Dear Jennifer Sprague: Earning Your Big Bucks at DISD is a Snap

Jennifer. May I call you that? This is just between us. I like your picture. There's a certain assertiveness there. I just like it. And this has all been so unfair so far.

These news hacks -- guys like Dallas Observer Editor Joe Tone, Unfair Park EditorEric Nicholson and that TV guy over at Channel 5, Scott Friedman -- keep doing hatchet-jobs on you, making a big deal out of the fact that you're getting a $185,000 salary as the new top public-relations person for the Dallas school system.

They won't stop harping on how you're only 31, you made only 86 grand at your last job and your new boss, Mike Miles, who was your old boss in Colorado, is paying you more than top PR people just about anywhere on earth including the White House.

Well, I know how you can tell those guys to stuff it. You just march in here and slap a little discipline into them. Show them what the big bucks buy. Make them eat their little small carping envious words. They actually like it when you do them like that. Give the Dallas schools a good reputation. Put a stop to the negative stories. Get the happy news out there. Get those ink-stained wretches and talking heads to stop saying bad stuff.

Make it all shiny and good. That's all you have to do, Jennifer. Then you'll be worth every penny!

Heads up. Here's a bad story that's only going to get bigger. I spoke with Dallas school trustee Bernadette Nutall recently, and she reminded me of something we mentioned briefly here back in She has assembled data from the administration showing that of all African-American students who graduate from Dallas high schools, the number deemed adequately prepared for college is three out of 100.

Three percent. Jennifer, that is a real bad number. The overall drop-out rate is already horrible. You hear all kinds of numbers, but the most likely one is about a 60 percent drop-out rate between ninth grade and graduation.

So you figure you're already losing at least 60 percent of the kids in the system generally, and then, of the black kids who do make it to the graduation ceremony, only 3 percent can read, write and do math at an incoming college freshman level.

That's an awful story. It tells people that the Dallas school are pretty much an utter failure. Any school system can teach natural students. The test is always going to be kids at risk.

When George W. Bush was our governor -- George W., Jennifer -- his education people pretty much proved with hard data that at-risk kids can be taught to the level of rich white kids by the end of the third grade for the same money it takes to teach them nothing. So continuing to teach them nothing is bad. Real bad.

Jennifer, here's your chance. Mike Miles has told the media here that you're going to bring about a whole new paradigm in media relations. So you go do it. Prove him right. Don't let that 3 percent story get traction. Have the media do a positive story instead.

I've been watching local PR operations for a long time, so, if you don't mind, I actually think I know how this is done, and I would like to share that with you. On the day the media hounds start paying attention to the 3 percent story -- some son of a gun like that TV guy or somebody starts asking pokey questions -- here's what you say:

"We're not here to talk about negative stories about our schools. I want you to focus instead on the many great achievements of our school system. Instead of this negative story about dumping 97 percent of black graduates into the crapper, I want you to do a positive story about a wonderful modern dance competition at the arts magnet school drawing praise already from dance professionals nationwide."

Listen, Jennifer, if you tell them, they have to do what you say. You can trust me on this. Do you trust me? I mean, you can really trust me. Why wouldn't you trust me? You think I'd try to set you up? Give me your hand. Allow me to lead you down this path.

All you have to do to get past the criticism about your salary is convert the public image of the school system to a positive one and get the local reporters to stop doing negative stories. And the way to do that is to just put your foot down and crack the whip.

People have actually done this in the past. We had a superintendent here named Rojas whose PR person went through a very similar experience and process.

Give us some discipline, Jennifer. The whip. You won't believe the outcome. Ask Rojas. I'm not exactly sure where to find him these days, but you can ask your assistant, Jon Dahlander. He knows where all the bones are.

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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