Morning News Shows Poor Judgment, Lousy Editing With Front-Page DISD Story

Yesterday, on the front page of its Sunday edition, below the fold, reporter Rudy Bush and the Dallas Morning News did grievous damage to a DISD school — and to the district as a whole. The school is Alex Sanger Elementary, in a neighborhood called Forest Hills. Online, the headline reads “How East Dallas Family Reluctantly Gave Up on DISD Elementary School.” On paper, it went “Gung-ho Parents Give Up,” with the subhead “Frustrated, They Pull Kids, Energy From East Dallas School.” The parents at the center of the story are a former college professor, Christa Downer, and her partner, Assistant City Manager Theresa O’Donnell. Given the women’s bona fides and the way their tale was told, driving home their condemnations of the school and the district, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say this story will keep families from enrolling their kids at Sanger and at other DISD schools. And it very well may lead parents to pull their kids from Sanger when the school year ends. As I said, grievous.

A careful reading of the story, however, shows that it’s a he-said-she-said tiff involving only a handful of disgruntled parents. How that makes its way onto the front page on a Sunday is a mystery to me. I mean, unless there’s an institutional bias at the Morning News against DISD. But that can’t be. Can it?

Here is Bush’s thesis, presented in the fourth paragraph of the story:

These days, conflicts between school board members and Superintendent Mike Miles seem to define DISD — or, at least, its public face. But the struggles that O’Donnell and Downer encountered at Sanger may say more about the school system’s troubles. DISD needs to attract middle-class families to succeed. What does it say about the system if two committed parents — a top city of Dallas official and a university professor — can’t keep faith with their neighborhood school?

Well, I don’t know what it says. It might say that Sanger is a perfect lens through which to view the entire district. It might say that DISD is failing miserably. Or it might say that just Sanger is failing. OR it might say that O’Donnell and Downer are crazy parents who wouldn’t be happy at any school, which is why, when they quit Sanger Elementary, Downer left her professorship to start a home school. I don’t know the answer to the question. Neither does Bush. He never answers it — not explicitly, anyway. It’s a leading question, packed with implication, aimed at suburban readers and private-school parents, all of whom can nod knowing nods.

Side note: both my children attend private schools. This fact doesn’t figure into what we’re talking about here. I’m Catholic. My kids are in Catholic schools. That’s called a God force field. We don’t need to talk about my family, because this isn’t about me. It’s not even about O’Donnell and Downer. I’ve met O’Donnell. I don’t think she’s crazy. I only raised the question of her mental state as a theoretical consideration, by way of pointing out one shortcoming of the News story. That’s what this is about: journalism and whether it’s being practiced responsibly.

After Bush poses his question, he follows it with O’Donnell’s beefs with the school:

“The bureaucracy just beat us, and that’s too bad, because what’s going to happen next?” asked O’Donnell, an assistant city manager and no stranger to bureaucracy. The problems ran a gamut, O’Donnell said, from the couple’s belief that Sanger’s dual-language program was getting short shrift, to a decision by the principal to cut out sports and recess in the name of improved test scores.

Now, playtime is important, and we’re learning that cutting it in favor of more classroom time can hinder learning, not improve it. But for these shortcomings — presented from one side, as “O’Donnell said” and “the couple’s belief” — a school and a district get hammered on the front page?

O’Donnell and other parents also had problems with how much time at Sanger was given to testing and preparing to test. After reporting that one parent, Kelly Kemp, claimed an overgrown baseball field wasn’t repaired and that she couldn’t hold a fundraising chili cookoff because the school couldn’t afford to hire custodial staff — horrors! — Bush writes:

Always, parents said, the focus was on raising test scores, at the expense of everything else.

“Why are we working so hard for these test scores? No one could tell us the benefit,” Kemp said.

She decided the school simply wasn’t interested in serving middle-class families, she said. O’Donnell came to the same conclusion.

“DISD has given up on the middle class, and the middle class has given up on DISD,” O’Donnell said.

