By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Go ahead and say it. Sometimes you think I make things up. I know you do. I don't blame you. I can't even believe this stuff half the time myself. This is an example. If somebody else told me this, I would chalk it up to urban legend. Bad urban legend. But it's true. I swear.
The Dallas school board—in the throes of the worst fiscal crisis in the history of the district and growing voter unrest—this week will consider dealing with its political problems by suspending upcoming school board elections.
No, now, I told you. This is not a joke. This is not a bulletin from Zimbabwe. The Dallas school board at its November 20 meeting will vote on canceling school board elections due to take place next May.
In fact, it's a little worse than that. They don't just want to cancel the election. They want to do it without public debate.
Unless things change, the board's plan right now is to vote to cancel its next election automatically as part of its so-called "consent agenda" at its November 20 meeting, without any discussion.
Slap my mouth. I'm telling you the truth.
Items on the consent agenda normally are routine contracts and small details not even worth talking about. The board puts all of its small housekeeping stuff together on a long list, its consent agenda, and then votes in favor of the whole list, so that all of the items on the list pass at once.
Umm, let's see: Ratification of list of bills, claims and accounts for September 1, 2008, to September 30, 2008. Check. Acceptance of federal and state grant funds. Check. Approval of idea to protect Leigh Ann Ellis's board seat by nixing next May school board election. Check.
What? Hey! No check! Bring me the check!
Please. This is not a joke. I understand why you might think it is, because I know how important the principle of free elections is in this great country. We fought the Brits over this. Our "Greatest Generation" went off to war to defend it. The civil rights movement was devoted to it. Surely no sane public official would consider canceling an election without at least allowing public debate.
You have a question? I can see that you have a question. You are asking yourself, "How can they cancel the election?" Then maybe you are thinking, "He's nuts. They can't cancel the election."
All I can do is tell you why they think they can cancel the election. You take it from there.
At its last meeting, the board was given copies of a communication between DISD general counsel Jack Elrod and Rolando Rios, an outside attorney apparently acting at Elrod's request, in which Rios was giving Elrod instructions on how the board could legally suspend next May's election.
The nine-member board is elected in staggered terms. Three of them are up for election this year. As it stands now—if they don't cancel the election—voters next May will go to the polls in areas represented by Edwin Flores, the current board member from the area up around LBJ Freeway and the Dallas North Tollway; also Leigh Ann Ellis, who is out east in Casa Linda and Lake Highlands; and Ron Price, south of Interstate 30.
Allow me to add just another element of edge to this business: In recent months all three of these members have been key defenders of our embattled school administration headed by board President Jack Lowe and Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, after they—Lowe and Hinojosa—got in trouble for steering the district into the worst financial catastrophe in its history and probably causing the unraveling of a year of stunning academic gains.
Price typically flips back and forth a little—tight with the company line some times, against the grain at others. But Ellis and Flores have been a crucial bulwark against calls for the firing of the superintendent. Behind her back, Ellis is called "Hinojosa's fifth vote" on the nine-member board.
Flores was the point man in watering down an ethics policy that would otherwise have forced Lowe to stop doing millions of dollars in construction contracting with the district through his family company, TD Industries, or leave the board.
Lowe and Hinojosa need Ellis and Flores on the board to get their backs.
Both Flores and Ellis are potentially vulnerable, assuming they want the jobs again. Flores' district combines conservative Anglos furious about fiscal mismanagement and an activist Latino element, which thinks Hinojosa has sold them out to the business elite.
Ellis' profile is darkened by the long shadow of her predecessor, Dr. Lois Parrott, a popular populist who is being courted to run against Ellis in a grudge match.
Both Ellis and Flores could have tough fights on their hands next May. Their defeat at the polls might be viewed by critics of the current administration as the very best shot at forcing change.
But not if there are no elections.
If the board votes this week to cancel next May's election, Price, Ellis and Flores will stay in office through 2010, which will help put them in the driver's seat for the 2010 redistricting process, in which they might be dealt safer districts.