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District owes Cacioppo e-mails

Steve Pope

Reading the article in Saturday’s edition of the Vail Daily concerning the continuing battle between the school board and Speakout Publisher Michael Cacioppo reminded me of two life rules my father told me to live by.

The first one, “do the right thing,” was easy to remember and generally easy to follow.

The second, “if you screw up, apologize and try to fix the situation,” was a little harder to remember and even tougher to follow through on.

Frankly, it is hard to remember anything useful when you have royally messed up and apologizing just does not come naturally to most folks.

It seems clear to me that the school district has missed the mark on both of my father’s homilies in their fight with Cacioppo over release of e-mail messages related to an alleged advertising boycott of his newspaper.

At this point, it is hard to argue that at least one of the district’s staff was responsible for beginning the boycott of Cacioppo’s newspaper.

When the impending boycott came to light, the school district circled the wagons, refused to talk about the situation and actually engaged their legal eagles in an attempt to either limit Cacioppo’s access to e-mail messages on the subject or at least make sure he paid every pretty penny of the cost that they would incur making the records available to him. Wouldn’t it have been so much better if a senior person at the school district had called Cacioppo with an apology that offered open and free access to the records?

How about this as a model addition to the standard apology that can be used the next time a similar situation comes up:

“Hello Mr. Cacioppo. In addition to our apology, if you would like to see any of our internal communications on this issue, I will be glad to send you copies of all six messages and you are free to come down and look through most of our other e-mails at your convenience. I’m sure you understand that we can not make e-mails regarding performance issues of our staff and certain other confidential subjects available, but most of the rest are open to you. I’ll be sending you a letter later today to reinforce my apology and my offer to open our records.”

What do you think Cacioppo would have done after receiving an apology with an offer of opening the records?

Sure, Cacioppo takes strong positions and often pushes them to the limit. But that is his right and I strongly support it.

He probably would have gone down and looked through a bunch of other e-mails until his eyes glazed over. He might have even been a little blustery, as he often gets.

But it would have gone much better for the school district than the experience they have endured fighting him.

While Cacioppo and I often disagree, I have found that sincere and honest communication with him is usually received well.

I suggest that Cacioppo would have accepted the apology and eventually dropped the issue. While eating crow never tastes good, it sure would have saved a lot of money and tons of grief.

The offer for opening the records above is only 100 words or so. Given that the district has spent about $37,000 along with another $50,000 or so in staff time and faces probable legal fees of $15,000 or so to Michael the apology works out to about $1,000 a word.

Even crow can taste pretty good at $1,000 a word.

What were they thinking? Why was it worth over $100,000 of taxpayer funds and staff time to litigate a case in which the legal issues are reasonably clear and where the case law indicated that they would lose?

How does spending $100,000 in funds and staff time make sense compared to the $1,900 the district says it eventually cost to resurrect the deleted emails? How does spending the salary of at least two teachers on a failed attempt to make Cacioppo pay for something that would better be dealt with by apology and open records help our students?

Why were the six silly little e-mails deleted in the first place?

Open records law cases consistently come down on the side of the public’s right to know. The Colorado law’s section on compensation for producing the records is also crystal clear.

Any person, including Cacioppo, has the right to view almost all public records for free. The only time there is a charge under the laws is when an individual asks to have copies made. How could the school district be confused on this simple point?

Worse yet, the district does not appear to have learned the lesson that is so evident here.

Why did the school district administration delay the release of the emails to allow the school board to approve the release of the six messages after the judgment went against them?

Why didn’t they just get a conference call together and release them.

Remember, do the right thing. Heck, the judge already told them that not releasing the messages wasn’t an option.

Why not just give them to Cacioppo on the day the judge handed down the decision? At least then the school district would have maintained a little wrapping of having good intent.

All the delay did was to make a casual observer think there was something in the messages that the school district needed to cover up or that they needed time to prepare a good spin for the public.

It is clear from Cacioppo’s comments that the message the delay sent to him is pretty clear. He still thinks the district is covering something up. He believes there are probably many more than six messages. He probably thinks that there was an organized campaign at the school district to boycott his newspaper rather than a foolish attempt by just a few misguided individuals. He probably feels tempted to push the fight further.

I strongly disagree with Cacioppo on the larger fight he is waging with the school district on the issue of our school taxes. I think his continued battle to overturn the voter approved tax increase is misguided and that our children are all suffering as a result.

I feel the vote to approve the additional taxes was legal and that the extra funds are urgently needed by the school system to bring education in our valley up to the levels that our children deserve. I believe that his continued fight to keep the funds from our teachers and away form the benefit of our children comes across as mean and misguided.

On the other hand, the district’s decision to fight the release of six e-mails undermines their credibility. The recent decision to delay their release was irresponsible at best. It pushes me into a situation where I agree with Cacioppo on a school-related issue, which makes me more than uncomfortable. It makes me furious.

I know that the folks at both the staff and board level of the school district are good people. They are professional and have the interests of our children at heart. I am sure they made all of the decisions with regards to Cacioppo with the best of intent. Unfortunately, the decisions were painfully misguided.

It is time to have this issue settled. Make the apology. Make it publicly and sincerely. Open the records as fully as humanly possible.

Do not even think about charging Cacioppo for the access. Don’t even charge him if he asks for printed copies.

Get over it and get back to teaching our children.

Publisher Steve Pope can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 300, or publisher@vaildaily.com


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