DISD Trustees May Make Cutbacks in Democratic Process

DISD trustees may try to cancel next year's school board election to preserve the status quo and the superintendent

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.

Pretty slick.

In his answer to the school district's top lawyer, Rios, the outside lawyer, quoted a 2006 amendment to the Texas Education Code allowing school boards to switch from three-year to four-year terms. Rios said the language in the law could be interpreted to allow extending the terms of sitting board members.

Rios' memo ignores a provision of that same section, however, that sets a clear deadline: "Not later than December 31, 2007, the board of trustees may adopt a resolution changing the length of the terms of its trustees."

They didn't do that. That deadline has passed for Dallas.

I asked the district about it. They gave me a copy of a November 12 memo from Elrod to Hinojosa with what I would call a pretty abstruse legal argument in which Elrod says the deadline doesn't apply to Dallas. Of course, what I think is abstruse and a good lawyer thinks is abstruse—two different things. Basically they're telling Hinojosa: If somebody doesn't like it, let 'em sue. They got laws, we got lawyers.

Law or no law, if you're an elected official in America, and you know that you're in the middle of a big jam with the voters, isn't that moment exactly when you ought to hike up your drawers and get out on the hustings and defend yourself to the voters? Where did we get this idea that elections are voluntary?

I tried to reach Ellis but was not successful. I spoke twice to Ron Price, who was likeable as always and reminded me that school board members serve without pay. I believe the point he was making is that if people want to make him run for re-election all the time, they can start forking over. I understand what he was saying.

Edwin Flores, an attorney, was quite thoughtful about the canceling of elections and why he thinks it can be a good thing. Flores, like most of our board members, has been through corporate-sponsored board-member training provided by outfits like the Foundation for Community Empowerment and the Meadows Foundation. That training has taught him, he says, that stability is the key to school district success.

National studies show, he says, that sudden crises too often stop positive trends in their tracks. "In school districts where there were reforms to drive student achievement, two and a half years into those improvements when they are just starting to see some turnaround data, something always happens that causes the superintendent to leave."

Those districts fail, he says. On the other hand, "When you look at school districts and best practices where you have had long-term improvement in student achievement, you have had stability at the superintendent level."

I'm still back on the no-election deal.

I can see that it would be a good thing to have stability in the superintendent's job, if you have a superintendent who hasn't presided over the worst fiscal crisis in the history of the school district. I can also see—check me on this—how the opposite situation, where the superintendent did preside over the worst crisis in history, could actually be improved by some instability. I'm talking about one big swift instability, right in the butt.

But what does any of this have to do with school board elections? Do the board members believe we need board member stability? Has someone actually convinced these people that they are indispensable to the future success of the district, so much so in fact that the community can't risk having them stand for re-election?

In fact, everything going on at 3700 Ross Ave. lately has been an expression of this same mentality—a typically Dallas, Republican, corporate view of the world in which community and politics and democracy are bad and dictatorship is good.

Look at the approach the district is taking in its fiscal crisis. Jack Lowe has convened a secret committee of old business guys, most of whom have done business with the school district in its bond program building campaigns, and he's got them meeting in secret to come up with a way to fix things.

The problem is this: These are the same old rich geezers who have dominated school district politics in Dallas for decades. They bear serious responsibility for the problems of the district. If they were so smart, we wouldn't be in this mess in the first place.

The creativity and intensity and invention that the district needs in order to thrive again will come from exactly the arena that these people eschew—the big, messy, rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred world of community, politics and, dare I mention...

Elections.

We need more elections. Not fewer. We need more people involved. Not fewer. That's the genius of our system. That's why we're the greatest country in the world.

If all of these elite committees of wise men were right—if "best practices" and solutions truly came from on high, instead of from the hurly-burly of politics—then the Soviet Union would be on top of the global heap and the United States would be in the Third World by now.

Well, anyway, we'll see what happens at that board meeting. If they can do away with a school board election by putting it in the consent agenda, I guess they could just take all the district's money and pass a consent agenda item giving it to themselves as birthday presents.

Hey, wait a minute. I need to go back and look at those consent agendas.

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