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The Morning News Got Trounced by the School Board, But You'd Never Know from Their Story

Wait a minute. The story you're getting from The Dallas Morning News this morning about last night's Dallas school board meeting is flat not what happened. It may be some deft ass-covering by the News' lead DISD beat reporters, but it's not the news.

The paper this morning makes it sound like school Superintendent Mike Miles got blistered by board members, some of whom wanted to fire him, over revelations in a Morning News story last Sunday about a conspiracy to cover up a big over-hiring mistake. That is not what happened at last night's meeting.

Last night by the end of a long meeting, both sides -- the fire-ums and the keep-ums -- agreed the News story, based entirely on instant messages the paper got with an open records demand, ultimately either didn't make sense or they could not make any sense of it.

Even trustee Elizabeth Jones, a stalwart in the get-Miles camp, said the instant messages on which the paper based its entire story amounted to, "... ridiculous conversations on district time about stuff that seems to be really important when you read it, and you come to find out you don't know what it was all about."

District executives spent hours explaining that district's hiring system is complex because it must marry fluid and ever-changing enrollment numbers and a highly transient student population with state mandated teacher/student ratios. But they came back to a consistent bottom-line showing the district was never in a position of having hired too many teachers and never lied about it.

All of the trustees agreed that last week's Morning News story was the only reason for last night's discussion. Trustee Lew Blackburn said, "We are not here to learn how we go about distributing our teachers. We are here because of a news story that came out Sunday morning."

Miles and his staff said the News story fundamentally misconstrued remarks that reporters Tawnell D. Hobbs and Matthew Haag found in a string of off-the-cuff text messages between people in the district's personnel department. The reporters didn't understand, Miles said, that hiring is a process of constant negotiation between multiple parties and entities within the district.

But Miles and his executives kept coming back to basic bottom-line measurements like the district's end-of-year funds surpluses that refute the strong suggestion in the News' story that the district ever over-hired or ever tried to cover anything up.

After the full explanation, Trustee Mike Morath, a Miles defender, was scathing about the Morning News story: "It's a front page story that's wholly and completely inaccurate," he said.

"I know that we as a government institution cannot sue for libel. It's not something that can happen. Now individuals who may be defamed can, but we as a government institution cannot sue. But I would certainly appreciate consideration from the paper of record with whom we advertise our need for additional teachers [of] a front page retraction of this story."

Morath said he thought it was absurd for the board to spend an entire long meeting talking about the story. Board President Miguel Solis agreed with him about the story but not about the meeting, which he said was needed because the News story had besmirched personal reputations:

"I believe we have administrators who are here today answering every question that is being asked about this particular situation who deserve to have the opportunity to have their names or their department's names cleared," he said.

I'm working on a longer story about all this for Monday's blog and next week's paper. I can't blame board members for being confused about the hiring process, because I found it very hard to figure out, too. I needed an hour-long seminar on the phone from district spokesman Jon Dahlander earlier in the week. He was able to make general sense of it for me.

But last night's meeting had two bottom lines. The first one was substantive: There was no over-hiring, and nobody lied about it. The second was journalistic. No way could you sit through the same meeting I did last night and not come out with a story-line saying this: Miles' staff effectively refuted the charges in the story, and even Miles' critics on the board gave up finally on their efforts to make something out of it.

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There was no honest way for the News to cover last night's meeting without some solid acknowledgment of the rebuttal of their story offered by the district staff, especially if the reporters can't rebut the rebuttal. But their story in the paper today gives the strong impression, instead, that those sleuths at the News are still on to something hot with their instant messages/over-hiring expose. Their story says:

"Dallas ISD administrators adamantly denied Thursday that they misled school board members when trustees approved $6.4 million in October to hire more teachers and staff members...

"Some skeptical school board members sharply questioned Superintendent Mike Miles and other top officials for three hours about whether they told the truth about the need for 165 positions, including 137 teachers...

"Despite Miles' explanation, several trustees remained suspicious about why the district needed teachers beyond what had been budgeted for at the start of school. At the heart of the issue is whether administrators told the truth in October."

Nah, sorry, that's not the heart of anything now. The heart of the matter now is that this whole thing was stirred up by the News, and district executives spent hours last night proving that the reporters did their story without ever coming to an understanding of what they themselves were writing about.

So they do, "Dallas ISD administrators adamantly denied ... skeptical school board members sharply questioned." Wait a minute, News folks. There were also facts. You might want to share some of those with your readers, too.

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