Twitter Fight! About that Epic Tom Ferrick-Helen Gym Dust-Up

A feud that turned otherwise intelligent people into Twits. Or, why we'll never solve the public school problem 140 characters at a time.

I feel your pain, Tom Ferrick.

I once got caught up in the emotions of the moment when Philebrity slammed a post by Greg Meckstroth on the blog I edit that slammed a facelift that the legendary local hangout Doobies Bar gave itself for not making the place look more like Ubar.

I jumped into the fray in the comments section — and quickly argued myself into a corner from which I couldn’t extricate myself. Greg, of course, was entitled to his opinion, and others are free to disagree, even obnoxiously, with that opinion. But usually, when that disagreement takes the form of a zinger, taking on the dart-thrower makes the respondent — not the critic — look like a hypersensitive fool.

For the record, after I walked out of that comment-section fracas with my tail tucked between my legs, I paid Doobies a visit by way of offering an olive branch. I wish I lived closer to the place, for what it may lack in high style it more than makes up for in spirit and friendliness — and places like that should look like your basement rec room. That’s certainly what my go-to Gayborhood watering hole, Tabu, looks like.

But I digress. Ferrick managed to do what I did in much less space — 140 characters’ worth, to be specific — when he reacted much as I did to a dart public school defender Helen Gym threw at a couple of recent Axis Philly articles — one that he wrote, the other that he co-wrote, or didn’t.

It all began with this comment from Gym (@ParentsUnitedPA) on Ferrick’s most recent “Publius” column, in which he transformed the School District into a widget-maker, that favorite ploy of economists, then asked whether the company’s woes weren’t the result of clueless management:

Now, one could say that for a person who also approaches the subject of public education from a particular point of view to accuse another of not being objective is akin to the pot calling the kettle black. And when it comes to this subject, it’s increasingly difficult to find anyone who could be called objective, save maybe the editors and reporters of the Philadelphia Public School Notebookto which Gym, a former Notebook editor, now contributes as a community blogger.

Ferrick lost the high ground with his response:

This left him open for Gym’s retort, which claimed that his column didn’t rely on facts. Which was also off base, for there were facts in the column, such as the accelerating fall in the number of students enrolled in regular public schools, the recent musical-chairs rotation of school superintendents, and the district’s serious funding shortfall — all disguised, however.

But now both parties in the exchange of Twitter fire were fully involved in the sniping. Gym asked why the article Ferrick used as the jumping-off point for his essay no longer contained either Ferrick’s co-author byline nor certain statistics beyond those of where 4,000 missing public school students went. (Had Gym seen a previous version of the story?)

Like Germantown community activist Emaleigh Doley, who chimed in mid-volley, I’m now curious as to what the data were that Axis Philly “scrubbed clean,” as Gym put it. Her accusations that the stats, whatever they were, were bad ones is pretty serious, especially when hurled at an experienced reporter and editor like Ferrick.

Certainly the numbers that do appear in Julie Bergman‘s article “The case of the missing students” don’t appear to be flawed; there is a discrepancy of 4,000 students between the number the School District expected would show up for the start of school in the fall and the number who actually did. And one issue Ferrick appeared to gloss over in his column is that under the current funding formulas, every student who moves from a regular public school to a charter school sends the School District budget further into the red because the charter school reimbursements are based on per-pupil spending figures that also cover the district’s overall fixed costs, which do not go down when a student leaves for a charter.

That’s a subject the Notebook has been digging into — and that Gym has also touched on in her opinion pieces. It’s fair to ask someone who supports charter schools, as Ferrick apparently does, whether they’ve considered that matter in forming their opinions.

Had the Tweet war been conducted on such substantive grounds, we might have advanced the conversation on the future of public education in Philadelphia in a useful way. But instead, we got sorties from Ferrick that used terms like “shrill” and “Madame deFarge” to describe Gym, which allowed her to claim the role of innocent victim — even more so when Ferrick responded to her queries about that missing information, whatever it was, with silence.

Was the information erroneous? We may never know unless we can access earlier versions of the Bergman article. But it may be beside the point now, for the net outcome of the Gym-Ferrick dustup is that Ferrick, for all his eloquence, looks thin-skinned and Gym ends up holding the high ground.

It might have been better had everyone agreed to discuss the issues over a couple of beers at Doobies.

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