Business People Taking an Interest in DISD May Not Be All Bad, In Theory

Yikes. Now I have to say I found something good on The Dallas Morning-News op-ed page today. Will my Job-like suffering never end?

In today's Dallas'-only-daily-newspaper (alas), Mark Melton, an attorney at Hunton & Williams, has written an essay about the involvement of the "business community" in the Dallas public school system and what he calls "conspiracy theories concerning our motives." I will explain the quote marks in a minute.

But first, his remarks go straight to a question that has long been a kind of knife in my own heart. As a reporter and as the parent of a Dallas public schools graduate, I feel as if I have been staring into the same broken window at the Dallas Independent School District for too many years.

On the one hand, if by "business community" you mean people in the school construction and vendor businesses, then, sure, there have been conspiracy theories -- some of them shared by the FBI, some of them resulting in people being sent off to the pokey for pretty long stretches.

There's a difference, after all, between a conspiracy theory and a conspiracy.

But, look, Melton is spot-on in one contention he makes. He says the school system has obvious problems running the business side of its operations: "... DISD is an organization with 20,000 employees and a $1.5 billion annual budget. In past years, the district has had significant issues outside the classroom with accounting, finance, compliance, human resources and organizational management."

Yup. This school district over the years has compiled an appalling record for, first, not keeping the books, and, second, scapegoating the hell out of some innocent pawn when they do get caught.

In fact over the years you have to stop interpreting that single trait -- the inability to run the business side -- as some kind of personal moral failing, just because moral failure isn't a big enough theory to cover it.

When new faces take over and new hands are at the till but the same things happen, then it's time to consider whether the institution itself simply lacks the systems, the means or the knowledge needed to get it right.

Melton obviously is not using "business community" to mean contractors and vendors. He's talking about people who own certain skill sets -- valuable skill sets for which they can charge stiff rates in the marketplace -- that they are willing to contribute free to the school system, in order to help it dig its way up to the surface of the earth.

He writes: " ... the business community has an understandable interest in helping DISD resolve businesslike issues, leaving academic professionals to focus on the classroom."

He also gives away the fact that he has a kid at Woodrow, where my own son went to high school. Believe me, that's skin in the game. Ouch.

But I know what else it means: He has seen the very best -- the wonder in our city's public school system. I believe him when he says his own motivations are to do good for the city by helping save what's good in the school system.

But these are perilous waters. Helping DISD better navigate the shoals of bookkeeping and personnel will not keep the district dry, if the district is not also firewalled from exploitation and corruption by the segment of the business community that makes money off the district.

I guess we could have a long fireside chat about whose job that is. It's probably not reasonable to expect well-intentioned volunteers to wade into that cat fight, unless they might be willing at least to share how they protect their own companies from getting suckered right and left.

If nothing else, this guy is sure interesting. So is Todd Williams of Uplift, the charter school outfit. We would ignore them at our peril. The one thing we know the community cannot afford is the way things are now. If somebody's got a reasonable Plan B, maybe we all need to shut up for 30 seconds, pull up our chairs and give a listen, even though just saying it out loud makes me feel like Job for some reason.

Gotta go check for boils.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze