After over a month of meeting with school board candidates, going to forums, trying to understand school finance, conducting a lot of interviews and making more phone calls than I can remember, school board election season ended on Tuesday.
Columbia Public Schools voters elected one incumbent, elected one newcomer to the board and passed the tax levy and bond issue.
More than a month of work ended with an evening of watch parties, final interviews with the candidates, a story with four bylines and a trip to Waffle House with my fellow beat members. (By the way, Waffle House with a bunch of reporters after an election at about midnight is hilarious.)
It’s a little weird to think about, if I’m honest. For the last month or so, school board elections have been a constant presence in my reporting. It felt like most weeks at beat, we would discuss some new piece of our coverage that needed to get done. There was always a new way to tackle the coverage, further coverage of the candidates to get another election issue to explain. And now it’s done. The bond issue and tax levy passed. The candidates get sworn in Monday. It’s weird to think about reporting without some kind of conversation about election season coverage to do.
But it’s been a good election season. I learned A LOT, and I definitely grew as a reporter. I learned how to understand complicated things like school finance, the importance of loyalty to my readers over my sources, how to write forum stories fast, how to develop a strong professional relationship with a source and how to work as a team, among a myriad of other things.
Here’s how the end of election season went down:
Tuesday evening, Margaux, Nicole, Abigail and I attended different candidate watch parties around Columbia. Margaux and I went to the incumbent’s watch party, since my other candidate wasn’t holding one. We spent a few hours talking to people who came, seeing what brought them out, their thoughts on the candidates and how they felt about the tax levy and bond issue. It was kind of fun to focus more on a series of quick, reaction-type interviews and to just talk to people about their thoughts. The superintendent and a former superintendent of the district also came, so it was kind of cool to talk with them in a more informal setting.
When I wasn’t talking to people, I was constantly updating the county clerk’s website as election results were posted. At one point, Margaux had to pull out her phone charger so my phone wouldn’t die.
Late in the evening, the results were finalized enough that it was clear my candidate would take one of the seats. It was also pretty clear the tax levy and bond issue would pass. There was some celebration at the watch party, and then the room started to clear out. I grabbed my candidate for a quick interview, and then Margaux and I headed back to the newsroom. Once there, I made a quick call to my other candidate, who we found out at that point had not been elected, for a quick reaction. Then we got to work typing up the best information we got from the evening, joined by the other election reporters and our Assistant City Editor. We sent all our information in to our ACE, and we put a story together in a little over an hour. Then we had another ACE look it over and sent it off to the copy desk. And finally, at about 11:30, we went to Waffle House for some celebratory greasy breakfast food.
Wednesday, I headed into the newsroom, expecting to talk about the previous day’s coverage, but thinking this chapter was over. During budget, though, Liz brought up the idea of following up on Tuesday’s election and finding the “second-day” story. Initially, she asked Margaux and I to come up with something we could turn that day. We spent some time brainstorming and came up with a few ideas we thought might work. It turned out a follow-up story wasn’t quite as obvious as we’d hoped. At one point, Liz ended up diverting Margaux to another story, and I ended up in charge of putting something together. I made a call to the district communications coordinator to see if there were any solid plans, and it turned out at this point, she couldn’t give me a lot of specifics. She did tell me, though, that the district Finance Committee was meeting that afternoon, and that they would probably talk about the bond issue and tax levy. I spoke with Liz, and we decided I would go.
The meeting turned out to be a discussion of different salary raises and increases to next year’s budget. While the levy increase was mentioned in passing a few times, there wasn’t really an outright discussion, which would have made it hard to put together more than a few sentences of story. Fortunately, the district’s Chief Financial Officer was there, as well as the Deputy Superintendent, who is in charge of most of the building projects and would know more about the bond issue. So once the meeting was over, I went up to both of them to get a quick interview and accuracy checked on the spot. At this point, I knew I had enough information to put something solid together. I headed back to the newsroom and managed to get out with a story written and at the copy desk in a couple of hours.
While this wasn’t necessarily the most epic story I’ve ever written, I was actually really proud of it. While just covering the meeting wouldn’t have yielded much information about what the district will do now that it has passed the two measures, I stepped up and talked to the people I knew would be able to talk about it. It felt good to feel like I knew what I was doing and who to talk to in order to put a story together. I was able to get something together that had a coherent focus and was relevant to the two measures that had just been approved. It was definitely a moment when I realized that I really am growing as a journalist.
In other news: Nan and I finally have some good momentum going on our multimedia project. We have gone through a couple of drafts and finally think we have the audio together. Hopefully this week we will get all the photos arranged and do whatever else we need to do to get closer to finishing!