Last week the Fairfax County School Board voted 6 to 4 to close Fort Hunt High School and merge its students with Groveton High School. The painful decision culminated several months of rallies, fund-raising and scampering by parents and students for every inch of favorable publicity in hopes of retaining their own school. Either Fort Hunt or Groveton had to lose.
The result was not a polite, powder- puff debate. A Post story last week by Barbara Carton reported, "Parents, in some instances, aren't speaking to former friends whose children attend other schools. Students and teachers say they feel alone and under attack by peers outside the school. Everyone talks of perceived threats and deep wounds that will take a long time to heal."
During the four-month struggle an ugly rumor began to circulate -- that Groveton was receiving favored treatment in The Post because one of the three Groveton co-chairmen was Barbara Rosenfeld, wife of Stephen Rosenfeld, deputy editorial page editor and columnist. The rumor surfaced in public meetings of the Fort Hunt boosters, and calls pointing out the relationship were received by The Post's Virginia editor, William McAllister, and the ombudsman.
My review of the stories indicates no bias toward Groveton. Each side could consider certain reports favorable, and space devoted to each was about even. There were no editorials.
My inquiry found that Steve Rosenfeld did not intervene with the news staff except for a conversation the night of the school board meeting when he passed along a tip about an expected proposal. The Virginia editor and all three Post reporters who have been on the story confirmed this without hesitation. McAllister has never met or heard from Barbara Rosenfeld.
Reporter Carton, who came to The Post Aug. 1 and began covering Fairfax schools a month ago, has never met Mr. Rosenfeld. When she learned of the relationship between her source and Mr. Rosenfeld she started dealing with another of the Groveton co-chairmen. "Nobody ever told me what to write about the story," she emphasized.
Her co-workers in the Fairfax bureau, Patrice Gaines-Carter and Matthew Daly, never met or talked to Mr. Rosenfeld either. Daly said he "didn't know they were related until someone from Fort Hunt told me."
Barbara Rosenfeld, news director of the Federal Trade Commission, was given the press and publicity assignment by the Groveton group, but in carrying it out, she said, "I absolutely never mentioned my connection with Steve and The Washington Post."
The Rosenfelds, residents of the Groveton district for 19 years, have two children who graduated from Groveton and 16-year-old twins, James and Michael, in the high school now. Mrs. Rosenfeld has been president ofGroveton High School Parent-Teacher Association and chairs a county citizens' committee for gifted and talented students. "Steve played no role in this [high school dispute] at all. He never attended a meeting. It was my activity," she said.
Potential conflicts of interest are a concern within newspapers. The Post's longstanding ethics statement by Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee declares, "We avoid active involvement in causes of any kind -- politics, community affairs, social action, demonstrations -- that could compromise, or seem to compromise, our ability to report and edit with fairness. Relatives cannot fairly be subject to Post rules, but it should be recognized that their involvement in causes can at least appear to compromise our integrity."
It may have appeared to some that that integrity was compromised, but Bradlee didn't think so and neither do I.
To borrow some words from Virginia Editor McAllister, "Just because someone happens to be married to a news person, should they be denied their constitutional rights? The Post is one of the biggest employers in this area -- a lot of employees, a lot of spouses -- should they be barred from community activity?"
If so, Ann C. Broder, wife of David Broder, political reporter, could not have served as chairman of the Arlington School Board. Judith A. Feaver, wife of Douglas Feaver, transportation reporter, could not have served as chairman of the Alexandria School Board. May their ranks grow and prosper.