As regular readers know, this space has nurtured a minor obsession over the doings of Dennis Roddy, late of the Post-Gazette and long one of the city's finest journalists. Roddy left the P-G a year ago, to join Gov. Tom Corbett's communications team. And while evidence of Roddy's handiwork has cropped up once or twice since then, his voice has scarcely been heard in Pittsburgh.
Until this week, when he waded into an online debate at a blog opposed to Corbett's education spending.
The blog, Yinzercation, was recently launched by Dr. Jessie B. Ramey, a college instructor and Pittsburgh Public Schools parent. (In the spirit of full disclosure -- and because this post will concern a debate over the need to disclose things -- I should note that while reporting this story, I discovered that Dr. Ramey's brothers are childhood friends of my brother and I, though none of us have seen each other in decades.) Ramey says the blog, and an associated Facebook page, is "a grassroots place to organize for the fight" for more education funding in the state budget. Ramey says about 300 people follow the site. While its first concern is with Pittsburgh schools, she says, it is attracting supporters -- and linking up with similar efforts -- from around the region.
It has also attracted the attention of Roddy, who has taken issue with its characterization of Corbett's budget priorities ... and with the growth of educators' salaries and benefits.
Earlier this week, Roddy weighed in on one post decrying Corbett for not taxing Pennsylvania businesses more heavily. "Think of the Capitol as a long tube, lined with Velcro," Roddy wrote. "Now, blow $160 million from one end to the other and see how much reaches its destination, be that destination roads, or schools, or mass transit."
In another post -- this one surveying letters published in the Post-Gazette -- Roddy posted a pair of comments, which offer up a defense of Corbett's budget cutting, and question the growth in teacher salaries and benefits:
Pennsylvania was $4.2 billion in the hole last year and nearly another billion this year. With education and welfare consuming more than 70 percent of the state’s budget, what would she have done? The increase necessary to cover these deficits would have hit the average, two income working family in Pennsylvania with an additional $1,200 in taxes. She also neglects to mention that an additional $300 million in state tax dollars had to be put toward a growing pension debt created by the Public School Employees Retirement system — a debt that will rise to $2.7 billion in another five years ...
The hard truth is that educators have priced themselves to the point that no amount of money will be enough. And that pension bomb on the horizon is exacerbated by the fact that pensions increase with salary. Simply throwing another tax on corporations might feel good, but we tried that. Rockwell is now in California. Westinghouse is gone. The steel companies either collapsed, were bought, or bugged out ... Listen closely at who is taking greatest offense at rising education costs and property taxes. They’re wearing blue collars and they understand that when you have less to spend the only sensible answer is to spend less.
Roddy confirmed his authorship of the comments to City Paper. "I came across this site and saw the usual misunderstandings and distortions about the education budget," he says via e-mail. (As Corbett himself has noted, under former Gov. Ed Rendell, school funding was shored up by economic stimulus funds, provided by the Obama administration. The stimulus money ran out as Corbett took office. While Corbett's first budget increased the state share of funding, it wasn't enough to replenish some $840 million in lost federal money. In this year's budget address, Corbett objected to the claim that he had cut spending, calling it an "urban legend was spread by those who have the most to gain from additional funding at taxpayer expense.")
Roddy posted his comments under his own name, but without explicitly identifying himself as an employee of the Corbett Administration. "I figured they would know who I am, especially given that they seem to have organized a letter writing campaign to my old newspaper," he says. "I didn't list my work affiliation so as not to give the impression that my comments were some official, administration pronouncement." He was, he says, commenting not as an administration employee, but as a taxpayer and a parent of two children in the public schools.
That explanation doesn't satisfy Ramey. "You have every right to say these are your own opinions," she says, "but when you are being paid by the administration to put out its message, I think it's unfair to suggest that you get to be Joe Citizen, and decide when you are taking your 'official' hat on or off." Though Roddy provided his own name -- and though Ramey says she did recognize it -- she says he should have identified his Corbett ties from the outset. "Identifying yourself in a public forum is only fair, she says. "Otherwise, you're leaving it incumbent on the rest of us to figure out which hat you are wearing."
Ramey took matters into her own hands. She e-mailed Roddy -- at the address he provided -- and asked him to confirm that he was that Dennis Roddy. Once he did, she posted a disclosure for him:
Before I reply, I’d like to point out that the above comment is from Dennis Roddy, former Post-Gazette columnist and now a paid member of Governor Corbett’s communication staff. I have confirmed this via email, and though Mr. Roddy says he is posting as a "father" and "taxpayer," I believe his affiliation is highly relevant to this conversation so I am choosing to include it here.
In his conversation with me, Roddy complained that Ramey was posting such comments under her own online alias, "YinzerThing."
"Call me a cynic," he says, "but I'm beginning to think that's not a real name." (The site's "about" page does identify Ramey as the site's author, but the identity of "YinzerThing" would probably not be immediately clear to most visitors.)
In the best internet tradition, once Ramey posted his Corbett connections, Roddy fired back: "Aside from the preciousness of putting father and taxpayer in quotes, as if they are excuses rather than positions, I also object to the fact that someone posting as 'Yinzer Thing' insists on fuller disclosure as to my identity," a comment posted this afternoon begins. After a discussion of property taxes and the part education costs play in the state's budget problems, he added:
"Because you bring my employment into it, let me point out that the governor and Susan Corbett both began their working lives as teachers in public schools. They are products of public schools and sent their children to the same schools. They value education. That is why, in the face of these deficits, he still found a way to put back the state’s share of dollars in a Basic Education Formula that had been painfully distorted by the inclusion of one-time federal stimulus money that was never intended for year-to-year operating expenses."
Could Roddy have avoided the controversy simply by saying, from the outset, "I work for the Corbett Administration, though the views I am expressing here are my own"? Perhaps not. While Ramey says, "I absolutely believe there's room for open dialogue," she also objects to Roddy diluting grassroots commentary with arguments that echo administration talking points. "I don't look at this as an innocent attempt on his part."
On the bright side, at least she knows someone in the Corbett Administration is listening.