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Archive for June, 2017

If I could get my hands on the nuclear code right now, I’d be sorely tempted to blow North Korea into oblivion.

Is this the saddest thing you can ever imagine: 22-year-old Otto Warmbier lying in what amounts to a persistent vegetative state in a Cincinnati hospital after the North Koreans sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor for a moment of bad judgment and then did something to him to trigger a heart attack or other event that deprived his brain of oxygen?

It is unbelievable and as depressing as about anything could be.

Fred Warmbier, on Thursday

Today, his father, Fred Warmbier, said at a news conference Otto had become “fodder” for the Kim Jong-un regime after being lured into visiting the country by a Chinese travel company that said its customers were never detained while on a tour there. At the news conference, Fred Warmbier wore the light-colored sport coat his son wore in North Korean court appearances.

Was bad judgment a factor here? Of course. He was crazy to go to North Korea…If for no other reason, the vast majority of sensible people would not go to North Korea because they’d be following the lead of a notorious nut job, former NBA player Dennis Rodman.

In Otto’s defense, however, he was an adventurous sort, having traveled overseas several times, including to twice to Europe as well as to Israel, Ecuador and Cuba. When asked about her reaction to her son’s desire to travel to North Korea, his mother, Cindy Warmbier, told The Washington Post two months ago, “Why would you say no to a kid like this?”

Otto, with his mother Cindy, in happier times

Mistake No. 2 was stealing a propaganda sign from a staff-only floor of the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang. The poster said, “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!”

Yanggakdo International Hotel

Kim Jong-il preceded Kim Jong-un. It is not clear if Otto, when he took the poster, realized that harming items with the name or image of a North Korean leader is considered a serious crime by the regime. 

On top of his errors of judgment, Otto also caught a terrible break. On Jan. 2, 2016, he was apprehended at the airport just before boarding a flight to come back home.

On March 16, 2016, two hours after U.S. envoy Bill Richardson met with two North Korean diplomats from the United Nations office to press for his release, Otto was sentenced. He is believed to have suffered the heart attack, or other life-threatening event, within a month or two after that.

For a long time, Otto’s parents followed the Obama administration’s advice to stay quiet so as not to antagonize or offend leaders in North Korea. So much for that strategy. Recently, they began speaking out.

When asked today whether he believes the Obama administration could have done more to secure Otto’s release, Fred Warmbier replied, “I think the results speak for themselves.”

The Warmbiers are from a small town about 20 minutes north of Cincinnati called Wyoming. Otto graduated from Wyoming High School in 2013. At the time of his trip to North Korea, he was a junior at the University of Virginia, where he was studying for a double major degree in commerce and economics. He has two younger siblings.

Being dragged to or from a North Korean court in March 2016

On April 28, before it was known that Otto had been in a coma for months, The Washington Post ran a feature story on Fred and Cindy Warmbier. The headline was: “Worried about North Korea? Spare a thought for Otto Warmbier’s family.”

The story quoted Fred Warmbier as saying, “We’ve not seen or heard from Otto in 16 months. We don’t know if Otto still exists.”

He does, but just barely…And now we need to spare a lot more than a thought for the Warmbier family. They need all the prayers and empathy we can collectively muster. And that’s not close to enough for that terribly unlucky family.

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About the only “good radio” available anywhere these days is National Public Radio, which most of us in the Kansas City area access through the local NPR affiliate, KCUR-FM, 89.3.

But, alas, even NPR occasionally disappoints its listeners, and just such a disappointment occurred this morning during coverage of a huge story — the shooting in Alexandria, VA, of U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and four other people, including two Capitol Police officers.

Ultimately, the shooter, identified as 66-year-old James Hodgkinson of Belleville, IL, was shot and killed, either by the Capitol Police officers, who served as security guards for Scalise, or Alexandria police.

Steve Inskeep

About 9:30 this morning, as I was driving home from the bank and listening to Morning Edition, one of the show’s hosts, Steve Inskeep, announced he had on the line Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who had been at the baseball field and witnessed the entire event.

Brooks started by recounting how, while standing with a bat near the third-base line, “I heard this loud ‘blam!’ ”

He turned toward where the sound had come from and saw a man shooting a rifle through the holes of a chain-link fence that extended down and outside of the third-base line. Then, he heard someone scream “active shooter!”

