Leave it to Keever

DISD's new leader has ambition and ideas--if anybody'd let him finish a meeting

The mayor wasn't eating.
This was noteworthy for several reasons, not the least of which is that our mayor, if nothing else, is a man of enormous appetites--for politics, for the spotlight, for animated conversation, for a rousing ball game on TV, for good food and drink.

So it was unusual, to put it mildly, that Mayor Ron Kirk had gone to a restaurant--especially one that serves tasty, calorically significant Santa Fe-style food--at 7 o'clock on a Wednesday evening and had not ordered dinner.

"Kirk didn't eat," Loma Luna restaurant manager Trey Harris told me with authority last week after checking with the chef. "He picked off another person's plate."

It's not particularly significant what he was picking at--in this case, the restaurant's signature dish of blue-corn cheese enchiladas (served flat, not rolled, and accompanied by a traditional, Santa Fe side dish of posole, or hominy stew.) What is enormously significant, though, is that the plate the enchiladas were sitting on belonged to John Scovell, chairman and CEO of Woodbine Development Corp., the well-known, Ray Hunt-owned, real-estate company that has very deep, consistently influential roots at Dallas City Hall.

Scovell and Kirk were not dining alone. They had come to Loma Luna with Dallas school board president Bill Keever. The three had agreed to meet there--on the ground floor of this shiny bank complex at the corner of Preston Road and Sherry Lane, a stone's throw from Scovell's house--to forge a peace. It was a peace between Kirk and Keever--at this moment two of the city's most high-profile, most strikingly at-odds elected officials.

For several weeks now, Keever had been taunting the mayor publicly--calling on him to take a strong stand against the handful of increasingly noisy and aggressive black activists who were incensed that yet another white man had acceded to the Dallas Independent School District board throne.

"I want Mr. Kirk's help...in alleviating the concerns of the African-American community," Keever said on May 19--shortly after being elected board president and just a few days after a small group led by the New Black Panthers had momentarily shut down his first board meeting.

Kirk replied--quite clearly--that he wasn't going to do that. "I ran for mayor of the city of Dallas, not the Dallas public-school board," Kirk was quoted saying.

But Keever persisted. He brazenly repeated his challenge over and over--throwing it out whenever a TV or newspaper reporter interviewed him about escalating racial tension, chanting it like a mantra during several radio appearances with KRLD's morning talk-show host Rick Roberts.

But Kirk wouldn't budge. He was so adamantly against becoming involved in anything controversial--anything that even smelled like a political land mine--that he wouldn't even return Keever's telephone calls.

Finally, Keever turned to someone he knew could help him--his No.1 political benefactor, John Scovell, who had been equally instrumental in getting Ron Kirk elected mayor. Unlike Keever, Scovell had absolutely no problem getting Kirk to return his phone calls--and he had absolutely no trouble getting Kirk finally to call Keever.

"John got Ron to return my phone calls," says Keever. "I really do appreciate John's role in this. He played a pretty major role in getting Ron to step up to the plate."

The initial Kirk-Keever conversations, conducted over Kirk's mayoral cellular phone, had been unpleasant for Keever. That's because, along with his enormous appetites, Kirk has a notoriously short temper, which results in his getting royally pissed off at people who disagree with him, and then letting them know that in no uncertain terms. But over time, thanks to the soothing balm of a political heavyweight with deep pockets like Scovell getting up in your face, Kirk had calmed considerably. It also didn't hurt that other city leaders, including some Kirk allies, were beginning to take up the Keever mantra in the wake of the New Black Panthers' threat to bear arms at the June 11 city-council meeting.

Tonight's dinner, though, was the crowning achievement of the Scovell efforts--a Dallas version of the Arab peace talks.

As the three men ordered frozen margaritas--with salt--and munched on chips and salsa, Kirk told Keever he was prepared to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Keever at a massive press conference the following afternoon at City Hall to decry these hoodlumesque tactics the New Black Panthers were employing to get everybody's attention. In return, Keever and his fellow board members would publicly commit to start working out their own stupid problems--beginning the process at a board retreat to be held later in the month.

Flushed with excitement at the Margarita Agreement with Kirk, Keever didn't know he still had more humble pie to eat, mainly in the form of the Keever Apology, wherein Keever stood up at the press conference and apologized for ordering the Dallas cops to remove the Panthers from Keever's second school board meeting, prompting the arrests of three New Panthers. It wasn't until Keever got to City Hall the following afternoon, just before the press conference, that he was handed a script and told he had to read it. Though he was allowed to rewrite some of his remarks, Kirk, Scovell, and Pettis Norman--a black Dallas businessman, former Dallas Cowboy, and chief hostage negotiator for the black activists down at DISD--instructed Keever that, if he took out the apology, Norman would pull all the blacks off the podium in the middle of Keever's remarks for the TV cameras and reporters to see. Nice touch.

