Tongue Twisted

A Spanish-language requirement reopens old wounds at DISD

No matter what the city, school board meetings can be bizarre spectacles that blend clumsy gestures of civic pride with demoralizing flashes of stupidity from elected officials and parents. Around 10 years ago, the people who came to Dallas Independent School District meetings recast this shopworn script, adding dramatic flourishes, plot twists and angry confrontations worthy of an HBO series. The members of the New Black Panthers often made their presence known, including one ugly assault on a Hispanic DISD employee. In their nonviolent moments, they heckled the board with taunts of racism.

"Mr. Keever is a grandson of the Klan!" yelled one New Black Panther at then school board president Bill Keever during a meeting in January 1997. "Keever is a Klansman."

In October that year, school Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges after she used nearly $10,000 in district funds to lavishly furnish her bedroom. She went to federal prison, but not before generating a series of damning stories about her reckless stewardship. If her immediate successors improved on her record, it was only because they were never locked up.

A matter of principal: Former NAACP Chief Lee Alcorn helped lead the opposition to the bilingual-principal policy.
Mark Graham
A matter of principal: Former NAACP Chief Lee Alcorn helped lead the opposition to the bilingual-principal policy.
Teach your parents: DISD instructor Diane Birdwell says blacks and Latinos don't work together for kids.
Mark Graham
Teach your parents: DISD instructor Diane Birdwell says blacks and Latinos don't work together for kids.

Today, DISD is like any other struggling urban school district, generating a mix of good and bad news. There is still craven spending and high-level cronyism blended with skyrocketing test scores at unlikely places such as James Madison High School in South Dallas. Superintendent Michael Hinojosa has won the respect of the trustees, teachers and the business community while his unfussy, professional style serves as a welcome contrast to predecessors'. Meanwhile, the board meetings are usually mind-numbingly boring. Considering where Dallas came from, that's a good thing.

But on October 26, as the board met to discuss modifying a measure that affected a handful of the district's principals, the dispiriting rancor from a decade ago made an unexpected comeback. At first glance, no outsider to DISD could have expected that the policy up for debate would be the subject of dinner-table conversations and radio call-in shows for weeks beforehand.

That Thursday evening, the board planned to revisit an initiative requiring principals of struggling elementary schools to be fluent in Spanish if a majority of their students had limited English skills. Authored by the late trustee Joe May in August 2005, the measure affected eight or so of the district's 217 schools. Black board members wanted to scrap May's plan altogether while Hispanic members wanted to leave it intact. At least two of the Anglo trustees hoped for a compromise.

But before they could deliberate, the trustees had to listen to about a dozen residents who had signed up to give their opinions. What many in DISD didn't know was that May's measure had infuriated wide swaths of black residents, who were caught off guard when it passed last year. Black pastors leading enormous congregations tapped into the discontent.

Community leaders went on talk radio urging listeners to attend that week's board meeting and speak out. For better or for worse, that's exactly what happened, as a series of angry and indignant speakers blasted the board with outrageous and occasionally racist complaints. Somehow, a fairly limited policy managed to bring out the worst in everyday folk.

"Viva la gente negra," said one black woman, using Spanish to declare "long live black people." "I am here because I have deep concerns with this policy that is being proposed."

The woman, who said she had eight children in DISD, looked to be in her 40s. She was well-dressed and could have been mistaken for an accountant were it not for the long, passionate scowl on her face.

"I think what you're doing is very evil to the black race," she said as the crowd applauded. "Hispanics, you must stop being selfish. In my studies I learned that you never had to struggle, you never had to be oppressed."

There was the white-haired man with the rangy gut proudly wearing an American flag T-shirt. Beginning his talk with the first sentence of the "Pledge of Allegiance," the speaker fit the stereotype of the angry white male almost perfectly—except he was black.

"Hector and Julio can come into this country not speaking English...and I have to pay for it?" he said as people clapped. "You're making a big mistake. You're legitimizing something that's not legitimate."

A few Hispanics spoke out in favor of the policy, all of whom managed to stick to the issue at hand. No Anglo said anything. Several black speakers managed to express their discontent a tad more reasonably, but they still came off as angry and bitter.

"Spanish has no place in American public schools except in the classroom where it's taught like all other foreign languages," said another black woman. "This has never in the history of America been done for any other immigrants. Enough is enough."

For years now, tension between blacks and Hispanics at DISD has simmered more or less below the surface, but last October's meeting exposed the outright animosity many blacks have to the Hispanic leadership of a school system they fought in federal court to civilize. With whites more or less having abandoned the school system, blacks and Hispanics have become the major stakeholders in public education, with the two groups often seeing themselves more as rivals than as allies. The hostility between them manifests itself in outrageous ways, with influential black leaders pulling every rhetorical trick in the book to trivialize the plight of immigrant children and their parents.
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