Vulnerable and out in the open, Brooks ran toward the batting cage and got down behind a plastic shield at the base of the cage. Realizing the plastic wouldn’t be much help, he then ran toward and dove into the first-base dugout, the floor of which was a foot or so below ground level.

Other players had also taken cover there, and one of them, a congressional staff member, had been shot in the calf. Brooks said he pulled the belt off his shorts and tied it around the man’s leg to slow the blood flow.

Next, Brooks said he began hearing gunshots coming from the dugout and at first thought it could be a second shooter. Instead…”It was a Capitol Police officer who was using the cinder-block dugout area for cover, and he was shooting from around the edge (of the dugout).”

Moments later, as Brooks recounted how the officer was shooting “”across the baseball diamond,” Inskeep interrupted him, saying…

“Congressman, I’m obliged to stop you there for the moment. If you’ll stay on the line, we’d like to come back after a short break — which we’re required to take for our NPR stations — and hear more of your story.”

…It was very disconcerting and frustrating to have the Congressman’s story interrupted, but I thought the break would last a minute or two and then it would be back to his story.

But no. That was at 9:40 a.m. After station identification, it was on to several minutes of national news. Then several minutes of local news. Then to a lengthy local story from KCUR’s Dan Margolies, who’s a great reporter but the last person I wanted to be hearing from just then.

To my dismay, I soon realized that we listeners of KCUR would not be hearing the rest of Brooks’ compelling story.

At the top of the hour, it was another round of national news and then on to the ever-riveting Gina Kaufman and her local Central Standard show.

Within minutes, we were exposed to radio at its best and radio at its worst. It’s a damn shame that NPR is so rigid that it had to break off precisely when it did. Certainly, Inskeep, veteran that he is, could have wrung out another minute or two! What’s the worst that could have happened? The KCUR staff would have had to adjust on the fly and cut a minute or two of local programming and news.

I blame Inskeep. He should have held off on the break and found a way to wrap up the story, even if it meant breaking the agreement NPR has with its affiliates…This was a monster story. There are times for exceptions, and this was one of them.

…Later, I went to the NPR website and saw that, indeed, Inskeep had kept Brooks on the line and had given him about three more minutes of air time…at some point.

In Round Two of the interview, Brooks recounted how he and two other Congressmen, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Brad Wenstrip of Ohio, went to the aid of Scalise, who, after being shot in the hip, had dragged himself from near second base to the outfield grass. At the direction of Wenstrup, a podiatrist, Brooks applied pressure to Scalise’s wound with a cloth.

“He was conscious,” Brooks said, referring to Scalise. “You could tell he was in pain; he was immobile.”

Brooks concluded by expressing “tremendous gratitude” to the Capitol Police. “But for them, it would have been a massacre,” he said.

It was good to get the second part of the interview, but I imagine very few KCUR listeners got to hear it, online or elsewhere.

That was bad radio, a tremendous disservice to listeners not only in Kansas City but around the country.

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Despite the lurching, neck-snapping ride Mayor Sly James has put Kansas City residents and fellow City Council members through on his drive for a single-terminal airport, real progress is now starting to be made.

A clearer direction is coming into focus because at least one key council member is moving decisively to take the reins away from James, whose impatience and secretiveness set the airport proposal careening down pit road.

Yes, the city is still fooling around with the Burns & McDonnell, private-finance, private-build proposal, which James hatched last month. And, yes, the city is going to accept other private proposals and will give interested companies at least a few additional weeks to assemble their proposals.

That’s all well and good. The best news, however, is that Councilwoman Katheryn Shields has introduced an ordinance that would do the project the right way: It would put the city back in the driver’s seat.

Katheryn Shields

The ordinance, which she introduced at last Thursday’s council meeting would authorize a Nov. 7 election on a proposal for the city to issue up to $990 million in airport revenue bonds. It also provide for “a  competitive bidding process for any construction.”

Now, we can argue about the timing of an election — it might be best to carry it over to next spring — but I cannot overestimate the importance of the two main elements of Shields’ ordinance.

James threw this whole process into reverse when he played the Burns and Mac card. It threw not only the public for a loop but a majority of the other council members. It took a while for them to collect themselves and realize that all the mayor had really done was launched an unguided missile.

