Today we learned that Katy Independent School District Superintendent Alton Frailey has withdrawn from his scheduled Friday morning appearance on Fox 26. The program is designed to promote Katy and will still be aired with numerous other Katy area officials who have been booked to appear. Frailey’s decision to withdraw comes one day after Fox 26 News reporter Andrea Watkins asked the Superintendent very pointed questions in a news conference. The district says Frailey has a scheduling conflict, that he has to speak to a group of students.
We believe these developments make it imperative that we review Frailey’s relationship with the media so all can understand that today’s developments really aren’t surprising, and we feel this type of nonsense needs to stop.
All the recent horrible publicity that’s descended upon the Katy Independent School District did not happen in a vacuum. It’s the result of several years of destructive behavior on the part of an undisciplined superintendent and his inept communications staff. The God controversy at West Memorial Junior High, and the recent gang initiation at McDonald Junior High, should have been only one or two day stories, but they dragged on, and one of them even went national. If handled professionally, the district would have been scratched by these stories but not scarred.
There is a reason why Katy ISD can’t get in front of bad news and reduce or eliminate the stain that it has on the school district. The district’s problems can be summed up in two words: “trust” and “relationships.” None of the real reporters in the Houston market trust or have a good relationship with Superintendent Alton Frailey or his communications team. Every news organization has been burned by them in one way or another.
The news media in Katy and Houston have been deceived, mocked and misrepresented during the years of Superintendent Frailey, and he’s doubled down on those tactics since the departure of former communications manager Steve Stanford, and the ascension of Chief Officer of Communications Dr. Andrea Grooms. The post-Stanford era has marked the complete destruction of the mutual professional respect between the media and the district.
Seasoned journalists respected Stanford, and in retrospect he did a good job of controlling Mr. Frailey. Until he left we had no idea that the superintendent was a train wreck. Even though Stanford represented an administration known to be secretive, he was still able to maintain good relations with journalists. Reporters understood that Stanford was frequently between a rock and a hard place, and he understood that journalists had a job to do. Basically we all liked the guy, even when frustrated by his answers. Stanford’s handling of a bomb scare at Seven Lakes High School was a one-man performance in how to handle the media during a time of crisis. He was fantastic.
The Houston media is unfamiliar with Dr. Grooms. She’s made no effort to cultivate relationships with the media. She needs to be out building trust, and saving Frailey from himself. The district does not need a person with a doctorate, it needs a person with experience in media relations. The district needs a person who understands that one negative story by a reporter should not dissolve a relationship. That same reporter will be back to cover positive stories too, if you know how to cultivate relationships.
I believe the relationship between the real news media and Katy ISD reached rock bottom Wednesday at the district’s disastrous news conference. It is now clear that this administration will never repair the damage it’s done in its relationship with the real journalists who cover Katy’s schools and actually ask challenging questions.
The district’s mocking, misrepresentations and deceptions were on full display for all to see in person, and live on the Internet, Wednesday. During the question and answer session, Mr. Frailey flippantly mocked a television reporter by implying that she was making up her facts. Publicly implying that a reporter is making up facts is the fastest way anyone can burn a bridge with a reporter. A reporter is nothing without credibility. Frailey did not have the discipline to remain calm, and she made him look like a fool with her follow-up question.
Andrea Watkins of Fox 26 asked about an allegation that the teacher in the center of the God controversy was aggressive toward her students. Frailey said he’d never heard that claim before Watkins brought it up. Watkins then pointed out that Frailey had heard the claim, and he was on video tape when he heard it, and that many people had seen the tape. Alton “Loose Cannon” Frailey was up to his old tricks, but this time the public was watching on a live stream and was allowed to see the real Frailey. The guy just can’t shoot straight. His default position is mockery, condescension and nonsense.
It wasn’t but a few weeks ago that the Frailey supporters made the same claim about Covering Katy. They claimed we also make up our facts. Then, 48 hours later, the crow was served up to those who concocted that allegation. These actions are from the same old tired playbook. If they don’t like the facts, they claim it’s all a big lie, but the public knows better.
Here is a nugget of information that no one else has revealed. The reporter who was unfairly targeted in Wednesday’s news conference was recently assigned to cover Katy permanently. I suspect it was her first taste of dealing with Katy ISD as the head of the newly established Fox 26 Katy bureau. Her new assignment began on Monday, and it took Frailey less than 72 hours to move the honeymoon directly into divorce court. His staff was aware of her new role, so Frailey should have known too. Still, he couldn’t resist lobbing a cheap shot, which she quickly dropped back in his lap. It was ugly, and when it was over you could not see the egg on Frailey’s face because the crow he was eating blocked the view.
Frailey and West Memorial Junior High School Principal Gina Cobb also struggled to answer questions about whether there was a grade assigned to the classroom activity dealing with God. Members of Team Frailey should have anticipated that question, but they don’t have the experience to handle major market reporters. Again, another disaster that could have been avoided with some forethought.
This entire mess comes on the heels of the recent gang initiation event at McDonald Junior High School. Since then the district has engaged in efforts to delay Freedom of Information Act requests for documents that must be made public. There is a much more professional way to handle these situations, but the Frailey administration has only three plays in its media relations playbook: mock, deceive and misrepresent.
Mr. Frailey’s attitude is that no reporter should ever post a story that he hasn’t personally approved. We all know that’s not how it works, but when his nose is out of joint he’s done some really foolish things, like sending emails to parents mocking reporters, which eventually land back in every newsroom in Houston and Katy.
One night, not long ago, I watched in stunned silence as Frailey proudly showed a PowerPoint presentation in a public meeting where he openly mocked reporters. He was mad because it was reported that the funding for a new stadium would be on the ballot for a second time, after being defeated the year before. The bond committee had been talking about the stadium for weeks, but somehow Frailey thought no one in the media would notice. Again, it was an issue that he and his team should have known would be reported and should have been ready with a response. Then again, his team probably had no idea he’d get mad over something so trivial. Only in Frailey’s world would this story be considered “sensationalizing.”
Many years ago Mr. Frailey announced that everyone should view Katy ISD as “the center of truth” for all things that have to do with public education in Katy. It was a foreshadowing of what was to come. We had a government official who was claiming his bureaucracy was the center of truth. How very Orwellian!
While attending Catholic school the nuns said the pope was infallible in church doctrine. Given that the head of the Roman Catholic Church and Katy ISD are the center of truth for their respective domains, perhaps we should change the superintendent’s title to Pope Frailey.
All humor aside, Mr. Frailey lacks discipline and his antics transcend any positives he brings to the role of superintendent. Someone on the school board must round up the votes and then step forward as the Sen. Howard Baker of our community and say, “Mr. Frailey, your time is up.”