Two weeks ago I was on vacation, sitting in an airport diddling around with my "smart" phone (yeah, right), when I came across an online story about the Dallas Independent School District: DISD had suddenly "discovered" that its annual operating budget this year will be $64 million in the red.
The story was on our blog, Unfair Park, and then later it was in The Dallas Morning News. In a phrase that the News has repeated in almost every subsequent story, the newspaper called the $64 million shortfall the result of a "recently discovered gaffe."
What a wonderful turn of phrase. A recently discovered gaffe. It has a kind of innocent comic ring, don't you think, like a plot point in a Punch and Judy puppet show. But how could a simple gaffe have produced a situation that a school board member last week called "the worst financial crisis Dallas ISD has had, as I understand it, in nearly 30 years?"
And a one-man gaffe, at that. A particular assertion repeated in the News' coverage is that some one person at DISD had made a terrible budget error causing the whole thing. The News never seemed to pin down 1) who at DISD was saying it was one person, and 2) who the person was.
I returned home. And things still remain murky. First of all, it's not a $64 million error. At last week's special emergency meeting of the school board, district superintendent Michael Hinojosa conceded that the shortfall may be more like $84 million.
He also repeated the story that it had been one man's error. So that's one question answered for me. On the other question, Hinojosa's story is still a tad vague.
He said the individual who committed the error was no longer in the job. He didn't name the person. The unwillingness to name the person out loud, I assume, involves some kind of ridiculous legal loincloth strategy to avoid getting sued for slander.
None of this was a surprise at the board meeting. The district has been putting out this same story for weeks. But something else did catch my ear:
Hinojosa repeated for a second time during the meeting his story about how a bad individual (the gaffer) had caused the whole crisis. School board member Carla Ranger, sounding incredulous, said, "So one person was responsible?"
Before Hinojosa could answer her, Steve Corby, the district's new chief financial officer and Hinojosa's employee, I should point out, said quickly into a microphone, "No, this is not one person. This is institutional."
Hinojosa was silent. Ranger turned directly to Corby. "I thought I heard that there was one person who calculated this," she said.
"No one knows how the calculation error was made," Corby repeated.
Let me tell you why that exchange was so important to me. It confirmed what I had thought I already smelled back when I was sitting in an airport trying to read about this stuff on my not-so-smart phone.
With Hinojosa, it's not the budget error that counts. It's the scapegoating. That is the salient behavior.
And now it's so blatant and so raw that even the superintendent's own top executive staff is willing to throw it in his face in a public meeting. Is that courage? Is it newfound integrity? Or are they on the verge of mutiny because they know any one of them may be the next to be keelhauled by Captain Bligh? Hey, I'm not a mind-reader. I just know a pattern when I see one.
This week the civil rights lawsuit brought by former school district employee Sherri Brokaw is supposed to come to trial. I have written about Brokaw a couple times ("Scapegoat: How Michael Hinojosa escaped blame in the DISD credit card scandal," September 20, 2007). She is the district employee who was slimed by Hinojosa's team when Hinojosa was trying to duck blame for a scandal involving credit cards the district had slung out all over town without any effective means of control.
Eventually it was clear in documents released by the district that DISD officials had lied about their own internal appeals process, which had basically cleared Brokaw. Now she's suing for violation of her civil rights.
In the Brokaw case, the lying bothered me as much as the scapegoating. But tossing your own employee to the wolves is one thing. The level of excuse-making in this current crisis goes so far beyond the pale that I have to question the basic intelligence of the people doing it.
Every Morning News story has repeated another vaguely attributed assertion by DISD leadership that the $64 million (or $84 million, take your pick) shortfall is to be blamed on a thing called "Dallas Achieves"—a program devised by the city's business leadership to improve academic performance in the schools. I can see how no individual might want to see these words ballooning from his own mouth on Page 1. Basically it amounts to blaming the whole thing on the city's elite business leadership.
