'It's all a matter of power.'

When Sandy Kress was school board president, he and Dan Peavy held private discussions on how to limit the influence of black school board members. Their conversations were captured on the Peavy Tapes, which Kress has fought hard to keep secret. Now, U.S.

Kress insists, however, that he made no effort to keep proponents of the committee system--the African-Americans or "micromanagers," as Kress called them--separate from each other.

"The problem had nothing to do with excluding people, but [with] returning to a form of governance that had heaped scorn on the district," Kress says. But he adds there could have been an effort to try and make the committees tri-racial--Hispanic, black, and white--which would have separated the black members.

"In the middle of a hot debate, I do think it's helpful to see there were other concerns, even at the risk of being called a racist," Kress says.

Peavy confirms that he and Kress discussed ways "to avoid everybody attending all the [committee] meetings," but says race was not the reason.

"The blacks were attempting to reinstitute the committee structure as it had been," Peavy says. "Sandy was pretty vocal against it...It's all a matter of power. I understand the other side now."

Although the tapes remain secret, DISD documents also offer a record of what took place during the board's fight over the committees and the role of board president Kress.

A 46-year-old Dallas native, Barnett A. "Sandy" Kress would seem, from his family background, to be an unlikely candidate to wind up in the middle of a potential federal civil rights probe.

The boyish-faced Kress graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. His mother was a community activist who helped establish public health clinics, and his father raised funds to build a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Dallas community center bearing the black civil rights leader's name.

When he was first elected to the DISD board in 1992, Kress had already acquired political credentials that seemed overly ambitious for the parochial post. In 1989, he had stepped down as chairman of the Dallas County Democratic Party to run for the congressional seat held by John Bryant, who had made plans to resign. But Bryant changed his mind, leaving Kress in the lurch. Kress then led a city-wide school reform effort before joining the DISD board.

Upon joining the panel, Kress planned to make big changes and rattle a few cages. In September 1993, the year after he started, Kress told the Dallas Morning News, "I think one of the great problems in modern-day politics is people prize consensus too much. Everybody wants things to go down smoothly. Everybody wants to be happy. We want these schools radically changed, and yet we want harmony."

In his 1994 bid for the board presidency--and when he sought the office again the next year--Kress was opposed by the African-American board members. To black school board members and city activists, Kress represented another in a long succession of white male school board presidents in a district where minorities had long ago dominated student enrollments. A black member most recently held the board presidency in 1988.

The vast majority of the students in DISD, the nation's 10th largest school district, are either black (41 percent) or Hispanic (43 percent.)

Despite the racial composition of the student body, a white majority has sat for years on the DISD board. Hispanic members have historically voted with their white counterparts in a group that has been called the Slam Dunk Gang. Over the years, many white school board members have received campaign contributions from the same crowd of wealthy white Dallas businessmen, including real estate developer Trammell Crow, oilman Ray Hunt or his employees, and Austin Industries Chairman and Chief Executive Officer William Solomon.

White politicians dominate the politics of the DISD school board, but white parents, as a group, shun its schools. The perception that a white man should not preside over a school district with a majority of black and Hispanic students dogged Kress and, more recently, his anointed successor as president, Bill Keever.

A general feeling of exclusion might not be the only Kress legacy that spills over onto Keever. Kress says he talks to his successor "periodically" about school board business.

But Keever told an Observer reporter last year that the two men converse frequently. "There is not a day that goes by in this city that I don't talk to Sandy Kress," Keever said.

If Kress did participate in efforts to limit the participation of African-American members--and still has Keever's ear--the outcries of minority leaders that have filled Dallas news lately will start to carry far greater weight. The school district, as a recipient of federal funds and a contractor of the federal government, is bound by the nation's civil rights laws, which bar discriminatory practices on the basis of race.

"It was one of the five most bitter votes the whole time I was on the board," Sandy Kress recalled last week, talking about the DISD board's struggle in late 1994 and early 1995 to form committees.

An extensive review of DISD documents, along with interviews with others who served on the DISD board at that time, shows that it was Kress who was largely responsible for making the process contentious and slow.

Kress says he resisted the committee concept at first because he believed it would create unequal access for board members. School board members with the most time available to attend committee meetings could end up with undue influence, Kress says. Kress conceded that two African-American members--Yvonne Ewell and Kathlyn Gilliam--happened to be the ones he feared would emerge with the most influence.

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