Shhh!

What Mike Moses doesn't want anyone to know

Dallas school Superintendent Mike Moses, such a success for four years, has misstepped seriously in handling the inflammatory issue of school attendance zone re-mapping. It's bad enough that some people--by no means all, but some--are whispering that Dr. Moses may have reached the city limits of his gifts.

This is all about the district using its 2002 $1.37 billion bond program to build 20 new schools and to add on to 58 more buildings. If you add that much new class capacity, with a stated goal of getting rid of temporary classrooms, then it's logical to expect some students to be shifted.

And that's the mistake: trying to be "logical" with schools like Stonewall Jackson Elementary, at Mockingbird and Matilda in the East Dallas "M Streets" area. The "Stonewall" attendance zone in East Dallas is a kind of holy city within the city of Dallas. People beg, borrow and fake hearing problems to get children into this famously wonderful school. My kid went to a private school nearby. We were all excited when we found out then-Mayor Ron Kirk was putting his kids into our private school. Then we found out he was just parking them there until he could get them into Stonewall. Made sense.

DISD Superintendent Mike Moses is a nice guy from East Texas, but he may already have done all the good he can do in the big city.
Mark Graham
DISD Superintendent Mike Moses is a nice guy from East Texas, but he may already have done all the good he can do in the big city.

Stonewall is the deaf education elementary school, with an ethnic mix roughly in thirds. The deaf kids make up a small portion of the student body, but all children at Stonewall are taught to sign. People in this school have an eccentric, rich, shared culture.

I slipped into the back of a Stonewall Dad's Club meeting in the auditorium one recent evening. Someone was saying that one way to solve the school's overcrowding issue would be to move the "deaf ed" program elsewhere, making room for more neighborhood kids.

The suggestion was met by a long silence. Then a dad way in the back spoke up to say that having the deaf kids at Stonewall was part of the attraction. "It's great for my kids, because you have to look at these kids differently, and you learn to look at yourself differently. I would hate to see that transferred to a different school."

Everyone agreed.

When East Dallas people talk about the Stonewall principal, Olivia Henderson, they sound like Shiites speaking of certain imams whom they greatly respect and...well, sort of also fear quite a bit. There are teachers who have been at Stonewall so long they are described only by their last names, like landmarks. Proximity to Stonewall is the single most powerful factor in residential real estate values in that part of the city.

Do we think people might be sort of serious about keeping their kids in Stonewall? Should this be a question on an IQ test for school superintendents?

But when Moses approached the problem of school attendance zones, he began by setting in motion an entirely bean-counting demographic process to determine how many kids live near which schools and how to make the attendance zones tight and tidy. And then he made it secret.

East Dallas activist Jesse Moreno, revered for his volunteer efforts at Woodrow Wilson High School and elsewhere, was one of 18 people tapped to take part in a so-called community review of the bean-counters' work. He said, "We were told we were not able to speak to anyone about it by orders of the school district."

That was all Moses. His spokesman conceded to me last week that this entire process was designed personally by Moses to be a closed-door affair until the end of the deal.

Last February, Dallas Morning News reporter Tawnell Hobbs (a good hand) jacked a bunch of memos out of Moses, I assume through an open records demand, since that's starting to be the only way to say hello. One was a memo Moses had written in which he said he wanted the attendance zone process kept "confidential until such time that some recommendations and decisions have been formulated."

I tried to ask Moses why the process was not more open. In a written response to my written questions, his spokesman said, "Final decisions will be made in public. Attendance zone changes must be made. At this point in the process, there is little point in pitting communities against each other. Board members will have the final decision."

Yeah, but...that won't work. Not in real life. Secrets that big don't keep that long in real life. Several weeks ago, when this process was six months along, the Stonewall parents still knew nothing of it. They went to a community meeting at J.L. Long Middle School to discuss a totally separate issue. But when they got there en masse, school board member Ron Price handed out maps showing them for the first time that 40 percent of them were about to get evicted from the Stonewall attendance zone.

People who were there tell me it was like handing out porn at a Church of Christ picnic. Ballistic!

"I thought they had a right to know about it," Price told me.

Life is complex. The Stonewall people are not in Price's district. Their board member is Jack Lowe. At the moment when Price delivered this particular load of dynamite, he and Lowe were contending for the presidency of the school board, which neither wound up getting. The board member with egg on his face for not having warned Stonewall was Lowe.

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