We’ve gotten more national attention on our Monday story about bonds at Poway Unified School District than we imagined. While it’s been great, today a retired reporter and blogger in Michigan is upset with us for taking credit for breaking the story. I wanted to take the opportunity to address his concerns and explain how we came across the story.

Joel Thurtell is a retired Detroit Free Press reporter who has a long history of great reporting on this type of borrowing. He now keeps his own blog called Joel on the Road and did important work on Poway’s expensive borrowing back in May, long before we wrote about it.

Today, Thurtell wrote a letter to CNBC, which he posted on his blog, criticizing VOSD reporter Will Carless for taking credit for breaking the story and for not correcting CNBC when they credited us with breaking it.

First, there’s no doubt Thurtell’s work deserves highlighting. Here are three tremendous stories he did on the Poway financing in May: CABs = Compound Trouble in California, Disaster Shadows Poway and CAB Scam in Poway.

He was one of many sources on this story who were beating the drum about this issue, many of which didn’t make it into the story. We do this kind of linking all the time (like our recent story on Wildlife Services, giving credit to the Sacramento Bee for their work on the same topic).

But to be clear, we weren’t trying to hide his work or take credit for it. Our story didn’t purport to be exclusive or proprietary or all-encompassing. Public officials and taxpayer watchdogs had also been beating this drum. We put together an over-arching story of the expensive bonds, what voters were told about them, what elected officials said in their defense and the circumstances under which they were created.

Did we take credit for being the people who “broke” the story of Poway’s bonds?

I don’t believe Carless has. We searched around and found one reference from another writer who put together Tuesday’s Morning Report. There’s been no concerted effort to act like we were the pioneers. Nor do I believe we have claimed that the information contained within it came to light only as a result of our investigation.

After Carless’ story ran, it caught fire. It got picked up by lots of outlets, and he got asked to do public radio and CNBC programs. As we always do in cases like this, we publicized the story and the appearances heavily on social media and emails.

Carless did give Bloomberg some grief for apparently parachuting in on the story that day and not crediting information he thought they clearly pulled from our story and cited to themselves. They have since updated their story to give credit to both us and Thurtell.

In his letter, Thurtell criticizes Carless for not correcting the CNBC anchor who credited him with breaking the story. Fair enough. Thurtell was the first journalist we know of to write about Poway’s bonds.

I’ve also reached out to Thurtell talk to him both over email and by calling him to hash this out but he hasn’t responded.

How did we get onto the story?

In early July, while working on a different story about school bonds, Carless came across a table in a Poway Unified audit showing the district’s large payments for the bond.

Around the same time, a friend of mine mentioned he’d noticed San Diego Unified using a high-interest form of financing. We wanted to do a story on this borrowing and asked him for more information.

He sent us Thurtell’s blog post breaking down Poway’s expensive borrowing plan. Carless contacted Thurtell, who then became one of many sources that were useful in putting the story together. After speaking with Thurtell, Carless spent a month gathering data, interviewing sources and writing the story.

Thurtell himself seems to have initially been very pleased with our work.

He wrote, on August 6, the day our story came out:

Finally, somebody in California media picked up the story. Voice of San Diego reporter Will Carless turned in an excellent account of how Poway Unified School District in San Diego turned $105 million in principal into a nearly billion dollar debt not due to be paid for two decades.

Further, Thurtell emailed Carless on August 6 with the following message:

Will — Just finished reading your excellent story. Very impressive writing and graphics.

Really, really outstanding job.

Here’s what Carless replied a few minutes later:

Couldn’t have done it without you Joel. You spotted this and deserve a lot of the credit for figuring this stuff out! Thank you!

That’s a message that Carless and I want to make sure is clear: Thurtell deserves credit for recognizing this as an important issue and for being the first person to write about it.

Kudos to him.

I’m the editor of VOSD. You can reach me at andrew.donohue@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0526.

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