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.
Look at Brett Shipp’s report for WFAA in September 2007 on a reading conference in Toronto. It’s typical of the way many members of the media cover DISD. Using documents obtained via an open records request and lurid shots of lobster and belly dancers, he created a sky-is-falling level of impropriety for a story that boiled down to five teachers exceeding their meal allowance on a road trip.
Another problem: digging for dirt so often can create a mess where there is none. Late last year, Allen Gwinn, who operates the city watchdog site Dallas.org, turned up some TDIndustries invoices to the district that seemed suspect, especially given that school board president Jack Lowe also serves as chairman of TDI. Gwinn filed an open records request October 31. The day before, the school attorney received six other requests, including three rather involved ones from the News. The next workday, November 3, seven more arrived, including two more sizeable requests from the News. Thirty-five more came in over the rest of the week (10 from the News). This created a logjam in room 115H. By the time anyone from DISD got back to Gwinn to explain the invoice matter, several weeks had passed, and he’d already posted some of his findings to his website. WFAA used that as the jumping off point for its own story.
The whole thing amounted to very little (the documentation showed that the invoices complied with the district’s procurement policy), but the strong smell of controversy remained simply because it took so long to process Gwinn’s initial request.
That’s not to say that all of those requests aren’t worthwhile. Some use the system better than others. Gwinn filed 19 requests in 2008, but most were the result of previous legwork; he was looking for answers rather than questions. Open records requests were the genesis of a 2006 investigation into credit card abuse within the district (although some still say that series of stories, and similar budget-focused exposés, were overblown by the media). Asking for a “copy of the Dallas ISD’s database of complaints concerning environmental issues from January 1, 2006, including any final resolutions of cases” (which the News did on February 12, 2008) is a bit of a fishing expedition, but one that is in the best interests of the community. On the other hand, consider the number of moving parts in this exceedingly broad request by the News, filed July 23, 2008, that essentially asks DISD to do a reporter’s job for him:
“Copy of all responses submitted to the Dallas Independent School District in response to the Conflict of Interest Disclosure item on the district website; updated information on new responses as they are received by Dallas ISD; letters and other non-electronic communications to Dallas ISD regarding the conflict of interest item and regarding the work of the ad hoc ethics committee; letters and e-mails from Dr. Michael Hinojosa regarding the item on the district website about conflicts of interest; and the work of the ad hoc ethics committee.”
Requests like that are why DISD has an image problem. Somewhere in that haystack there is a needle, and to the reporter who bothers to look through all that documentation, it doesn’t have to be sharp. It merely has to exist. That’s reason enough for a story. Throw a scary headline on it, and you have yourself a controversy, created virtually out of whole cloth.
Parents hit with a stream of stories like that get spooked by DISD. They move to Plano or Allen or any other district that isn’t dogged by the News. Dallas property values drop, and the downward spiral continues.
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