Public Information: DISD's Quest To Keep The Lights Off

Lights offNine thousand, seven hundred and seventy five dollars?  OK, I surrender.

DISD found my magic number, the amount I just won't pay for public information, so I give up.  I blink. 


But, hey, it's just the way things are when you try to get information from the new, "more transparent" DISD.

Before I get into this, it might be good to weigh in on Zac Crain's recent article in D Magazine "Does the Dallas Morning News Have It In for DISD"  and Kent Fischer's response to it in Belo's blog.

After all, I claimed the number 5 (most requests sent to DISD) spot with a whopping 19 requests for public information in 2008.

Why have I waited this long to respond? 

Plainly put, I didn't know where I stood on this--and there have been other things going on.

To summarize Zac's article, there are some of us who dig and dig and dig to find out what's going on inside DISD.  This creates an administrative backlog at the District and, sometimes, results in us getting incomplete information.

We end up writing stories, based on this inaccurate information, that later turns out to be less than what we thought they were in the first place--thereby skewing the public's perception of the School District.

This takes the focus away from education--so maybe it would be better if we didn't always try to dig for bad things at DISD.

Here's the hard part: I find myself in a strange and perhaps somewhat un-natural agreement with Zac's position.

Don't get me wrong.

Over the years, those of us in the media have uncovered some terrible misdeeds at DISD.  We've exposed theft and fraud.

Ultimately this has destroyed lives, and sent some to prison for over a decade

The District has frequently been portrayed as a den of thieves and we've lost the focus on education.

Over what?  Money?

If you run the numbers, how much did the former IT director's million-dollar fraud scheme really hurt us?  When everything was over, and indictments handed down, Dallas taxpayers were on the hook for the scam, and federal grants were in question.

Ruben Bohuchot had some big fans in DISD's Information Technology department.  There were some who believed Ruben was making positive things happen for the kids.  One could argue that Bohuchot & Frankie Wong's million-dollar escapade was, perhaps, a "thimble from the bathtub"--and maybe we would have all been better off if we'd just "let it go."

But some of us wouldn't quit.  We dig and dig and dig.

But maybe, as Zac suggests, it would be better if we didn't try to dig up dirt on DISD all the time.  After all, when we "land on a lucky square," there's just no positive way to portray something hideous.  And each time it is done, even the good things at the District get tainted.

If we want to turn the other cheek and feel good, we could take the position that the days of "real" scandals are over.  DISD's policies, along with the Office of Professional Responsibility, have ended District fraud as we know it. 

But even if it hasn't, is it seriously in our best interest to uncover another scandal at DISD?

Anyway, back to the $9,775.00.

Public information costs.

I've spent thousands of dollars of my own money, over the years, on public information requests.  I can't speak for The Dallas Morning News, WFAA, D Magazine, The Observer or any other organization but I bet I've been outspent.

I have never accepted money for the operation of Dallas.Org.  I don't sell ads and I finance the whole thing out of my own pocket.  I also only committed to doing Dallas.Org for 10 years--when I started doing it 10 years ago.

It allows me to avoid peeving off advertisers, and I save myself from that good 'ol Catholic schoolkid-style guilt-thingy when some politician writes me a campaign check then has the gall to record it as being for a "favorable article" in his campaign finance report (hey, you guys know I love you)!

I have great respect for all the news organizations who must turn a profit to stay in business.  I frequently refer to them as the "real" journalists--as opposed to rank amateur wannabes, like me, who publish little scandalous websites!

Kent Fischer, Tawnelle Hobbs, Brad Watson, Brett Shipp, Tim Rogers, Wick Allison, Zac Crain, Eric Celeste, Robert Wilonsky, Jim Schutze, Bud Gillette, B.J. Austin--there are way too many to name.  The list goes on and on.  These tremendous folks are what it is all about.

These "real" reporters, those too numerous to name, and their organizations, bring tremendous resources to bear--and their contributions to Dallas have helped shape the town.  Dallas citizens owe our media a debt of gratitude for "keeping an eye on things" over the years.

Dallas is a better place because of D Magazine, The Dallas Morning News, The Dallas Observer, and our numerous broadcast services.

Anyway, back to the $9,775.00.  I sometimes get sidetracked, these days.  I'll try to go for the "short version."

I've always said that DISD President Jack Lowe is a decent guy.  I still say that.  But when, almost a year ago, Lori Stahl (dang, need to add her name to the above list--somebody remind me to do that) wrote a story in the Dallas Morning News about DISD officials' firms doing business with the District, I became a little concerned about appearances.

