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.'

"The cause of the deficit," Dahlander concluded, "is much more complex than that."

Yeah. Yes. No. The hiring process at DISD is sort of fungible. After the summer hires Dahlander was talking about, hundreds more hires were made on Olson's watch. So which ones put the district over the top, above its so-called "staffing ratios"? The ones before she came on board? Or the ones after?

At various points along the way Jack Lowe and Superintendent Michael Hinojosa have argued that the staffing ratios were at the heart of the whole thing, when they weren't arguing it was daffy accountants or bad computers.

The staffing ratios, set out in a manual, define exactly how many teachers should be on the staff of each school based on the number of students per school and on special needs, special programs, special factors, blah-blah. It's a precise formula. When the bottom fell out and the district got caught with no pants to put on, one of the more alarming discoveries was that the overall staff was far more numerous than called for by the formula.

I read Dahlander's note. I called and left a message for Olson. I went back and reviewed the portion of my notes regarding a school board meeting last September when trustee Ron Price tried to get Olson to explain why she had authorized hiring that put the district's total staff far above levels prescribed by the ratio manual.

Price asked her how principals get new or extra teachers for their schools. What's the drill?

Olson, a retired army colonel, answered with military precision. She explained that principals don't go to the personnel office to request more teachers. They go to the budget office. The budget office OKs each hire before personnel ever hears about it.

"Once that position was allocated and loaded into the system," Olson said, "the principal would call HD [personnel] and say, 'I have authorization by budget to hire another individual. Would you please put it on the vacancy list and go out and find us a teacher?'"

Olson said, "We did not hire folks without proper allocations from the budget department. Our staff is actually evaluated on whether they stay within the confines of the allocated, budgeted positions of the district."

Price then asked a great question. What if the budget office were wrong? What if budget somehow made a mistake? Perhaps budget might approve hiring levels that exceed the staffing ratios. What did Olson's people do in order to reconcile the level of hiring with the formula set forth in the hiring ratios manual?

"We in HD did not budget to the formula [inaudible]," she said. "We budgeted to the budget allocation. It was budget's responsibility to take it from the formula to the budget. Our staffing managers do not have that manual nor do they look at that to see what campuses are authorized."

Price was clearly nonplussed. "So HD never had the staffing allocation?" he asked.

"Not to my knowledge," she said. "I've not seen it. No, sir."

That was the exchange I found in my notes last week after hearing from Dahlander. No sooner had I finished listening to my recording of the meeting to confirm the accuracy of my notes than my desk phone rang, and who should be on the other end but Colonel Olson? I was taken aback. Top DISD people never call back. They always make poor Dahlander carry water for them.

Olson was direct, clear and to the point. She and I went back over the exchange that I had just listened to from the board meeting, and she explained the process in even greater detail, which I will spare you.

Basically it came to this: Once a principal had persuaded the budget people to approve a new position, that new position was represented as a plus sign on a form. When the personnel people saw the plus sign on the form, they filled the position. It was not their place, nor did they have the means or the authority or any direction to ask questions or do anything else.

Plus sign. New position. Fill it.

This "system" of fractured responsibility was—is—wedded to a budgeting process that has no discipline built into it. None. All of the incentives and the permissions are for spending, growing, fattening. Nowhere does the system pick up a manual, do a couple of quick calculations and then say, "Nix that. Forget it. Put it out of your mind. It's over. Shut up."

That truly is not the fault of Olson. On the phone, as she did in the meeting where I watched her, she came across as bright and competent. I know lots of really smart people who work at DISD.

The problem is not with them; it's with the really stupid people at the top. Especially on the board. Also in the group of old, rich "business leader" geezers who keep poking their noses in so they can put their thumbs on the scale when the building contracts are handed out.

All kinds of bad things happen when you have dumbbells at the top. Bad news can't move uphill. Nobody at the top has the energy or the sense to come downhill and look around.

That's the real story. I don't care how many new gunslingers they hire. DISD is dead in the head. Until that changes, there is no story.

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