One honest man

How come the Dallas schools can't find him?

Listen to this: It is a semi-serious theory I have heard a few times in the last week from people familiar with Dallas school board politics. Call it the theory of "racial math."

This theory holds that the Dallas school board picked Chad Woolery, a white man, to be superintendent in 1993, replacing a black superintendent, because the board figured a white guy would represent a defeat for both blacks and Hispanics on the board--or at least a draw--and therefore he would be able to keep the blacks and the Hispanics from each other's throats. But it didn't work, because then the blacks and the Hispanics ganged up on the whites. (Didn't see that one coming, I guess.)

In 1997, the whites joined up with the Hispanics to pick Yvonne Gonzalez as superintendent, according to this theory, because both sides thought she would have what it takes to beat up on the blacks. But that didn't work, either, because before Gonzalez could do anything she had to go to the pokey. (Can anyone guess the moral yet?)

Waldemar Rojas was the perfect racial math consensus candidate, according to the theory. He was chosen last year because, as a black Puerto Rican yankee who talks like a made man in the Mafia, he could keep everybody in line. This was the one racial formula that looked for a while as if it might actually work.

Tragically, however, as soon as the school board was finally forced to get in line, it had a nervous breakdown.

I hear this stuff. It's funny for a while. Then I want to go shoot myself. This kind of talk is depressing in the end, because we all fear it may contain more than a grain of truth.

Now let's get serious. No jokes. What on earth could the people of Dallas do right about the schools for a change? What would it take?

In a week of taking this question to a number of thoughtful people, I learned two things that surprised me and actually gave me the smallest tingle of hope: There is a diffuse community of citizens out there, many of whom don't even know yet that the others exist, who are all intensely interested in this very question, and there is a strong shared intuition that the moment is ripe.

Ah, don't say it! I am not talking about that bad statement we all learned never to say several years ago: "Well, at least we know things at Dallas school headquarters are so bad now, they can't possibly get any worse."

Don't ever say that again.

What the people I talked to seemed to feel, instead, was that the pent-up frustration and cynicism and apathy over the school system have reached a point in the city where something has to pop.

"It is a movement waiting to happen," said John Fullinwider, a longtime community activist and organizer who now teaches in the Dallas Independent School District.

Even though there is a division of opinion about the performance of the school board, nobody seems to think the board can be the source of change that we need in Dallas now. It has to come from outside normal formal institutional politics.

State Rep. Domingo Garcia, a former Dallas City Council member and an outspoken advocate of education reform, said, "There will have to be a broad-based citizen reform movement that can coalesce the major players, put together a simple list of three or four or five objectives, and then go to the school board."

State Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt, who is a former school board member, goes further: She believes the community must take responsibility for the change, because the community often has been responsible for the mess.

"There have been a lot of failures, including things the community has done that have been inappropriate. I think there has been a demand for political special interests that have not been in the best interests of our children, and the school board may even be a scapegoat for some of that."

There are people out there who have very specific thoughts on why it hasn't happened already--why a community movement to fix the schools hasn't already caught fire. The Rev. Gerald Britt, co-chairman of Dallas Area Interfaith, talked to me about a state-funded program called the "Alliance Schools," which is designed to make a connection between communities and their schools.

"The Alliance Schools program has been under way for six or seven years, with tremendous results in other cities," Britt said. "When it comes to Dallas, however, it has been a tremendously tough go to try to get this stuff done."

Britt blames what he calls a hard-shell "culture of experts and professionals" at Dallas school headquarters. "They believe that they have the answers, and they believe the place of parents and clergy and community leaders is way down at a low level."

The greatest harm wrought by the administration of Superintendent Waldemar Rojas, people told me, has nothing to do with budgets or personnel. The real damage has been to the few struggling community involvement programs that previous administrations allowed.

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