No respect

DISD trustee Se-Gwen Tyler explains why she cast her controversial vote for an Anglo board president

Without a doubt, the Dallas school board is the most scorned body of elected officials in this city. In the course of a week, one could scarcely find a person who had anything good to say about it.

A few sample sound bites: "The most pathetic, incompetent group of people I've ever seen." "Not a natural-born leader in the entire group." "A ship of fools." And those were some of the nicer comments.

On this most maligned governmental body, the most maligned member of late is 40-year-old DISD graduate Se-Gwen Tyler. Until recently, Tyler, an African-American freshman trustee, had been content to sit back and learn from her more experienced colleagues. But she broke out of the listen-and-learn stage in a big way June 2 when she cast the deciding vote to elect an Anglo, Roxan Staff, as board president.

The move shocked Tyler's African-American colleagues on the board, Ron Price and Hollis Brashear, who had assumed she would support Brashear. It was Brashear who had led the board for nearly two turbulent years, culminating in its recent unanimous choice of a new superintendent.

Tyler's bold vote took on a new spin when a bitter Brashear appeared on KRLD-AM and commented that Tyler's vote was motivated by her own ambitions and outstanding loans from the Staff family during Tyler's hotly contested race last year for the District 5 trustee seat.

Staff and her husband, Randy, own North Dallas' American Bank, which financed a $6,000 loan to Tyler. Randy Staff loaned an additional $2,400 to Tyler at no interest, and the Staffs also made a $1,000 contribution to Tyler's campaign.

Brashear's implication was clear: He believes Tyler's vote was political payback. Not only that, he claims she lied to him in the weeks leading up to the election for board president, vowing to support him.

These days, Tyler is answering many questions about her controversial vote. Was she a sell-out to Anglo interests, or did her break from the ranks of African-American board members signal a courageous move away from racial politics? Whatever the case, Tyler's integrity is being scrutinized under a light so hot it just might consume her.

And it turns out her motives for showing her back to Brashear may not be nearly as tidy as Staff and her allies on the board would have you believe.

Tyler spoke at length to the Dallas Observer last week about her pivotal vote, and her every answer had something to do with respect. Aretha Franklin couldn't have provided a more insistent refrain.

Tyler, it seems, didn't feel like she had received much of it -- respect, that is -- from Brashear and Ron Price. And her vote against Brashear had something to do with that.

But there's been precious little respect all around for DISD board members, and Tyler in particular. Some folks will tell you plainly that Se-Gwen Tyler is not supposed to be on this board. "She's a nice lady, but this is all about five miles over her head," says Russell Fish, a DISD activist. Others are much harsher in their criticism.

Tyler won her trustee position last August after her opponent, Richard Evans, supported by many in black Dallas' political establishment, turned out to be anything but school board material. He claimed to have a Ph.d., but couldn't even produce a G.E.D. Many people publicly proclaimed their support for Tyler simply because she possessed a high school diploma and, more important, appeared to be honest -- at least in contrast to Evans.

Though Tyler beat Evans soundly in a runoff, many were left with the impression that she possessed only the scantiest of résumés, with no college study and no expertise in business or education.

Tyler wants to set the record straight. Her DISD bio says she attended All State Business College in Dallas, which has since shut down, and put her skills to use keeping the books for the Peaceful Rest Missionary Baptist Association, an organization of about 20 churches. She is also executive assistant at Arlington Park Baptist Church, and says she works part-time for a nurse's association caring for an ailing senior citizen. She juggles these three jobs because they allow her to set her own schedule. "They don't pay much, but they keep money in my pocket and food on my table," she says.

Every little bit helps her and her parents. Tyler, who is single, lives at home, where she cares for her father, a stroke victim, at least four hours each day.

In the realm of politics, Tyler may be a neophyte, but she's savvy enough to know she has something to prove to the public. She orchestrated her interview with the Observer so a reporter would catch her in action at a meeting involving PTA representatives and the principal of Jefferson Davis Elementary School. The group was discussing a campaign to change the school's name to Barbara Jordan Elementary.

"You know, I'm going to push for this," Tyler said to Jon Dahlander, head of DISD communications, who was present to trouble-shoot.

He nodded his head. "I know, Se-Gwen."

For a moment, she preached about how insulting it is to have the name of the Confederacy's president on a school attended mostly by minority children. Four heads nodded in agreement.

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