So in an attempt to put the matter to rest, I began a series of public information requests to the District regarding TD Industries.

I pulled "the checkbook" and put a database of TD Industries transactions online.

One of the things that jumped out at me was how difficult it was becoming to piece together the details on many of the transactions.

Requests, I would submit to the District, would be met by voluminous boxes of "information overload" (weeks later, of course) to wade through--much of it not apropos to the request and little of it in any sort of logical order that I could discern.  But I'm used to it.  It seems to be S.O.P. for DISD and explains why I have had to make 19 requests instead of 3.

I did say I'd try to keep this short, didn't I?

So, finally, I had another idea.

I put in a request to extract raw data from DISD's massive Oracle financial database.  My goal was to try and establish an information "baseline" and work out from there.

DISD responded, predictably, like they had in the past when I've requested raw data--filing an objection with the Texas Attorney General's office.

Oracle's attorney did the best she could to convince... wait, I said I'd keep this short.

The short story is: I won. I won big (and if you're an organization who wants to spend $9,775 or more, you may have won big too).

The Attorney General told DISD they had to release the data I requested.

So I waited for what I thought would ultimately be a CD-ROM of nice, raw financial data to play around with.

DISD, however, still had one more curve ball to throw.

District I.T. Chief Patricia Viramontes determined it would take 275 hours (almost 7 weeks) to extract the data I had requested from the District's databases.


In my "real" life (the one I don't talk about much), I am an I.T. guy.  I have over 30 years (yeah, Kent, I know I don't look that old) of experience with systems, networks and databases--including the Oracle-centric SQL database infrastructure at DISD.

So when DISD sends me a $9,700 bill claiming it will take 7 weeks of time to extract raw data from some tables in Oracle, I have some experience to draw on that allows me to call their hand.

And I call "baloney."

A good "SQL guy" should be able to pull this together in a couple of afternoons.  One might argue, on the other hand, that if there was a good "SQL guy" at DISD, it would be only because he or she can't find a higher paying job in this economy.  Also, he or she will likely have his or her hands full with other things.

Still, there's plenty of readily available help out there to show, even a novice database person, how to write a short program to do this.

I would even volunteer to help them!  Heck, I could even charge them for my time.  They could mark it up 30%, send me a bill, and they'd have a profit!

But this isn't about doing it.  It is about not doing it.  It's not about how efficiently this request could be produced, it is about how to avoid producing it. 

You see, if they were to give in to this request, I (or you, because the District knows from experience that I'd put it online), might accidentally find something we weren't looking for--and if it were big enough--well, that gets us, full circle, back to Zac's article.

But does DISD really make it that hard to get public information?

Excruciatingly so.

Even DISD Board Members have begun complaining, recently, about how difficult it is to get information from the District and the Administration.  The phrase "pulling teeth" seems to come up a lot.

It's hard to get information--but perhaps it's better that way.

The School Board is virtually run by two people: Jack Lowe and Superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

Jack rules the School Board.

Jack, like at TD Industries, is CEO and Chairman.

Jack controls the agenda and I find myself wondering, from time to time, if Hinojosa's view of the Board's responsibility extends beyond that of "rubber stamp."

But maybe it's better that way.

These are strange times--and not just in DISD.  Even Mexico's former corrupt ruling party (the PRI) seems poised for a comeback


There may have been public corruption, and drugs flowed freely across the country when the PRI was in power, but things were a lot quieter.  Yes, palms may have been getting greased, but not as many people were getting killed back then.

Maybe what DISD needs, like Mexico feels it needs, are quieter times.  After all, we're only talking money here.

Perhaps the reason the kids aren't getting educated is that we're too busy wasting time worrying about stopping secretaries from buying groceries with District money.

The Board, or Jack, should be able to get money out of taxpayers when the District runs short.  Senior administrators already seem to be well able to avoid culpability for major blunders.

So instead of continuing to take out the garbage, perhaps what we need is just a good round of air freshener.

So, there, DISD.  You guys win.  I give up.

Still, some things just don't feel right. 

Regardless of how decent a guy he is, there's just something touchy about a public school board chaired by a multi million-dollar vendor's CEO. 

And, competence aside, something just doesn't feel right about two of the District's top C-level executives being husband and wife.

But, hey, maybe it's just Time For a Stick Up(TM).