In fact, I kind of like it. I wish it could be true. But I don't think so. This is another broad assertion that the News has allowed the school district to make from behind the veil of soft attribution, without ever saying specifically who's making this charge. Therefore I was pleased at Friday's meeting to hear Hinojosa repeat it several times in his own words.
Another mystery solved.
It's an absolutely fantastic assertion. Somebody made Hinojosa hire too many teachers and staff? He hired 750 people that he couldn't pay, because somebody twisted his arm?
That Hinojosa would even try to float this story is bad news. Really bad news.
I spent a couple of hours last week with Marcia Page, a very bright, young former Texas Instruments hotshot who is now the president and CEO of the Foundation for Community Empowerment, founded by former Trammell Crow Co. chairman J. McDonald Williams.
Page's position at FCE makes her the de facto head of Dallas Achieves, sort of. Dallas Achieves started out as an informal body, with major backing from FCE, to act as an unpaid consultant to the school district on academic achievement. Sixty-four community leaders are member volunteers.
Dallas Achieves has been pushing the district to adopt a "best practices" approach to improving student performance. Its recommendations range from the very broad ("Create long-term roadmap for comprehensive school reform") to the specific ("Implement best practices in custodial management").
One of the themes emphasized by Dallas Achieves has been reducing class size. That does mean hiring more teachers. But Dallas Achieves never said, "Hire more teachers, and who gives a damn if you can pay them?"
Page's central point in talking to me was that Dallas Achieves has never had either the ability or the inclination to tell Dallas school superintendent Michael Hinojosa what to do.
"The Dallas Achieves Commission," she said, "is just a group of people. It is not a 501(c)(3). It is not a thing. It is just a group of community people who are holding them [the district] accountable for a plan."
Page showed me an organization chart depicting the whole process by which the original 109 recommendations brought to the district by Dallas Achieves are to be achieved. The chart clearly shows the Dallas Achieves Commission off on the left side of the page acting in the role of consultant.
At the top of the org chart is Hinojosa. "The hierarchy goes up that way," she said, pointing to his name at the top. "It doesn't go off to the left."
Well, yeah. Why do we even have to have this conversation? Think what a story I would have had if the org chart had shown Dallas Achieves at the very top!
Page did not say she thought Hinojosa was scapegoating her organization. In fact, she offered an excuse for him. She pointed out that Hinojosa has more or less adopted the name "Dallas Achieves" for his own reform efforts within the district. So maybe he was, you know, sort of scapegoating himself.
Yeah, right. Marcia Page is a very gracious person. I'm not. Hinojosa is trying to blame the whole thing on the business community.
You know what: The difference here between scapegoating Sherri Brokaw and scapegoating the business community is only a matter of scale. The basic instinct is the same. Anybody but me.
During the debate at last week's board meeting, Carla Ranger questioned Hinojosa closely and got him to admit that most of the broad policies and accounting issues he was citing for part of the blame had been in place for years. But she also went after another key point: that at least some of the hiring binge was the result of decisions Hinojosa had made on his own, without approval or direction from the school board.
"Did I also hear correctly that decisions and actions were taken and were made that did not have board approval?" she asked Hinojosa.
His response was mumbled, away from the microphone. I couldn't hear it.
"So the answer is yes," Ranger said. "There were decisions made that did not have board approval."
Speaking louder and a bit archly, Hinojosa said, "I would describe this as a multifaceted process involving many principles."
At least I think that was how he was spelling "principles."
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The absolute worst part of the meeting—the very bitterest pill, I thought—came early on when Hinojosa announced he was taking a 5 percent reduction in pay as his own self-imposed penalty for having run the district into the financial ditch. That was when I remembered that this whole matter, after all, was only a gaffe.
You know, if you really think it's just a gaffe to have to go through every school in the city and start firing teachers, then maybe 5 percent is about right.
The school board voted to do nothing at its meeting, refusing to authorize any layoffs until it knows more about the process. Trustee Ron Price vowed that before he agrees to anything, he will know the ethnicity of every individual to be canned.
I do believe, if I am not mistaken, that Price's words are a prescription for a general political bloodbath. And that's not a gaffe.