Remember Tonya Sadler Grayson? If you read the Dallas Morning News from 2014 to 2016, you saw her name in a series of seemingly sensational front-page stories. Grayson was the executive director of Human Capital Management for Dallas ISD (human resources to you and me). An internal report accused her of lying about her criminal background on a job application. Then there was an alleged physical skirmish with a staff member and reportedly more than one heated argument with trustee Bernadette Nutall. After Grayson was eventually dismissed — a dismissal upheld by a three-member panel of trustees, which included Lew Blackburn — she filed a lawsuit accusing Blackburn of sexual harassment and the district of wrongful termination. Despite her claims, the News stories, written by Matthew Haag and Tawnell Hobbs, along with Channel 8 stories voiced by former journalist Brett Shipp, painted a picture of a woman who was fired because she was an unstable, bullying liar.
I always thought the case against Grayson was overblown. First of all, multiple DISD officials and trustees have told me about Nutall working diligently to undermine the human resources people brought in by then superintendent Mike Miles, because those new people threatened to dismantle her network of cronies. It seemed to me that Grayson fell prey to Nutall’s machinations. For example, Grayson’s “criminal background,” that thing she lied about on her job application? It was a misdemeanor from when she was 19. Apparently she defaced the front door of a rival for a man’s affection. And that alleged attack on the DISD staffer? It was thoroughly investigated, and the charges against her were dropped. And the internal “report” used to justify all this coverage? It was put together by a rogue district employee who was himself fired when it was discovered that he was “investigating” Grayson. At the same time, Nutall was attacking her publicly. After Grayson filed her lawsuit and the News ran its final story about her, in April 2016, that was the last we heard from her. But a lot has happened in two years.
The reporters mentioned above have all moved on. Haag writes obituaries and Metro stories for the New York Times. Hobbs was hired by the Wall Street Journal. And Shipp is hoping his high North Texas Q-rating will help him in his bid for Pete Sessions’ U.S. House of Representatives seat. Corbett Smith is now leading DISD coverage for the paper and doing a much better job of it. The self-serving leaks from status quo trustees have dried up. And, in response to an open records request from Smith, we’ve learned that Grayson and the district have reached a settlement in her suit. But his story, published yesterday, missed something important.
Here’s what I know. Grayson alleged Blackburn repeatedly asked her for “sexual favors in return for employment protection and support.” This past Halloween, Grayson and DISD came to an agreement that was a slam-dunk win for the district. For just $60,000, Grayson agreed to dismiss her case, and the district agreed to retroactively accept her resignation instead of terminating her. Grayson agreed to forever hold blameless the district and the board of trustees. She agreed to a confidentiality clause, as did the district — except when faced with open records requests like Smith’s.
That’s what the documents reveal. But after talking to numerous high-level sources who were there during the controversy or who are currently district officials, I’d like to raise three questions.
1. Despite the dismissal of the lawsuit, did trustee Blackburn have sex with Grayson?
2. If so, was he offering a quid pro quo arrangement wherein he agreed to protect Grayson from Nutall?
3. No matter the answer to No. 2, why did Blackburn sit on Grayson’s three-member review panel and uphold her firing when he had a conflict of interest?
Regarding No. 1: Blackburn did have sex with Grayson. This fact is not in the settlement documents that the district recently coughed up, but sources I talked to say he did not contest to district investigators that he’d had sex with Grayson. Sources say the lawyers on both sides operated as though that sexual relationship was a given. Blackburn, by the way, has not responded to multiple requests to talk about this.
Regarding No. 2: I don’t think there was a quid pro quo arrangement explicitly stated, not after interviewing people who knew key details about their relationship. But, under the law, it needn’t be explicitly discussed to exist. If Blackburn had hinted that he would protect Grayson’s job if she had sex with him, then that’s sufficient.
There is a lawyerly argument that Blackburn, who is not technically a district employee, had no real power over Grayson. There is a more than reasonable argument that she, as director of HR, should have known better. But that doesn’t get to the real-world fact that Nutall was lighting the fires that turned up the media heat on Grayson and the district. Media heat only made superintendent Miles dig in more to protect her, because he is stubborn and isn’t afraid of taking said heat. But then Michael Hinojosa became superintendent, and he wanted that heat turned down. So he quickly fired Grayson. Protection from Nutall and the media was a valuable asset that someone in Blackburn’s position could offer. Although that power isn’t made clear by an org chart, it is real.
A lot of people in DISD and the North Texas education ecosystem regard Blackburn as –professionally speaking — a “terrible trustee.” I’ve heard stories from administrators and his fellow trustees about Blackburn promising to vote one way on a matter before the board, and then a few hours later reversing course. (His most famous cowardly turn was voting multiple times against taking a tax hike to citizens despite having co-written an op-ed in the News that supported the tax hike.) He has been at this trustee job since 2001 and has done little in those 17 years but grandstand.
Which brings us to question No. 3: the answer is that Blackburn is, again, a terrible trustee. Let’s assume that he explicitly told Grayson, “No matter what happens, I do not have your back.” It’s still a clear conflict of interest that he sat on the panel that upheld her firing. He wasn’t compelled to be on that panel. He could have easily let another trustee take his place. In fact, he should have. Sources I’ve spoken with say that trustees recuse themselves from these panels with regularity and that they can do so without having to provide a reason.
(It must be noted that the review panel is not supposed to review whether the district’s actions were fair, just whether the actions taken by DISD were legal and within the district’s guidelines. In the past, other trustees have told me about Blackburn playing judge and jury with these exact sorts of cases before him, ultimately voting in favor of employees based on whether he thinks they were treated fairly.)
I think it’s awful that Blackburn did this, but it doesn’t surprise me. There are those who will tell you not to cry for Grayson. She’s a smart woman who made bad decisions all along the way, they say. But I cringe when I hear stories about how Grayson’s friends in the administration would do things to make sure Blackburn didn’t intimidate her, which they felt he did. One would go so far as to position herself during trustee meetings so that she blocked Blackburn’s sightline of Grayson, because of what she felt was his intimidation through his gaze.
One of the reasons Blackburn could vote to uphold Grayson’s firing is that there is almost no recourse against bad actor trustees. Boards can censure a trustee, but that almost never happens in Texas, and it’s only a political shaming anyway. We should add a provision that would allow for the impeachment of trustees, but such a change in the law is not likely to happen soon.
Could you find something in district policy or the Texas Education Code that forbids what happened between Blackburn and Grayson? Perhaps. But I wrote about the removal of school board trustees in 2014. This still stands: “Trustees can be removed from office if convicted of a crime and if subsequently removed from office by a judge because of that crime. But the local DA … would have to convene a grand jury to indict and convict one of our elected officials for breaking provisions of the Texas Education Code, which aren’t tied to the Texas Penal Code. These aren’t viewed as ‘go to jail’ laws.”
No, the only way to react to something like what happened here is for us to demand more of our public officials by voting out of office people like Lew Blackburn, someone who has proven himself incapable of putting the concerns of students before his own interests. His term ends in the spring of 2019.