Pay-for-play - Questioning BISD’s Top 10 rating

The mystery into how the Beaumont Independent School District could have been rated as one of the best in the nation is a little closer to being solved – and it’s about money and false representation.

The Examiner has confirmed Business Review USA, which featured BISD as one of the supposed “Top School Districts,” also created a fictitious foreword attributed to the National Education Association when it did not have permission to use the association’s name, logo or the name of its senior policy analyst in higher education, Mark Smith.In reference to the foreword in the online digital publication, NEA senior press officer Sara Robertson said she would look into it and wanted to see a copy of the file. Once she had reviewed it, she stated in an e-mail, “Our marketing person doesn’t recognize it and the logo used is pulled from our Web site — not the correct one used for ads. I’m trying to reach Mark but he covers only higher-ed and would unlikely comment on a K-12 school.”

When asked about the foreword and the comments from Robertson, Glen White, founder and CEO for Business Review USA’s parent company, Carlsbad, Calif.-based White Digital Media Group, said he had an e-mail from Smith telling him to use the his photo, bio and the logo from the NEA Web site for the publication.

“I hope you don’t publish that because, OK, the fact is, OK, that could well be very, unless you spoke to Mark Smith, because, well, you can publish anything you like and I am sure you will,” White said. “But the fact is we will have gone to the NEA. OK, and again I will have to speak to my researchers.”

After two calls from White explaining his company’s position, the following e-mail exchange took place between Robertson and The Examiner’s managing editor.Robertson: “I’m sorry if this is too late but this is NOT our Mark Smith, but someone using his name and affiliation w NEA.”

Examiner: “Really. Okay. Because I just spoke with the head of Business Review USA and he said he had an e-mail from Mark Smith telling him to pull his photo, profile and logo from the Web site. Am I correct in saying that your organization did not authorize this ad and it is not affiliated with Mark Smith, etc?”Examiner: “Sorry, it is called Business Review USA.”

Robertson: “That is correct. There is a man, Sam Huster (Hustler), that tried to contract with Mark on some sort of ad campaign. Mark declined and has asked Sam ‘not to use my name, and confirm that I never contracted with him.’ Our lawyers are involved.”

Hustler is listed on the corporate Web site as the executive director of editorial US Energy – another company owned by WDM.

As for WDM, it is an online-only magazine publishing company that writes what are essentially advertorials on businesses, individuals and other entities.

The initial review of Business Review USA revealed the company doesn’t really publish a magazine as BISD board president Woodrow Reece proclaimed during district convocation ceremonies Monday. Instead, they build PDFs in a magazine format on their Web site. And Business Review USA is just one of many assumed names used by WDM.

In fact, Reece took it one step further and said new information he received actually ranked BISD as the No. 1 district in the nation.

It appears from researching its business model and speaking with White that WDM will feature or review just about any business on its respective aliases’ Web sites. If someone runs a marketing company, they might be featured in Digital Media Marketing. If a company executive wanted to improve his credibility, perhaps WDM would publish a story about that person in Exec Digital. The same holds true for manufacturers featured in Manufacturing Digital, or construction companies written about in Construction Digital. The same would likely be true for Energy Digital, Food & Drink Digital, Supply Chain Digital, Healthcare Digital, Retail Digital, Stockmarket Digital, Business Review Canada, Business Review Australia, Business Review Europe, Business Review India, African Business Review, Latino Business Review and Technology Business Review.

So, what’s the price? A vendor list.

While it is unclear at this time whether BISD actually used taxpayer money to have its name on the list of supposed best school districts, its vendors definitely footed the bill. Calls to some of those vendors advertising adjacent to the BISD article, including Favre Public Adjusters in Mississippi and Manning’s Supply in Beaumont, were not returned. But SETEX Construction, which has been paid at least $800,000 this year for its work on BISD bond projects, did return a call. The company’s president, James Shell, said he was contacted by White Digital Media Group about advertising in a digital publication that would publish a bio on the district but did not state anything about the criteria used. He said the support he showed was no different than sponsorships or ads he buys for other public entities like Lamar University.

“We were contacted by that entity,” Shell said. “They contacted me in seeing if we had an interest in doing advertising. We do that for Lamar University, LIT and Lamar Port Arthur. It is nothing out of the ordinary.

“It was presented to me as an online publication. They sent me an invitation, so to speak, from the publisher there and we chose to do the minimum that was available at the time. I believe it was $2,500.”

The Examiner filed a public information request seeking all e-mails, documents and other materials exchanged between WDM and any representative of the school district, but the district has yet to provide the information.

BISD’s assistant spokesperson Craig Eichhorn said he was intrigued by the information regarding the NEA foreword.

“It is something that I will have to look into further and until I do I don’t feel comfortable making any additional comments,” he said. “As for your open records request, we will try to provide that as soon as possible.”

BISD’s director of communications, Jessie Haynes, previously told The Beaumont Enterprise the only trade-off for the district being listed in the publication was answering the reporter’s questions.