Shields, who’s got more elective experience than any other council member, has contended all along that the city could do the job cheaper because it would get a significantly lower interest rate on bonds it issued than bonds, or loans, issued or arranged by private interests. Burns and Mac acknowledges that point but says it can make up the difference by building the terminal in four years instead of the six that the city has projected.

I say balderdash. Maybe Burns and Mac could do it faster, maybe not. Who knows what’s going to happen? When the Truman Sports Complex was being built in the early 1970s, a building and construction trades strike delayed construction for months. That could happen again. Anything could happen. All in all, it’s hard for me to see how a private deal can beat a public deal involving probably at least a hundred million dollars less in interest payments.

The two main objections to having the city in the driver’s seat are: 1) some people, maybe many, worry that there wouldn’t be enough revenue to pay off the bonds, leaving the city on the hook, and 2) a lot of people just don’t trust the city to properly monitor a project this big.

To the first point, there’s going to be plenty of revenue. It’s going to come primarily from the airlines — in the form of landing fees and gate rentals — and parking and concession fees. Does anyone really think fewer people are going to use a new, more appealing airport? Does anyone really think fewer planes are going to be coming into and going out of Kansas City? Ridiculous. It’s going to grow and grow fast. The Kansas City area is experiencing breathtaking growth and expansion, and people are not going to decide they want to drive from here to California, even if gas prices stay at $2.20 for the next five years.

To the second point, no one expects the Aviation Department, as presently constituted and staffed, to oversee all aspects of the construction of a new, billion-dollar airport. But just as the City Council hired two law firms to help it sort through the various contractual approaches being considered, it could hire a team of full-time airport consultants and advisers to oversee construction. I’m sure there are any number of experts who would be thrilled to move here for five or six years and get paid handsomely to make sure the job is done right.

Finally, the last and best reason to keep this a publicly controlled lies at the basic distinction between public and private.

Private companies, while they generally strive to produce good products and do quality work, are motivated by one overarching goal: to make money. There would be ample motivation for Burns and Mac, or another company, to do right by the city and Kansas City area residents. However, as we have seen time and time again — i.e., Volkswagen cheating on emissions and General Motors covering up faulty, life-taking ignition switches — profit reigns above all else, in the end.

On the other hand, government — whether you like it or not — is not out to make a profit. No matter how good the new terminal ends up being, the aviation director is not going to be in a position to dole out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses to the troops. Government’s overarching mission, at every level, is to look out for the public welfare and public safety, provide good services and facilities, and improve the quality of life for all citizens.

Call me Polyanna, call me a hopeless Democrat, but plant me 100 percent behind Katheryn Shields’ proposal: Trust municipal government to get this done at the best price and with a minimum of hanky panky. If Burns and Mac wants to do the job for the city and comes in with the “lowest and best bid,” that’s fine.

What we should not do is entrust a billion-dollar airport job to a private company — lock, stock and barrel — and then close our eyes, cross our fingers and hope the company doesn’t screw us before it’s all over.

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You probably saw this photo at some point yesterday…


It’s a remarkable photo by Doug Mills, a 15-year veteran of The New York Times. (The larger it runs, the better it looks. Unfortunately, this is as big as I can run it.)

It is such a standout photo The Times wrote a story about it in today’s edition. The headline was, “A Comey Photo Storms the Internet.”

It earned tens of thousands of “upvotes” on Reddit, a social news aggregation and web-content rating website.

Doug Mills (2011 photo)

Scores of photographers were in the room for the Comey hearing and all were hoping for a memorable shot. Mills, it seems, got the one that stood out.

He mapped out his game plan well in advance, getting to the hearing room shortly after 5 a.m. — about five hours before the hearing began.

From there, in Mills’ words, is how the photo came together…

“I…set up three remote cameras: one behind the chairman; one in the ‘well,’ looking up at Mr. Comey’s chair; and one way in the back, looking out over the whole room.

“With hearings like this one, I have to preconceive the scene. I make a layout in my mind of everything that’s going to happen: the moment he arrives, the moment he sits down, the moment he raises his hand to be sworn in. And I set up my cameras to capture all those moments, to be fired remotely, all at the same time. (When I fired the picture of Mr. Comey surrounded by the press, I had the three other cameras firing too.)

