The Insider

The Gold-Plated Mouthpiece

Here's more proof that HISD Superintendent Rod Paige is hell-bent on proving the school district's critics right.

After voters rejected a $300 million bond issue for school construction and repairs last spring, Paige convened a powwow of HISD trustees and administrators and downtown business types who apparently concluded that the district's problem was not the message it was selling, but its messenger. One of Paige's solutions was to use his discretionary funds to hire a new messenger, at least on a temporary basis. And the new messenger -- a 35-year-old Alabaman named Terry Abbott -- brings some interesting credentials for someone who'll be speaking for an inner-city, mostly minority school district.

Abbott is a onetime wire service reporter and press secretary for former Alabama governor Guy Hunt until Hunt was forced from office in 1993 following his conviction on a felony charge for misappropriating inaugural funds. Abbott joins HISD on an open-ended consulting contract valued at $110,000 annually -- a little better than the going rate for five beginning teachers. He moved into his district office last week and, as you might expect for someone so well-compensated, he's enthusiastic about his new assignment.

"My strategy for dealing with all the media is very simple," says Abbott. "Present facts straightforward. Don't try to hide anything or disguise anything. This is the public's business, and the public has a right to know."

For all you lowly-paid teachers out there wondering whether Abbott, who lacks a college degree, is worth his six-figure salary, the new flack says not to worry.

"My addition is not adding anything to the budget or the number of staff," he explains, demonstrating his skills as an accomplished professional spinmaster.

His role, Abbott adds, is "such an important part of what we're trying to do."

And you thought educating children was such an important part of what HISD is trying to do.

Paige issued a short statement announcing Abbott's hiring but didn't return a phone inquiry from The Insider concerning the terms of Abbott's contract, which was not competitively bid and did not require trustees' approval, according to board president Paula Arnold.

Arnold says the decision to bring Abbott aboard is a reaction to state Comptroller John Sharp's recent audit that repeatedly underlined the district's poor job in telling its story to the public.

But Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, suggests Abbott's contract is more reflective of what Sharp found wrong with the district.

"[Auditors] said cut the size of the PR department, not add a $110,000 a year consultant," she scoffs.

Fallon points out that veteran HISD teachers top out in the low $40,000s, "but we hire a non-degreed person to come in and do PR for $110,000, whose main experience appears to be covering up fraud and governmental indiscretion.

"Apparently the district must be anticipating something."
Abbott had a colorful career as Hunt's media man. The governor maintained a combative relationship with the press, and Abbott functioned as his pit bull, ripping Hunt's Democratic successor, Jim Folsom Jr., for allegedly ordering a search of Hunt's garbage (an accusation Folsom denied).

"They're treating us all like we're a bunch of common thieves," Abbott declared to USA Today.

He also had the job of defending Hunt's decision to fly the Confederate battle flag over the dome of the state capitol. After a local judge banned the display, Abbott said "any decision to remove the Confederate flag from atop the Alabama Capitol, the birthplace of the Confederacy, should be made on a statewide basis, not by a local judge."

And then there was the time a drug informant tried to frame Abbott by claiming the press secretary had met with her three times and tried to buy 11 pounds of cocaine. A district judge sentenced the informant to five years in prison for lying to the FBI about Abbott and ordered her to pay $5,000 to cover his legal costs.

After Hunt sank, Abbott peddled his services as a consultant to a string of Republican candidates. He was brought to Paige's attention by fellow Republican Rob Mosbacher, a member of the Greater Houston Partnership board and prospective mayoral candidate.

Mosbacher says Abbott came highly recommended from journalists who worked with him in Alabama.

"You talk to the New York Times reporter over there and the wire service guys -- he came through with flying colors as being the epitome of a straight shooter, conducting himself very honorably," says Mosbacher.

As for Paige's hiring of an outlander to tame the surly local media bestiary, Mosbacher says, "If you have a reputation of being trusted, and Terry did ... whether you've been here all your life or in Timbuktu doesn't matter."

Of course, the administration of the Timbuktu ISD might not be as intent on shooting itself in the foot as Abbott's new employer.

Two-Paper Town
One of the visionaries who attempted to revive the Post on the Internet last spring before getting swatted down by the Chronicle for infringing on its rights to the dead paper's name is still plugging away. The freshly dubbed Houston Daily News has an office and working phone, and management promises to deliver the first edition of the on-line publication on January 1. Dates for the launch of the cyberpaper have been set before and expired without product, but News president Paul Allen claims it's really gonna happen this time.

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