Superintendent Mike Miles' Opponents Don't Get How High the Bar Is for "Scandals" at DISD

Superintendent Mike Miles' Opponents Don't Get How High the Bar Is for "Scandals" at DISD
Daniel Fishel

Of course the people opposed to school reform in Dallas hope to find scandals that will take down the reform superintendent, Mike Miles. But that takes a good scandal.

For starters we need to see secret mansions paid for with cash, an office that looks like a whorehouse, fat guys smoking cigars and toasting each other on a yacht, or, of course, a reporter's impossible dream, the tax-supported love nest.

That's a scandal.

We used to have those here before Miles became school superintendent almost three years ago. But ever since he got here, the scandals ginned up by people out to get him have been ridiculously weak tea.

Take for example the he-started-working-too-early scandal. That was the anti-reform crowd's first attempt. The scandal was supposed to be that Miles started working for the district before he was even on the payroll, interviewing and hiring people before his own start date.

Here's the thing, you anti-reform scandalmongers out there. Most people regard doing extra work as a good thing. You can't get a serious scandal going out of a guy being excessively dedicated.

By the way, that scandal was the product of one of those documents so characteristic of Dallas school politics -- the mysterious investigation from out of the blue. No, I don't mean it's mysterious because a mystery is being investigated. It's mysterious because no one can figure out who authorized the investigation. We've got another one of these going right now with the mysterious investigation into naughty instant messages. I'll come back to that.

The being-too-dedicated scandal came out of a so-called "draft audit" that wasn't a real audit anyway. No one would admit having asked for it to be done. The draft audit suggested that Miles had overworked himself in ways that could be interpreted as violations of certain laws. And I get that. Someone wanted to create the all-important mental portrait of Miles in cuffs getting shoved into the federal paddy wagon for unauthorized dedication.

Of course as soon as a real audit was authorized by the school board and carried out, needless to say the over-dedication charges disappeared. What a surprise.

The genesis of these weak-tea scandals is always all too transparent. Investigations are not products of virgin birth. Somebody winds them up and makes them go. Who could that be? Gosh, do we think it might be a pissed-off rump caucus anti-reform school board member whispering into the ear of some fool down in the ranks?

More examples. The PR-lady-has-blond-hair-and-makes-too-much-money scandal. Had you forgotten? This was about Jennifer Sprague, the person Miles brought here from Colorado to be his chief spokesperson and head of the district's public information office.

I never had an opinion about whether she made too much money, because I have no idea how much money spokespeople make. But when the get-Miles crowd started calling for his resignation, I was shaking my head. No, no, people. First of all, as far as anyone could tell she was an entirely respectable married lady with a work history. There was no yacht, no bizarre accouterments. Blond hair and you think maybe she was overpaid? That's it?

Meanwhile, Miles was overhauling a system of patronage that had been immune to the reform efforts of a good half dozen of his predecessors. He took the awarding of school principal jobs out of the hands of local clergy and grassroots community leaders, who had made an entirely predictable and terrible botch of it. He was in the process of instituting what may be the nation's most comprehensive reform of merit pay for teachers in a major American public school system.

So for its next shocking revelation of rampant moral turpitude requiring the immediate abandonment of school reform, the rump caucus came up with the great Used-Her-Brother-in-Law's-Truck-To-Move scandal. Do you even remember that one?

I'm not going to reprint this woman's name here, because I feel that she has already suffered 100 times the hellfire and agony she could ever have deserved. This was a mid-level district executive who moved here from Brownsville, and it was another instance of a rump caucus out-of-the-blue investigation. The finding was that she had used her brother-in-law's truck, rather than a state-licensed moving company (who uses state-licensed moving companies?) to haul her stuff here from Brownsville.

Apparently she had paid out every penny she billed the district for, but the rump caucus sleuth discovered one receipt for money paid to her brother-in-law. Apparently that was a violation of the well-known your-brother-in-law-can't-move-you law. The second it hit the airwaves, "community leaders" were calling for Miles to be fired.

