Shotgun Love

Once again, the school board gets married the hard way

The same thing happens every time the Dallas school board puts on its leather skirt and starts trolling the singles bars for a new superintendent. The board behaves badly and scares off the good prospects. Then it has to marry the one who says he can forget the past, doesn't mind living with the relatives, and will treat the baby as his own.

Trailer-park love.

And that is not to say that nice things can't happen in trailer parks. Mike Moses, our next schools superintendent, comes to the job with great credentials, compared with his predecessors. He has never once been in the pen. When he was Texas commissioner of education, he never arranged bizarrely staged press events in which he reminded us of Slobodan Milosevic in a whimsical mood.

Mike Moses comes to the DISD superintendent job with great credentials. And he's never once  been to the pen.
AP/Wide World
Mike Moses comes to the DISD superintendent job with great credentials. And he's never once been to the pen.

Of the people who've worked with Moses, the sane ones speak well of him and the crazy ones don't. This may be a new experience for us.

But there is a downside. He has never been administrator of anything anywhere near the size of the Dallas Independent School District. He is of the national fraternity of professional public school administrators, which always raises the question of how vigorously he will go after dead wood at 3700 Ross Avenue.

And even more troubling, the "search process" which brought him here was a mirror of the search that brought us his immediate predecessor, Slobodan Rojas.

Once again, this is no church wedding.

The most consistent coda, the part that never seems to change, is the role played by the chamber of commerce and the Dallas Citizens Council--the private, semi-secret business group downtown that thinks it still runs things. How do I describe their part, in courtship terms? It's kind of like, "Hi, I'm her dad; I have a gun; I'm boozed up; and I don't like your face."

Other than that, you kids enjoy the movie.

This time, as before, everything turned on the question of why they couldn't marry the smart one from the good background. That would be Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson. They left him at the altar the last time, too, when the board hired Rojas. He's been jilted twice.

It's becoming a joke.

The first time around, Jackson got the shove after emissaries for the Citizens Council called all the board members and told them that they had to vote for him. You just don't do that. It plays into the hands of the very people who don't want anybody good in there.

This time, the Citizens Council and the chamber of commerce shot off their cannons and warned the school board it had better get in shape. Good! Somebody needed to say that. Then they went on to say that some of their muckety-muck members might even run for the school board. Great! Almost everybody agrees we need more people running for the school board.

But of all the sitting board members, who was the first one they picked to eject? Ken Zornes.

No, no, no, fellas! Zornes is on your side! Was on your side, anyway. How complicated is this? It's like what I had to tell my kid's soccer team after a few bad mistakes in their first game as 4-year-olds: Goals are only a good thing if you kick them against the other team.

Ken Zornes, who represents District 1 in far North nose-bleed Dallas, up above LBJ Expressway, was a Jackson supporter...until the word went out that Jack Lowe Jr., head of TD Industries, might run against him.

So guess what happened when Lee Jackson's name came up for a vote of the board? Zornes voted against him.

I'm not saying that was the only reason or the main reason. Zornes, who has been very punctilious about the privacy of the search process, would not discuss this issue with me. And Jack Lowe Jr. told me he had not yet made any decision about his running against Zornes. Lowe said he thinks well of Zornes.

Lowe's problem is that he doesn't live in the districts of any of the people he thinks are bad board members. And he doesn't want to move to a downscale neighborhood. So he's thinking about running against his own ally.

He said, "There are a couple of other board members I wouldn't mind replacing, but I don't happen to live in their districts."

Yeah, fine, but see: That's how this stuff happens. The word got out that Lowe might run. He didn't quash it, and he's not saying he won't run. So the one guy on the school board who has to worry most about a Big Dog coming in with big bucks to shove him off the table is the guy who was most decidedly on the big dogs' side.

Not good politics. One field, two goals, opposite ends. Let's all work on this with our moms and dads when we go home tonight.

Whether it was ever really true or not, several board members were convinced there was tough business-community pressure on them to vote for Jackson. Some of them say threats were made, not merely that they would have opponents in the next election if Jackson didn't get the nod, but that spouses might lose their jobs and stuff like that. Fair or not, it sounds as though that perception had a very unfortunate effect on how the board saw Jackson personally in his interviews.

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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