Kress and the merry morons

Dallas' political rabble takes after minority students' best friend

All the racial stuff happened while I was on maternity leave. And I don't know what disturbed me more--the acquittal of O.J. Simpson or the trashing of Sandy Kress.

I was squeezing a tomato in a Tom Thumb when the O.J. verdict came in. I'd run in to get something for dinner, and though I'd been determined to get back out to my car before the verdict, I didn't make it. Instead, I watched the verdict on a television in the video-rental section. I found the sight of O.J.'s happy little face and the joyous cheers of the African-American store employees crowded around the TV with me equally troubling.

Call me a cynic, but I spent enough quality time at the Walker Railey trial in San Antonio to be sick of murderous husbands hiding behind expensive lawyers who know how to pummel bumbling cops and prosecutors.

"It was a great day for African-Americans," one of the dismissed jurors said on "Nightline" shortly after the verdict.

I don't think so.
Nor do I think it was a great day for African-Americans one week later in Dallas when a handful of high-profile blacks took after white Dallas Independent School District school board president Sandy Kress.

In both cases, I saw blacks making important judgments based primarily on skin color.

Often disregarding the facts, they assumed that because O.J. was black, he was innocent--a victim of a racist plot. Likewise, they assumed that because Sandy Kress was white, he was evil--and should be drummed off the Dallas school board.

Whites, of course, have been making such color-based judgments for centuries. Far too many still do.

It's called racism.
That's what makes the Simpson and Kress controversies so troubling. To my mind, both offer evidence of the very racial problems America--and Dallas--sorely need to overcome.

One afternoon last week, Sandy Kress sat behind the desk in his law office, 40 floors above the streets of downtown Dallas, and spoke to me with enormous candor and introspection about what the hell happened to him last month, or, for that matter, what's been happening to him on and off for the past two years.

That's how long he's been president of the DISD board of trustees. That's how long he's been in hand-to-hand combat with teachers, principals, administrators, parents, politicians, business folks, and fellow board members. That's what happens to people who seek to dismantle a stale, long-suffering school system and essentially start over.

"I really believe this--if you're going to make things change, you're going to be punished," Kress says. "And this is not Sandy Kress, talking like a graduate of political science 101; this is Sandy Kress who has lived this."

Kress is actually smiling. He is not bitter. He is not angry. In fact, he is getting a little tired of friends coming up to him and telling him how sorry they feel for him because he's been under so much fire recently.

Specifically, the night of October 10.
That was the evening the public had what some might describe as a come-to-Jesus meeting with the school board over the Dan Peavy tapes--those illuminating pearls of worldly wisdom that really brought us together after the O.J. verdict.

It's hard to imagine anybody--let alone a person with responsibility for 150,000 school children--saying the things that Peavy said in a series of conversations that the FBI has determined were tape recorded from his home phones. The minute those comments were revealed, Peavy clearly had to go and he did--though he took his sweet time doing it, apparently bewildered at all the commotion over his racist musings.

One reason Peavy may have hesitated is because lots of people who knew him, including fellow school board members, knew he was a crude, rude, filthy-mouthed asshole. Not to mention a backwoods yahoo--as anyone who ever went to his office or visited him at his Peavy Road home instantly knew.

You see, Peavy had a penchant for collecting "darkie" statues, as they were called back in the Old South that Peavy grew up in and apparently misses a whole lot.

Any high-ranking school official can tell you about all the little "Sambo" figurines Peavy kept on his desk at his office. One, just to give you an idea, was a little black boy perched on the edge of an inkwell. His neighbors can tell you about the statue he kept in the front yard of his home for several decades--the one that, upon election to the school board in 1988, he was finally shamed into moving. To the side of the yard.

"This was a two-foot thing--a darkie crouched down in a servant's position, holding out a bucket," says Daisy Joe, mother of two grown children, wife of a retired janitorial service company owner, and longtime resident of Peavy's neighborhood. "When we moved there 24 years ago, we were the first blacks in the neighborhood. When I saw that statue, I inquired as to who lived there, and I was very offended. I'd pass by it and want to throw a brick at it."

But she didn't, and the statue stayed. And stayed. And stayed. When Peavy got on the school board, Joe and some of her neighbors confronted him at PTA meetings about his little lawn ornament "to appeal to his sense of decency," she says. "He had none."