This is a bold claim. As a reporter, if you let someone say that, you’d best marshal some data to show me if that claim has any merit or if it’s merely the opinion of two women. Give me some perspective. In this story, that never happens. The only four data points in the 1,800-word story are these: more than 80 percent of Sanger students are economically disadvantaged, and 60 have limited command of English. Enrollment has grown from 490 kids in 2011 to 563 in 2013. There’s nothing about how test scores have improved or worsened. There’s nothing about how many middle-class kids attend Sanger — or other schools in the district. Nothing about whether that number has increased or decreased in recent years — or historically.

Some math: if 80 percent of the 563 kids at Sanger are economically disadvantaged, let’s say that means there are 112 middle-class kids. (I know. It’s rough. Just go with me.) One hundred and twelve kids might mean, what, 100 families? A handful, a small percentage, are disgruntled? That’s a front-page story? And what about test scores? Do we have any data on those?

O’Donnell said standardized tests and the way they’re scored have changed, making it difficult to track progress over many years. In any case, it’s clear that Sanger is not up to par with DISD’s best elementary schools, she said.

She said it’s clear that Sanger is not up to par? Then how about some data comparing Sanger to other elementary schools? That would be nice. Nowhere in the 1,800 words do those data show up. Instead, interestingly, Bush follows the preceding sentence with this one:

This year, the school met state academic standards and earned distinction for student progress when compared with similar schools.

Whoah. The school earned distinction for progress? That doesn’t sound clear to me at all. So why let O’Donnell say it? Much of the story is filled with such contradictions. I’m so angry that I’m now typing with my fists, so let’s lay out a few of these he-said-she-said moments.

Others who once joined [O’Donnell and Downer’s] movement for Sanger have turned to private schools. Some remained believers in Sanger and DISD. The problem wasn’t with Sanger, they suggest. It was with O’Donnell and Downer.

So “others” disagreed with “some.” Interesting. Curious. I wonder what “many” think. Oh, right here:

[M]any Sanger parents believe the school does reach out to the middle class. Kelly Clayton’s son has just started kindergarten at Sanger, and the family loves the school. “There’s a wonderful sense of community with people in the neighborhood,” she said.

Hang on. Just hang the eff on, here. “Many” parents believe the school reaches out to the middle class, and yet Bush lets two ladies who disagree drive the entire narrative?

I don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s not good journalism. Bush covers Dallas City Hall, where O’Donnell works. I’ve always thought he was a good reporter. So this story makes me scratch my head. Because it looks to me like he just jumped on O’Donnell’s side, strapped on a pair of blinders, and wrote a story whose plot he’d become married to long before he conducted a single interview. I hope that’s not the way he covers his usual beat.

As for the newspaper as a whole and the editors there who should have asked for more reporting and, no matter what, given this small story less prominent play, like I said, surely the News doesn’t have an anti-DISD institutional bias.

I’m being sarcastic. I think it does.

Update: Here’s how you can show some love for Sanger.


  • TKender

    This is why I find it a must read for anything that has your byline….well, most of your stuff..

  • Critic

    Wow, must be a slow news day for DISD, The Dallas Morning News, and even slower for The FrontBurner

  • AmyS

    “How that makes its way onto the front page on a Sunday is a mystery to me. I mean, unless there’s an institutional bias at the Morning News against DISD. But that can’t be. Can it?”

    Old News.

  • Vinny Minchillo

    Guilty as charged. Looks like I fell for the whole thing.

  • Uppercase Matt

    And suddenly Dmag and FB think that facts, data, and context are important in a story.

    • Tim Rogers

      Okay, Uppercase Matt, I’ll bit. Provide some of your own context. What are you talking about?

  • gimmethewooby

    I’m going with door number three, “O’Donnell and Downer are crazy parents who wouldn’t be happy at any school.” Why this even became a DMN story, much less got on the front page, is really strange.

  • RAB


  • Eric Celeste

    Middle-class parents are fleeing the district, except when they’re not.

    Oh, you didn’t see this story? It ran weekday Metro, inside. Weird.

