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Bush-whacked in the Bulrushes

Mike Moses is finding out that the Dallas school system is a desert with a whole lot of bad snakes in it.
Dorit Rabinovitch

Brand-new superintendent of schools Mike Moses is getting his first taste of white water in the bulrushes. The problems he is running into are your typical Dallas Independent School District backstabbing and bad publicity--par for the course if you ask anybody who's been around Dallas more than a couple of years--but he's clearly been taken aback by it.

This is all stuff you won't be reading about in The Dallas Morning News. But that's something you already know, or you wouldn't be here. The Morning News motto should be: "All the news that we think is any of your gosh-darned beeswax."

Moses is still in the basket and surviving, but things are getting tippy. He's already just on the verge of being at odds with some of the local electronic media. He's starting to get nervous about information leaks from supposedly secret sessions of the school board.

This is a guy who's been around the track in public education--no sissy, in other words. But his predecessor, Waldemar Rojas, came here bragging about being the man from New York City, and he couldn't keep up with the knife work at 3700 Ross Ave., either.

What is it about us, here in Dallas? No matter where they come from, our new school superintendents always seem unprepared for the level of viciousness.

Moses met with the school board recently in a closed "executive session" and discussed a series of confidential issues. Board members and staff are forbidden by law to disclose the contents of executive sessions. I don't know what was discussed. Normally, the only things they can talk about in a secret session are legal problems and personnel issues. I do know that the board wanted to be updated on the ongoing FBI corruption probe and about several key changes Moses is considering making in senior management. Those are my guesses.

At any rate, the door had barely slammed behind them after their secret meeting when the 3700 Ross grapevine began shaking and giving off sparks and smoke. There were e-mails flying all over the place outlining the specific contents of the meeting. I believe that some DISD executives whose jobs might have been affected by the things Moses told the board received warnings of what was coming their way.

Of course, this is probably what happened to Yvonne Gonzalez, two superintendents ago, the one who was sent off to federal prison for buying her office furniture the wrong way: Somebody was warned she was going after them, and they had time to set her up. I'm not forgiving her for buying her furniture the wrong way. I'm just saying it's a sucker-punch culture at DISD.

I tried to discuss all of this with Moses through an intermediary. His spokeswoman, Loretta Simon, assured me she had asked him twice, face to face, if he knew anything about leaks from an executive session and if he had written a memo to the board complaining about the leaks. She told me he said he had no idea what I was talking about.

Originally, I had asked if Moses had sent a "scalding memo" to the board about the leaks. That was before I saw the memo. It's not scalding at all: It's very measured. I wasn't there when Simon asked him about it. It's very possible, because of the way I had mischaracterized the memo in my original question, that Moses really may not have clicked on the memo I was asking about. This is a guy who writes a lot of memos and gets asked a lot of questions.

And also, who cares? The issue here is not what Moses said in response to a question from me. The issue is that Moses is only now waking up to certain ugly realities about his job.

Forget about trust. Forget about integrity. And don't even think about confidentiality. He has to assume that anything and everything he says, whether it's in a secret meeting or not, is going to wind up on the 6 o'clock news. You might think that wouldn't include things he says in the privacy of his marriage, but that would assume he won't be wiretapped, have listening devices planted inside his house, or have electronic espionage devices attached to his car, all of which have been done to school board members and top-level staff here in recent years.

Welcome to Big D.

He's also traipsing onto some very slippery rocks where the media are concerned.

Moses was savvy enough to know that February is a television "sweeps month"--a time when the audience levels for local affiliates are measured. Channel 4's Becky Oliver was working on a story about "missing assets"--all the stuff and the money that turned up missing in the recent KPMG fraud audit. Moses declined to give Channel 4 an interview for the story, but he did try to set up an interview with Channel 4 News Director Marie Barrs "to request balance in their stories."  

Barrs put him off. Barrs told me that Simon had called her asking for a meeting in two days, and "I was flat-out not available then." Barrs asked Simon if they could meet in a few weeks, putting him off until after Oliver's story ran and after she was no longer busy with sweeps month. Simon agreed.

Moses described all of this in another memo to the board. He explained to them it was sweeps month and that some negative stories about the district might be coming, and he described his own failed effort to meet with Channel 4 and soften some of the impact. He doesn't say this explicitly in the memo, but it's clear to me from his language that Moses thought it was rude and perhaps presumptuous of the Channel 4 news director to demand that he comment right away on an upcoming negative story about the district but then be "not available" when he, in turn, requested a meeting.

I think he's probably right. I polled my own boss, Dallas Observer Editor Julie Lyons, and she said, "I would have made time for the superintendent." (I think she would have made time and then tried to slip in some questions about the missing assets, but, again, that's not the point.)

The idea that you can go around to the TV stations and appeal to their civic-mindedness is simply not in tune with today's realities. Ask anybody in TV. Now, even Channel 8 is heaving their few remaining grownups overboard. What's left is a bunch of very hungry young sharks in midmigration from the boondocks to New York. Stick out your hand, they'll eat it. Of course, she should have met with him. And people should always have good manners, and 40,000-mile tires should last for 40,000 miles.

He needs to figure out that he can't make deals with the local media, except for the Morning News, which doesn't count because nobody believes a single word it says about DISD or City Hall. He especially needs to think of people in the local TV business as 11-year-old armed gang members, high on crank.

This is not to say that Moses is especially naïve. He's done plenty of swimming with the sharks in his time. So had Rojas. Even Gonzalez had taken a dip or two with the toothy ones before she hit town.

This is Dallas. This is DISD. We're talking about decades of serious social pathology. This is different.

And how should you and I look on all of this business? You can blame the board. You can blame the media. You can blame me. But none of that is going to change anything or do any good. Swap out the whole school board, I don't care; the new school board will go in there naïve and ill-prepared, and that staff will eat them like a Whataburger.

As long as the community itself is cynical and disengaged, the system will be cynical and self-serving. The only thing that will ever change things down there will be for the community to rise up en masse and threaten to torch the place if they don't shut up and do what Moses tells them to do.

Oh, and that. What he wants them to do: That's interesting, too. They're all coming at him with new programs and new contracts and stuff they want him to spend money on. Moses, meanwhile, is trying to wade through all of the screwed-up textbook deals and moronic contracts and things they have wasted money on in the past. And he's trying to tell them that, far from spending any new money, he thinks the district is in such serious straits economically that he will have to shut down some existing programs.

Well, see, nobody down there likes to hear that kind of stuff. In the morality of DISD, fiscal control is the only evil. Rojas demeaned them and threatened them (idly) with firing all the time, but they could live with Rojas because he blew money out of a fire hose.

Now, here comes this guy Moses, and he's talking about "fiscal responsibility."

Got to do something serious about that boy.

Who can protect him? The big dogs downtown at the Dallas Citizens Council? Yeah, right. They were the ones who anointed Gonzalez. Far from guaranteeing her success, the Citizens Council couldn't even keep her out of the joint.

No, it's got to be real people. The parents. The taxpayers. Maybe the PTAs. Civic-minded citizens who are sick of how this makes us look. Somebody!  

It's easy to get mad, but it's not easy to jump in. In the Bible, Moses threw his staff on the ground, and it turned into a snake. This Moses has to go grab all the snakes by their tails and turn them into a staff.

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