So Joe called school board member Kathlyn Gilliam. Joe's husband Arthur had been Gilliam's campaign manager when Gilliam first ran for the school board in 1974. "I said, `Look, I want you to be aware of something because you're going to have problems with this man on the school board,'" Joe says. "She seemed interested, but it was like a sense of bewilderment. Like she really couldn't do anything about it.

"She knew about Peavy," says Joe, who is the director of an organization her husband founded in 1969 called Black Citizens for Justice, Law and Order. "So did Yvonne Ewell. So did Thomas Jones," Joe says, referring to other black board members. "Jones even tried to get me to run against Peavy. They all knew. They just chose to close their eyes all these years and go along."

Gilliam says she doesn't remember whether Joe or somebody else told her about the lawn ornament-- "I'd heard he had some statues in his yard," she told me last week, "but I never went around to look at them."

"Everyone knew what Peavy was like," says Ewell, who actually saw the lawn statue once. "He didn't use the N-word in front of us--we didn't let him do that. But everyone who attended a board meeting knew what he was, including the media." The tapes, in short, just introduced Peavy to the rest of the world.

But Peavy's resignation wasn't enough for everybody. Some people wanted all the board members who were aware that Peavy was a racist to resign too--and they said as much at the October 10 board meeting. Presumably that group included Gilliam and Ewell, right? Well, no. Only white board members were being asked to resign--most pointedly, Sandy Kress.

And the folks that wanted Kress' head minced no words about it that night.
Marvin Crenshaw, well-known chronic Dallas City Council candidate, said at the microphone: "My position is this--is that when everybody, the next board meeting, if the board president has not stepped down, then there can be no peace at the school board meeting."

Roy Williams, Crenshaw's running buddy, spoke too, of course. "Mr. President, I'm amazed that you're supposed to be a friend of the African-American community. You sat on your hands as this went on. But it's not surprising to me because I knew who you were, you know. I've known all along who you were, you know...You're not a friend of the black community. You're not a friend of the humanity, man."

Former councilwoman Diane Ragsdale also came out of political mothballs for this one. "Let me make a few comments regarding my concern regarding the president of the board because I think that it's very important certainly that you serve as an example, and you failed to do that."

Even Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb joined in. Specifically, he told Kress: "Now, if you want to have some harmony and peace and education, please step aside, sir."

Sitting at home that night, flipping from one news station to another, I recall being absolutely flabbergasted at what I was watching.

For one thing, the noise was coming from the usual bomb-throwers--the folks who always show up for their piece of TV time when an explosive issue rocks the city--but are completely absent when the hard, thankless, low-profile work of, say, building better schools is taking place. They're too busy to do such mundane work--too busy looking for the next public hearing or news conference.

For another thing, I was tired of the local media offering up, as usual, these unfiltered, histrionic slices of "Life in Dallas--The Racial Hellhole." Ragsdale & Co. know darn well that whoever says the most asinine, off-the-wall thing when the reporters are around will get the most TV and radio airtime and the most inches in the The Dallas Morning News. True to form, Roy Williams' over-the-top performance on October 10 (I only gave you a slice of it) made him the media star of the moment.

When is the Dallas media going to stop making heroes out of these fringe players whose major agenda consists of inflating their own egos? What has Roy Williams done lately for blacks in this city except get thrown off the Dallas Plan Commission? What has Marvin Crenshaw done besides try and beat up Dallas Councilman Bob Stimson at a public meeting? What has Ragsdale done, period?

But there was a bigger issue here. Kress simply hadn't done anything wrong. I mean, everybody who worked with Peavy down at DISD, Kress included, knew what Peavy was like, but there was nothing you could actually stick under his nose and threaten him with--not even tasteless lawn ornaments, right, Ms. Gilliam?

What galls me most about what I saw on TV that night was that blacks were calling for the head of a white man who has spent the past five years of his life focused on one thing: raising the quality of education for black and brown kids.

While most people in this town spend a few weeks or months-- at the most--on a good cause, Kress has spent the length of his marriage on this mission. He was married in January 1990. The school board appointed him six months later to chair a citizens panel, the Commission for Educational Excellence, to come up with a blueprint for improving Dallas' public schools. He did just that. Then he kept going--running for the school board a year later in hope of implementing the changes he was recommending.

In the process, Kress, an attorney, has watched his personal income slide by some 60 percent because he was spending so much more time on his unpaid DISD work than on his law practice.

