How I came to understand school bond issues in three days and lived to tell about it

This week’s newsroom theme for me has involved learning a lot about public school finance. I’ve done two stories so far this week, and while both might seem pretty different, they actually dealt with a lot of overlapping information.

Monday and Tuesday, I worked on an update story about construction at Battle High School. My assignment was straightforward enough: Find out what had been built and confirm what we had heard about the possibility of being ahead of schedule and under budget. I set to work making calls to the district’s community relations coordinator and the deputy superintendent, who I was told was the man to reach if I wanted to know anything about construction in Columbia, Missouri.

After spending Monday making some preliminary calls, leaving messages and planning sources, I set into Tuesday ready to take down my story. My persistence (with being careful not to reach the point of obnoxious) in leaving messages paid off. I managed to get in touch with my primary source mid-afternoon. I got down a lot of good information, but ran up against what sounded like differing information on why construction on the new high school might finish under budget. After hanging up the phone, I typed up my notes and went to the community relations coordinator to see if I could sort out my answers.

In the process of doing this, I got my first official explanation of how school bond issues work. On Monday, I had gotten some preliminary information about how these work, which would have been enough to vaguely understand it, but not much else. My phone call on Tuesday, however, got me a lot of information. And after spending a semester in economics struggling to get what my teacher was talking about, I finally felt like I understood something that had to do with money. This, for me, is quite exciting.

The explanation of school bond issues didn’t particularly play into my story at the time, but I definitely felt like it broadened my understanding of public school finances pretty substantially. The story I ended up with about construction turned out to be pretty straightforward: a lot of update from my interview with the deputy superintendent with some additional ideas and comments from the community relations coordinator and the principal of the future high school.

Wednesday (or more accurate to my time of writing, today) I was assigned to cover the Central Missouri Development Council’s (CMDC) membership meeting, at which the superintendent of Columbia Public Schools was scheduled to speak. This was my first solo meeting coverage, so I did what I could to get ready. Apparently, I might have been a bit too determined because when I showed up at the location, I was the first one there, which resulted in a few minutes of feeling very awkward standing around waiting for someone to show up.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long for people to start trickling in. The superintendent showed up among the first group, so I introduced myself to him. I also spoke briefly with the Executive Director of the CMDC to let him know I was there.

I’ll admit I was a bit intimidated at first. The room filled up pretty quickly with a number of business professionals, most of whom were probably at least 10 years older and six inches taller than me. The first few minutes were especially hard as I figured out exactly what I should do as everyone sat down. Eventually, however, I found a table and talked with a couple of people who were there for the meeting.

Interesting journalistic side note: the meeting included a lunch, which a surprising number of people at the meeting tried to tell me I could eat. But my editor told me not to eat. When I was in J2100, they told me not to eat. I’m sure in some other journalism class I’ve taken, they told me not to eat. So I didn’t eat. But I was still surprised at how many people offered.

The meeting was pretty straightforward after that. The superintendent talked about how the district plans to use bond issues to fund its projects over the next 10 years. As I looked over the handout I had received, I actually got a bit excited. Bond issues, I know how that works! It actually really helped me follow what the superintendent was saying throughout his presentation.

Afterward, I headed back to the newsroom and typed up a storm, actually managing to get something to my assistant city editor in a couple of hours. When we edited my story, I was able to talk to her and explain what I understood about the bond issue, which was pretty cool. I sort of felt like I knew what I was talking about, which was crazy, but great.

I think that’s what I’ve really liked and where I’ve been growing this week. I’m figuring out some of the issues I’ll be covering on my beat this semester. I’m learning sometimes it’s all right to let someone explain an issue to you. What I learn in one story can help me cover another one better. While I understand bond issues a lot better than I did before, I wish I had been more okay with learning to let people explain things to me and asking better questions about things I didn’t understand. There were a couple parts in my first story when a lack of questioning meant my answers weren’t as good as they should have been.

After these last couple of stories, I’m definitely continuing to see I’ve got a ton of space for improvement, but I’m also starting to feel more comfortable with what I do and don’t know and finding ways to learn more.

New stories: Construction at Battle High School proceeds on schedule and budget; Columbia Public Schools to update facilities through bond issues

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