    • Kristen DeRocha

      It’s the exact opposite story. Buried in the middle of the paper in the middle of summer.

  • DISD parent

    Thank you for writing this. You perfectly articulated the frustration I felt reading that article.

  • Dubious Brother

    I think the reason that this story made front page has nothing to do with anti-DISD bias or Sanger Elementary or sports or recess or middle class or blinders – it made front page because the parents are lesbians.

    • Critic

      Bingo, Dubious Brother

    • D. Shapiro

      I thought they were in business together based on the article’s description.

  • Wylie H Dallas

    That was a strange article, indeed. I read it while sipping my morning coffee. At the end, I found myself scanning back through— trying to find the punch line. Ultimately, I was left looking squinty-eyed at O’Donnell and feeling blue about the sometimes too close relationship between the DMN and certain City Hall folks.

  • AeroRazavi

    The best part of the story is this: “The bureaucracy just beat us, and that’s too bad, because what’s going to happen next?” asked O’Donnell, an assistant city manager…”

    How many local businesses have said the same of the City?

  • Louisa Meyer

    Nothing has changed since my first letter to the editor was published more than eight years ago and, as Frontburners know, I continued to write about DMN bias. A few years ago, I decided my rebuttals were a waste of time. Call me jaded. Yesterday’s story was deja vu, it even seemed recycled. We all know people who change schools. I even know some happy DISD families who left private school. But now when you leave DISD, it includes launching a press release.

    January 25, 2005
    The wrong priorities

    Join a gang, and you make the front page of the Sunday edition.

    If you were among the nearly 400 students to be honored by the superintendent
    as a National Merit or Advanced Placement Scholar, you are listed with the

    Become the third student in three years from the Dallas Independent School
    District to receive the College Board’s highest honor for the entire state of Texas,
    an award given to two students each year, you receive no mention at all.

    This is how The Dallas Morning News recognizes DISD students? Priceless.

    Louisa Meyer, parent,
    W.T. White High School
    T.C. Marsh Middle School
    Nathan Adams Elementary School

  • Bearded Guy at the Bar

    “We don’t need to talk about my family, because this isn’t about me.”

    Five years ago, DISD was all about your family ( Three years ago it was about them and especially you (

    Now you’re kids aren’t in DISD, and since 2012 you rarely cover the district unless you are complaining about DMN’s coverage or DISD itself.

  • Uppercase Matt

    Just that this place is big on declaratives without bothering with any figures to back them up. For example, Wick’s “disruptive technologies” post mentions taxi franchise fees but doesn’t discuss what (if any) fees limo drivers pay. He status that “local car dealers are among the last major supporters of civic enterprise and charities,” which I guess we’ll take on faith. The OCP RIP mentions a dearth of advertisers, but leaves out what I think would be important context — was there ever enough advertising? Did advertisers pull out? Was this a grand but doomed experiment or something that at one time had success written all over it?

  • Uppercase Matt

    I think they’re crazy, all right, but I’m curious if even their charter-school venture will turn into a school at which they’ll be happy — and whether they’ll ditch it as soon as their kids grow (if, in fact, it ever comes to fruition at all).

  • Los_Politico

    The parents don’t live in the Sanger zone. Does that play a part in their decision? They bought a house in the Conner Elementary zone in October 2012. So were they even eligible to attend Sanger? Could being told ‘no’ be what they mean by ‘responsiveness?

    I wont post their address, but if you check the county appraisal website you will find their new home under the name of Ms. Downer.

    • Tim Rogers

      Worth noting but likely doesn’t materially affect the story. I’m guessing they transferred into Sanger.

    • Tim Rogers

      O’Donnell and Downer do live in the Sanger zone. The property you reference above in the Conner zone is owned by Downer but is not their residence.

  • Eric Celeste

    I think you’re missing the point, BGATB. It’s not that she left the school. Fine, lots of people make that choice. It’s the who-gives-rhymes-with-hug? Why is that indicative of anything, other than a pissed-off parent who didn’t get her way?

