Letter to the Editor: Curious, Mysterious, and Troubling

by C. Vail

This is all very curious, even mysterious, and potentially very troubling.

Putting aside the question of whether you, Timothy Alexander, first requested of the OASD school board to release information concerning negotiations relating to the new contract of the OASD superintendent, Dr. Thomas Newcome, before filing a ‘Right-to-Know’ request with the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, the record seems indisputable that you did in fact file a Right-to-Know request. Correspondence between you and the Office of Open Records confirms this. And it seems clear that the Office of Open Records twice communicated with the school board and school district administrators via the schoolboard@octorara.org email address. But now, according to the school board’s press release, the Octorara Board of School Directors is asserting, essentially: ‘gosh, we never heard from anyone, this is the first we’ve heard of any of this stuff, who knew?’ Curious, very curious.

You or one of your readers pointed out something we all have experienced. If I try to send an email to some person or entity, and the addressee’s email address is no longer valid (i.e., not in use because it has been changed), or if I enter the email address incorrectly, then the email I attempted to send gets bounced back to me along with some ‘Undeliverable’ message. Am I right? Haven’t we all experienced this? Isn’t that the way email works?

But now we have the Board claiming they never received your email message, nor the several email messages sent to the board from the Office of Open Records. Hmm. That’s mysterious. I believe you are a forthright person, Tim, and I believe that if your email message to the board had been bounced back to you as undeliverable, you readily and long since would have acknowledged that. Similarly, if the several email messages sent by the Office of Open Records to the OASD board had been bounced back as undeliverable to the OASD email address specified, I have to believe that persons in the Office of Open Records would have taken steps to remedy the situation. The Office of Open Records would have taken steps to ascertain a ‘deliverable’ email address for the OASD board, or they would have sent communications to the board via regular mail. The logical conclusion is that the email communications sent by you as well as the the Office of Open Records were not bounced back, and in fact were received by the OASD board and administrators. Either that, or the board and administrators had better quick find out what’s wrong with their email system, what bug is preventing them from receiving important communications.

And the board’s explanation for this whole snafu? The board’s excuse for not knowing anything about any of this? The board’s dubious rationale for being completely in the dark? According to the board’s press release, the ‘schoolboard@octorara.org’ email address “is not a valid external email address.” To which excuse I have three questions: First, what does “valid external email address mean?” Second, if not from official board and district websites, where did that email address come…Alexander and the Office of Open Records didn’t just make it up. And third, if that email address was “not valid,” then pray tell why there is nothing in the official record, at least as of yet and so far as we know, to indicate that the communications sent to that email address were bounced back to the senders as being undeliverable? What evidence, other than the protestations of the board, exists to indicate that the emails sent were not in fact received?

Finally, the board’s press release accuses Mr. Alexander of “ill-will,” which is another way of saying that he has acted in bad faith. I don’t believe that is true. To the contrary, in 99.9% of all of his public communications — whether on his octorarataxes.wordpress.com blog, his parkesburggazette.wordpress.com online newsletter, or in other public forums in which he has spoken, most especially including board meetings, I have found Mr. Alexander to be thoughtful, reticent to speak before he knows the facts, willing to put in the hard work of learning the facts, knowledgeable and cogent when he does speak, and tolerant almost to a fault of the slings and arrows cast his way by many who prefer to act on emotion rather than reason. Delve into the archives of either of his websites, or the archives of any other local media outlet, and with one exception I do not think you will find a single instance when Mr. Alexander failed to comport himself as a gentleman, a rational man. (And in that one exception he was well provoked, well justified in rhetorically cutting off the head of the person slandering him.)

I can’t say that I am a personal friend of Tim Alexander, although I have admiration for what he is trying to accomplish. We are not buds, and we don’t hang out. We met only once, last winter, over lunch, at my invitation, with my specific intent of taking the measure of the man. I came away well satisfied. We have exchanged several dozen emails, but half of those were me referring him to articles I had seen online about the ‘Common Core’ curriculum, a subject in which I know he has interest. I am not a Tim Alexander booster, although I suppose it would be fair to say that I have sometimes acted, inadequately I’m sure, as his champion. From the time, early last winter, when Tim Alexander first started speaking out in a public way I have been troubled by the way some have questioned his bona fides, his legitimacy to speak. I have been more troubled by the way he has so often and severely been attacked in personal, ad hominen ways. Pretty much everything including the kitchen sink has been thrown at him. A lesser man long ago would have just thrown in the towel and said: oh hell, why bother, why try, it’s just not worth it.