“I put my fourth camera up on a full-length monopod and held it as high as I could. I pre-focused the shot ahead of time, and spent a little time making sure the image would be sharp. And, as more people arrived, I thought, ‘There’s no way I can’t put all these photographers into the foreground of the picture.’ So I took three or four steps back and zoomed out a bit.

“I wasn’t sure how well things would line up — where Mr. Comey would be, or what would be behind him. But, as it turned out, he was perfectly framed by the chairs behind him. Even before I looked at the picture, I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be nice.’ ”

A monopod is a staff, or pole, on which a camera can be mounted. It was with the monopod that Mills got the head-on photo of Comey, with the other photographers pushing forward.

It appears from a photo that Mills took with another camera — one pointed toward the area where the senators were seated — that only one or possibly two other photographers had monopods. So he had an edge on most of the others in the equipment department.

Mills said crowd in the hearing room was as big as any he has ever seen.

“When I arrived this morning,” he said, “people were running at full speed down the hallways to try to get into the visitors’ line. They were actually running down the hallways — mostly young people who were going to stand in line for the seats open to the public. By 7 a.m. the line was as far as you can see.”

One of the most satisfying aspects of the photo is that it was on The Times’ home page in minutes, thanks to the wonders of technology.

“I use a Wi-Fi hot spot to send my pictures directly to the photo editors in New York,” Mills said, “and I can send them straight from my camera, so it happens very quickly. With this particular photo, I alerted my editor with a text message beforehand: ‘Sending you a nice picture now.’ A little while later, I saw that people were posting it on Twitter — so I knew it made it.”

…In today’s print edition, The Times ran the photo across 10 columns, straddling pages A16 and A17.

It was a thing of beauty. And you might be hearing more about it next year, when the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winners are announced.

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Reporting on a nighttime deadline is a lot different from crafting a story all day long — or all week, month or year, depending on the nature of the story — and The Star and many other metropolitan dailies are now doing a lot less true deadline reporting.

Yes, reporters are under deadline pressure to get stories on the Internet as soon as possible, but most of those can easily be edited, augmented or pared down after the first version has gone “up.”

Because of relatively early deadlines and much-diminished staffing, however, many papers don’t routinely cover nighttime developments, unless they are really big.

Such a story occurred last night, when, remarkably, the Kansas Legislature voted to roll back Gov. Sam Brownback’s 5-year-old tax cuts, which plunged the state into operational uncertainty and a long period of strangulation-level budgets.

The vote in Topeka was historic, partly because it took a two-thirds majority to override Brownback’s recent veto of the same tax-increase bill.

Unfortunately, The Star’s latter-day lack of experience in covering breaking, nighttime stories was on full display in last night’s Web version of the story as well as in today’s print edition.

The Star’s Topeka correspondent, Hunter Woodall, a young reporter who was assigned to the legislative “beat” early this year, got the key element of the story — the override — but failed to address the critical issue of the raw vote count in the context of the two-thirds majority.

In the third paragraph of his story, Woodall said: “The Senate vote was 27 to 13, and the House followed by agreeing 88 to 31 to supersede the Republican governor’s wishes on the tax plan…”

Not a word, though, there or later, about how many votes it took to hit the two-thirds level in either chamber.

In fact, 27 was the precise number of votes needed to override in the Senate, and 84 was the number needed in the House.

That is important information, and virtually every experienced reporter would recognize that and put it high in the story.

For example, John Hanna, a 30-year, Associated Press reporter in Kansas, expounded on the two-thirds issue in the fifth paragraph of his story — a version The Star did not run because it relies on its own reporter, Woodall, for firsthand legislative coverage.

Hanna wrote: “The Senate’s vote to override 27-13, exactly the two-thirds majority required. The vote in the House was 88-31, giving supporters of the bill four votes more than a two-thirds majority.”

If you’ll notice, the first sentence is missing a verb, but I’ll give Hanna a pass on that, attributing the oversight to fast writing. Woodall doesn’t get a pass, though; he simply ignored that important element of the story. Contributing to the damage, neither his front-line editor nor the copy editor who gave the story a final read and added the headline bailed him out.

