“Where there’s smoke there’s fire” is one of those truism that isn’t actually always true.
A good many times over the years, I’ve seen people start rumors or whip themselves into some sort of community froth over issues that weren’t, in fact, real issues; a strip club that was never more than a young and feckless dancer’s pipe dream and a homeless shelter that never did turn out to be a magnet for crime come to mind.
But as a journalist, if enough people say they see smoke, you have to go look.
The president of the teachers’ bargaining group in Monroe, herself a teacher for more than 20 years, made a startling pronouncement at a school board meeting last week, saying that teachers are working in an atmosphere of oppression, in fear of their jobs if they express discontent.
I have learned to gauge the health of a large organization by the number of anonymous letters I get from its employees. About eight years ago, I was getting them regularly from workers at the prison, angry over mandatory overtime and other stressors associated with low staff and subpar pay.
For a while, I got them from employees of Valley General Hospital, as the hospital’s financial situation spiraled ever downward and people began losing jobs.
There are going to be a certain number of malcontents in any organization. The trick is trying to figure out who is credible and who is chronically angry.
I have had a couple of anonymous messages and one letter in recent months regarding the school district. One I followed up on and learned it was unfounded; there had not actually been a vote of no confidence passed against any particular administrator.
But when I get a letter like that, there are two potential stories there. One is that actual material claim of the author, that thus-and-such a thing happened. The other is that people are unhappy.
If it’s a large private business, it’s none of our concern.
But if it’s a taxpayer-funded entity, it is most patently our concern.
And when it involves the community’s most cherished commodity, its children, then the threshold for when to take a closer look comes down precipitously.
There were a number of factors that prompted me to take a closer look. The person making the claim was doing so in public and on the record. As the representative of the teachers in the district, the person making the claim has some gravitas. And the meeting room in which she made the claim was packed, indicating that there is some critical mass of concern.
Furthermore, her claims were supported by another teacher, also on the record, at the same meeting, and in private by a school district parent, as well as by a number of parents commenting on social media pages.
The various grievances that have angered many teachers are complex and nuanced. They are separate stories.
But as I asked around, I became convinced that there is cause for concern over morale.
The thing about smoke, though, is by looking for fire, you may accidentally start one.
I’ve seen lots of packed meeting rooms that resulted as an active campaign to stuff the room with supporters, and often their opinions don’t reflect those of the community (I’m thinking of marijuana retail right now; the community voted for it 53 percent, but that vast majority of public comment in council has been opposed).
And one must always be careful when told others would speak up if they just weren’t afraid. It’s hard to prove that, and it has the odd reverse outcome of making the organization in question afraid to take action against malcontented employees who are actually in the wrong for fear of seeming to be vindictive.
Here’s what I believe, upon having spent time asking and talking and reading and listening.
There may or may not be a fire; the school district may or may not be making poor decisions, threatening dissenters and/or treating them callously.
But there is certainly a lot of smoke rising from various quarters over the perception that the district is doing those things.
And as any firefighter knows, smoke is dangerous too.
This is my smoke alarm.