But like the Energizer Bunny he just keeps going. And in fact the longer he keeps at it the better he gets. Peruse just the last few weeks of Alexander’s original posts and his replies to commenters on his http://octorarataxes.wordpress.com/ blog and marvel at the amount of research the man has done just on this one subject — all of it thorough, all of it on topic, all of it as best I can tell accurate. This is characteristic, a hallmark of how Alexander goes about his business. Before he speaks, he makes sure he has his ducks lined up, knows what he is talking about.

From his beginning in public life, from the time early last winter when felt the need to dig down, speak out, and get involved in a serious way, in my opinion Alexander has rarely, very rarely, almost imperceptively put a foot wrong. He has honestly stated his views. He has honestly questioned policies and specific decisions of the board. He has asked aloud why our taxes are so high (the highest per student in all of Chester County, indeed throughout most of the country) when there seems to be no corresponding increase in student achievement. Pretty much that has been Mr. Alexander’s agenda, all he has done, ever spoken about. He has asked hard questions. Questions that previously were unasked by a disengaged citizenry, too few of whom ever attend a board meeting, and questions too often sloughed-off by a school board and administration not held adequately accountable by that same disengaged citizenry. It’s like to lottery: if you don’t play you can’t win. Well, if you never attend school board meetings, and never ask questions, then you can’t hope to know what’s really going on; how the bulk of your local tax dollars are being spent; what decisions are being made about how local students will be educated. If you never attend school board meetings, then you are just signing a check for three or four thousand dollars each year, and essentially saying: here, take my hard-earned money and spend it or blow it as you wish, but don’t bother me with any details because I really don’t care. Is three of four thousand dollars really departed with that easily? With no accountability? With no personal involvement? Just sign a blank check? Whether residents know it or not, for the past year Mr. Alexander has been acting as their surrogate, asking hard questions and demanding — as much as the arrogance of the board allowed — two simple things: reason and accountability.

For those who might read this, and who are not acquainted with Tim Alexander’s work, know that he is bothered and bewildered, but certainly not bewitched, by many of the recent actions in the OASD. He is a hard, cold pragmatist — but not a dogmatic — who, to the best of my ability to understand him, merely wants what most of us want, and that is reassurance that our hard-earned tax dollars are being spent as effectively and efficiently as possible. And above all he wants transparency in government. He wants the people who pay the freight to be able to know what is going on without having to jump through hoops to access information which should be readily available. Is there anything wrong with that? Is there ever anything wrong with questioning and challenging those who presume to rule us and who have the power to pick our purse? Is there ever anything wrong with saying: Look here, I pay the salaries of all you people, so don’t you dare try to keep from me information to which I am entitled. Read Tim Alexander’s archives and you will see that his principal cause is the simple matter of transparency in government.

Despite what others might say, Tim Alexander is simply doing what many of us would like to do — if we had the time, the inclination, the guts, the patience and forbearance, to wade in where angels fear to tread. Tim Alexander is poking a thumb in the eye of entrenched power. I strongly suspect the founders would approve.

Think what you might about Tim Alexander. Cast what aspersions you care to. The fact is that Tim Alexander has thrown himself into the arena. And in my opinion he thus far stands tall, very tall.

C. Vail

P.S. The school board’s ‘press release’ is juvenile: (1) it is termed a ‘press release,’ a term which went out of favor in the mid-1970′s in favor of the preferred ‘news release;’ (2) it is undated, about as big a faux pas as one commit; and (3) it repeatedly refers to ‘Mr. Alexander,’ not Mr. Timothy Alexander, apparently assuming that readers are up to speed on the whole contretemps. The board’s ‘press release’ committed just about every sin which would have gotten me fired 40 years ago when I was a fledgling copywriter in an advertising and public relations firm. But then again, we are now long past the time when we expect or demand proficiency in almost anything. Half-assed efforts are good enough, for most of us, including apparently the OASD board, to have sent out such a half-assed ‘press release.’ But not for Tim Alexander. Perhaps quaintly, Alexander still believes that standards should stand for something, that the term ‘accountability’ should sill account for something, that responsibility should require a burden on those who prescribe a particular course of action. It’s not my place to put words in Tim Alexander’s mouth, but I believe that the gist of his message is: can’t we all grow up, wise up, and take responsibility for our actions (and inactions) as citizens, and can’t we all devote more time trying to effect meaningful change and less time carping against one another.