  • Eric Celeste

    “Who-gives-A-rhymes-with-hug?” Damnit. Also, still workshopping it.

  • technodallas

    Interesting point. Articles show, though, that Mr. Rogers sees positive value in DISD and it’s programs. I’ve never seen that sentiment in DMN coverage.

  • East Dallas DISD supporter

    I am on a PTA public relations committee for one of the many excellent East Dallas public schools. What do we talk about at our meetings? How hard it is to get the Dallas Morning News to do stories on any of our many achievements. It’s like butting your head against a wall .

    They are interested in drama on Ross, malcontents and tips from disgruntled employees – read the “Education Blog” and you shall see.

  • Tim Rogers

    I’m a little unclear on your point. You saying I personally don’t write frequently enough about DISD? Or that I write less frequently than I did when my kids were in it? Well, that’s obvious. When Tawnell Hobbs screwed me on the front page (and then Jim Schutze kicked me in the jeans), I had plenty of reason to write about DISD. You’ll notice, however, that then, as now, the issue I’m more concerned with is a media issue as it pertains to DISD.

    Or are you saying that the magazine doesn’t write frequently about DISD? Because, if so, I think your mistaken

  • Tim Rogers

    Or you’re mistaken. That, too.

  • Texas

    So why doesn’t anyone want to talk about the REAL problem? Let’s talk about why these families left Sanger; because of the over-emphasis on high-stakes/standardized testing. These intelligent, well-educated women volunteered countless hours at their neighborhood public school. And now they are the problem because they want to increase enrichment programs and improve the quality of instruction for all of the children at Sanger Elementary? This DMN article exposes the real problem in our Texas public schools; parents have absolutely no input regarding the curriculum, even though these are OUR children and the schools are paid for with OUR tax money. High-stakes/standardized testing is destroying our schools and our children’s desire to learn. Join the Opt Out Movement today.

  • Los_Politico

    Well, according to her 2010 DMN editorial she did live in the Sanger zone. Then during the last school year she moved. And now she has issues with the principal.

    I agree, she probably had issues and then decided that since she was going to homeschool she was free to move to a cheaper neighborhood. But it’s still worth finding out if any of the ‘issues’ were transfer-related.

  • Louisa Meyer

    After an outpouring of support through calls, email and blog posts, Sanger Elementary has added a donation option to its PTA website:
    Show them some love. $10 minimum with an option at checkout to multiply that. Give a little; give a lot!

  • East Dallas DISD supporter

    So you agree it’s a state-wide issue? Then why blame this particular school and leave in a well-publicized huff? I grew up in the desegregation days and this was done all the time “Johnny got jumped by a black guy (mostly N word), I am pulling my kids out of THAT school”. “Oh let’s start a NEW school that will be better” (no blacks). This is why we have several mediocre but expensive private schools in Dallas. This leaves a bad taste in my mouth. These ladies may not be racist, but many who do this are – to this day – but of course they will never admit such.

  • RAB

    “fug” applies only to ugly, as in “fugly.”

    You meant, “Who gives a rhymes-with-truck?”

  • RAB

    Or in the second sentence, “You’re saying . . . ?” That, too, also.

  • AmyS

    Riddle me this, Mr. Rogers.

    If Sanger is “teaching to the test”, and this method has been proven to be a failed educational mechanism (debatable in some subjects), then why are the scores of the students going up?

    I didn’t mean for your answer in the literal sense. I meant that it’s an illogical equation. Isn’t it? And hasn’t “teaching to the test” become a cliched excuse for criticising teachers? Can we have a definition of what “teaching to the test” really looks like? Because I was in elementary school 40 (cough) years ago, and remember rote memorization of multiplication tables, spelling and geography. How was this different from today’s “teaching to the test?”

    The DMN has had a long history of highlighting the Dallas district’s problems without comparing it to any suburban or private schools efforts or failures. It’s unfortunate that they missed a larger story relating to the city’s schools, which is how they struggle to serve a diverse population. Who leaves is old news, who stays, and why, is the compelling lesson.

