By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It had never been done before. "The word accountability had been used loosely in the [Ross] Perot reforms of the mid-'80s, but ours was the first systemic deal," Kress says.
Kress believed that accountability would raise student scores and close the racial achievement gap. He believed it so zealously that he began to lobby the entire city with an extensive public-relations campaign--newspaper supplements, mailers, phone banks--a heavy-handed attempt to put pressure on school trustees to see things his way. That a committee appointed by the school board would circumvent the very board for which it was working seemed unprecedented. That a committee backed by the white establishment (despite its multiracial make-up) was trying to impose its will on a predominantly minority school district seemed racist to some.
"The blacks were opposed to it because it was a business community thing," says retired DISD board secretary Bob Johnston. "Historically with segregation, when the business community advocates something, it has not been good for blacks."
Trustee Gilliam led a group of black ministers to speak out against the Kress public-relations campaign, saying his "self-appointed vigilante group" was not only usurping the board's authority but also that of African-American Superintendent Marvin Edwards. With the business community on board and Hispanic leaders endorsing the reforms, Edwards refused to piss in the prevailing winds. He quelled any racist rumblings about the committee when he supported its work. After the school board met in September 1991, trustees had little choice: They approved the reforms by unanimous vote.
With victory, Kress became the Great White Hope of the business community; although black trustees believed the district wasn't ready to be free of federal intervention, the business community saw Kress as the one person who could get the city out from under the 1974 desegregation order. Touted for mayor, Kress instead announced that he would be a candidate for the school board. What better way to guarantee compliance with his reforms?
Kress thrashed a no-name opponent in 1992, garnering 90 percent of the vote, but joining the board wasn't enough. He soon became its driving force, the embodiment of its political will, as he forged an alliance between Hispanic and Anglo trustees--the notorious "Slam Dunk Gang"--to push his reforms. The term Slam Dunk Gang actually predated Kress, but under his tenure the term became more pejorative, a symbol of whites excluding blacks from the power structure.
Kress was an idea factory, always coming up with another plan or initiative when the one before it didn't seem to work. He pressed every advantage, pushed every button, his spirit as indomitable as his ambition. When he was on a mission, he politicked the hell out of an issue--and he was always on a mission.
"He came on the scene and took the board by storm," says former trustee Dan Peavy. "He was a master manipulator and had this way of getting people into the fold. I was in agreement with 100 percent of the things he had to say."
Black trustees didn't trust Kress, whose aggressive style left no room for discussion or compromise, at least not when he had the votes. They didn't trust whites who could still get their kind elected to the school board while fleeing the inner city and taking their kids with them. They didn't trust the noblesse oblige of a white establishment that seemed more interested in keeping its taxes low than minority test scores high.
What they did trust was the desegregation order that required a better racial balance in the teaching force, the Townview supermagnet high school in Oak Cliff, and a large expenditure of resources for learning centers and instruction in the black community. That Kress' accountability system and the court's desegregation order sought to do the same thing--raise test scores and close the racial achievement gap--made no difference.
"It [accountability] was just a farce Mr. Kress was trying to push off on the community," says former trustee Gilliam. "It was ill-conceived and just some kind of personal aggrandizement effort on his part."
Kress says he never could understand the resistance blacks had to his reforms. "I was foggy about it then, and I am foggy about it now."
Even after he became board president in 1994 after ousting Rene Castilla, even after all his reforms were implemented by the board, Kress still couldn't see what others thought was obvious.
"When you said accountability to a white audience, it meant getting rid of a principal or teacher who couldn't perform," says former board secretary Johnston. "When you said it to an African-American audience, it was like a code word for 'Let's get rid of blacks and replace them with whites.'"
Black teachers worried about job security. Quietly, some sought protection, Johnson says, and put pressure on political leaders such as former Dallas NAACP President Lee Alcorn, whose rhetoric at board meetings grew increasingly hostile. At the same time, black trustees were feeling disenfranchised because they were losing every important vote.
"Kress ran the thing under the table," Peavy says. "We discussed all the issues in private, to the exclusion of the blacks. But it wasn't a deal to exclude anybody, really. It was an inclusion of those who would vote our way."