Oh, I do not like nights like this. I just sat through the Dallas school board meeting where they finally got to the bottom of the bad audit on Mike Miles, the new superintendent. Some weeks ago Miles said the audit was a witch hunt. I wrote a column saying he was toast as superintendent because he called a bad audit a witch hunt. So I'm walking to my car with one thought in my head.
It was a witch hunt.
Shit. In fact, shit-shit-shit. I'm not here to talk about Miles as superintendent. He's new. The jury's still out. But we do have to talk about the toast thing and the witch hunt thing, little as I want to.
I had to excuse myself from my seat in the peanut gallery in the main board room because of a bad cough, so I went across the hall to the big annex room with closed-circuit TV and watched it there. I'm sitting there watching it on a big flat-screen TV, and all of a sudden the reality just comes rolling out over me.
Witch hunt! That's what this was. I guess we could have a big discussion of whether Miles should have called it a witch hunt, even if it was a witch hunt, which it was. Yeah, I'm going to save that question, if you don't mind, for if I ever go to seminary.
Look. Last October, the school district administration pushed out a long-term high-ranking administrator named Shirley Ison-Newsome, who waltzed with a very fat six-figure parachute. I wrote a sob story about it for Unfair Park, talking about all the good work she had done during her tenure, a story to which I will stick. But.
She's a long-term big buddy of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who immediately showed up at a school board meeting ranting about what a lousy superintendent Miles was and how this was "no way to run a railroad" and all that mess.
Somewhere in that same time frame, school board member Bernadette Nutall, who chose Price to conduct her first swearing-in as an elected official in 2011, asked the audit department to look into some allegations she suddenly had against Miles. LaNita Ray, an interim audit director bucking for the full-time job, agreed to do it.
First of all, I don't know what kind of rinky-dink operation allows one board member to gin up an audit of the chief executive. That's the kind of thing that normally goes through a board committee process at the very least and probably ought to require full muster by the entire board anyway. But here we go.
Time out. What's the back story for all this? Oh, well, it's jobs, jobs, jobs. You bet. For a half century now the public school system has been the principle engine of political patronage in this town. Miles comes in here like General Patton on a bad day, signaling broadly that he's going to be blowing up a lot of real estate soon. That threatens many soup tickets.
Does it make Miles a bad guy? Last week the Texas Education Agency published its list of "unacceptable" schools, and Dallas had 35, twice the number there were in Houston, a much larger district. It's so hard for schools to make the unacceptable list — local politicians have carved out so many exceptions and set up so many excuses — a school has to be truly dismal to make it.
And we're the champs, the most dismal in Texas! Our list includes places like Woodrow Wilson, Bryan Adams and Hillcrest high schools, the kind of places where people are always talking about "quiet miracles" and all the good things happening in the school system that never make the media. I looked at the map of unacceptable schools in Dallas and thought, "Oh my God, we are on crack!" We're in some form of stupefied self-denial.
This school system is a catastrophe, but for a lot of people that catastrophe is a living, quite a nice living for some, so anybody who threatens to change it courts some severe push-back.
Back to the audit. In the first week of December, Ray is kind of wrapping up her work, except for one very important piece. I have never seen one of these performance audits anywhere — and I have seen a ream of them — in which the auditor did not first present her findings to management, provide management a chance to respond to criticisms and then incorporate those responses in the final draft of the audit before handing it over to the governing body.
Yeah, well somebody handed this one over to Tawnell Hobbs at The Dallas Morning News before management ever saw a copy, without any management response at all and before the audit was even submitted to the school board's audit committee. And the audit has inflammatory language in it about Miles, basically saying that before he was even hired he was running around the country slinging school district money at people like it was popcorn and not keeping any accounts.
"As a result of our review," the audit stated, "we determined rules were violated and undue influence prevailed throughout the business process prior to and subsequent to the transition phase of Superintendent Miles."
Undue influence. That doesn't sound good.
So tonight I'm sitting in the annex room trying not to cough, watching this on the TV set, and they have the completed version of the audit. From that version and from the conversation around the dais, the following things are clear: Miles was fully hired before he caused anybody to be hired or any money to be spent. They told him to go hire people and spend money. The procedural things on which he did violate policy were extremely technical and very small potatoes.
But this is what nobody on the TV set is talking about: The language about "undue influence" is gone. Just gone. OK, wait. When the draft audit got leaked to Hobbs (and I'm just jealous I didn't get it), that language was the news. That was the story.
If it hadn't been for LaNita Ray's judgmental broad-stroke characterization of Miles as a guy using undue influence, this story wouldn't have made the obit page. Some new administrators didn't punch in and out properly on the time clock? One of them faked her moving expenses? Please. We get better stories than that every day from the water department.
It was the undue influence part that caught the ear, because it sounded like crookedness. It's certainly what I heard. And then later, when I heard Miles call it a witch hunt, I thought, "Yeah, that's what they all say."
But tonight sitting in the overflow room, this is what really tipped me to the truth. School board member Carla Ranger was like a dog with a bone, trying to sell an obscure theory about Miles having violated terms of the "administrative services contract" under which he worked before being officially sworn in as superintendent. Her argument was that Miles had hired a bunch of people when the board expressly did not want him to.
Finally board President Lew Blackburn had heard enough. He said Miles had done exactly what the board told him to do, and he told Ranger she had been present when those decisions were made and knew the truth full well.
"When we hired Mike Miles as our superintendent," he said, "this board was in the back room where we talked about it in closed session."
Blackburn said they had gone over the intent of their interim contract with Miles: "We discussed in detail about what that meant. Everybody that was on the board then knew that we wanted Mike Miles to be assembling his team.
"You were in the discussions," he told Ranger. "You knew. You heard the discussions."
And here was the key moment, when I stopped coughing and sat up in my chair. I wanted to hear her response. But Ranger went right on just as if Blackburn had never spoken. She accused Miles of "false statements" and "unethical practices."
I thought, "Aha. There it is. The footprints in the snow, all the way back." She accuses him of "unethical practices." The part-time auditor said there was "undue influence." Nutall was concerned. Ison-Newsome was out of a job. Price was angry.
Witch hunt. They're out to kick his ass, because he messed with the job of a protected person. It's not even so much that Ison-Newsome had to go. It's that he disrespected Price. Hell, if he had bargained with Price, offered him something decent in exchange, the commissioner might have sold her to him. He can be a reasonable man.
As I said at the top, I don't think we know anything too useful yet about Miles as leader. We need to wait for that. There are many shoes yet to fall.
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After they accepted the new final version of the audit — scoured of all references to undue influence — the school board hired back recently departed chief of staff Alan King to take the auditor job Ray had been gunning for. It's not clear what King's role was in the witch hunt, but he had some role. That's one to watch.
I have driven almost all the way home now. Very sorry about the Tourette syndrome back at the top. The S-word is only erupting from my mouth about once every five minutes now. It's just so ...
You might not get this. It's kind of a professional pride thing. I keep going back over it. Didn't even show the audit to management for comment. Leaked it before it ever got to the board. Best thing they had was some lady who faked her moving expenses. What does "undue influence" even mean? I just can't believe I didn't snap to it sooner. I've seen better witch hunts in YMCA soccer.