  • Tim Rogers

    Point taken. Would you agree, though, that a blog like this one (the hastily discarded outline of the first draft of history) is different than a front-page Sunday story in the city’s paper of record?

  • Uppercase Matt

    I’ll agree with that. Except the idea that anything, once on the internet, can ever be considered “discarded” again — it will all be floating around forever.

  • WmBTravis

    Lazy reporting at the DMN is neither new or unexpected.

  • Tim Rogers

    The forever floating detritus of the first draft of history, then.

  • North by Northwest Highway

    Rudy’s story was a bit of a hatchet job, but he conveyed a hard truth: DISD and Dallasites have abandon a public education for families at or above middle class. This spoke to me.

    We cannot fix DISD by pointing out all of its failures like DMN, nor can we take the approach of D Magazine, which is… What? Defend the little victories? Who knows? They don’t write about the way forward.

    I would also like to know why Tim Rogers’ kids are no longer in DISD.

    • Brett Moore

      I’m pretty sure he spelled that out in the post.

  • JRO

    He did? It’s implied, but not explicit. The common practice of white middle class parents in East Dallas is send your kids to the great elementary schools and avoid the middle schools because they are not up to snuff. Was that a factor here?

  • Los_Politico

    They are claiming the homestead exemption.

  • Los_Politico

    So if you called and confirmed that they do indeed live in a different property. And if DCAD is correct and they are claiming homestead exemption (they are listed as 50% owners each). That would change the story from ‘middle class flees DISD’ to ‘Top City Staffer Engaged in Local Tax Fraud’. I know which story I would rather see! You can thank me later 🙂

  • Brett Moore

    “I’m Catholic. My kids are in Catholic schools. That’s called a God force field. “

  • Sandman

    How much did the quality of the middle school affect your decision,Tim?

  • Sharla

    The DMN is sinking quickly to being tabloid news, no better than the National Enquirer and others. They all sell paper but they don’t convey truth, facts, or news. A recent front page story on Garland was all about how Allstate Insurance customers rank the city lowest in the state because of the number of accidents. It was a great story for Allstate; got their name and brand out there. (Is this product-placement advertising like we see in movies and TV shows?) But the facts–just in the Metroplex–show that many area cities have higher rates of accidents per capita than Garland. In fact, Garland is very much on the lower side. The transportation writers could have verified that in seconds, if anyone at the DMN had checked. While I feel sorry for Sanger Elementary and Garland and other victims of DMN so-called reporting, I feel sorriest for citizens being sold sensationalism as news.

  • The Wooby

    Tim Rogers abandoned Dallas schools. What a shocker. However, +1 for his opacity and playing the religion card. He will make a great PR guy.

  • Amanda Fletcher

    It’s also apparent that the couple is out to get publicity for the charter school they want to start in a few years.

  • Teacher

    It’s apparent that the article was written to give publicity for their charter school they plan to open in a few years….curious if they are aware their school will have to follow Texas standardized tests as well.

  • kpk

    It was a sad state of reporting as he didn’t even get my comment correct or to whom my frustration was with; I did let him know and he said there would be a correction- where do they put those? My whole point was that the reluctance of the FORMER administration when my children were in attendance (over 2 years ago) is that at the DISD Administration level it was a run around to get answers to get things done LIKE restoring the baseball field for the children or allowing access to the school for the neighborhood to conduct fundraisers to benefit the school!
    I Hope you TIm will take the ball and run with the story and get more information from the parents that are currently there and continue to try to make strides for their children! There is some justification to the ole saying that there is no such thing as BAD publicity- glad people are talking about it and HOPE it leads to action and change for improvement!

  • mustang 66

    Except J. L. Long, which is a very up and coming school now. I’m sure D will be interested to know that it has doubled its white population over the last three years as an IB candidate school. It should be accredited around New Year’s.

  • Betty Culbreath

    I know it is bias DMN has been given true facts about certain stories written about DISD yet wrote the story with less than truth.