By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
If I tell you something weird is going on at Dallas public school headquarters, that's not exactly a news bulletin, is it? But what if I'm talking about something deeply weird?
Last week the school district headquarters staff tried to launch a major search and destroy mission to bring down their own magnet school program. How do I express this?
Imagine the administrative staff at Baylor Hospital sneaking into the emergency room when nobody is there, letting the oxygen out of the emergency breathing tanks and dropping banana peels all over the floor.
Try to picture the front office of the Texas Rangers sneaking into Cliff Lee's hotel room before a big game to short-sheet his bed and putting itching powder on his sheets so he won't get any sleep.
Why would they do that?
Stop me if you've heard this 100 times already, but this year when Newsweek magazine ranked America's top 1,600 high schools, Dallas' Talented and Gifted Magnet High School was number one. One. And Dallas' Science and Engineering Magnet was number four. Four. In the nation.
Look. The magnet schools are not merely the best thing the Dallas public school system has going. They're the best thing Dallas has going.
The magnet school program in Dallas right now is the biggest and best thing this city has to brag about, not counting the Calatrava miniature make-believe suspension bridge over troubled waters.
But what does DISD headquarters staff want to do to their own magnet system? Gut it. Kill it. Chop it up in little pieces and feed it down the In-Sink-Erator of life.
Early last week, a number of totally reliable sources told us that Donna Micheaux, the district's "chief administrative officer" (no idea what that means), had addressed a meeting of magnet school principals in which she informed them she was going to sell the school board on doing away with competitive admissions to the magnets.
Micheaux told them she had a new plan for choosing who gets to go to a magnet school. A lottery.
No, I'm not kidding. A lottery. Tell the kids to forget about taking entrance exams. The Dallas Independent School System is goin' Vegas! What happens in DISD stays in DISD!
I assume that schools have to fill out some kind of questionnaire for the Newsweek survey. Under "Admissions Criteria," I wonder if they even have a box you can check for "Game of Chance."
After the people in the Micheaux meeting leaked word of her roulette wheel plan for Dallas magnet schools, she cut the lottery right out of a briefing she had prepared for school board trustees last Thursday. But she still had another poisoned apple in her basket—"students of promise."
Micheaux wants to force the magnets to stop giving all of their very limited seats to qualified students. Instead they should reserve some places for unqualified kids who are "students of promise," a concept she was utterly unable to define for the trustees in any way.
I was at that meeting, sitting in the back row. I thought to myself, "As a person who was once the parent of a teenager, I'm sure most parents know what 'student of promise' means. Promises, promises."
Let me cut back to my original question. Why? Why even bring this up?
It's not just me. Parents speaking at the school board meeting asked it. Even school board trustees asked it.
Addressing the board during the public comment portion of the meeting, Dr. Kyle Renard, a pediatrician who is a TAG magnet parent, asked them, "What is the compelling reason to alter a system which has produced these top-rated schools?"
She had started off on a friendly note. "I am thankful that any discussion concerning the lottery method has been rethought and rejected," she said.
But she pointed out that the basic poison—the so-called "students of promise" deal—was still in the Micheaux briefing to the board.
"Currently under discussion is a proposal to set aside 10 percent of seats for what has been termed 'children of promise.'
"Who are these children?" she asked. "Who will identify them, and how will they be identified?"
Now right here at this point is where I think we get into the really deep, dark, dangerous stuff in all of this. I live-blogged some of this on Unfair Park as it was going on, and I noticed that some of the people who wrote comments on the blog went straight to race.
One commenter asked, "Is this an attempt to tweak hidden-agenda racial quotas without the appearance of illegality?"
Another said, "When did this libtard phrasing become popular? No longer are they 'promising students,' now they are 'students of promise,' just like how 'colored people' is considered totally offensive, and yet libtards love the term 'people of color.'"
That was absolutely inevitable. There's no way you can touch this issue and not inflame those kinds of feelings. We all know that.
But the toughest questioning aimed at Micheaux came from black board members, especially Lew Blackburn. He posited a future situation in which his three-year-old granddaughter, Zoe, might qualify for admission to a Dallas magnet school on every criterion but still lose her place to a "student of promise" who did not qualify.
Blackburn asked, "How can I explain that to Zoe? Right now I can only say, 'Zoe, you didn't get in because they have some kind of affirmative action policy."
And here is what I want you to watch. Guess who comes to the defense of the students-of-promise thing, in a very weird and inappropriate way? It's Jack Lowe, the Park Cities guy who moved into the city to run for the school board, whose kids never darkened the door of a single Dallas public school.
Lowe said, "I'd like to comment. I explained to my son that he didn't get into med school because of the affirmative action plan."
My ears perked up. I thought, "Really, Mr. Lowe? Did the med school write and tell you that? Sounds kind of like one of those Park Cities excuses to me."
Blackburn wasn't buying it. At all. He said, "Zoe's not going to put up with that."
So I'm out in the peanut gallery really scratching my head. Who's on first, who's on second? I see a coalition of people on the board, black, white and Hispanic, whom we could almost call the meritocracy caucus. They do like the magnet program. They do not like this attack on it.
Then I see the Park Cities guy and his principal ally, Edwin Flores, on the other side. When Flores talks about the magnet program, he fairly drips venom.
So what's going on?
Let me point out another way of looking at this paradigm. Before the board meeting, I ran a few traps, checking with sources close to the board. My sources, who wish to remain anonymous because they do business with the board, told me to view this same split on the board in a way that has nothing to do with magnets.
Lowe, whose own construction company does millions of dollars of business with the district, is closely allied with contractors, architects, lawyers and financial people in Dallas who feed at the trough of school construction programs. Flores is bonded at the hip to Lowe. The superintendent of schools is deep, deep in Lowe's pocket.
The people on the other side of all that represent a new coalition on the school board—the first we have seen in decades—who may be able to stand up to the construction lobby. Especially with the recent additions of Bruce Parrott and Bernadette Nuttall, this very diverse coalition has been able to show some real independence.
So now, let me ask again. Why in the world, out of the blue, would the staff come up with a proposal perfectly designed to pit ethnic interests against each other and blow up the board?
Maybe somebody doesn't want to blow up the whole board. Just the coalition.
I called and e-mailed Micheaux. She wouldn't talk. Jon Dahlander, spokesman for the district, e-mailed me in her stead and said: "There is no guarantee that any of the admission criteria for the magnets, academies or vanguards will be changed by the board."
Dahlander said the staff was merely bringing the board some possible tweaks to the system in response to an earlier expression of interest from the board.
But here is the thing. Sitting back there listening to it, I heard a whole lot more unity and enthusiasm for the magnet program coming from most of the trustees than I heard hostility or dissatisfaction.
There was venom from Flores, who always paints the magnets as a super-expensive burden on the district. They're not. The district spends considerably less per pupil at most magnets than at the regular high schools. But Flores chooses to stir the pot of envy nonetheless.
And then this curious sort of indifference from Lowe, as if the idea of excellence in Dallas schools were sort of silly, anyway.
I say it's worth looking closely at two things: 1) The new coalition on the board, representing the most serious challenge in years to the power of the construction cabal, is ethnically diverse. 2) The cabal, represented on the board by Lowe and Flores and in the administration by superintendent Michael Hinojosa, is tossing an ethnic landmine at the feet of the coalition.
The coalition needs to tippy-toe around that landmine very carefully. If it goes kaboom, guess who loses their tootsies.