They all end up here, in room 115h of the Dallas Independent School District Administration Building on Ross Avenue, all the e-mails, faxes, and letters seeking information from the district. The office, run by attorney Leticia D. McGowan, is decorated with motivational posters promoting Teamwork and Communication. A maroon JVC boombox plays just loudly enough to drown out the white noise. On average, four open records requests land here every workday. Sometimes they are benign. A photography company, Shot by Dawn, wants contact information for every 2009 senior in the district to get a jump on next year’s graduation portrait business.
Usually, though, the communiqués come from a journalist or a teachers’ union boss. Those requests are a bit trickier. Mishandle one of those and you end up with a TV reporter shoving a microphone in your face, or you have to spend a few hours in a conference room downtown being deposed. Which is why, when I show up at room 115H on a Monday morning in February, McGowan declines through an intermediary to talk with me about her job. She stays back in “The Pit,” the name given to the filing-cabinet-filled sub-room to 115H. McGowan prefers to remain as anonymous as possible. And she has work to do. Another sheaf of documents to vet, another banker’s box of material to gather.
Some of these requests are legitimate. But many others are merely nets tossed blindly into the sea by reporters and education gadflies. It’s these fishing expeditions that over the years have created a serious problem for the district in how the public perceives it.
McGowan wouldn’t talk to me, but after some cajoling the district did send an e-mail broadly describing what happens in The Pit. The legal staff distributes the requests to the necessary departments. They send the information back to legal, which checks for exceptions to disclosure rules. If there are exceptions, a brief is sent to the attorney general. If there aren’t any, the information is released, after any required redactions.
The process sounds simple, and it would be if the legal staff were handling, say, a few hundred requests a year. But they’re not. Through December 11 of last year, DISD attorneys handled 1,092 open records requests in 2008. Plenty of those requests resulted from last year’s budget shortfall that led to DISD’s euphemistic “reduction in force.” But that sum, while higher than in previous years, is not an aberration. Check the totals over the previous four years: 755 in 2004, 896 in 2005, 973 in 2006, and 1,022 in 2007. To put that into perspective, in 2008 there were 488 open records requests filed in the Arlington (64), Richardson (161), and Plano (253) school districts combined. The cumulative enrollment of those districts (151,000) is roughly equal to that of DISD.
So why does DISD contend with so many more requests than its neighboring districts in North Texas? One word: Belo. Specifically, the Dallas Morning News and WFAA Channel 8. Last year, the News filed 114 open records requests, and WFAA filed 30, totals outdone only by the teachers’ union Alliance AFT, which filed 186. Why are Belo’s numbers so high? Because the News and WFAA treat education as an investigative beat rather than an explanatory one. Investigative stories are juicier, and working DISD from that angle has all the high-drama elements pre-packaged: a big public entity, kids and their outraged parents, any number of advocacy groups willing to issue headline-grabbing quotes. It’s a journalism lay-up line.