My Takeaway From the Dallas ISD Guestigation: Paul Coggins and the Morning News Have No Idea How Reporting Works

So, Paul Coggins gave the trustees what many of them have long wanted, which is a b.s. excuse to get rid of the guy they were so happy about bringing in here a few years ago. The guy who is angering people because of his sweeping reforms (the ones trustees and many parents asked for). That’s fine. Miles was stupid enough to interfere with a ridiculous investigation caused by horrible communications hire Rebecca Rodriguez, a joke of a “scandal” that was flamed by the Dallas Morning News and Channel 8, each of whom have bought into the anti-Miles narrative brought on by a few trustees who have decided they hate him. (BTW: I hadn’t published the video above here yet, because I was on vacation last week. But I encourage you to listen to it. You’ll hear three guys give you the lowdown on the Coggins report six days before it was released.)

Again, no problem with this. It’s unfair, but so’s life. He danced in the DISD snake pit and got himself bit.

What continues to fascinate me, though, is just how committed Brett Shipp at Channel 8 and Mathew Haag at the DMN are in running Miles out of town. I’ll detail Shipp’s insane reporting on this at a later date. Let’s today just deal with Haag’s attempts over the weekend to take what Coggins wrote about Miles — that he masterfully guided the Dallas Observer’s Jim Schutze to write negative things about school board trustees — and make it stick. As well, let’s see how he tried to implicate me in all this. Because insanity.

UPDATE: See end of post for Haag points, which are very worth mentioning.

So, if you’ve read the Coggins report or the reporting on the report, you know that Coggins suggests Mike Miles likely made Jim Schutze write negative articles about the school board, because he called Schutze and texted him the day before Schutze blogged about how much the school board sucks. I guess I don’t fault Coggins for this specious reasoning. He’s a lawyer, and almost every lawyer I’ve ever known is far dumber than you’d think. A few are brilliant, yes. Most, though, are just clever enough to convince themselves they’re never wrong. They’re the personification of mansplaining. Coggins in this case takes circumstantial evidence — Schutze talked to Miles, then wrote something favorable about Miles — as a way to suggest that Miles orchestrated this.

You think that’s silly? You think reporters (and, especially, columnists like Schutze) talk to people all the time whom they end up backing, and to suggest the talking to triggers the backing means you don’t understand how journalism works? Well, you and I are on the same page.

Matthew Haag is not on that page, however. After he and I got in a Twitter spat (something about me calling the DMN coverage of the report “bullshit”), he put up this post. I need you to go read it, and please also listen to the Schutze audio contained therein.

Are you done? Excellent. Now, could you please explain it to me?

I texted Tim on Saturday and asked him to do just that. His response: “F*** me in my eye.” Wait, wrong text. That was about Notre Dame. This is the right one: “I have no clue. It appears to be pointless. My big takeaway: Jim texts with Miles. Impressive!”

So, I’m still not 100 percent sure what the point of Haag’s post was, but I have an idea: I think he was trying to say Jim Schutze’s explanation (from the audio) that he was following up on my CultureMap post about trustee Elizabeth Jones is bulsh. The point Jim is trying to make — I know this is all so stupid, but bear with me — is that Coggins suggested Schutze only did the story bashing trustees because Miles manipulated him into doing so. Jim’s point is that he was following up on my suggestion that good people were quitting and/or fed up with many trustees, including Elizabeth Jones, and that Miles was just one source in that follow-up.

Haag appears to reject that scenario. Instead, he tries to suggest — I think — that Miles probably orchestrated my post, too. Or one of Miles’ underlings. Or maybe just Miles. I dunno. But he points out that I noted in the comments that I couldn’t give away too much without implicating my sources, who would face retribution.

A-ha! Haag’s post suggests that my source could have been Miles, too, and that’s why I pointed out that the trustees could come after him if I gave him up.

One huge problem with that scenario: I’ve never talked to Mike Miles. I’ve never emailed with him. I’ve never texted with him. I’ve never communicated with him via Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, gchat, Snapchat, Tumblr, Grindr, headset, hand signals, or eyebrow manipulation. That means through him directly or a go-between.

