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DISD's Mike Miles is Under the Gun Again, But Why?

Daniel Fishel

Rereading last week's leaked investigative report on Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles, I kept getting this little itch. I was sure I had read something about this somewhere else just recently. But I couldn't imagine where.

The report is the work of an obscure entity called the Office of Professional Responsibility, created four years ago to serve as the superintendent's eyes and ears on matters of fraud and waste. Since its creation, the OPR, as it's called, has pushed its own envelope to include every kind of personnel and policy issue. In the last year, the OPR has lobbied the school board to take it out from under the superintendent and set it up as the board's own FBI. That has not happened.

In this instance Miles has been lambasted for telling the OPR to briefly suspend its investigation of a contracting matter. What no one asks or answers, however, is this: If Miles can't tell the OPR what to do, if the OPR does not work for him, then for whom does it work? What does it do, actually? How? Why?

I printed out the OPR report, and as soon as I saw it on paper, it came to me! It wasn't what was in the report that was hauntingly familiar. It was what the report itself looked like on the page.

It's the typefaces and the underlining! First of all, the report wanders all over the place, doubles back on itself, never sets out the criteria for what it's looking for and finally just sort of disgorges a bunch of gossip from random people. But that's not what caught my eye.

It uses all kinds of typefaces and font colors, and it has all of this apparently random underlining. Yes! The random underlining. I am reading a really good Irish crime novel right now called The Rage by Gene Kerrigan. The other night a particular paragraph jumped out at me. The author was talking about how detectives have to read a lot of files sent to them by crazy people.

He said: "Civilians who keep files on people tend to be secret-agent fantasists. The files are laced with underlined words and exclamation marks, a coded index and key sentences typed in capital letters."

Exactly! I get those files too! We all do. That's exactly why the OPR report was giving me the willies. It doesn't even look like a real report. It lacks the basic elements one would expect from sane professionals.

Why, you might ask, if reports that look like this are so consistently wacko, do detectives and newspaper people read them? Ah, therein is our little secret. I will get to that at the end. (Hint: not for fun.)

This report sort of mentions that the district has criteria for determining whether a contracting process has been carried out properly — rules for what must be done and not done. But the report fails to lay out what those rules are.

So, Houston, we've already got a problem, because we don't know what we're investigating. Is it for ignoring rules, violating policies, breaking the law even? Well, the way you do that in a real investigative report is to lay out the rules, the policies and the laws in question. Those are your benchmarks. Now you know whom to interview and what to ask.

If you saw this story on TV last week or read about it in The Dallas Morning News, you came away with the impression that the report must have done exactly that. The Morning News summarized the report in an editorial, saying: "It moves quickly to accusations that Miles attempted to improperly influence its outcome on behalf of a favored vendor and bullied subordinates who did not support him to his satisfaction."

But that is not true. The report accuses the superintendent of schools of nothing. Rebecca Rodriguez, a former TV reporter, was head of communications for the school district until a recent separation. She is quoted saying: "As Chief of Communications, it is my responsibility to address the Board of Trustees and defend a document that bears my signature, as did the RFP in question."

But that's not true. It's only her job to talk to the board of directors if her boss, the superintendent, tells her to. She's not on TV. She's an employee. Nor is it her job to defend anything. That's also the superintendent's job. He's the one on the hot seat. And finally, she didn't sign the document she said she had signed, the request for proposals, because that's not how the process works. She doesn't even get or remember how the process works.

Rodriguez says in the report, "I cannot condone the decision to pull a potentially controversial item from an agenda hours before a meeting, even if it is within a Superintendent's authority to do so."

 

So bear with me for a moment. This goofy wandering report, which has never set out what the real criteria are for a proper contracting process, allows a disgruntled soon-to-be-separated employee to define the issue. And according to her, it's somehow wrong or corrupt for the superintendent to pull a contract from the meeting agenda shortly before a meeting.

That's just wrong. Of course there are ways of taking stuff off the agenda that would be illegal for the superintendent to do, like maybe rolling the agenda up and stuffing it in his pants or something. There also are ways to take something off the agenda that are perfectly legal and put there for a reason.

Way down in this meandering mess, Miles finally is quoted saying that he went to some lengths to make sure he was doing it the legal way. But the report itself never lays out what the legal way might be, never challenges Rodriguez on her assertion that there was something dirty about the way Miles did it, and never establishes whether in fact Miles did anything right or wrong.

The whole thing has a tone of, "Listen to this ... no, wait, listen to this! Oh, wow, I forgot to tell you, listen to this! Here's something else good!" It's just what that author was talking about: a nutcase file.

Is the report a mess because the people who did it don't know what they're doing? Or is it a mess on purpose? My own reading of it, coupled with everything I was able to learn last week about the contracting process, lead me to believe this would have been a one-page report had it started out with the rules and policies. There would have been very few interviews. The conclusion would have been that Rodriguez's accusations were without merit.

I called Rodriguez. She called me back. She said she was unable to comment. I tried but was unable to get comment from Miles. I called and left a message for Donald R. Smith Jr., the district's chief compliance officer whose name is on the OPR report. He did not return my call.

By now this whole junk-pile has been turned over to a law firm for an arms-length review. In about a month, they'll come back with their own findings.

So now it's time to say why detectives, reporters and editors would even read this junk. The fact that it's such a mess actually may offer tempting opportunities for us. The report itself doesn't define or delimit the wrong allegedly committed. So we can.

It's an official report, after all. This one happens to have huge red letters randomly scattered over it and red boxes in the margins, which could be interpreted to mean that it's hot. So you can sort of wave it around and pick and choose juicy quotes. You can write about it kind of loosely, so it sounds like the report itself says Miles is a crook, when in fact it does not.

But let's say you do care about the truth. Ah, there are opportunities there, as well. Salted throughout the disjointed scenes and random nattering in this report are little vignettes that are unintentionally informative. We see members of the board of trustees lurking outside the offices of various staff members, winking and smiling at them in a board meeting when the superintendent gets hung out to dry a bit. Gosh, they seem to be the ones pushing this whole business. In fact, in this messy tissue of unchallenged innuendo, a certain shape of truth appears, like the silhouette of Jesus in a tortilla:

School district headquarters is now, as it has been for decades, insanely incestuous, bizarrely convoluted, totally undisciplined, utterly determined never to be brought to heel and possibly now is on the verge of winning yet another battle in its long war against responsibility.

They may win. The Morning News is taking a line that makes it sound as if we shouldn't even wait to see what the outside law firm rules about Miles. "His latest public mess," they say, "could prove the most troubling — and possibly his final one."

Last week new numbers came out showing significant improvement in one of the district's toughest problems over the years, the dropout rate. In his first year, Miles has accomplished virtually all of his major goals in a campaign of tough school reform. So what would the motivation be for getting rid of him?

I don't think you should look for concise motives. You should look for a mess — a sloppy bureaucracy fighting sloppily but effectively against control, school board members defending special interests and a lot of local media who will rise to the bait of even the rankest raw meat.

 

More and more, it all reminds me of my friend who couldn't stay married. One beer, and he wanted me to hear his very long story about what was wrong with each of the wives. Damn. Is there any way we can avoid being that guy?


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