Look, let me take one specific portion of the D special issue about the Dallas Independent School District that came out this week and use it to explain why I don’t think much of this stuff is worth reading. This was a sidebar under the byline of our former colleague, Mark Stuertz, who was famous around here for being a meticulous investigative reporter (and erudite food critic).
I mean, he is robot metal-detector, Geiger counter kind of fact-digger. Stuertz just doesn’t miss stuff. But he is working for new editors.
His byline appears over a story called, “ANATOMY OF A CRISIS: How DISD came up $84 million short,” which purports to explain why the Dallas school system suddenly found itself in the throes of the worst fiscal crisis in its history. The story faithfully repeats the official line handed out by DISD CFO Steve Korby, superintendent Michael Hinojosa and board president Jack Lowe that the “error” or “gaffe,” as they call it, was the result of a computer glitch. The story is not disputed in the D piece.
So let's dispute.
First, the common sense take. The aircraft carrier U.S. DISD, is on its way into harbor, but it doesn’t slow down enough. It knocks the end off the pier, damn near sinks itself and squashes a nun. The captain runs out on deck with hands uplifted and says, “Computer glitch! Computer glitch!”
You don’t get to say that when you’re the captain. These are your damn computers. Whatever they do, it’s your fault. If you can’t steer the ship with computers, use sailors.
Now the more specific problem. Stuertz, I happen to know, was not present at the school board meeting when this problem was discussed in detail. At that meeting, D’s reporter on the scene was executive editor Tim Rogers, whose breathless moment-by-moment live-blogging of the meeting for Frontburner included these insights:
3:11 (pm) — An older woman sitting in the back row just farted loudly enough that at least 10 people had to hear it. [KERA radio reporter] Bill Zeeble is sitting on the floor right next to her. He HAD to hear it. But everyone is pretending nothing happened. I applaud your work, ma’am.
3:17 — Zeeble brought snacks in his gear bag. Strong move.
Possibly because of his work on the flatulence issue, Rogers missed a key exchange that took place when board member Carla Ranger, who asks really smart questions, got together with Lew Blackburn, who can also be quite probing, to ask the superintendent how and why he had hired more teachers than he could pay.
Both Hinojosa and Lowe said it had to do with “staffing ratios.” They say they have a formula for how many teachers a school should be afforded on the basis of enrollment, special needs, etc. But it also has to do with budget.
Yeah. Like wherever you work. Your boss calls her boss and says, “I need another person down here in the boiler room.” Her boss calls back and says, “No money, Babe. Make do.”
But the decision to hire or not hire teachers didn’t go through those hoops at DISD. It didn’t go through any hoops. According to the answers the board got at the meeting, the procedure was for a principal to call his or her boss, likely an area superintendent, and ask for more staff. Hiring could also be instigated from the top. We’re sending you more staff, because former Trammell Crow CEO Don Williams at the Foundation for Community Empowerment and his Broad Toads say we ought to.
Then the decision went to former Air Force Col. Kim Olson, a Broad Toad hired to be head of personnel at the district at the behest of the FCE and the business community. (Olson, who served in Iraq, was accused by Pentagon officials of abusing her position and left after being banned from receiving government contracts for three years.)
Olson’s answers to questions at the meeting were fairly appalling, I thought. She said she received the requests for processing of new hires. She said she was not in possession of any paperwork describing the so-called staffing ratios. And it wasn’t her job to check to see if the district’s overall budget could cover the hires. So she put them through.
I think that was probably the absolute unvarnished truth. She was a paper-pusher-in-chief. She pushed the paper, chiefly.
No one connected the dots. That’s not a computer question. That’s a logic question. More people. More money. Check the bank account. Computers have nothing to do with that.
None of this was a problem that could reasonably be blamed on or addressed by computer systems, and yet the Dpiece reports this explanation a if it were so clear and so suitable that no further discussion is even needed.
In fact what Ranger and Blackburn uncovered was a disturbing window on a profoundly flawed, haphazard, junk-pile management culture, for which Jack Lowe is every bit as responsible as Hinojosa.
Now Lowe and Hinojosa have this secret committee of DISD construction contractors who say they’re going to figure everything out and prescribe a solution, but they are not even going to look into how we got into the mess in the first place.
Why? Why wouldn’t we look into it? Why isn’t it important to know what happened? That’s just weird.
Forgive me. But it’s like the cops stop a guy running down the street with a TV set under his arm, and he says, “Look, let’s not devote a lot of negative energy to trying to determine how I came into possession of this TV, when we could be talking instead about finding a really nice home for it.”
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I sat next to a business guy waiting for that school board meeting to start. I don’t really know who he was. But I said something to the effect, “Maybe a thing like the school system just gets so big that nobody can keep track of the money.”
He was adamant that I was wrong. He said the bigger it is, the messier it is, the more money is on the table, the more you, as the CEO, have to come in there every morning with “CORONARY” written across your forehead in magic marker, start grabbing people by the collar, pounding their chests with your finger and shout, “Show me the money!”
Nobody did that. That’s why they hit the pier. The computer thing is just asinine. I know it’s not what Stuertz would have reported had he been able to go after this thing in Stuertz-like fashion. But it makes me wonder why I should read the rest of D's DISD package.
I confess that I do think the flatulence thing is a fair issue, and it’s why I really object to the use of the small board room at 3700 Ross. But another day. --Jim Schutze