Last week the Dallas school system saw the most appalling example yet of Scandalgate -- the scandalous scandal of skimpy school scandals. Three board members said they wanted to fire the superintendent over a teacher-hiring scandal. But by the end of the week the teacher-hiring scandal had already turned to smoke and blown away.
That's how it is with Scandalgate. The scandal is how crappy these scandals are.
People with political and institutional motives for opposing fundamental school reform don't want to admit that's what they're up to, so they keep trying to get rid of reform by firing DISD Superintendent Mike Miles over cooked-up scandals. But the longer Scandalgate goes on, the slimmer the pickings and the lamer the scandals.
Luckily for the scandalmongers, they've got a full-time paid staff helping them in the education beat reporters at The Dallas Morning News. Hey, I love scandals, but I have standards. We've had school scandals in Dallas in the past that ended up in the superintendent going off to the big house for a stretch. The problem with the reporters at the News is that they can't tell a good scandal from a scallion.
For this latest one -- Too-Much-Teachersgate -- the Morning News reporters relied on what they thought were super-steamy, unbelievably juicy, private text messages between employees of the school district's personnel department talking about whether or not the district had hired too many teachers.
The text message the paper clearly thought was the sexiest one said: "We need to discuss to spin this to make it looks like it really is an SL problem without looking like we just gave in to it all." SL is "school leadership," the department over school principals. And, "spin," well you know what that is. Naughtiness.
And, look, so far -- in terms of making big open records demands and then reading through the snow drifts of paper they produce -- that's all yeoman journalism, exactly what people in our business are supposed to do and did do a lot more of in better times.
But the trick in attacking a snowdrift of paper is finding the elusive smoking gun. The point. What is it in all those reams of paper that gives you a story? The point, some point, is what makes something a story instead of random jibber-jabber. Otherwise all those text messages just read like bad Dilbert cartoons.
Nevertheless, the story Tawnell D. Hobbs and Matthew Haag had on Page One of the News on Sunday, February 22 was notable chiefly for the total absence of a point. It said board members at an October meeting were "skeptical" and "questioned the disclosures" made by staff in seeking a $6.4 million budget boost to create 165 new staff positions including 137 teachers. But then the story said that after asking their questions the trustees voted unanimously for the budget amendment.
I looked at tape of the meeting where the News said questions were raised. And, yes, questions were raised. Answers given. None of that distinguishes this meeting from breakfast with a 5-year-old. In fact it was one of the more civil school board meetings I've seen in a long time.
Four months later the News was looking for a way to get its sexy text message onto Page One and wrapped it in a shaggy dog story about teacher-hiring. Only then did it occur to any of the trustees that teacher-hiring was even an issue.
But, sure, once there was a story on Page One suggesting broadly that a scandal might be found, the anti-school-reform claque fired up its torches and took to the cobblestones. The next day, in fact, Monday morning after the story ran, Joyce Foreman, Bernadette Nutall and Elizabeth Jones appeared in a follow-up story by the same reporters saying the story the day before was all the evidence they needed to fire Miles.
Foreman, before she got elected to the board, wanted Miles fired because a newly hired mid-level management person in the district used her brother-in-law's truck instead of state-licensed moving company to move here from Brownsville. Otherwise known as Brother-in-Law's-Truckgate.
Nutall wanted Miles fired for calling school district cops to throw her out of a school where Miles said she was causing a disturbance. Nutall-Wig-Outgate.
Jones wanted Miles fired at one point because she wrongly believed he had caused me to write a column saying she was nuts. Like-I-Needed-Encouragementgate.
See what I mean? All in all it's what I call Scandalgate - the scandal of people bending over backward, reaching and stretching and generally making fools of themselves trying to gin up fake scandals to get rid of the school superintendent because they lack the integrity or the moral courage to just come out and say, "We don't want school reform."
Having said all that, now I need to offer a solitary word of support or at least commiseration with them on the teacher-hiring issue. Once the News had stirred it up muddily without fishing out anything specifically wrong, it turns out that the school system's hiring process is unbelievably daunting to understand. School district spokesman Jon Dahlander spent a very long time on the phone with me -- I think I said on a blog last week it was an hour, but it just seemed like that -- helping me get my head around it.
The school district gets paid by the state on a per-pupil basis. The state mandates a teacher/student classroom ratio. The school district has to formulate its budget more than a half year before each year's student body shows up for classes, so it's all based at first on estimates and projections, sharpened later by board-voted budget amendments to better fit the target.
And you can't fit the target. Ever. We're talking about 160,000 kids roughly, taught by between 10,000 and 11,000 teachers. Kids move, teachers die, the ratio won't work in such and such a school because it would require adding a class and that school doesn't have another room for a class.
Many classes require specialized teachers, not just any teacher. Some principals argue they need lower student/teacher ratios because their kids have special challenges or are behind. The school leadership department always wants more teachers to help more kids. The budget department always wants fewer so it can stick the budget.
As Miles explained to a board meeting at the end of last week, the process of resolving all of these conflicts and needs is like a massive carefully choreographed sporting event in which contending teams and entities are expected, in fact encouraged, to come out onto the field of play, make their best cases and compete for the outcomes they seek.
What the reporters at the News got when they found their little Dilbert cartoons was a tiny peephole into one moment in one room inside that vast labyrinthine process. Then without stopping to understand the larger process, they threw what they had down on Page One with a bunch of suggestive language trying to make a quiet meeting look contentious so they could say there was scandal.
At the meeting at the end of last week, Miles and his staff spent hours patiently explaining the larger process. But at several key points in the meeting they came back to consistent bottom-line measurements showing the district was never in a position of having hired too many teachers and never lied about it.
The get-Miles contingent, the ones who wanted to fire him over Too-Much-Teachergate, hung on to their scandal by their fingernails for most of the meeting but began one by one dropping off the edge. Even Jones (Like-I-Need-Encouragementgate) finally admitted the text messages in the News' 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."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
In their coverage of the meeting the next day, Hobbs and Haag forgot to mention that their entire thesis - the over-hiring and the lying -- had been refuted the night before by school district executives. Their story said, "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 ... At the heart of the issue is whether administrators told the truth ..."
But that's not what happened. What happened was a real scandal. It was the scandal of people seizing on a wisp of smoke to demand that the superintendent of school be fired, and barely a week later even their wisp has already melted away. The real scandal is Scandalgate.