The press conference was produced by Kirk's hired-gun public-relations guru, Carol Reed, who had proved her mayoral marketing brilliance long ago by staging a Coke-on-the-mountain-type assemblage of folk in the City Hall Flag Room on the day in January 1995 when Kirk formally announced his candidacy. All the bit players were being summoned downtown again for the bail-out-Keever press conference--a warm and fuzzy group to help Kirk get through the riskiest political move to date in his political career.

It was a fragile partnership, this Keever-Kirk axis, and one that could only be attributed to Scovell's delicate mediating and Keever's absolutely unwavering commitment to get City Hall's Mr. Stop-the-Blame-Game to come stop the biggest blame game this town has ever seen, no matter how long it took him or how it was finally pulled off.

"He had run on this issue of race relations, and I was over here getting my butt kicked on a daily basis, and the way I saw it, I had to call on the one person who had the power to help," Keever says. "I had to. What did I have to lose? I was dead."

But with an impossible mission accomplished, a man tries to recover his pride and dignity, which brings us back to the mayor's apparent lack of appetite that night.

It turned out that the meeting--which was surprisingly jovial in tone now that the deal had been cut--had gone on longer than anybody had anticipated, and it was obvious that Kirk wasn't going to get home to either his dinner or his NBA playoff game anytime soon. Which meant he was going to be hungry. Scovell, having more than 20 years experience in keeping mayors and city managers happy, graciously asked the waiter for an extra plate when his enchilada dinner arrived and promptly whacked off a portion of his own meal for the mayor's eating enjoyment.

Before handing the mayor his plate, though, Scovell gave Keever a look--a hint that Keever should throw a symbolic peace offering upon the plate of political sacrifice.

"John just kind of looked at me like I was expected to give up some food, too," Keever says. "And I said, 'No, this is mine--this is my dinner.'"

The Loma Luna dinner is a nearly perfect metaphor for why this city has intractable racial problems, and why we can never fix them.

First we have a bunch of nutty, completely unproductive black hoodlums dressed like they're in a bad Woody Allen movie running around town threatening the proverbial long, hot summer--never mind that this is Texas, where it's already 100 degrees in June--if we don't run the white man out of the public schools.

Then we have the city's first black mayor--a man who, despite his nearly empty public-service portfolio, was overwhelmingly voted into office because his No.1 promise was to stop all the insane racial bullshit. Seven months after the election, he began running as fast as he could away from the DISD race circus--and he's been running from potential controversy ever since. In fact, the only thing Kirk has shown he's willing to pound the table about is the prospect of a new area code for Dallas.

Then we have the DISD's new baby-faced board president, Keever. Here's a guy who clearly has more ambition than sense: Why else run for the city's biggest lose-lose job when the best school board president DISD has probably ever had was just beaten to a bloody pulp, vilified as a racist for demonstratively improving the quality of education?

Keever has not only spent the last month running around the city like a guy with his pant leg on fire, but he doesn't seem to grasp the fact that no matter what he says--and, surprisingly enough, he has plenty to say--no one will be able to focus on the message until he finds a way to get rid of the Nixonesque five-o'clock shadow that makes him look downright shiftless on the 10 o'clock news. (School officials are trying to cajole Keever into applying a bit o' pancake makeup for his official board-presidency photograph; so far he's not willing.)

Then, of course, there's the Dallas trademarked corporate knight in shining armor--the guy who invariably saves the day. This time it was John Scovell who came rushing in; last time, in the middle of the Townview magnet school controversy, it was Pettis Norman; sometimes it's been Schepps Dairy CEO Pete Schenkel or the late TI chairman Jerry Junkins. What in heaven's name would the eighth largest city in America do without a handful of well-connected, self-appointed powerbrokers who somehow find time in their busy schedules to step forward and pistol-whip our dumbass, ego-raging, completely incompetent public officials into submission?

The most bizarre part of it all, of course, is that if everybody would just put forth a little effort--answer the school board president's telephone calls; give the mayor a bite of the cheese enchilada--we might get something accomplished in this city.

The ingredients are all there.
No matter how many times the New Black Panthers--all five of them--call Bill Keever a devil and a racist and demand his resignation, the truth is he's a bright guy. An articulate guy. A guy who has said--and this is significant--that he only wants to be president for one year so he can continue the reform movement just a bit longer and implement some specific changes. And the changes he's talking about are good.

