes, but still lost. Likewise, X was scuttled after having garnered 65 percent of the vote. In elections such as these, any opposition ​— ​no matter how half-baked ​— ​is fatal. While it’s technically true the local Republican machine opposed the bonds, its leader saw fit never to mention this embarrassing fact, not even in email dispatches to members. While News-Press columnist Lanny Ebenstein affirmatively supported the bonds ​— ​when not otherwise blaming the collapse of Western civilization on public-employee unions ​— ​it was the News-Press anti-endorsement that killed them. The bond measures needed 550 and 145 more votes, respectively, to get over the two-thirds hump. And that’s roughly what a News-Press endorsement is worth. Countywide, nutball Birther Orly Taitz managed to attract 2,037 in her quest for U.S. Senate. Based on Santa Barbara’s record-setting consumption of psychotropic medications, I’m guessing one-third of those votes would have been cast no matter what. Of the rest, about half probably came outside the News-Press’ dwindling circulation. But that leaves just enough left over to hold Wendy and the News-Press responsible for much of the mayhem about to befall our schools.

In this context it’s worth noting that the $1 million in attorney’s fees that former News-Press editor Jerry Roberts ​— ​whose resignation six years ago triggered the meltdown ​— ​was awarded in his ongoing litigation with Wendy P. was recently upheld by the state Supreme Court. Wendy can ​— ​and no doubt will ​— ​appeal to the U.S. Supremes, but they’d have to be smoking bath salt to hear her case. It’s likely Wendy will simply refuse to pay. That’s just what she does. (She just got sued last week, for example, for refusing to pay attorney Barry Cappello ​— ​her legal barracuda during the height of the uproar ​— ​the $411,000 she still owes him. And even God pays his legal bills to Barry Cappello.) When that happens, Roberts will be entitled to enforce his collection by placing a lien on McCaw’s property. He could go after the printing-press property in Goleta, worth roughly $9 million, but I’d suggest he try to impound the historic News-Press building itself, worth in the neighborhood of $6 million.

I hope Roberts can act before the school district places another parcel tax on the ballot. And I’m wishing enough last-minute provisional ballots come in to put Measures X and W miraculously over the top. Wishing and hoping rarely get the job done, so in the meantime, I’ll be on the look-out for dead bees.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

Howard Jarvis is snickering in his grave.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
June 7, 2012 at 1:12 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I don't know, Nick, if you can lay the blame on this at the NewsPress' feet. Voter turnout here was 40% or so. So, first, more than half of registered voters didn't even bother to weigh in on this one. Second, there have been a lot of news stories about the state's $45 billion education budget (half of the entire state budget), and yet we still can barely beat Mississippi in education. Some of those stories point to the CTA as culprit, and where there's smoke... Parcel taxes used to be a one-time stopgap measure to deal with temporary emergency budget cuts by the state. They're getting an air of permanence now, and taxpayers are questioning that, rightly. Blame failure to pass W&X on low voter turnout, blame it on fatigue with spending ever more on education to get poorer results, blame it on the teachers' unions, or blame it on the state. You'd be right on all counts. I can't stand the NP, but even I don't think they can totally take the hit for W&X's failure to pass.

dogsnsand (anonymous profile)
June 7, 2012 at 8:22 a.m. (Suggest removal)

"Before the meltdown, the News-Press’ daily circulation was in the neighborhood of 45,000; today, it’s in the ballpark of 22,000. You do the math."

Almost all newspapers have shown declines in circulation over the last 5 years. This is due more to the growing use of the internet as a news source than any other factor.

Shame on Nick Welsh for misleading us this way by attributing this soley to the internal problems at the News-Press. Anyone in the newspaper business knows that is not the case.

Botany (anonymous profile)
June 7, 2012 at 9 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I'm no fan of the News-Press but I _never_ need to hear another word about the "melt down."

It was an okay-at-best local paper before 2006; it's gotten worse since then, for sure.

But, let's stop the endless yammering about its demise. Time for all those former writers and editors (I know that's not NW) to move on.

zappa (anonymous profile)
June 7, 2012 at 9:32 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I dunno, Welsh's theory of marginal News-Press influence seems very sound in its modest claim:

"The bond measures needed 550 and 145 more votes, respectively, to get over the two-thirds hump. And that’s roughly what a News-Press endorsement is worth."

The News-Press circulation drops are far in excess of what the rest of the industry has experienced, especially for communities (once) dominated by a sole daily. The Audit Bureau of Circulations reports tell the tale.

Their public feuds with employees, advertisers, and readers, hollow news coverage, pay-walled online version, and high-profile heartlessness and belligerence are all part of the self-inflicted meltdown.

Chester_Arthur_Burnett (anonymous profile)
June 7, 2012 at 10:22 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The LA Times circulation decreased from 900K to 600K from 2005 until the present. They also dominate that market. While the LA Times dropped 33%, the News-Press dropped 50% during the same time period. I suppose it can be stipulated that the News-Press lost ~17% of it's subscribers due to the internal problems the News-Press was going through at the time.

That's far less than the 50% Nick Welsh postulated having canceled their subscriptions due to the "meltdown" as he describes it.

Botany (anonymous profile)
June 7, 2012 at 11:29 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The usually astute Angry Poodle here fails to consider how many votes were gained that deliberately go the opposite of whatever the Newsmess opines in an editorial, especially from that professional blowhard from Nipomo, AndyCOLAB.

The campaign for Measures W and X needed some teevee ads and a far better message to voters that this was a continuation of a parcel tax, not a new tax as many, many voters believed. Their website was good, but the content did not get out very well.

And everyone should understand that the price of education is always way higher than the price of ignorance and neglect.