**

I heard about the override about 11 p.m. while returning home from Kauffman Stadium with Patty and two friends. One of the friends was checking The Star’s site on her phone and announced the legislative development, to our collective shock.

My first question was what the vote count was. The friend said it was 27 to 13 in the Senate. I said, “How many votes did it take to get the two-thirds?” She scoured the story but couldn’t find the answer. We then did the math in our heads and calculated that 27 was precisely the number needed, assuming the total number of votes — 40 — represented the full complement of senators. But most readers don’t know that, either.

After getting home, I took a closer look at the story, thinking — surely, surely — Woodall had included the two-thirds information somewhere in the story. Alas, no, not there — nor in today’s print edition.

…A long time ago, one of my first editors said something I took to heart and never forgot:

“Don’t make the reader do the math.”

It’s a great rule, and Woodall is one of many reporters who have broken it. We can only hope this rebuke will cure him of future violations.

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It’s a crying shame what happened out at 104th and Holmes less than two weeks ago, after a young Lee’s Summit man gave in to an urge to catch up and jawbone with a man who had badgered him for going too slow.

It was also inevitable that the perp would get caught; a camera caught an excellent image of him in a distinctive, metallic-blue car, and over the weekend he was apprehended on the basis of a tip.

Left in the wake of what should have been an inconsequential, momentary encounter is a 19-year-old, father-to-be dead, and a 45-year-old Independence man — married 15 months ago — in jail, charged with second-degree murder, unlawful use of a weapon and armed criminal action.

We’re just lucky — we as a community — that Tailer Monroe was just grazed by the bullet that killed Chris Hutson. It could easily have a been two-for-one shot.

Let’s retrace this fateful encounter because it is worthy of dissection.

Hutson and Monroe had just left a medical appointment where Monroe had had a sonogram. She is seven months pregnant. The couple had been on I-435 but got off at State Line Road, went north and took a right on 103rd. Hutson was driving slowly because he and Tailor had lost their way.

John C. Young

At that point, along came John C. Young, a cabinet maker, who, for some reason, was in a hurry. He was also packing.

After Hutson and Monroe stopped for a red light at Wornall Road, a car pulled up beside them, and Young yelled at them, “Learn to fuckin’ drive!”

Instead of ignoring Young, Hutson gave chase, and when the cars were side by side a couple of blocks later, Young fired at least one shot into Hutson and Monroe’s car. A bullet struck Hutson in the head and continue its flight, grazing Monroe.

His business completed, Young drove away.

**

That was on Thursday, May 25, at 4:15 p.m. Broad daylight, lots of cars in the area.

Within minutes after the incident occurred, I heard on the radio about a traffic back-up near I-435 and Holmes. I listened with particular attention because I sometimes get off I-435 and head north on Holmes when I’m returning home from my golf course in Pleasant Hill.

About an hour after the first report of traffic congestion, I heard another report, saying several emergency vehicles were at the scene. That’s when I suspected there was a lot more to it than traffic congestion. My instincts were correct.

Had I been in the car with Hutson and Monroe, I would have been screaming at Hutson to let it go — to swallow his pride, take a couple of deep breaths and get back to getting on track.

The only thing that possibly could have come from giving chase, I would have told him, was trouble.

Let me emphasize, I am not blaming the victim. I’m just saying it’s foolhardy to engage these assholes who are in a hurry on the roadways. All of us see it almost every day — people racing past the rest of the traffic, often cutting across a couple of lanes to demonstrate their driving skills and to make the important point that the rest of us are merely irritants in their lives at that particular moment. The ultimate incongruity, of course, is although these people are always in a big hurry, they’ve always got time to fuck with you.

But here’s the key line in The Star’s most recent story: A friend of Young said “he has known Young to carry a pistol for protection.”

Ah, yes, protection. You really need protection when you’re driving around in a hurry because…because other people are going to be in your way! The gall of it all — being delayed by these tortoises puttering along at the speed limit, or less.

Here’s another interesting line from The Star’s story: “Young has reportedly told police he has a self-defense argument to make.”

I can’t wait to hear that, can you?

