Bored to cheers

DISD board president Hollis Brashear is not an exciting guy. That's why I like him.

How's this for a novel idea, Dallas: A black school board president.
Thank you. It took me a long time to come up with that.
We're supposed to be way beyond racial hang-ups, I know. We're sophisticated folk, savvy enough to purge the N word from our vocabularies and subject ourselves to sackcloth and ashes and cultural sensitivity training.

How does that go? A man should be judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin?

A noble ideal, anyone would agree.
Of course, character hasn't exactly been the measure of men and women in recent years among DISD's leadership. One needn't look too deep down the list of villains and villainesses for proof. Just go as far as G for Gonzalez, Yvonne, our blues-singin', bed-embezzlin', alley-prowlin' onetime superintendent; and K for Kress, Sandy, our amoral former board president, who figured out how to rig board committees so that none had a black majority, then did perhaps the only thing politically that registers as sin to him--got caught.

(A confession: The Dallas Observer once called Kress the "minority students' best friend." Yikes.)

But here we are today. Hollis Brashear has been DISD board president for three months, and the sky hasn't fallen--teachers are still teaching, kids are still graduating, and Brashear is still black.

Granted, the teachers as a whole aren't teaching as effectively as we'd like, and Hispanic kids are still dropping out in droves. But you get the point: Brashear's tenure hasn't brought catastrophe.

Whatever it is that the board's old white-Hispanic majority--better known as the Slam-Dunk Gang--fought so hard to prevent hasn't happened. Ebonics hasn't replaced standard written English; baggy-butt hoodlums haven't taken over district headquarters; and Brashear hasn't treated his white and Hispanic colleagues on the board like...well, some of them once treated him.

What was it that everyone was so afraid of?
We have just emerged from an uproarious, wrenching three years of racial discord, in which three white board presidents in succession presided over a district in which only 11 percent of the student body is white.

That caused problems. Black protesters whooped and hollered at every white face in authority during board meetings, and while many of these protests were undoubtedly racist--silly spectacles manufactured by a small group of men and women with too much time on their hands--you had to kind of wonder after a while. Things just weren't working with white folks in the top elected seat; too much mistrust had built up over the years, too many bad memories had accumulated.

Add to that two board presidents--Sandy Kress and his successor, Bill Keever--who turned out to be losers in different ways, and maybe there's a time simply to acknowledge things aren't working, make a change, and refrain from assessing blame.

All of that has something to do with why Hollis Brashear, a six-year board veteran, emerged as the peace candidate for board president late last year. Brashear hadn't exactly dazzled us with vision and courage up until then. In fact, he seemed rather lost and forlorn at times, while the loudmouths ran amuck at board meetings, screaming, jeering, and making a mockery of the democratic process--which isn't to say that anyone else thrived in this environment.

But something strange or spiritual must have happened as soon as Brashear assumed the leadership role, because today he's a man transformed.

In his own, low-key way.

I am so sick of charisma.
Talk about an overrated trait. "Dr. G" had it in abundance, and look where it got us. It's evident now that she possessed charisma and little else. District officials speak freely these days about her inattention to detail, about her utter disdain for policies and process, particularly when money was involved.

Gonzalez moved so fast, though, that the school board to which she was, in theory, accountable never caught up with her until it was too late. "We had a superintendent going to the board and charging accounts and not saying anything about it, taking insurance checks and depositing them in the wrong accounts," says trustee John Dodd, who was elected in the midst of Gonzalez's short reign. "She did not have the proper respect for the board, but had a good enough relationship with some people on the board to ensure that no one said anything about it."

One thing emerged with certainty in conversations I had during the past few weeks with six of the nine board members: Brashear, Dodd, Yvonne Ewell, Lois Parrott, Ron Price, and Don Venable. All of the trustees learned some bruising lessons from getting sucked into the vortex of the "Human Tornado," as Gonzalez was called in some circles. Those lessons were so "gut-wrenching and emotionally devastating," as Dodd puts it, that I doubt these people will ever make the same mistakes again.

Crisis really has shaped this group of elected officials, and they're better for it. As they embark on a new superintendent search--one of the school board's most sacred functions, the only position for which it's authorized to make a hire--you can be assured we will not end up with another callow and callous young whippersnapper like Yvonne Gonzalez.

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