DISD's Budget Shortfall: Hinojosa's One-Man Gaffe

Two weeks ago I was on vacation, sitting in an airport diddling around with my "smart" phone (yeah, right), when I came across an online story about the Dallas Independent School District: DISD had suddenly "discovered" that its annual operating budget this year will be $64 million in the red.

The story was on our blog, Unfair Park, and then later it was in The Dallas Morning News. In a phrase that the News has repeated in almost every subsequent story, the newspaper called the $64 million shortfall the result of a "recently discovered gaffe."

What a wonderful turn of phrase. A recently discovered gaffe. It has a kind of innocent comic ring, don't you think, like a plot point in a Punch and Judy puppet show. But how could a simple gaffe have produced a situation that a school board member last week called "the worst financial crisis Dallas ISD has had, as I understand it, in nearly 30 years?"

And a one-man gaffe, at that. A particular assertion repeated in the News' coverage is that some one person at DISD had made a terrible budget error causing the whole thing. The News never seemed to pin down 1) who at DISD was saying it was one person, and 2) who the person was.

I returned home. And things still remain murky. First of all, it's not a $64 million error. At last week's special emergency meeting of the school board, district superintendent Michael Hinojosa conceded that the shortfall may be more like $84 million.

He also repeated the story that it had been one man's error. So that's one question answered for me. On the other question, Hinojosa's story is still a tad vague.

He said the individual who committed the error was no longer in the job. He didn't name the person. The unwillingness to name the person out loud, I assume, involves some kind of ridiculous legal loincloth strategy to avoid getting sued for slander.

None of this was a surprise at the board meeting. The district has been putting out this same story for weeks. But something else did catch my ear:

Hinojosa repeated for a second time during the meeting his story about how a bad individual (the gaffer) had caused the whole crisis. School board member Carla Ranger, sounding incredulous, said, "So one person was responsible?"

Before Hinojosa could answer her, Steve Corby, the district's new chief financial officer and Hinojosa's employee, I should point out, said quickly into a microphone, "No, this is not one person. This is institutional."

Hinojosa was silent. Ranger turned directly to Corby. "I thought I heard that there was one person who calculated this," she said.

"No one knows how the calculation error was made," Corby repeated.

Let me tell you why that exchange was so important to me. It confirmed what I had thought I already smelled back when I was sitting in an airport trying to read about this stuff on my not-so-smart phone.

With Hinojosa, it's not the budget error that counts. It's the scapegoating. That is the salient behavior.

And now it's so blatant and so raw that even the superintendent's own top executive staff is willing to throw it in his face in a public meeting. Is that courage? Is it newfound integrity? Or are they on the verge of mutiny because they know any one of them may be the next to be keelhauled by Captain Bligh? Hey, I'm not a mind-reader. I just know a pattern when I see one.

This week the civil rights lawsuit brought by former school district employee Sherri Brokaw is supposed to come to trial. I have written about Brokaw a couple times ("Scapegoat: How Michael Hinojosa escaped blame in the DISD credit card scandal," September 20, 2007). She is the district employee who was slimed by Hinojosa's team when Hinojosa was trying to duck blame for a scandal involving credit cards the district had slung out all over town without any effective means of control.

Eventually it was clear in documents released by the district that DISD officials had lied about their own internal appeals process, which had basically cleared Brokaw. Now she's suing for violation of her civil rights.

In the Brokaw case, the lying bothered me as much as the scapegoating. But tossing your own employee to the wolves is one thing. The level of excuse-making in this current crisis goes so far beyond the pale that I have to question the basic intelligence of the people doing it.

Every Morning News story has repeated another vaguely attributed assertion by DISD leadership that the $64 million (or $84 million, take your pick) shortfall is to be blamed on a thing called "Dallas Achieves"—a program devised by the city's business leadership to improve academic performance in the schools. I can see how no individual might want to see these words ballooning from his own mouth on Page 1. Basically it amounts to blaming the whole thing on the city's elite business leadership.

In fact, I kind of like it. I wish it could be true. But I don't think so. This is another broad assertion that the News has allowed the school district to make from behind the veil of soft attribution, without ever saying specifically who's making this charge. Therefore I was pleased at Friday's meeting to hear Hinojosa repeat it several times in his own words.

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