By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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The racial angle factors in, Buchanon says, when five-day shotgun punishments are contrasted with longer sentences for black students. The black community, he says, has never really challenged the school system because individual grievances have been addressed, diffusing community anger while leaving larger ogres running free. Local civil rights groups, including one he heads called Concerned Citizens of Lancaster, are largely inactive. "No one continued to keep those issues at the forefront, and they eventually died out," he says.
Now, he believes the shotgun episode has vividly dramatized the issue. Buchanon acknowledges that he has far to go in raising the consciousness of fellow black Lancasterites, many of whom still consider themselves Dallasites. Several times when Buchanon has gone door to door in get-out-the-vote drives, he says he's been shocked by the number of people who tell him they won't be voting in local elections; rather, they'll be voting at Dallas polls where, remarkably, they are still registered.
Buchanon recalls hearing, "'I gotta go to Dallas and vote for the arena. I want the Mavs to have somewhere nice to play.'" Lack of an emotional connection to Lancaster, Buchanon says, prevents residents from taking an active role in improving their community. "They still work in Dallas, they still have family there, they do their shopping there," he says. "By the time they get home to Lancaster, it's, 'Close my door, and it's time to relax.'"
These days, Buchanon says, the school's situation has more people interested in local affairs, yet not enough. "I don't see that has generally taken hold where people say I am a Lancasterite. It's 'What are you going to do,' not 'What can we do for help.'"
We go for a drive around Lancaster to look at the new housing developments. A few old farmhouses add small splashes of character to the dreadfully flat landscape. Like any other traditional suburb, the new brick-laden neighborhoods rising from former cow pastures and grain fields have English-sounding names such as Woodhaven Homes, Millcreek Estates, Ashmoore, and Saddlebrook Estates. Blacks are closing contracts on most of the new homes, Buchanon says, which average from $125,000 to $150,000.
Why Lancaster? It's close to southern Dallas, he says, and prices are lower than North Dallas County suburban developments. A new house in Lancaster or elsewhere in southern Dallas County, Buchanon says, costs $25,000 less than the same dwelling in Carrollton or Rowlett. City and DISD employees, professionals, nurses, accountants, and truckers are all new residents, he says, noting that he often hears the refrain, "You wouldn't believe the deal I got on this land."
Several private schools have opened to serve the growing population, he notes. "Most people would be surprised at the number of black kids going to private school." But Buchanon thinks school troubles are scaring away some home buyers. Passing Lancaster ISD headquarters, housed in what looks like a converted bank branch, Buchanon bemoans the total lack of diversity in top administrative positions. "When you walk in there, you won't see any faces of people of color," he says. Likewise, the teaching staff is about 80 percent white.
We stop at Lancaster City Hall, located in an old downtown retail area completely devastated by a 1994 tornado (and rebuilt and almost completely restored afterward). Working on a "State of the City" address in his office is Mayor Joe Tillotson, a longtime resident and tall older man who exudes small-town charm. He's upbeat about Lancaster's growth but worried about making up for a devastating loss of sales-tax revenue--40 percent of the city's general fund--that occurred when a large Southwestern Bell facility stopped shipping items from Lancaster.
A property-tax hike recovered one-third of that amount, but raises for city employees are still on hold. Still, Tillotson sees a bright future for Lancaster, pointing out its proximity to three interstates, an airport, and a rail line. A new library and recreation center are being built. Hearing Tillotson tell it, Lancaster seems like a completely different place than the one witnessed at the school board meeting, an open and welcome place.
He describes the influx of new black residents as "real class people," young people who are building "nice neighborhoods." It's estimated that Lancaster's population has grown to about 25,000 people, but blacks may make up 50 to 60 percent of that, doubling their 1990 numbers. Tillotson points out with pride that City Hall staff reflects the ethnic makeup of the town and says news coverage of the gun conflict distresses him because it casts Lancaster in a bad light.