Editors Note: This post originally appeared as a comment on the Octorara Tax Blog. Mr. Vail asked to have it re-posted here as a Letter to the Editor.

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6 responses to “Letter to the Editor: Curious, Mysterious, and Troubling

  1. It will all sort itself out pretty soon don’t you think? Harrisburg will either accept the Board’s appeal or deny it and order them to turn over the records. Having worked in rather large businesses in the past I have seen times when systems have been converted and old addresses become black holes where messages go in and sit with no one answering those accounts. It’s not a good practice, but I have seen it. When I left my last job the system administrator never shut down my address and people were sending me messages more than a year after I had gone. The same was true for my cell phone account that continue to receive voice mail messages for months until someone called me at home and asked why I wasn’t responding to my messages on my work account. I think there can be valid reasons why messages are not bounced back as undeliverable. I’m not saying it is a good practice, I’m just saying I have seen this kind of think happen before. I think it would be good to see this play out more fully and have the Board and Tim explain their positions more fully so we can all understand the dynamics here. On the “ill-will” issue, I thought they said Tim assumed “ill-will” on the
    Board’s part, not that he was acting with “ill-will.” That’s a little different, if I read their release correctly. In any event, it should come to final conclusion fairly soon. I have no issues with Tim. I think he is exercising his rights and I believe there’s no issue with anyone doing that. I just find we all speculate quite a bit long before the final decisions are rendered. I guess that’s the entertainment value of the internet:)

  2. If the school board is going to use excuses as to why they supposedly didn’t receive the emails from Tim, they really need to find someone that knows what they’re talking about before throwing them out there.

    From PT “Ganow said the district’s email filter interpreted Alexander’s message as coming from an adult site and bounced the message immediately to the system’s spam box”

    This is just incorrect. Although Tim has explained how he didn’t use the underworld tattoo email address, spam filters don’t work this way. They initially look up the mail server IP address and compare it with blacklists. Now, even if Tim used his underworld email address, a simple look up for his mail servers IP address (173.201.193.199) on http://mxtoolbox.com/blacklists.aspx, or http://www.dnsstuff.com shows that it’s completely valid and wouldn’t be considered coming from a spam server. The second line of defense is the content. If the board had control over the spam server, which I would suspect they don’t, they would be able to add keywords that they would want to filter out. These keywords scan the content, not the email address. And I’m sure the content of the email that Tim sent didn’t have any flagged words that would be picked up by a spam filter.

    I deal with issues with mail and spam filters all the time, and the excuse the board is giving is so pathetic it’s embarrassing. Again, if it was a simple mistake… why not just give the information that was requested and move on. The fact that they draw this out makes me suspicious.

    • That PT post also gave three different stories about their “schoolboard” address:

      1) The email address is not for external use, (no inbound or outbound from outside the district’s intranet)

      2) The email address works but is seldom checked, (it is valid, but not used on a regular basis)

      3) The email address is nonfunctioning. (it does not exist)

      How does anyone believe anything, when the story changes three times within a single interview with two board members?

  3. You are correct, David Jones, I misintrepted the ‘ill will’ statement in the board’s press release. But in both tone and tenor will you not agree with me that the board’s press release was calculated to accuse Tim Alexander of ill will and bad faith?

  4. I had a similar problem with the Parkesburg Boro council. When sending requests to the open records person emails came back undeliverable. I don’t know why this happened. I had sent emails directly to the Chief of Police’s secretary and they came back undeliverable. I was able to call on the phone for some of these times and get the person I needed to talk to. I’ve never been to a school council meeting because I had such a hard time in Parkesburg getting answers from people I’ve known my whole life that I got exhausted. It’s probably time I start going since it affects my tax dollars too.

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