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. 

"Uncle."

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.

What?

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

Why?

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).

taxpayer funded help for you

Allen,
I think if we had known DISD would have pulled that...each of us readers could have donated a dollar to fund this, you would have your 9775. I for one am willing to donate 50.00. WHO ELSE AMONG US IS WILLING IS WILLING TO DONATE SO ALLEN CAN HAVE THIS INFO.

I am certain others would be willing to do the same. DISD is no better than Enron and as a taxpayer, I am fed up just like you. The board and Hinojosa are corrupt and dishonest. I too am an IT person and I agree...it does not take long to run what you requested. THIS WAS A STALL TACTIC. There must be something to hide. I agree with hopedog...we cant give up...Allen don't give them what they want. If it's money you need, we will get you the funds. We need to stand with you in this and not just by blogging but by also putting money behind it.

[Ed Note: I'm taken care of as far as the money goes. What I need is more energy :) ]

Texas Penal Code says

Round and Round, this is the way in Texas. It's not just in the DISD, it's in every nook and cranny of the Texas governmental system. Otherwise the DA would have stepped up, the TEA, and Texas Board of Education would too. Don't beat yourself up Allen. See, this is the quote of every organized criminal agency in Texas; "We'll run circles around you because we can." I know, I've done research like you, many times in many areas. The legal system in Texas is basically designed to pacify non corrupt citizens with blinders that imply a penal code of ethics which established laws and codes of conduct for which our governing officials are to adhear to however in the fine print somehow the prospect of punishment for crimal activity is left out of the equation. In other words, the law is just a slap, not on the hand but in our faces. That's why litigation lawyers make more than IT guys :), the work is endless.
Go have a drink with grown folks who don't give a crap about whinny kids in school today, you may see Hinny-hose-ya there, or Jack-as_-low, then ask them in person where they want to be 5 years from now. heck-o
Peace man, rest your brain for a while. Your tired and it will be here if/when you get rested up.

The Mafia would be proud

The Mafia would be proud of how the DISD oppresses the silly people who believe in government by the people.

Allen, why not take this bill and your FOI request to the FBI and the Texas AG?

FBI can then see if it is official suppression and a violation of the intent of the FOI Act.

The Texas AG can then explain how a government entity could charge that much money for basically running a computer program that should already be able to do that sort of thing, you know, retrieve info?

[Ed Note: Because, quite frankly, it wouldn't go anywhere. They fight you with your own money. They have unlimited resources (again, funded by all of us) to drag things out as long as they wish. Finally, and Zac is right, what's the point? By the time you finish, the Board has changed and the issue at hand is moot.]

all my virtual children

I may be gone, but all my virtual children still reside in this district, and they deserve better.

Information Already Online

If you will look at the board attachment published online with the March agenda, at:

http://sire.dallasisd.org/sirepub/agdocs.aspx?doctype=agenda&itemid=8063

about four pages in, if you highlight the data, you can open it in Excel.

Or, if you just need to quickly search a year, use Adobe to "build" a copy of each month's transactions into a single document, and it can be quickly searched.

The document listed as Ratification of List of Bills, Claims and Accounts for January 1, 2009 to January 31, 2009 ($71,313,593.04/Various Funds)

These are posted each month or so.

[Ed Note: Yes, what I asked for is a little more comprehensive than that.]

Another Example

Hi Allen,

As I've experienced with www.FamilyLawCourts.com - the public largely is unaware exactly how much government changed from a place to turn for help (FEMA) and justice;

to a giant, privately funded company, run by dictates of those with the most money.

But, I digress.

I noticed people will tell you to "Go for it" and stay the course. That's because they want you to put your money where their email mouth is.

Bad on them. In fact, shame on them.

I hope other news organizations challenge them both on the amount of the fee, and how the cost was determined.

And, thanks for you being you. Texas is lucky to have you. (Although some might wish you lived in say, New Mexico.)

Stay the Course

You must not give up now. If you had not followed the P-cards, how much more would have been spent with Happy Hands reaching into our wallets via property taxes and going for retail therapy and suffering eating-out disorders?

These data bases are used almost daily by many within the city and beyond. They have proved valuable to many of us. Time to accept some thank yous in the form of $$ if that is what it takes to force transparency that should be automatic.

A number of years ago, I was presented a bill for open records request that was excessive. Primarily it was for time retrieving information. However, Trustee Venable was on the board at that time and he, having done several himself, reminded those in the FOI office at the time, that they could not charge for their lack of good filing systems or inability to know where to look. It seems that the AG had ruled on that so my bill was reduced to less than $30.00. Running up the bill is their way of denying our right to know.
I found that when you finally get to the big rock to be overturned, they know what creatures lie below and the price goes along with the response time goes up.

