Here’s my takeaway from Brett Shipp’s exclusive story that ran on Channel 8 last night: a disgraced former DISD employee says a contract should have gone to a PR expert from Highlands Mall in Arlington. Please read the story now and then let’s discuss.
(If you’ve already seen the report, maybe take some time to listen to Schutze and me discuss DISD this past weekend. It provides good context for what I’m about to say. Not the part where I start doing a fake KGB Agent Mike Miles voice five minutes in; not the part when the KNON sign falls down 12 minutes in; not the part from 12 to 14 minutes in when Schutze tells you why the DMN is nuts to continue its “what did the Smelker letter say?” campaign because Smelker has already told Schutze — twice! — that he quit because of the school board; not the part 21 minutes in where I say how insane it is that I’m defending Miles because, for all I know, “he might suck!” No, be sure to listen at about the 41-minute mark where Schutze asks what does Brett Shipp think Lisa LeMaster is guilty of and I say, “A bad haircut?” Go until about the 50-minute-ish mark where I start yelling.)
Okay, you’re back. So, you’ve got the story, right? It says three things of importance:
1. A $24K communications contract was steered toward Lisa LeMaster. We know this because LeMaster possibly maybe probably helped write the RFP and because she was able to amend her RFP after the due date and because the person with whom she was competing for the contract says the bid was obviously rigged.
2. Miles was clearly in on these nefarious goings-on because he asked the contract be kept under the $50k threshold that would have necessitated school board review/approval.
3. This is a controversy because former head of DISD purchasing Gary Kerbow goes all Danny Glover from Silverado and says that ain’t right.
Let’s deal with these one at a time.
No. 1. We don’t know for sure if LeMaster helped write the RFP that she bid on. We do know she was able to ask questions about it after the due date. If you think that’s evil, sure, get riled. The people who operate in the real world giggle at you. Because here’s a news flash: MOST RFPs are rigged. And when there is a small consulting contract to be given, nearly EVERY RFP is rigged. If they weren’t, nothing would get done. (Side note: lots of stuff gets added or changed after RFP deadlines. No one can admit it, but if it helps get the best person to the job, you make exceptions.)
Having written RFPs for big companies, and having been involved in a dozen or so RFP processes for various communication projects or magazine work, let me tell you what happens. Specifically, let me first describe a rigged RFP I won, and then some I lost. First, in a small consulting deal, like this one, a person decides they want to work with you because they think you’ll do a great job. A government agency (not DISD) decided they wanted me to work on a nine-month internal communications campaign. They told me that I had to go through an RFP process. They guided me on what to say, and I found two friendly consultants to bid against me, and I told them what to say on the bid. I got the contract, my friends got some free drinks and an IOU, and the company was able to hire someone who knew what the hell he was doing. Now, I’ve usually been involved on the other end, which is where an RFP is put out, the company solicits great ideas from many possible vendors, then tells the pre-determined winner (usually the company that had the previous contract) to implement those great ideas. So, again, you wanna be shocked, knock yourself out.
If Shipp had stopped there, okay, fine, a semi-effective slice in his long-standing effort to take Miles down by a thousand tiny cuts. But he didn’t. He had to point out that rigging the RFP for LeMaster meant that it didn’t go to communications consultant Dora Tovar.
Heaven forfend! THE Dora Tovar? Of the communication Tovars?
Yes, that one. Shipp quoted her as saying:
“Clearly it was not a transparent process, it was not an equitable one.”
I’m very sorry you weren’t given a transparent, equitable evaluation, Dora Tovar. Let’s do that now.
[Looks at her website.]
First, let me say that you’ve made bold choices with your “About Us” page, in that by “us” you mean “you,” and in that your communications expertise has led you to select bold italics as the best font for said communication about us-you. Bonus points there.
However, I see your office is located in the Arlington Highlands. That gives you at least a few demerits. Here’s why: I’ve been to The Keg there many times for cocktail and a steak — surprisingly good! — because it’s out near the girlfriend’s parent’s house. And that’s usually where I gather with like-minded education reform advocates to discuss the latest Whitney Tilson vs. Diane Ravitch blog battle (they’re so passionate!), because Arlington is LOUSY with folks who care about DISD and how such reform efforts can be implemented. Yet I’ve never seen you there. Weird.
Look, as I say in the radio show linked above, LeMaster and I have very different ideas about what makes for good PR. I do not always, perhaps even often, share her views. But the idea that Dora Tovar is in the same league as LeMaster, who has worked with DISD chiefs for 20-plus years, is idiocy. Which is why you rig an RFP, so you don’t end up sending out press releases in bold italics. (Oh, you think the process would naturally select the best person? Have you seen the background and website of the folks who beat out the “pre-determined” parent-engagement group, The Concilio? Have fun with that. Also: HAHAHAHAHAHA.)
No. 2. I’m sure Miles asked that the contract be kept under $50k so it didn’t attract the attention of the school board. You know why? Because EVERYONE at DISD does this. They do this because the system is broken, the board meddles, the board doesn’t understand what is needed day to day, and therefore they break contracts into pieces below $50k even when that is the wrong thing to do. The reason schools often hire their own janitors instead of contracting with large custodial service companies (who do their own background checks) is because directors just don’t want to deal with the board. Which is what Smelker said. WHICH IS WHAT THIS IS ALL ABOUT AND WHAT IS IMPORTANT HERE TO ANYONE WHO CARES ABOUT THE SCHOOL SYSTEM AND WHY AM I THE ONLY ONE YELLING ABOUT THIS?
Seriously, sometimes I think I’m nuts. It’s like when I yell about Dale Hansen. DOESN’T ANYONE ELSE SEE THE EVIL I SEE!?
No. 3. Shipp has had a fun time finding people to say Miles needs to go. First, Shipp went to Santa Fe to talk to J. McDonald Williams, who said Miles needs to go. Never mind that Williams had already said that in the media weeks earlier. Never mind that he was in Santa Fe. (Maybe because it was summer, maybe because he’s selling his house in Dallas.) Never mind that this “voice of the business community” hasn’t been a Dallas biz CEO since 1994 (at Trammell Crow), or that this education reformer hasn’t headed his education reform company since January 2010 – his voice matters!
Then he talked to former DISD board member Bruce Parrott, who said Miles was on shaky ground with his possible criticism of the board. So, really awful one-term board member who was voted out for a guy who (we think) supports Miles says Miles must go. NEWSY!
Now, Gary Kerbow, former head of purchasing for DISD, says this whole Lisa LeMaster RFP thing looks shady to him. Who is Gary Kerbow? I’m glad you asked. He’s THIS GUY.
That’s right. He’s the guy who ran the purchasing department that had a $10 million screw-up so ridiculous that he had to resign. Kerbow thinks this $24k contract process wasn’t handled exactly according to Hoyle.
You’re free to think this is a big deal, part of a larger pattern, Miles needs to go, yada yada. Reasonable people can disagree. But to leave out this sort of context is just one more example of the fact that, as Schutze notes, Shipp is clearly doubling down in his efforts to run Miles out. Why? Because then the specifics of these reports don’t matter. Shipp can put a notch in his belt and say, “Shipp wins.”