By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Rene Castilla voted the way of the Slam Dunk Gang, but he grew increasingly critical of Kress as he saw him losing political capital in the black community. "Sandy created a perception that he wasn't interested in what the black community wanted," Castilla says. "Because he was so thin-skinned, he allowed himself to be goaded by Kathlyn Gilliam, and she had enough tentacles in the black community to distort his image any way she wanted."
Kress would grow angry and defensive, says Castilla, and rather than listen to black concerns and build a consensus around his reforms by finding common ground, he chose to ignore the blacks who came before the board and slam-dunked their leaders.
"There was so much of himself wrapped up in the issue. He was so ambitious for it," Castilla says. "His ambition overshadowed the goal that he set, and he took it personally when he shouldn't have."
It wasn't as though the fears of African-American trustees were groundless. Kress was part of a voting majority that slashed more than $15 million off the 1992 bond proposal for the Townview supermagnet. Kress wanted to limit money spent on learning centers--court-ordered schools created in 1984 to bring black children who had been bused to white schools back to their own neighborhoods. Kress was also accused of trying to limit the influence of black board members by opposing a committee structure that might curtail his own power.
As distasteful as Kress' reforms were to the black community, his brinkmanship caused just as much upheaval. Concerned with his legacy, he complained bitterly when negative news stories about DISD surfaced in the press. "Sandy had a tendency to go ballistic when someone disagreed with him," Johnston says. "That's one reason press relations went rapidly downhill." He "raised hell" with the editorial board at The Dallas Morning News, insisting on more favorable coverage for the district, but his lobbying efforts backfired.
"That pissed the press off pretty good," Peavy says. "The disdain for his tactics started the media scrutiny that has become so prevalent in the district today."
Even within his own Slam Dunk Gang, there was discord if a member began to act more independently than Kress wished. When Anglo trustee Ed Grant and Kress had a serious falling out, Kress fielded Linda McDowell to run against Grant, say Castilla and Peavy. She won. (McDowell could not be reached for comment; Grant says he believes that Kress sought to have him unseated.)
Despite the tension--racial and otherwise--Kress was unanimously elected in 1995 to a second term as president. No one would dare challenge him. His grip on the board, however, would suffer its first setback when slam-dunker Peavy was the subject of a news exposé that linked him to a possible insurance kickback scheme. A federal indictment soon followed. He would be exonerated eventually, but not before a tape recording of Peavy using racial slurs was anonymously sent to black board members Gilliam and Ewell.
On September 28, 1995, both trustees publicly read a transcript of the tape in which Peavy insults, maligns, or bashes blacks, gays, trustees, superintendents, and parents, among others. Although the tapes recorded hours of illegally intercepted phone calls, Peavy was smart enough to resign. On those tapes were recordings of conversations with Kress, Peavy would later tell the press.
Peavy's resignation wasn't enough to content many of the city's more vitriolic African-American leaders who, at an October 10, 1995, board meeting, insisted that Kress step down. At the very least, they argued, Kress had allowed good-ol'-boy Peavy to wax racist without condemning him.
Kress wouldn't resign, but if he could have foreseen the debacle over Townview on the near horizon, he might have reconsidered.
The district's Talented and Gifted Program (TAG) was being gutted at the new supermagnet, falling victim to the belief that within this monument to equality, TAG was a vestige of segregation, an elitist barrier that gave whites the best teachers, the best resources, the best education. TAG parents saw the program as a racially diverse testament to excellence in public education that selected children based on merit rather than quota.
Among the angry parents, frustrated trustees, and tiny New Black Panther Party, the threat of violence was real. Police escorts for trustees were common--as were anti-Semitic slurs directed at Kress. The board president received no help from the business community, which seemed to duck for cover once the shouting started. Only the quiet diplomacy of African-American community activist Pettis Norman finally resolved the dispute, but not before Kress called it quits.
On January 16, 1996, Kress held a news conference to announce he would not be seeking re-election in the spring. The savior of the school district had become an unwitting symbol of the racism many blacks felt still pervaded the district. Although the racial tenor of the times might have marked any white male with the same stain, Kress had become a liability to his own reform movement.
As he spoke, his wife and 18-month-old child stood beside him. "I have no idea what the next challenge will be," he said. "But I am sure there will be one."
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