DISD: Hitting Bottom, Then Reaching for a Shovel to Dig Deeper

Explanations be damned. There is only one justifiable response to the worst fiscal disaster in DISD history.

Wait a minute. How many times are we going to discover that DISD is stupid? I do not think—and I suspect you do not think—it's even interesting anymore to learn that the financial accounting system at Dallas school headquarters looks like something the cat coughed up.

Do you even read those stories? Not that we don't care. You know what would be real news? A story like this: "Dallas school board, deeply embarrassed by self, flees city."

The only suspense in the whole saga is how low they can go. They've screwed up the budget, fired hundreds of teachers and passed a special ethics law designed to allow a company owned by the president of the school board to keep doing business with the school board.

That's the pits, right? Can't go any lower. But every time I say that, I bite my lip, fold my hands in prayer and ask, "What devil made me say that?"

So last week they found a trapdoor and went lower. The Dallas school board, faced with growing voter unrest, dealt with its political problems by voting to suspend the next school board election. School board president Jack Lowe, on TV to explain it, said it was a way to avoid "disruptions."

Oh, no, no, Mr. Lowe. Please. These are not disruptions. These are elections. It's true that an election might personally disrupt you. But an election is a continuation, not a disruption, of the exercise of the will of the community and...

Screw it. I sound like a seminarian at spring break. What's the use? These people live in the Land of Can't-Hear-You. They always have that quizzical sort of half-wit expression on their faces, like sleepy passengers staring out the window of a passing Greyhound bus.

All right, not all of them. That's unfair. Board member Carla Ranger has emerged from all this as one really smart person down there. Adam Medrano does good work. Every once in a while Lew Blackburn rises to the task. Ron Price has his days. Lot of good it does us, though.

The Dallas Morning News published a front-page story last Sunday by Kent Fischer giving an encyclopedic account of the financial train wreck that has brought the Dallas school system to the worst fiscal crisis in its history and to an amount of red ink that apparently cannot be contained or measured.

Please don't take this as mere bragging and defensiveness—at most it's 50 percent bragging and defensiveness—if I point out that the central insight in Fischer's piece was the same conclusion Robert Wilonsky and I offered in our story, "Blackboard Jungle," a month and a half ago: the notion that there is anything "sudden" or anomalous about the tragedy at 3700 Ross Ave. is wishful. DISD has been blowing its budgets by tens of millions of dollars for years.

The real story is that DISD is every bit as incompetent about projecting income as it is at tallying expenses. So for several years in a row, the district blew the hell out of its own budget but then got wildly lucky at the end of each year when the state school aid money rolled in. The district was like a crazy drunk with many rich uncles, one of whom died each year, leaving him a fortune just in the nick of time. Eventually any uncles who wanted to survive needed to change their names and move to Ohio at midnight.

And they did. This year the economy soured, and a new state funding formula turned against DISD. This time, there was no lucky, last-minute bailout.

You can't say the district got caught with its pants down. What pants? In fact, will somebody please get this guy some pants? We're worn out just looking at him.

At a certain point, the endless stories of system failure and poor performance down in the bowels of DISD headquarters simply cease to intrigue. It's no longer the point.

We have the same superintendent and the same school board and the same hovering coterie of construction company executives who brought us this saga in the first place, and they're all still in place. The only interesting question is: Why?

It's not about bad computers. It's not about the people in the middle. It's about the people at the top.

An experience last week brought it home for me. Jon Dahlander, spokesman au contraire for the Dallas Independent School District, e-mailed me to rebut an item I had posted that morning on one of our blogs, Unfair Park, about DISD personnel chief Kimberly Olson. I described her as "the person who approved all the unfunded teacher hirings that supposedly put Dallas schools in the worst fiscal crisis ever."

The word "supposedly" is pertinent.

In his e-mail to me, Dahlander said: "Kim Olson arrived in August 2007. The spring and summer of 2007 (prior to her arrival) was the period when the additional teachers were hired to reduce class-sizes and create collaborative planning time for secondary teachers. She was not 'the person who approved all the unfunded teacher hirings that supposedly put Dallas schools in the worst fiscal crisis ever.'

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