"We're back to where we started," Dallas community activist Joyce Foreman told The Dallas Morning News. "This district has to change its ways, and it has to start at the top. Every penny that they misuse takes away from the children."

For her heroism Foreman subsequently was elected to the school board, where she and board member Elizabeth Jones now continue the work of coming up with scandals, but, before we get to that, I don't want to skip over the talked-to-Jim-Schutze scandal. That one got me a lot of attention, so it's kind of my favorite in spite of being a pretty crappy scandal.

The talked-to-Jim-Schutze scandal grew out of the Mike-Miles-Saw-the-Letter scandal which grew out of the Former-Employee-Thinks-Dallas-School-Board-Sucks scandal which grew out of the look-another-guy-quit scandal. Here's the tick-tock: A top district executive quit, and the rump caucus said, "Look, another guy quit. Miles must be fired."

Then the guy wrote a letter saying he quit because the anti-reform rump caucus on the school board treated him so horribly whenever he appeared before them that he felt he needed a lawyer. It seems he had shown the letter to Miles and a public relations person at one point, and they either did or did not tone it down, depending on versions of the story. So the rump caucus said, "Mile saw the letter. He must be fired."

I got the letter. I wrote about it. The rump caucus talked the rest of the board into paying lawyer Paul Coggins $100,000 to find out how I got the letter. Coggins never called me to ask, but he did get Miles to admit that he had talked to me in the past. The rump caucus was joined by the teachers unions and a handful of other associations in insisting that talking to me was the last straw and that it was time for Miles to go.

As I say, I thought that whole series of scandals -- from guy-quit to guy-wrote-letter to Miles-saw-letter to Miles-talked-to-Jim-Schutze -- was pathetic and a half, but I did like the fact that my own name came up a lot in it and especially that I was personally associated, however tangentially, with $100,000.

Let's see. Things were quiet for a while, and then Miles called the cops on a school board member and had her evicted from a building for trying to disrupt the school. The anti-school-reform movement was extremely excited about that, and I was a little worried for Miles. Perhaps not his best moment.

Of course the caucus was saying the board absolutely had to call off school reform and fire Miles because he shouldn't have called the cops on a board member. As it turned out, all of the legal authorities the caucus could think to call either said that Miles was totally within his rights or that they didn't even want to talk about it. If you're trying to get a good scandal going and the legal authorities won't even talk to you about it, that ought to tell you a lot right there about the cash value of your scandal.

The called-the-cops scandal was already entering the usual dreary demise that all these things suffer when news broke of a brand-new, out-of-the-blue, partial-draft, virgin-birth investigation carried out by a person who then quit her job with the district. This cute little scandal happened recently, so it's still live.

The head of the personnel department, which is called something else of course, wrote a bunch of vulgar and intemperate remarks on the school district's internal messaging system. The virgin-birth investigations department got hold of the messages and gave them to the beat reporters at The Dallas Morning News. The head of personnel and a top deputy resigned under fire. Now the rump caucus is calling for Miles to be beheaded, because messages.

I am embarrassed to be defending Miles. It's not my job. I don't belong here. The rump caucus may not believe me by now, but I would switch sides and turn coats in a New York minute if they would just come up with one scandal that halfway merited tossing out the first superintendent in recent history who has offered us a chance of really fixing the school district.

Here are my requirements. I want to see him in an office furnished in Early Dragon Lady. He needs to have a big secret mansion paid for with cash. I want photos of him toasting fat guys on a yacht. I want -- and I'm serious here -- a damn love nest. Oh, that was so great.

But now here's our dilemma. That was enough to get rid of the bad superintendents. This guy is actually turning the district around.

If we are to be serious about getting rid of Miles over a scandal, I want cannibalism. You heard me. People in pots, cooking. Adults for entrees, kids for canapes. Get in the game, people.

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