Look, I could play this ridiculous “let’s find your source” game, too. I could point out that after I wrote about Jones, she went ballistic and started trying to find who my source/sources was/were within the DISD administration. Not long after that, Haag started writing stories that promoted her side of the Miles narrative. In fact, his first question to me on our Twitter spat was in defense of Jones, suggested only two of seven DISD officials quitting because of Jones doesn’t make her a story. So, surely she’s his off the record confidant, right?

I have no idea. Also, don’t care. This should seem obvious, but it doesn’t matter who told me or Jim Schutze anything. All that matters is: were we right? Spoiler alert: Yes we were.

All I’ve been saying — Schutze has been saying this, too, and he does so again today — is that if you’re doing your job, you need to cover the real story here: that DISD can’t hang onto good people because of trustees like Elizabeth Jones (and others).

Actually, it’s deeper than that. It’s the entire board that makes change impossible.

Rene Barajas, the CFO who left for Garland, was by all accounts an outstanding, important hire for the district. He is bilingual, smart, and passionate. He told friends that the average board meeting and briefing in Garland collectively take four hours one night a month for one of the largest districts in the state. Because of that, it attracts reasonable board members who want to help the superintendent and staff do the right thing by kids, teachers, and administrators.

Contrast that with the DISD board. DISD board meetings are held two evenings a month and each can last eight hours. Add in school openings, reading briefings, etc., and that means a DISD board member has to spend 30 hours a month for an unpaid job. It is very, very difficult to get good talented people to serve because of this — so, the job inevitably attracts many of the wrong sort of people. It attracts those enthralled with the power of the position.

That’s why you get power-mad nutjobs trying to run the district. Those are the ones spending even more time than that worrying about putting their stamp on their schools. The meddle, they demand answers, they leak to a pliant press when things don’t go their way.

Just go to a meeting to see the result. DISD is the only district in the county out of the 15 largest that doesn’t limit public comment. So the meetings turn into shitshows. Every item greater than $50k (in a district with a $1.7 billion budget) goes to the board even if its an item already signed off within the budget. That’s Micro-Managing 101. Why would good people take such a job? Private schools and public charter schools get great board members because they  don’t have to raise money to run a campaign so they can be yelled at by fellow board members and deal with media coverage that is all about administrative nitpicking.

Once the idiots run Miles outta town, and the DMN trumpets its role in the move, here’s what will happen next. The business community — which DISD needs, because otherwise there just isn’t enough money or political will to get things done — will just stop trying. They are just about done with it. They will not sink their money, time, or effort into the snake pit anymore just to see a strong-minded, good-hearted (albeit bumbling) reformer get run out of town for doing exactly what was asked of him. We can either fix this school board, rework the structure completely, or engage in fantasies about Mike Miles telling columnists what to think. Your call.

Update: So Haag makes some good points via Twitter that I should include. He says he was only trying to give my side of the story since Schutze mentioned me so much in his explanation of why he was chasing the story. He says he included the stuff from the comment section not because he was suggesting I got it from Miles, but because he finds my statement “amazing” that I say I’ll tell you Jones has made it tough on DISD execs but say I won’t give examples. (It’s true. I am amazing.) I’ll believe him, and I’m therefore wrong that he was suggesting Miles was my source. He also says it’s not that he doesn’t believe Barajas left because of Jones, but that Barajas won’t return his calls or emails. Fair enough. I think I stand by the rest of what I wrote but I’m not reading that many words again.

 

19 comments on “My Takeaway From the Dallas ISD Guestigation: Paul Coggins and the Morning News Have No Idea How Reporting Works

  1. I could not agree with this more. The board is the biggest problem. Good luck finding a competant person to take the job if (I’m sorry, WHEN) they run Miles out of town. What an embarrassing mess for our city and more importantly our future generation!

  2. This is precisely why we would not consider moving to a community where our kids would go to a DISD school. Every week there is something new. Perhaps DISD is too big for it’s own good.

  3. This article covers education like horseracing.
    The real problem is that Miles’ “reforms” were terrible. Talk to any good teacher in DISD off record.
    But that would involve writing about the substance of the issue instead of more entertaining game of local government politics or ragging on the DMN. Yeah the school board is bad. So is Miles. and local news reporters, too. Tell me something new.