Keever wants zero-based budgeting implemented at DISD so the board can attempt to clear the decks on an annual basis and examine the grotesquely bloated administrative budget that Superintendent Chad Woolery keeps stuffing with patronage positions. Not a half-bad idea when you consider that since the racial shenanigans began seven months ago, Woolery, without any input whatsoever from the board, has attempted to appease various unhappy factions by creating three brand-new, top-level administrative positions: one for deposed Townview principal Ora Lee Watson, whose total compensation is $83,862; one for new deputy superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez, who makes $123,600; and one for new chief of staff Shirley Ison-Newsome, who will now make something above her current salary-plus-car-allowance of $92,877.

Ison-Newsome's new position, chief of staff, is particularly intriguing since absolutely no staff members report to her--not one employee. Woolery somehow believed that giving veteran DISD employee Ison-Newsome, who is African-American, such a high-ranking title would appease black activists like the New Panthers and John Wiley Price. Instead the activists say the "gopher" position is insulting to African Americans. So, once again, the joke's on the taxpayers since Ison-Newsome's old position, where she used to do something, has been filled by someone equally expensive.

Keever also wants to take the concept of accountability to the next level by directly linking teacher performance to kids' test scores--and lest anyone forget what kids we're talking about here, black and Hispanic kids now make up 89 percent of the school district's enrollment.

But Keever has other ideas. "I think we have to lay the foundation for another bond program," Keever says. "We're growing by 5,000 to 7,000 more students a year. And I know more about the bond programs than the average board member."

As chairman of the board's business committee last year, Keever is intensely aware that the district's student population growth is far outstripping the district's ability to pay for a decent education. "We haven't had a tax increase in four years," says Keever, who's gutsy enough to say he's thinking about one this year.

Keever is not the Antichrist. In fact, we don't really know what he is--save for an ambitious, yes, acerbic, politically starry-eyed, 35-year-old pup--because the Panthers have never given him a chance to conduct an entire meeting, let alone punch the green button on anything.

'Tis true that Bill Keever is not anyone's ideal choice to head the school board. The ideal school board president would have the intellectual depth of Sandy Kress; the experience and grasp of history of Yvonne Ewell; the patience and compassion of Kathleen Leos; and, yes, the scrappiness and guts of Bill Keever--who must be given enormous credit for yanking the grossly self-absorbed mayor of Dallas by his silk tie and making him finally step up to help his school district and his city.

Lucky for Dallas, Keever has two little girls in the public schools, which in case nobody's noticed, need all the middle-class students and all the pro bono parental help they can get. Keever's kids see that their daddy is being vilified in the press. They also have had cops living in their house for several weeks because he was getting death threats, threats based on the color of his skin, not his actions.

Perhaps someone should point up the fact that the three black DISD board members, for all their constant howling about exclusion, could not even get it together enough to nominate any one of themselves for the position of board president. Hollis Brashear wanted the position badly, but Kathlyn Gilliam not only wouldn't support him, she worked against him in his re-election campaign this spring. Without a unified front from all three blacks, Brashear didn't have a chance; and even if Yvonne Ewell had wanted it, Brashear certainly wasn't going to allow her the pleasure of a nomination since he couldn't have it.

It should also be pointed out that Keever took his girls, ages 7 and 8, up to Greenville recently to participate in the support rally--the worship service--led by Gov. George Bush. "I thought it was good for my children to see that," says Keever, who's been a Sunday-school teacher at the Lovers Lane United Methodist Church for the past seven years. "This church-burning thing is just horrendous. We're pretty close to our church, and if someone burned our church down, it would be pretty painful for our family."

Bill Keever is not perfect. He suffers from being graceless and overeager: The way he orders food from a nervous waitress during our lunch in a hotel restaurant is awfully brittle, let alone the way he handles a bunch of media-hungry hotheads looking for any excuse to crucify him. He's had a rough road so far in his presidency, and he knows it--he didn't need the mayor's script shoved down his throat to tell him that.

Keever has spent the past few weeks calling on a regular basis--often daily--a handful of people including Sandy Kress, John Scovell, and Keever's former pastor at Lovers Lane Methodist. He's been in high panic, wanting their advice at every turn, wanting to know how he looks on TV, wanting to know how his long-term political prospects look. The feedback can't be good.

Keever needs to slow down, take a big breath, and look inside his own head and heart for answers. It's Keever time--time for the boy to grow into the man. Maybe even share those enchiladas.

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