Oops. Had to leave town early last week for a wedding. Almost let a good one slip by. Do you mind if I go back and pick it up, if a few days belatedly?
Three weeks ago I told you about the case of Don Smith, an internal investigator at the Dallas public school system who was fired last October for reasons that never have been stated publicly. I said that the school board was about to vote on a settlement payment for Smith.
Reasons for his firing are not known and maybe not all that interesting. He came to the district with a solid resume as an IRS investigator. I have written critically about his involvement in past controversies, but I think with the passage of time I can chalk most of that up more to politics than competence. He just picked the wrong politics.
Anyway, it doesn't matter why he was fired. That wasn't why I brought it up last month. The issue was whether the school district would give him a cash settlement package as part of his separation agreement. And there was an important turn of that particular screw:
In early February some members of the school board made a big deal out of cash settlements given to a series of departing executives, characterizing the payments as exorbitant gifts Superintendent Mike Miles was handing out to his own fired staffers. Miles' critics on the board suggested that Miles -- forced to fire cronies because of incompetence but resentful -- was giving away money he didn't need to give away.
And, like the question of Smith's basic competence, I think I'll take a powder on the question of whether Miles' former executives have received bigger walk-away packages than the district needed to give them in order to avoid litigation costs later. All I know is that when the issue came up, Miles told the board to change the rules and take him out of the settlement process entirely, which they did.
None of that was the point with Smith's package. Smith did not work for Miles. Miles would never have had anything to do with Smith's separation, no matter what. Smith worked for the board of trustees. His boss, Michael Singleton, chief internal auditor, occupies a position hired and fired by the school board directly. It was up to the board of trustees, not Miles, to decide how much if any money Smith received on his way out the door.
So last month when I wrote about this, my question was about the school board. After beating up on Miles for supposedly being too generous with severance packages, how was the school board going to handle its own negotiations with Smith?
The board said Miles wasn't tough enough. So if the board was going to show everybody how tough it was, the board should have put its hand up like a traffic cop and said, "STOP with the big pay-outs."
You know? They should have said, "Sorry, Don, but you were fired fair and square. Our guy fired you, and we have faith in our guy. We don't just hand out the taxpayers' money to people to be nice. We have one of those duties, you know, a fidoolitary duty or something, and we can't just give you a big birthday present with violating our fidouchinary duty."
At least they could have tried.
But next thing that happened -- by the way, this is not the end of the story -- the board tossed its fidoomitary duty right out the window and gave Smith a far sweeter payout than anything Miles' ex-employees had ever dreamed of. They hired him back retroactive to his departure date to keep all of his benefits in force, agreed to keep him on the payroll for the next sixth months and then sent him home and told him not to do any work and stay away from the office.
The estimated value of the deal is $95,000, not counting benefits. The board voted behind closed doors without any debate to give Smith that package. How do I know that? Just do. If you know better, call me a liar.
Still not the end of the story.
This all happened two weeks ago. I knew about it at the time, but I had agreed to sit on it until the board gave public notice of the deal. Last week I was leaving for the wedding of the daughter of old and dear friends -- literally family out on the driveway honking the horn for me to get out there -- and I took one last quick scroll through the blogs.
There on the education blog of The Dallas Morning News was an item about the Don Smith settlement. But I could not believe my eyes. The item made no mention of the fact that Smith worked for the board. It failed to report that Smith was fired by Singleton, a board appointee. It did dredge up some of the bad blood between Smith and Miles.
You're kidding! It reported the story as if Miles had been the one to force Smith out and Miles was behind yet another big settlement payout. It was all Mike Miles fault! Again!
Earlier this week on Unfair Park and also in my column in the newspaper, we talked about what I call Scandalgate, the endless series of so-called Mike Miles scandals ginned up by Dallas Morning News education beat reporters and Brett Shipp, reporter for WFAA TV, none of which last more than 24 hours because they're all basically fake scandals.
I have tried to explain Scandalgate as a symptom of underlying schoolhouse politics -- the enmity of the teachers unions over losing seniority pay under Miles, the fury of the old African-American patronage structure about losing control over jobs. All I could figure when I saw the Don Smith payout story was that the Scandalgate machinery was just going to ignore the truth and make it look somehow as if it were more of Miles' own wrongdoing. Not end of story yet.
When I got home from the wedding, I went straight to the Morning News education blog to get that story. Damn it! Should have printed it out. Because the version that is on-line now states that Smith worked for the board and was fired by Singleton. They corrected it.
I made a few calls to interested parties just to check my memory, not to mention my sanity. I said, "Hey, didn't the original Morning News story about Don Smith's settlement make it look like Miles fired him and Miles was the one who wrote the big check?"
Yeah, they all saw it, too. Nobody was quite sure how or why the story got rewritten, but it did.
Not there yet.
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Here's the end of the story. This was never a simple mistake on the News' part. Sorry. Not possible. I already told you I wrote about it and set up the issue clearly two weeks ago. Allow me to anticipate what News reporters Tawnell D. Hobbs and Matthew Haag would say to that: We don't read Jim Schutze.
Good. Fine. Makes no difference. I didn't invent the story, anyway. I didn't pull it out of the blue. I only wrote about it because everybody at school district headquarters was talking about it, and I know for a fact they were buttonholing Hobbs and Haag, sticking fingers in their chests, telling them, "We can't wait to see how you treat this issue when it's a board employee who's up for a settlement."
And on my way out the door when I did my last scan of the blogs, I saw how they treated it -- like it was Miles' fault. So what if somebody made them correct it later? The fact that they did it that way the first time tells the real story of Scandalgate. Everything is Miles' fault, even the weather, until he gets the hell out of town and the status quo-sters can get rid of all this school-reform business.
I was stunned. We were already driving through Waco when I nodded and muttered to myself, "No shame, no shame." My wife and son exchanged their "Don't ask him" look, which I know all too well. I thought, "Yeah, c'mon, we're on our way to a wedding. Leave it in Dallas." But then I had to come back.