“The trade, they asked questions. I gave them answers and copies of reports and information they requested just like any other reporter gets. BISD has garnered lots of state and national recognition over the years and this same small but loud contingent complains … I accept that for the small minority that continues to spew untruths about BISD will never change their feelings,” the Beaumont Enterprise quoted Haynes in its Friday, Aug. 12, edition.

Eichhorn declined to discuss whether BISD had provided WDM with its vendor list, even after being told the newspaper had already confirmed it had done so.

“That is also my understanding,” said BISD trustee Mike Neil. “As for the NEA part, I did not know that. I can only assume they were making it look like it was something from the NEA. So White Media didn’t have permission to use that logo? That just makes it even more suspicious to me, with ‘more’ being the key word. That really defines what White Digital Media Group is. You can put as many logos on your Web site as you want, but that doesn’t make you legitimate.

“Do you realize the press release (Haynes) sent out completely misquoted what was in that article? It never said that it was the Top 10 but that is the way she sent it out. BISD had to purposefully misquote that by twisting those words around to make it what they wanted the publication to be about. That really frustrates me. I am very concerned the district has rearranged the wording to say what they always wanted to say, that they were the Top 10 in the country. Not one of the other school districts has promoted themselves as being the Top 10 in the country. In fact, only one has even mentioned it on their Web sites. I don’t think we can let the district go around promoting itself as something it is not. You are lying to yourself, you are lying to the teachers but most of all you are lying to the kids, and that doesn’t sit well with me.”

In her press release proclaiming the news, Haynes wrote, “Dr. Carrol A. Thomas, superintendent of schools for the Beaumont Independent School District, today announced that the region’s largest school district with nearly 20,000 students and largest employer with approximately 3,000 employees has been named among the nation’s top 10 school districts by the Business Review USA. The annual list is compiled in conjunction with the National Education Association and other educational interests, according to Sam Hustler, producer of the article, which features BISD first in its list of the nation’s top schools.”

A comment from Haynes press release claimed Business Review USA used extensive research to determine BISD’s ranking.

“We have selected the nation’s top 10 school districts by analyzing not only academic prowess, but getting under the skin of what it takes to run a successful district in the current economic climate,” Haynes’ release quotes Hustler as saying. “BISD and nine other districts from across the country are featured in the August 2011 digital edition of the magazine. Only one other district from Texas was listed by Business Review USA. Others districts listed hail from New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Washington, Colorado and Pennsylvania.”

When asked if his company requested BISD provide a copy of its vendor list to solicit advertising from companies that it does business with, White confirmed it had.“Absolutely,” he said. “That is just one of our models.”

This “pay-for-play” scenario is the subject of a number of complaints on Internet sites, including www.ripoffreport.com, www.scamchecker.com and www.whocallsme.com that contain third-party posts that decry WDM as being less than legitimate – a suggestion White bristled at. One of the posts even claimed WDM took information from other Web sites and used it in its publications without permission.

“I hope you are not going to print the allegations that the company is a fraud because we have taken serious legal action against these overseas scam Web sites,” he said. “We have yet to find a single posting that was actually posted on these Web sites that was other than a competitor and was actually a real customer. I hope you also do your research because they are all under fairly serious federal investigations. There are a number of complaints and warrants against these organizations.

“I just hope you don’t publish anything that is libelous against us because we have been fighting on this since last November.”

White followed up that statement with this, “I am just ringing you because I am concerned with the way you are going to position the article against my company and I am saying, you know, we will go to the greatest lengths to protect our reputation as we have done already.”

But White’s tone changed somewhat when he called back later and admitted his people could have done a better job at backgrounding BISD.

“What I will say is that perhaps our journalists should have taken a little bit more time to look into more of the background position before they put the fact in that this was selected as 10 of the nation’s top school districts,” White said. “I didn’t say the 10, just 10 of the nation’s (best), OK. So, I accept that point. So, there you go. That being said, obviously when we read about Beaumont in another magazine, which is called Education Executive, and at that point our researchers reached out to Dr. Carrol Thomas and Jessie Haynes, who is the communications manager or communications person. And they were obviously very keen, probably because of the adverse publicity they had been receiving, to tell what they believed was their story. Now, all I can say is what we reported as a story is from telephone interviews that were done with Dr. Carrol Thomas. He supplied a video. We are under the impression he is a pretty well-regarded leader of what he does within the school district.

“We asked him if he wanted to do a story about the Beaumont Independent School District. He said he wanted to, hence why we put the profile together.”White said Haynes thought the article in Business Review USA would be a chance to “publicize all the good things they do.”

“Did we make a fundamental mistake by quoting them as the Top 10,” White asked. “One of my magazines just won a national award. We’ve got 25 journalists, but we will take it on the chin. You’ll write what you write, OK. We dispute that you use Rip-Off Report just because you are using a very un-credible source but if you do, you do.”

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