So, if that's the way they want to play, let us join the game with donations, by choice, to have our money spent on worthwhile information. After all, this is better than any OHI report that we pay for as well.

Donations

Allen, please make arrangements to accept donations. Perhaps all who really care can make a difference.

Donations Versus Retirement

You know, I've never really needed donations, and I haven't minded doling out my own money to do the things I do. But I have to say that I'm getting tired.

I've been doing this stuff for 10 years and the time is coming when I need to hang up my hat and move on to other things. I think I've probably earned the retirement.

Dallas.Org is a thankless job--but I want to say I don't mind doing a thankless job in the least. It's just that I have to do this as a hobby when time permits and I end up with far to little time to really do this blogging thing justice.

Months can go by before I get time to concentrate on an issue. By the time I end up traveling the "open records tunnel," multiple times, with an agency that goes to pains to keep me from getting the information I'm really after, stories tend to lose their impact.

So, anyway, thanks for the suggestion. But I'm thinking about a nice retirement.

Maybe before I hang it up, I'll take you guys down the "open records tunnel" with me and show you what I (and the rest of the media) go through. Pretty much everything with DISD is a fight. The rest of the media are much too professional to air the internal dirty laundry but I think you guys would appreciate seeing what we all go through.

Anyway, things are not going to change unless the Board decides to change it--which, as long as the Board's structure remains the same, is not going to change!

Thank You Allen

I just wanted to let you know that I understand and appreciate your efforts and I personally find the problems we have nearly unbelievable, and your blogs and everyone here at Dallas.org have helped me understand the issues at face value and save me from complete insanity. I never could have thought that taxpayer money was being wasted in the way the DISD has done so in the case of my children. I see it and they lie to spin and cheat, trying to blame the parents. It almost drove me off the path of reality, but my kid's education and recovery from autism is too valuable. I need to stay the course. You have done your civic responsibility. If your kids are outside the school your motivation is to know the truth. I think there is so much ingrained resistance to the truth in DISD, they will never accountable, until the trustees demand the raw data and give you the task to crunch it!

Stickup campaign!

Allen, you are a genius! Everybody needs to bring stickups to the board meetings from now on. I am bringing mine!

[Ed Note: We can't really endorse anything like this. But we can laugh :) ]

Another amazing detail

It doesnt look like DISD was planning to provide you any data anyway. It looks like they were going to print it all on paper.

[Ed Note: Actually, I noticed that. But I couldn't get past the price tag. You know, I was actually going to complain to the Attorney General, but they have just worn me down.]

Giving Up is Not an Option Either

Sorry to misquote our new prez, but giving up is also not an option--ever.

Retreating and regrouping is always an option. Spending an afternoon at the movies and playing hooky every once in a while is an option.

Questioning your sense of "smell" (as in, when things smell bad in this district, the DISD corpse has been buried in a very shallow grave right under your nose) is not a choice.

You sound like a wife who has caught her husband with lipstick on his collar and has questioned her own laundry abilities rather than her husband's fidelity.

Jack Lowe's company shouldn't be doing business with the district, but if he persists, then all those business transactions should be perfectly transparent.

Zac Crain's opinion on open records is the strangest thing ever written by a pretend-to-be journalist. Apparently Zac slept through the Fourth Estate lecture. Rather than calling him a journalist, think of him of a rather lame marketing person. Wick pays him, and Zac markets the Highland Park version of DISD. It's a wonderful place to pick up bond money business, but they wouldn't send their own kids there.

Tell you what, buddy. Publish a post office box number on your web site, and your fans will send in that money and you can forward the check to the Queen of Nepotism. Let her know that you have cheerleaders, while her job is hanging on those 5 votes continuing to fail to do their jobs. You'll still have cheerleaders when she's had her marching orders given to her by the next regime. She and her husband are definitely leaving a legacy, but not one of their choice.

Anytime a government agency is trying THAT hard to put information beyond the reach of the people, there must be some insanely interesting stuff they are trying to hide.

Isn't your curiosity peaked? Mine is. That last time I did an OPR where I was given a gigantic estimate to retrieve it, I already knew what I had requested contained illegal acts. Backing off and regrouping is ok. Letting them get away with it is not.

Go rent a post office box. We'll gather up our loose change. Take a picture when you hand them the check, and tell them not to leave out any of the details. We'll be waiting.

And forget the excuses. They are not withholding information because they are too busy serving kids.

[Ed Note: But I'd much rather like to think of myself as a husband who caught his wife with lipstick on her collar!

Seriously, these problems are going to persist until the Board restructures itself and the administration.]