  4. So Eric, you want to school Haag on reporting and Coggins on investigating. There’s an idiom that covers that: Teach your grandmother how to suck eggs. For the record, I have had exactly zero to do with this story, so all I know, literally, is what i read in the papers. But I would like to respectfully suggest you have things exactly backwards.

    If there is a scandal, of course it’s not that Schutze ran with a tip. He did exactly what reporters and columnists do. *If* there is a scandal, it might be this: *If* Miles decided he wanted to undermine the reputation of his bosses — which is who the trustees are. And talked about it to his subordinates. And then got caught. If that happened, and all I know is what I read, none of it would be a crime. But might still be a problem.

    The money quote from the report, as presented in the DMN: Miles “encouraged and assisted Kevin Smelker, a former Cabinet member, in drafting a resignation letter that disparaged certain members of the board. Smelker’s resignation letter was subsequently leaked to the press and resulted in negative publicity for the board and positive publicity for Superintendent Miles.”

    And from Tawnell Hobbs’ timeline: “DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander is informed by Miles of a plan to release Smelker’s resignation letter to the media. Dahlander advised Miles against moving forward with the plan. Miles emailed LeMaster and Dahlander a copy of Smelker’s signed resignation letter. He and Dahlander had at least six phone conversations after Miles sent the email.”

    I have no idea if that’s what happened. I’m not the reporter on the story and neither am I the former U.S. Attorney tasked to investigate. But imagine what would happen to you if you did something remotely comparable to your boss and got caught. I can imagine what would happen to me.

  5. Here’s a question Eric- Lemasters email about Jones references the June ’13 meeting and August of 2012. Yet your first post for Culturemap on this is from May of ths year. Like Matthew Haag, I find it amazing that you think she is hassling DISD staff, but can’t reference any actual instances that the rest of us can look at to judge for ourselves. And if the only instances that anybody seems to cite are 2 lines of inquiry, some 10 months apart…Well, let’s just say that’s not a very convincing argument that she’s the reason all these people are leaving. And I think both you and Schutze are conflating Jones downside (she asks a lot of questions that are over the heads of most of the population) with Nutall’s (actual micromanaging of ‘her’ schools). Without knowing what y’all’s sources claim are Jone’s transgrressions, it’s hard for those of us interested in this to decide for ourselves. My understaanding is that trustees are supposed to set the budget and set policy. The one example that Schutze posted of Jones’s questioning was about the prinicapal academy. Something that relates to both policy AND has budget implications. Is she doing her job there by asking questions, or is this part of her beyotchiness that drove Smelker et al away? I get that you as a columnist have more leeway to throw opinions out there without having to actually back it up with pesky things like facts or examples. But when you do get called on it, your response is basically ‘trust me, I know things”. No offense to your expertise as a journalist, but as Reagen said, trust but verify. I’d feel much better if you could point me to some examples. And if none of them are from board meetings, are we left with your word that some district employees are upset that a trustee is, what exactly, asking tough questions? What infractions of hers drove your may post? Absent something you can point out, it sure looks like you’re carrying water for someone. So you’ve never emailed, texted, smoke-signaled or semaphored with Mike Miles. But in May, someone fed you and Schutze “Jones is a meddling beyotch” and that’s why people are quitting. You post about it, and yet we really don’t know if she is, or if she is just asking tough questions. After all, isn’t it possible that you guys are getting played, and some people are trying to hold off legitimate questioning by making the story about Jones? Charecterize her as the wicked witch that’s causing all these fine upstanding people to leave, get her to back down a little, and maybe no one questions why the Lemaster contract conveinently falls about 500 bucks short of the threshold that needs board approval.

  6. The report concludes that Miles had a substantial part in drafting Kevin Smelker’s resignation letter that was critical of Elizabeth Jones. And it states that Miles told Jon Dahlander that he (Miles) hoped to use Smelker’s letter to burnish Miles’ image and tarnish the board’s. Finally, it suggests that Miles tipped off Schutze to Smelker’s letter or, at least, to Smelker’s grievances.

