By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The political hush over the Ross Avenue headquarters of the Dallas Independent School District in the last week is no harbinger of peace. Things are quiet only because various business and political leaders are trying to make up their minds whether to do a bombing run.
The good thing, or the bad thing, is that nobody outside Ross Avenue seems to care now who gets hired as superintendent.
"The reality is, everybody is sitting it out," says state Rep. Domingo Garcia, who has been involved in talks about a state-sponsored takeover. "The business community is very discouraged and is just limiting itself to charity work."
Two weeks ago, everybody from the governor to the commissioner of education was railing against the Dallas school district. Tempers flared after the board announced it was unable to pick a new superintendent and would extend an already beleaguered search.
Gov. George W. Bush called on the Dallas business community to step in and fix it; state Rep. Steve Wolens urged a "hostile takeover"; Education Commissioner Mike Moses threatened to send a "monitor" to Dallas if the board didn't stop fighting.
Since then, the big political action has had little to do with the superintendent search and more to do with various plots, schemes, and suppositions about a takeover of the school district from outside. Even if they go nowhere, the ideas being floated are a telling index of the desperation:
Idea 2: Give the school district to Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who says he doesn't want it.
Idea 3: Create a new type of government entity similar to the county hospital district but under the city council, put the schools under it, and then give the new entity to businessman and former Dallas Housing Authority Chief Executive Officer Alphonso Jackson, who says he doesn't want it.
Idea 4: Give the district to Commissioner Moses, who apparently won't take it even if it's given to him.
Idea 5: Break up the district into three smaller districts, one mainly black, one mainly Hispanic, and the third more or less white. Critics of this plan say it has been tried before. It was called segregation.
Idea 6: Bring in a powerful military leader and ask him what to do.
Of the people mentioned as possible takeover czars who say they don't want the job, the one mentioned most often and therefore presumed by some to want it most is Luce, currently leading the effort to bring the 2012 Olympics to Dallas. Luce also happens to be the one viewed as least acceptable politically to the broad array of groups that would have to sign off on the deal.
"It would be extremely difficult right now to bring in a private individual like Mr. Luce," Garcia says. "The thinking is more toward a person from the military."
Russell Fish, an education activist who has been consulted by various groups and leaders interested in a takeover, says, "Luce seems to have a lot of heat on him right now because of the Olympics thing, which I guess some people are viewing as elitist."
Luce himself says he feels awkward about restating his lack of desire for a post that no one has offered him. "I would feel a little presumptuous in saying no to something that no one has discussed with me, but the answer is no," he says.
One school board member suggested the board might try to hire Luce if he doesn't take them over. "A Tom Luce is what I'm looking for," says DISD trustee Jose Plata. "The total mess on the business side and the focus we have to give it is just killing us."
That, presumably, would be the pitch.
Two board members, who asked that their names not be used because of the extreme sensitivity of the issue, confirmed rumors rampant among vendors in recent weeks that the district's UniSys Delta computer system is seriously amok and that bills are not being paid in a timely fashion. DISD is scrambling to find a computer contractor who can come in and straighten out the mess. A sense of impending doom has settled in while board members wait for this next public relations disaster to implode around them.
In this mood, some of the more far-out takeover ideas take on a certain Kevorkianesque appeal. State Rep. Tony Goolsby says the idea of breaking the district up into three smaller districts is attractive because it involves getting rid of the big one.
"Three districts of 50,000 or so students each would be very manageable, and it would be a chance to start fresh with new people," Goolsby says.
But state Rep. Garcia says he thinks one of the appeals of creating three new districts is that it might allow many of the old people to hang on to their jobs.
"There is some support for it in the black community, where it would be viewed as self-determination," Garcia says.
But Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who has been taking a larger role in behind-the-scenes DISD politics in recent months, says breaking up the district is an old idea that he has always opposed.
"The business community has been sending people to talk to me about this for a year, and I've never been for it," Price says. "For one thing, we know how they've been about the distribution and allocation of resources when it's all one district, so we have to assume that problem would get even worse if they divided it up."
One rumored reason for the urgency of a state takeover has been the alleged possibility of a U.S. Department of Education takeover when the bad news gets out about the computers and the money.
But Sally Cain, who is the regional representative for the U.S. secretary of education, says the federal government doesn't want it.
"First of all, federal funds typically represent only about 7 percent of a district's income," she says. "There might conceivably be a recision of funds under certain circumstances, but I can't imagine there would be any interest at all in taking it over."
As for the other ideas being floated, Cain says she thought there might be problems with some of them. "There is this thing called the Voting Rights Act," she says, "and I believe there might be a problem with that if you tried to just take over the district."
One idea Garcia is especially enamored of is giving the district to Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, because he doesn't want it. Garcia, who ran unsuccessfully against Kirk for mayor in 1995, says he thinks putting the schools under the mayor would force the mayor and the business community to devote energy and resources to them, whether they like it or not.
"There is no greater issue facing Dallas than the crisis at DISD," Garcia says. "The true drop-out or attrition rate is 57 percent. That means 57 percent of all the ninth-graders who started four years ago will not graduate this May. In my district, 72 percent will not graduate, and half of those who do will not be able to read at grade-level.
"What we are looking at in our children," he says, "is a silent implosion."
The view from inside Ross Avenue may be different. Computer problems or no, board member Kathleen Leos says things now are nowhere near as terrible as they have been. Leos recites a quick list of shorthand nightmares: "We've gone through insurance, [Dan] Peavy, Townview, Panthers in the board room, [Yvonne] Gonzalez, internal audit, FBI probe. At least we have passed the stage of living in denial, and now we know that we have problems."
State Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt, herself a former DISD board member, says she thinks the takeover talk is wrongheaded and comes from people who are mad because they didn't get their way in the recently aborted superintendent search. The board, she says, performed its duty wisely and well by refusing to get stampeded into a choice it would have been unable to support later.
"The DISD board did exactly the right thing by not selecting a superintendent by a one- or two-vote margin," Ehrhardt says. "In the meantime, we have a very competent superintendent who is running the schools appropriately."
Ehrhardt says she believes the business community and the Legislature should bow out of school district politics. "It is the school board that has to make these decisions, and it is their responsibility," she says. "The fact that they are not pleasing the Dallas business community or the legislators is just tough, because that's not their job."
That does leave the school board members with the challenge of recruiting a superintendent after having admitted publicly that they were unable to agree on any of their original candidates. Some education experts had predicted the board would have trouble filling the post originally because no one wanted the job, but now they are saying people will really not want it.
But Leos predicts there will be plenty of new candidates to choose from. "It's spring," she says, "and in spring things change.