In a way, Celso Martinez was the perfect public face of the Dallas Independent School District. Martinez ignored local reporters as long as he could, until they made him the unflattering subject of a series of stories on how he was in open violation of board residency policy by living outside the district's boundaries. Last week, Martinez reneged on his pledge to move from McKinney to Dallas and announced his resignation from his $140,000 post.
To many, the departure of Martinez could mark a new beginning of openness at DISD. Seriously. The new acting spokesperson, Jon Dahlander, is a former reporter who makes it a point to say he does not live in McKinney. He lives in East Dallas. Formerly a spokesperson for the district nearly 10 years ago, Dahlander has this crazy notion that the DISD should not treat reporters as if they were rats on a cruise ship.
"We do hope to be responsive to reporters whenever possible," he says, without a trace of irony. "I know when I was in charge of media relations before we strived to meet the needs of reporters and meet their deadlines."
You're probably wondering why you should care about a new acting spokesperson for DISD. A spokesperson for a huge organization like DISD can project a sense of order and competency, even as the press is on the attack. And attack it will. Over the last two years, everyone from local blogger Allen Gwinn to The Dallas Morning News has savaged the district, breaking stories on spending scandals and outrageous conflicts of interest. These stories have prompted federal investigations, one criminal trial and a pair of convictions.
Martinez was not to blame for any of this, but his curious relationship with the facts didn't exactly make things better. In December, Martinez told the Morning News that the district released the names of 28 educators to the Texas Education Agency after the paper reported they had criminal backgrounds. Nearly three months later, Martinez confirmed to the News that DISD did not report the names after all.
Earlier this year, after the Dallas Observer's blog, Unfair Park, broke the news that Martinez was in violation of the board's residency policy, Martinez said he planned to move. "Obviously, we are looking in the DISD boundaries for our next home."
In fact, Martinez would tell KTVT-Channel 11 days later that he was moving to another house in Collin County, outside DISD's boundaries.
Reporters at the Morning News declined to talk about their dealings with Martinez, but the paper's Tawnell Hobbs illustrated just how much the paper will miss the spokesperson when she got his ex-wife to dish on his level of parental devotion. Previously, Martinez explained that he was reluctant to move from McKinney because he didn't want to be far from his son, who struggles with attention deficit disorder. But on the paper's blog Bold Types, Hobbs reported that Martinez's son hasn't been on ADHD medication in two years, according to his ex, Dina Martinez. The ex also said Martinez is more than $9,000 behind in child support.
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The district's dysfunctional relationship with the press, if not the public at large, didn't start with Martinez. DISD has long viewed most reporters as antagonists.
"I think the district was trying to control the news by limiting the media's access, which is about the worst thing you can do," says Aimee Bolender, president of the Alliance/AFT teacher's union. "The media won't be controlled."
Trustee Edwin Flores says he's also received complaints from parents about how trying it can be to obtain basic information from DISD. Flores says parents tell him that when they ask for copies of briefings that were presented at school meetings, the district's communications department tells them to fill out a public information request.
"Can we do a much better job at communicating? Yes," Flores says. "Why must the media be our opponent? I just don't get it."