    But nothing in Coggins’ report indicates that Miles “masterfully” manipulated Schutze to write a critical piece. Miles didn’t need to manipulate Schutze to write anything. He gave Schutze the bullets and let Jim fire at will. Miles is no idiot. He could predict where Schutze would aim.

    Still, pointing a newspaper columnist to derogatory comments about your employer isn’t usually well received by said employer. (That’s why, contrary to your post, if Miles was feeding Schutze, it DOES matter who Schutze’s source was.) Mouthing off to Dahlander about how he wanted to use Smelker’s letter to kick the board in the shins or some other delicate place wasn’t very smart, either. So maybe Miles is an idiot after all.

    Unfortunately, Miles’ idiocy may get him canned, while the idiots on the board get to keep their cans planted firmly in their seats.

  7. Here’s a passage from the Lisa LeMaster draft that didn’t make the final version. This is after going after Jones and I read the wording to indication these are trustees other than Jones. So let’s play guess the trustee, shall we?

    “the environment is one of intimidation and threats, and individual Board members (often) treat the staff members in a disdainful and unprofessional manner.

    For example, some board members regularly chastise professional employees, in public and private, as well as outside expert consultants. There have been times when certain board members have tried to
    influence the selection of a vendor. ln addition, some regularly shout and berate staff members as we saw during the principal evaluation process.Regularly, board members attempt to get involved in operations issues,
    even as routine as janitorial services.”

  8. One of D Magazine’s own is being implicated in something and now they’re circling the wagons. This is disingenuous editorializing.

    And as to the “silly notion” mentioned in paragraph two, one absolutely has to believe that’s what is going on here and it’s not silly when you’re looking at the situation from the outside. It doesn’t require the “superordinary knowledge” that journalists somehow think they’re endowed with to understand that what is going on here is a media manipulation. The media is a compliant accomplice with Miles.

    So trivializing this whole situation and attempting to sweep it under the rug indeed proves exactly how silly Mr. Celeste’s assertions are. A violation is a violation is a violation. Policy exists for a reason. Did Miles break that policy? It’s up for the board to decide, but given the cozy relationship between Miles and D (Messrs. Celeste and Shutze’s employers), I would call this coverage a Miles PR blitz.

  9. I’ve talked to several. They are passionate and at times persuasive. Overall, I disagree with them. Sub-point: Teachers are not used to being disagreed with.

  10. JW: We are mostly in agreement. He did something stupid. Ignored good advice. Might get canned for it. Dumb move. You or I can make dumb moves and not necessarily get fired. In Miles’ high-profile job, that’s not the case. However, those dumb moves gave ammo to people who are part of the problem, not the solution.

  11. I totally understand your point. Details would give away my sources, who I trust. So, as a columnist, I could say I thought these things were happening. Events proved me (and my sources) right.

  12. Not sure who is worse The Board or Miles…..all should be replaced by the private sector. Take DISD private and run it like a corporation for profit. The profit…. all employees are responsible for the bottom line………educating the kids and getting results. All this BS needs to STOP and focus on the kids. With the current system every year it gets worse.

  13. Truth is that Miles had a very difficult job ahead of him when he got here, with lots of items on his agenda that were inevitably going to create blowback. But unforced errors, if that’s what happened, are like fumbles in football. Hard enough to score without that.

    As for dumb moves: I’ve been at the DMN 25 years, so I have a track record that might get me *some* mercy depending on how dumb the thing I might do. Miles is still pretty new. And DISD ain’t a place for long superintendent honeymoons.

  14. It amazes me how people that know nothing about education seem to know everything. There is an agenda and people like you are pushing propaganda like a drug dealer pushing dope. DISD is a mess! How would you feel if your child was sitting in a science class with 49 other students because there are not enough teachers? How about your child having a sub teaching a core subject because of the lack of teachers? How would you like for your child to be taught by one of the new hires who haven’t a clue about teaching. Oh they can write wonderful LO’s and DOL’s but could not teach their way out of a paper bag with the directions printed on the inside. You have NO earthly idea what it is like to work for such a megalomaniac. So until you do or until you have a kid sitting in one of these “reform” classrooms then I call your BS and raise your BS by two to the 10th power.