Think about it. Kress doesn't have a child in the school system. (Kress has one child, and he's not even two yet.) He isn't trying to get to the Oval Office. (Though he once led the county's Democratic Party and intended to run for the U.S. Congress, his labors on the school board have turned him off to politics for the foreseeable future.) And he isn't a masochist.

To the contrary, what happened to him several weeks ago not only stunned him, it pained him. "The two worst nights of my life--next to my father's death--were, ironically, the night I was first elected president and the night a few weeks ago," Kress says.

It's ironic because on the night he was sworn in as board president, he was confronted by the same band of merry morons, who accused him--before he'd even tried to accomplish something--of being a racist, honky enemy of black people everywhere.

His crime? Beating out black school board member Hollis Brashear for the president's post. His punishment? When Kress rose to make his acceptance speech, Ragsdale, Crenshaw, and others shouted him down, hurling racial epithets at him, and making it impossible for him to speak.

"To have my mother and my wife and my best friends in the audience on one of the proudest days of my life..." Kress says, his voice trailing off. "I'd been working on these school reforms as a citizen, and as a board member, and then as vice president, day in and day out. And I get elected president of the board, and you have about five minutes to say some things--issue some challenges--and you can't speak. You have the choice of having policemen take people out of the room so you can speak, or simply not speaking. It was a bad night."

What's most unfair about the trashing of Sandy Kress is that he's done a wonderful job--quite frankly, he's done for minority kids what no minority trustee has done.

Not even Ewell, one of his staunchest opponents on the board, can deny him his due. "I think he's done some good things," Ewell says. "He has lifted the idea of education to a very high level."

And what has he done wrong? "I think he's overly sensitive to negative reports in the media," Ewell says. "And I've been very concerned about all the hype--giving teachers money and fancy luncheons. Our teachers make good money already."

That's not exactly what you'd call a serious list of grievances. No, the proof is in the track record, and that's virtually unassailable. "I have said, 'judge me by the results,'" Kress says. "Judge me. Judge [Superintendent] Chad Woolery. Judge us by the progress we've made for kids."

And, by God, there is progress. There are incentives in place--money and promotions--for teachers and principals who improve their students' performance. There's been a districtwide housecleaning--an unprecedented number of bad teachers, principals, and administrators removed from their jobs. Dropout rates are lower. Test scores are much better--both in state-administered tests, and more significantly, in the national Iowa Test of Basic Skills. This year's Iowa test scores were the district's best in 20 years--and "within shouting distance," as Kress puts it, of the national norms. That's pretty impressive, considering that most school districts in this country are white, suburban, and middle class--while DISD is 86 percent minority and 73 percent poor. "Our district could get our youngsters to be above the national norm by the year 2000," Kress says. "In the late `80s, it had appeared we had peaked. Now it appears we can go to much higher levels. It's very exciting."

Exciting? Come on. Does any fortysomething, successful Anglo male in this city actually give a damn about how pimply black and Hispanic kids do on their reading and math tests? "I live and die by the test results," Kress says. "I await them anxiously. I'm full of trepidation. It's kind of like the big law school exam. I'm the most nervous person I know. Can the kids read and write and think effectively, yes or no? And are they doing it better than last year? That's all I care about."

So let's get rid of him. Yeah. Throw the bum out. As Roy Williams, local sage, says: "You're not a friend of the black community. You're not a friend of the humanity."

Unfortunately, Williams and his friends may just get what they want. Smart men with better things to do don't stick around for more abuse forever. Besides, Kress says he's accomplished about 80 percent of what he'd wanted to do. That doesn't mean there isn't a lot more to be done, but Kress just isn't saying whether he's going to be the one to do it.

"We really do have a chance to become a first-class urban school system," Kress says, "and it wouldn't take a lot to get there. Just a modicum of racial understanding. Just a modicum of business leadership. Just a modicum of community commitment. Just a modicum of responsibility on the part of the media.

"And I don't mean white-washing the negative stories. I mean recognizing what the best negative stories are--why we can't get good people to run for the school board; why the business community won't get involved with these schools; why this city won't make the public schools its No. 1 priority."

What Sandy Kress doesn't seem to understand is that this city usually gets what it deserves. Which is why you can be sure he won't run for the school board again. And when he's gone, we'll wish he were still there--and maybe, just maybe, the noisy crowd who drove him off will miss him too.

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