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Does the DMN have it in for the DISD?

Maybe not, but the way the Dallas Morning News covers the district is distorting your impression.
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illustration by Koren Shadmi

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.

Write to [email protected].

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