By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On a mid-February afternoon in 1995, the nine members of the Dallas Independent School District board were holding a work session, one of their regular informal gatherings to hash out the particulars of pending business.
Among other things that day, the board faced the question of establishing permanent committees--small groups of board members who would meet regularly to focus attention on specific troubles of the 142,000-student public school system, which is plagued by test scores ranking far below the national average.
Setting up committees might seem like an arcane question of bureaucratic structure. But for the three African-American board members, the proposal cut to the heart of the most vexing issue facing the district: the distribution of power.
The district was then, and remains, fractured along racial lines--its student body is virtually all black and Hispanic, but its governing board has always had a white majority. Black community leaders in Dallas have for years chafed at the perceived unwillingness of whites to share power.
Hollis Brashear, the African-American board vice president, was advocating committees as a way for minority board members to get some sort of grip on the levers of DISD governance. Increasing the voice of minority members would help balance the power of white board members, including then-board president Sandy Kress.
Kress, a corporate lawyer and former county Democratic Party chairman who had been elected two years earlier as a reformer, disliked the idea. He argued that committees would spawn too much micromanagement of the district's day-to-day affairs. DISD had abolished a similar committee system several years earlier, after the district found itself in trouble with the Texas Education Agency because board members meddled beyond their prescribed powers.
Brashear, an engineer who had been elected at the same time as Kress, and the two other black members were pressuring Kress, insisting that new committees were needed.
The black members thought they were getting closer to their goal that February day, when the topic of committees was due up at the work session.
But at the meeting, Brashear and others began to get suspicious.
A committee on committees--which Kress had reluctantly appointed to draw up proposals for a new system--was supposed to report to the full board that day. When the committee on committees met one week before, its four members had agreed on a seven-page plan calling for four committees concentrating on business, education, personnel, and community affairs. Kress would appoint the members. Part of the plan specified that the committees would meet on different days of the month, so that all board members would have the opportunity to drop in and monitor the proceedings.
But something had happened in the ensuing week. Suddenly, at the work session, board member Dan Peavy trotted out his own plan, under which the committees would all meet at the same time on the same day of each month.
Other board members regarded Peavy as perhaps Kress' biggest backer on the board, and like Kress, Peavy had initially opposed the committee system.
Suddenly, here was Peavy embracing the committee proposal, but suggesting it be done in a way that would effectively prevent board members from attending all committee meetings if they wished to do so.
Brashear knew something had happened, but he couldn't quite figure out what. "Mr. Peavy had a change following the [previous week's] meeting as it relates to the schedule, but he is [not] in favor of committees," Brashear told the board, according to minutes of the February meeting.
Rene Castilla, another board member at the time, also noticed something funny about Peavy's sudden change of plans. Castilla was one of the four committee on committees members who had cut the deal one week earlier. "Something had happened in the interim," Castilla recalls now. "Something had transpired."
The question of what "transpired" may now be referred to the U.S. Department of Justice for a possible criminal investigation into civil rights violations by Kress, Peavy, and the DISD board, the Dallas Observer has learned.
At the heart of the possible investigation are the notorious Peavy Tapes, surreptitious recordings made of telephone conversations involving Dan Peavy, board president Sandy Kress, and other school officials.
The tapes have already produced a firestorm in Dallas' political and media circles. Recorded by a neighbor of Peavy's who was involved in a dispute with the school board member, the tapes contain hours of conversations on myriad subjects ranging from board policy to Peavy's family business.
A snippet of one tape--which was mailed anonymously to school board members and read publicly at a board meeting--captured Peavy using salty language and racial slurs, and ultimately forced him to resign from the board.
Since the tapes' existence became known, political junkies and school board watchers have been gripped with speculation about what else they contain. Many expected the answers to be revealed when Peavy was tried late last year on federal bribery charges, but the tapes were never played in court. Peavy was acquitted of the charges.
The contents have remained secret amid questions about whether illegally intercepted conversations can be used by prosecutors or reported by journalists. (Similar questions arose recently involving House Speaker Newt Gingrich, after a Florida couple gave the House ethics committee a surreptitiously recorded tape of Gingrich discussing strategies to minimize the political fallout from his admitted ethics violations.)