It will go something like this:

I was driving along minding my own business, when I passed this car and the driver started yelling and swearing at me. For no reason whatsoever! Then he started chasing me and pulled up beside me. I thought he was going to run me off the road. I was scared to death. I thought I was going to die. Fortunately, I had my gun with me, and I picked it up and fired. I wasn’t aiming at him, I swear. It was just an instantaneous reaction. I just wanted to scare him.

Mark my words, if this case goes to trial and Young testifies, that’s close to what we will hear him say under oath.

As he sits in his cell in the Jackson County Detention Center, Young has plenty of time to work on his story. Maybe he’ll come up with something even more creative, like Hutson pointed something out the window at him and he thought it was a gun.

Too bad for him the bullet that killed Hutson didn’t take out Monroe, too. Because she’s going to counter his story with her own. Maybe she will play down whatever exchange there was between Hutson and Young. Who knows? Maybe she, too, was yelling. We will probably never know exactly what was said.

But who do you think a jury is likely to believe? A woman who was seven months pregnant returning home from a sonogram with her late boyfriend or a shithead driving around with a gun beside him?

**

Back in October, I wrote about two road-rage incidents in which people were killed. In that post, I said, “Way too many of those people (wackos) are out there on the roads, and the best policy is to move over and let ’em blow by, especially now that we’re in the lock-‘n-load era.”

One reason I’ve lived to be 71 is that I’ve run from fights and potentially violent encounters ever since my grade-school classmates hit puberty and surpassed me in height and weight and their voices got lower than mine.

Let the hotheads go. Restraint in the face of irrationality is a life-saving policy.

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You’ve got to hand it to Shawnee Mission School District Superintendent Jim Hinson…Many high-profile, public employees overstay their welcome and get overtaken by controversy. But Hinson? He apparently saw the 30-foot wave bearing down on him and got the hell out just before the shit hit the shore.

Consider:

:: In a move that caught nearly everyone off guard, Hinson announced on April 19 that he would be retiring June 30. Curious, that, coming from a guy who was hired just four years ago, is 54 years old and whose stint had been relatively free of controversy, although he was disliked by many parents and teachers.

Jim Hinson (Kansas City Star photo) 

:: On about the same day Hinson announced his retirement, the ACLU of Kansas sent a letter to the school board, strongly objecting to a February 7 incident in which a third-grader at Briarwood Elementary was taken into custody by Prairie Village police at the end of the school day. The child’s mother had been detained by immigration agents earlier in the day, and the ACLU said school officials did not notify the boy’s father or other emergency contacts about what had happened.

:: Several months ago, Hinson recommended that the board switch insurance agencies and go with a company called CBIZ, which just so happened to have hired the daughter of a SMSD school board member, Debra Zila. Zila denied any involvement in CBIZ’s hiring of her daughter, but she didn’t hesitate to vote in favor of the CBIZ contract — which, given Zila’s daughter’s situation, would appear to be a direct conflict of interest.

Jim Hinson and Debra Zila (Photo from the Shawnee Mission Post)

:: A publication called the Shawnee Mission Post wants to know more about what information may have passed between Hinson and Zila. A couple of months ago, the Post filed a request under the Kansas Open Records Act for any emails between Hinson and Zila. I don’t believe the Post has made much headway on that request.

:: In April, the month everything started going south for Hinson, the school board issued new, ridiculous guidelines prohibiting members of the public from naming district employees when making public comments at school board meetings. The ACLU and The Star have jumped all over the guidelines, saying they are a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution’s freedom-of-speech provision. In an online editorial today, The Star said: “If people can’t get specific, are they supposed to speak in code? Or just keep silent altogether?”

…Unfortunately, the public may never get the back story of Hinson’s resignation. There are two reasons for that. First, The Star, with its depleted local staff, has a young, inexperienced reporter covering the Shawnee Mission School District, and the story could be beyond the reporter’s capabilities at this point.

Second, while I applaud the Shawnee Mission Post’s vigorous effort to uncover the facts, it is owned and run by two guys of limited means, and they probably do not have the money to launch a legal challenge to get the documents they have requested or to otherwise tangle with the district in court. They are two Davids, with a very small slingshot, up against a Goliath that looks and sounds like it has a lot to hide and doesn’t want to be questioned about its actions.

This is a troubling situation that is crying out for a lot of sunshine — which would mean a lot more intensive coverage by The Kansas City Star.

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