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District takes heat for erasing posts on its own Facebook page

After an anonymous poster crosses swords with regular commenters, school official hits 'delete' button

An anonymous poster engaged in a war of words with several active commenters on the Forest Grove School District's Facebook page has backed administrators into a corner over how to manage its social media account.

Since April, someone posting as 'Mack Guffin' has logged comments that seem to be closely aligned with directions the district is taking to manage next year's budget shortfall, a hotly-debated issue in the local community.

He or she regularly takes issue online with critics of the district, who've weighed in on everything from teacher cuts to a new textbook adoption to the proposed closure of Gales Creek Elementary School.

'Stop trying to hold the District, its students and its employees hostage,' 'Mack' wrote May 18, a day before the district budget committee approved the 2011-12 budget. 'If you have ANY valid ideas for budget cuts that don't include breaking contracts or the laws of Oregon, communicate them NOW to the Budget Committee.'

Literary device

Choosing to obscure his or her real name, instead posting under the literary device 'MacGuffin' - referring to something for which characters in works of fiction are willing to sacrifice almost anything to obtain - 'Mack' has so riled certain commenters that they've asked the page administrator, district communications director Connie Potter, to ban him from conversation threads.

'Everyone posting here should use their real name. It's integrity,' Gaston resident Holly Martinez posted May 19. 'This is supposed to be a place where the stakeholders of the district gain and share information. If we could all wear masks and use fake names, what would the conversation here look like?'

Instead, Potter, who monitors the page, has deleted a number of posts by 'Mack's' philosophical opponents in recent weeks, saying she or other district officials deemed them to be inappropriate.

In one instance, Gales Creek parent Jodi McPhee Giddings used the word 'spineless' in reference to 'Mack's' anonymity. In another, Martinez outlined Facebook's terms of service, which she said require posters to create profiles using their actual names.

Meanwhile, 'Mack' has indicated support for district officials and pooh-poohed community criticism that public input largely wasn't considered as administrators formulated the proposed budget.

'The district started collecting Community Summit information for the budget starting back in January,' he wrote May 19. 'This process has gone on long enough.'

'Mack' also threw his support behind the recent hiring of a second assistant principal at Forest Grove High and encouraged Superintendent Yvonne Curtis online at 11:02 a.m. May 5, the day she delivered the long-awaited budget message.

'I appreciate the hard decisions Superintendent Curtis has had to make and I'll be there to support her tonight,' he wrote.

When poster Christiana Mayer complained on Facebook that 'it would have [been] nice to have a more transparent budget message,' 'Mack' shot back that 'Most of the budget cuts revealed in the Superintendent's message were items that were discussed and weighted by community members through that overly drawn-out process and somehow that doesn't equate to transparency to you.'

None of 'Mack's' posts are known to have disappeared from the forum.

'This Facebook forum is a place for respectful conversations, but people should remember that this is not where decisions are made or even influenced,' Potter wrote in a May 19 post. 'When people want Board or Budget Committee members to have information or comments, they need to make them at Board or Budget Committee meetings.

'Patrons also send comments via the district website budget page or by e-mailing the board secretary.'

Responding to a question by Giddings challenging 'Mack's' status as a district Facebook page poster, Potter had this to say: 'We have no way of knowing whether a profile is fake or fictitious, and it doesn't matter anyway. The purpose of this forum is to provide information and allow respectful conversations.'

Fears repercussions

'Mack' responded to a Facebook message from the News-Times about hiding his identity on May 21, saying he feared repercussions if he posted under his real name.

'Forest Grove is a small town with a lot of highly protected turf,' he said. 'I don't wish for myself or anyone close to me to suffer from any real world backlash.'

As for the budget controversy, 'Mack' said that if he were a district administrator, he'd 'start the ball rolling' on merit pay for teachers. But he also complimented the district's current pay and personnel direction: 'This administration's focus on providing a stronger, basic education in the light of such fiscal hardship is to be commended.'

For her part, Potter insisted Friday that as long as conversations on the district's Facebook page are 'respectful and appropriate,' she won't take issue with them. However, she added, 'We will continue to delete posts that don't fit that criteria.'

But the districts' policy of selectively deleting posts on their Facebook page, while calling it a forum, wades into murky legal territory.

A legal analysis of the issue, prepared by the Sacramento, California-based Institute for Local Government in January 2010, insists that 'if public agencies create opportunities for people to share their views using social media or other interactive web technologies, it is important for those agencies to realize that, for the most part, they cannot control what views get shared through those technologies.'

The district's own policy pertaining to communication on social media forums, adopted by the school board, says simply that staff members 'must not post confidential information about students, staff or district business and should treat fellow employees, students and the public with respect while posting.'