Shotgun Love

Once again, the school board gets married the hard way

I have known Jackson a little bit for a long time. Like many smart, focused people, Lee Jackson is sort of a minimalist in expressing his views. He cuts right to the chase, lays it out there in black and white, and then sits back like a smiling owl and gives you an opportunity to agree or disagree, both of which he can handle.

I don't know that the owl stuff sells well at 3700 Ross. They may not get it. People on the board and people close to the board told me that Jackson was perceived in his interviews as cold and aloof.

"He was very arrogant," a board member said to me. "It was like what we thought didn't matter, because we wouldn't be there after the next election anyway."

Hmmm. That just doesn't sound like Lee Jackson. If nothing else, he wouldn't be dumb enough to insult the people who were about to vote on his candidacy.

Other things were occurring in the background, however. Part of what made this process even messier than the Rojas search, in some respects, was that Robert Payton, the interim superintendent, was secretly running for the job of permanent superintendent himself. And that's never supposed to happen: The interim is never supposed to be a candidate for permanent.

But he was, and his candidacy really helped make a mess of the process.

I called Payton and faxed a message to him telling him that I was going to write a column saying he'd been running for the job. He never returned my call. But I have discussed this with enough board members to have some detail.

"He put his hat in the ring, but then he took it back out," a board member told me. "But then he put it back in."

What they needed down there was a flamenco guitar.

Two weeks ago, The Dallas Morning News ran a piece on its op ed page by a certain Victor Smith--whom the News identified only by his connection with the local branch of the NAACP--in which Smith urged the school board to select Robert Payton as the permanent superintendent.

I called Smith and asked him if he thought it might have been appropriate, in his paean to Payton, at least, to mention that he is Payton's employee. I mean, forget the News ever telling us something like that. Shouldn't Smith have disclosed that he is one of the six people, paid in the $50,000 to $60,000 range, who works in the district's "community relations" department?

(By the way: Are we really the kind of community that has to pay a staff of professionals to have relations with us? OK, forget it.)

Smith called me back and asked what difference it made that he works for Payton. I said that I was concerned that bad, negative, cynical people might suspect that Payton had put Smith up to writing an op ed piece for the News saying that Payton should get the job.

"That is in error," Smith said. "Number One, Mr. Payton is aboveboard. Certainly no one has put me up to anything."

But five minutes after hanging up, Smith rang me back and said, "Mr. Payton has 35 years' experience in the Dallas schools. Even if he did, would that take away his 35 years' experience?"

"Even if he did what?"

"Put me up to it."

You gotta love these DISD people.

It's wrong and unfair to believe that blacks and Hispanics are the main defenders of the pork-barrel status quo at DISD. Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price was one of Lee Jackson's most outspoken supporters. In the minority community, much of the leadership is furious over the district's persistently low performance and doesn't care who, black or white, has to go overboard in order to fix it. State Rep. Helen Giddings said to me last week, "I am so angry about the test scores, I could just scream."

But, unfortunately, a cadre--closely identified with the local branches of LULAC and the NAACP--sees the school district as a jobs program. That is the cadre to which Payton has been playing.

He did everything an interim placeholder should not do. In the last few months, he rehired a number of top executives who left the district under Rojas. He has been promoting executives who are closely allied with particular school board members.

The demand that LULAC and the NAACP have been making--that the next superintendent must be a professional educator--was code for "The next superintendent must be Robert Payton."

So the board was getting--or perceived that it was getting--all of this negative energy from the business community. And Payton was right in there whispering and cajoling them with his promotions for their friends, confusing them, if nothing else.

The jukebox gets louder. Too many wine coolers, too much wild dancing near the pool tables. And everything goes haywire. She shoots Lee Jackson, again. All the other eligibles start dialing 911.

And she's back out in the parking lot with mascara all over her chin looking for anybody who will take her home. Fast.

Maybe we should have thought of Mike Moses first. When he was commissioner of education, he threatened Dallas with state oversight. Right away, when that leather skirt first came out of the closet, we probably should have said, "Honey, your probation officer sure is a handsome man."

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