The problem?

To begin with, an October 10, 2003 Buffalo News article, carrying Peter Simon’s by-line, about a recent Public Employee Relation Board (PERB) ruling that forces Buffalo Public School operating engineers to report budget details to the School Board ran on the same day as Associated Press writer Carolyn Thompson’s piece on the same subject. Both articles contain the same misinformation, similar language and, most damaging, they contain the same exact wording in several places. While we here at Alt are unsure if one writer plagiarized the other we must note that the Thompson piece contained more contextual information, leading us to wonder how Simon could have written what he did without a little “help” from his colleague. Whatever the story is this little exercise in lazy reporting cannot be allowed to stand as is. To that end we are passing the two articles in question along to the Columbia Journalism Review and alerting both writers of our discovery and our actions- a coincidence isn’t always a coincidence. Additionally, we here at Alt feel that both articles contain an anti-union bias that must be counter-acted with a little bit of truth, especially since the editorial board at the Buffalo News wrote an October 15, 2003 editorial that reinforces Simon’s misleading information in order to champion the PERB ruling. According to the Simon/Thompson article, the PERB ruling makes school custodians report their budgetary practices “for the first time ever.” This statement is absolutely false, according to a City Hall source. The source told Alt that each custodian must file a quarterly budget report, something that Simon and Thompson should have found out and reported instead of leaving the reader with the impression that there is no oversight mechanism.

Both articles also reported that the custodians, who act as independent contractors, receive an annual, lump sum average operating budget of $227, 373, creating the impression that each custodian is handed a check in that amount at the beginning of the year. In reality the money is allocated as a lump sum in the BPS budget each year but is distributed bi-weekly, according to our sources. Our sources also dispute the idea, presented by both reporters, that custodians pocket any of the money from the operating budget. They are allowed to do so, according to the contract, but in reality this almost never happens because the budget is actually too little to cover the costs associated with operating a school building.

Custodians must maintain clean schools and grounds while paying the cost of several mandated civil service positions in addition to coping with structural problems- problems covered at length by the Buffalo News and local television media- in outdated buildings the district has no money to fix. Each custodian must employ a janitorial staff, at an average of $25,000 a year for each janitor, and rent or purchase the equipment needed to maintain the grounds and interior of each school building. All of these expenses are paid out of the operating engineer’s budget, and often out of the engineer’s pocket as well, according to our source.

None of this information made it into the Buffalo Newsor AP article, apparently because neither writer made anymore than a cursory attempt to get the whole story. Althas also learned that Simon attempted to contact Paul D. Weiss, the lawyer for Local 409 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, at the very last possible minute.

By the time Weiss returned the call the story was filed. Obviously Simon and Thompson chose to overlook other sources for the information in favor of the easy, anti-union article favored by their bosses. There is a great deal more to this story than the mainstream media offers, as usual the simplest explanation is also furthest from the truth. By Brendan Coyne

While our local “paper of record” has been deriding the incompetence of the Masiello administration and hyping the Warren Buffett connected Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority (Bob Wilmers, a BFSA member, is the CEO of M&T Bank, a Berkshire-Hathaway holding. Berkshire-Hathaway owns the Buffalo News and is owned by Warren Buffett- draw your own conclusion) some highly questionable reporting has been passed onto the general public as truthful, objective reporting.