John_Adams (anonymous profile)
June 7, 2012 at 11:40 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Perhaps my arithmetic is wrong, but they needed 782/W and 246/X votes to pass. A parcel tax probably would have passed had they not promised last time it would be for but 4 years - and had they not come back this time and doubled it for $100/parcel.

I doubt the N-P editorial stance had much to do with it, any more than the N-P endorsement for a NO vote on Y had to do with it. (Indy and the N-P on the same side!) And the opt-outs were not well-publicized, did the one having no children in the schools actually exist? I saw no other opt-outs except for "with an available exemption for senior citizens".

Too many of us have had it with special assessment of taxes while the legislature is unable to do its job of working together for the betterment of the whole. 45% of property taxes already go to the schools; raise the percentage and let the rest of public needs starve? Ask for donations? Cut salaries? Try again with another request? It's quite clear what they'll choose for November.

at_large (anonymous profile)
June 7, 2012 at 1:22 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The News-Press was definitely hurt by its own misdeeds over the last six years. Local newspapers should have done better, not worse, than urban papers have done, since they provide a commodity -- local news -- that isn't readily available, and it had been dominant until management decided to attack its own newsroom, and then lie about what they'd done under oath to the NLRB.

As for the reporters who were illegally fired, threatened, and surveilled, and who have not been able to get any collective bargaining protection because of management's blatant violations of federal labor law, Wendy's comeuppance is still in the offing as several cases (from which Cappello has been relieved) wind their way through the system.

JoeHill (anonymous profile)
June 7, 2012 at 9:36 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The problem, JoeHill, is that - based on past performance - we'll all be on the wrong side of the grass by the time Wendy meets her judicial/financial obligations.

SezMe (anonymous profile)
June 8, 2012 at 4:02 a.m. (Suggest removal)

SezMe, I don't share your understandable pessimism. Wendy's just about at the end of the road with the Roberts case, and she's not going to be able to escape NLRB enforcement for that much longer. I for one, plan to be alive and kicking when the reporters are asked to return, and management -- maybe even new management -- is compelled to mend its law-defying ways.

JoeHill (anonymous profile)
June 8, 2012 at 10:46 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Along with my hopeful wish to win a big jackpot of Millions, maybe once the News Press reaches an all time low in readership, say 10 thousand or less, and, "Crazy Aunt Locked in the Closet", sees that retaining the News Press is a bad investment, she will offer it up for sale to a more competent investor who has the integrity that she does not, hopefully, my big win will correspond with that day of sale and I can become the next leader and rebuilder of the Santa Barbara News Press. At least I can dream, can't I?

dou4now (anonymous profile)
June 11, 2012 at 9:06 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Probably the main reason it failed is a perceived notion that school funds are mismanaged. When too much of the County schools budget is spent away from the classroom people stop trusting the agency and it's management.

Georgy (anonymous profile)
June 11, 2012 at 5:21 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I support the schools but I am not going to vote for a parcel tax that costs the owners of high-value parcels no more than those who own the least expensive parcels. Flat parcel taxes are regressive and I believe the school board is either insensitive to the implications of this method or misled by the interests of the wealthy.

Make a tax that includes proportionality to the value of the parcel if you want an equitable parcel tax.

pnortonsb (anonymous profile)
June 13, 2012 at 11:52 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Better yet pnortonsb I'll pay zero since my kids went to private schools and I already payed far more and took nothing. And for most of their school careers it was a financial struggle for us.
Everyone knows that public unions, in this case the teachers union, are bankrupting government. I believe most people will "support the schools" when money for education actually goes to educating kids. BTW-California has the lowest time period for becoming tenured in the U.S. I would love to have lifetime employment guaranteed after having been on the job for less than two years.

italiansurg (anonymous profile)
June 14, 2012 at 6:59 a.m. (Suggest removal)

@italiansurg: "Everyone knows that public unions, in this case the teachers union, are bankrupting government. "

So the 17% of the education budget that goes to teachers is bankrupting the state, huh? All for that starting salary of a whopping $35k a year....

EatTheRich (anonymous profile)
June 15, 2012 at 6:09 a.m. (Suggest removal)

that's a bitter bone that poodle is chewing on...

reality_check (anonymous profile)
June 15, 2012 at 11:06 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Nick hit this nail right on the head once again....(hmmmm, I wonder if that is what could have happened to Wendy some time ago!) The News-Press does itself no favors, nor any for the community, when it spews forth such inarticulate, ill-conceived, inept, and idiotic things as Nick references in this column. But, one thing has always bothered me about all of this, and it is something that gets very little, if any, media coverage. And that is the influence her affianced, carved-in-concrete-toothpaste-commercial-smile ‘svengali’, Arthur von Wiesenberger aka The Nipper, has on her. His having adopted the snobbish royal title of "Baron von Wiesenberger” a few years ago, obviously an attempt to burnish his growing reputation as Wendy's personal "Captain Hook" and aide d’ boudoir , I wonder if he can produce his royal birth certificate or his official Baronesque certificate? The Baron has now craftily maneuvered his way into a Rasputinish-close proximity to the 'McCaw Fortune', a quantum leap forward from having been a local barkeep and self-promoting food and wine connoisseur extraordinaire. (And, ignorant me, I had always thought that there was only one Baron in the McCaw media circles – Baron Ron Herron. ) Anyway, I think it’s a valid question to ask if The Nipper is truly Wendy’s “svengali” in many matters especially in helping to turn the News-Press from a journalistic fine wine into sour vinegar. Just some Hell’s Kitchen food for thought!

scoop9324 (anonymous profile)
June 19, 2012 at 3:54 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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