By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
From schools to City Hall, pouring rain to dumping pig's blood, a 2014 progress report for Dallas.
School's out for the summer, and across the city, spring's final bells are ringing in a season of joy for students and teachers, and a season of sweaty-day-camp-pick-up for parents. But for us, the caretakers of little Dallas Texas, there are no seasons and no summer break. It's just one long and heavily pot-holed merry-go-round, and it's up to us to provide the occasional progress report.
So here we are, bearing down on the midpoint of 2014. How is Dallas doing? Is she cutting back on the clumsy back-room dealing that we talked about last year? Has she stopped plowing her public schools deeper into irreversible uselessness? Has she stopped showing up covered in pesticides and ice like we asked?
It's time to find out. No, we don't grade on a curve, and no, an apple on our desk won't help. We are, however, easy to find on PayPal.
Introduction to City Management
Assessment by: Jim Schutze
The only thing remotely cool about Dallas city manager A.C. Gonzalez is his first name, initials that in Dallas usually stand for "air conditioning." Otherwise he is the quintessential, deferential, inside wonk, a loyal staffer who didn't even have the nerve to ask former City Manager Mary Suhm to please move out of her City Hall offices last January after he won her job in a squeaker of a City Council straw poll.
The behind-the-scenes straw poll — before the fake unanimous vote in front of the cameras — was a squeaker because Gonzalez came into the competition with so much baggage, including first-hand involvement in just about every major mess that happened in Suhm's final years. When everything came to light, there he was, Mr. Air Conditioning, right in the middle of public deceptions about allowing gas drilling in city parks, man on the scene in endless ridiculously sleazy good-old-boy deals for Yellow Cab, main player in years of housing policy that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs says intentionally kept Dallas' neighborhoods segregated.
Why was he even considered? Because the mayor and a host of special interests knew he had always been a loyal spear-carrier, and that was just what they wanted. That was all he ever really had to do, carry their spears. If he had stuck to that, he would deserve a grade of A-plus after his first six months. But in return for a huge salary hike over his predecessor — pretty cool move, we have to admit — Gonzalez made the mistake of over-promising.
He promised the council behind closed doors he would get rid of five of the city's top seven executives most closely identified with past scandals, sources say. He has gotten rid of not one. Six months are gone, and there they still are, still holding their spears. That alone should earn him an interim letter grade of F.
Ah, but wait. Teacher can't be quite that mean. The same reliable sources who say Gonzalez promised to sack five of his former colleagues right away and then didn't do it also say he has been much more candid than Suhm about just how screwed the city is financially. It turns out that the streets really have been knocking your car to shit because the city needs to do almost a billion dollars worth of deferred maintenance right now. It wasn't all in your head, after all.
Pre-A.C., the staff at City Hall was under huge pressure to pay for the Calatrava make-believe suspension bridge and keep the financial doors open for construction of the Trinity toll road, so they were never going to come clean about the deferred maintenance issue. Gonzalez has been honest about it, and even his critics on the council think his marks should be adjusted to reflect that.
Grade: C, bumped to a B- for citizenship.
Basic Public Education*
Assessment by: Patrick Williams
Here's a prediction made by some idiot employed by a local alternative newspaper 18 months ago: "We don't want to be biased and suggest that the clock is already running on the outspoken [Dallas school Superintendent Mike] Miles' future here. Just in case, though, $2 for June 12." That was the writer's bet for the day Miles would finally be fired or quit: June 12, 2013, exactly one year ago.
In defense of this never-to-be-named idiot, it wasn't a bad guess. According to one DISD watchdog group, the average term for the nine previous superintendents — including "interim" supers — who served at least one school year is 2.3 years. Reformers in particular have had short shelf lives. In 1997, new Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez rode a bulldozer into a district-wide rally to fire staff up for the changes she had in store for DISD; she left a year later en route to the big house for stealing from the district. Waldemar "Bill" Rojas rolled into town in 1999 with big plans to turn some schools over to a private education service. He also had a big mouth when it came to insulting trustees who disagreed with him. They fired him a year later.
So why expect a happy future for Miles, who endured months of daily hammering that started almost as soon as he arrived in the summer of 2012? Here was a man willing to pay a $185,000 salary to ship in an inexperienced new communications chief in a district just coming out of a financial crisis. And Miles' pick for chief of staff? That would be one Jerome Oberlton, who returned to Georgia to begin serving time for taking bribes in his previous job in Atlanta. Top administrators Miles hired soon started bolting like rats from an Italian cruise ship. His plan to reassign, retrain or fire a slew of principals, especially at predominantly black schools, enraged African-American school board members. His board opponents ginned up an investigation into vague charges Miles violated contracting procedures. It found no wrongdoing, but it was enough to put Miles on a short leash. Surely Miles couldn't last.
Apparently, Miles is as hard to kill as the Terminator. He not only survived, he has thrived. Miles' call to spend $4 million annually on a leadership academy was OK'd by a board majority and then renewed. When it looked like only one vote on the board stood between him and a golden parachute in 2013, voters elected Miguel Solis, a reformer, as trustee, essentially saving Miles' job. And just last month, trustees approved a revolutionary merit pay system over the objections of teachers associations. Under it, teacher raises will be based on a mix of performance evaluations and student test scores, rather than tenure and college degrees.
That system's success or failure could have huge implications nationwide.
"You lay out all the big things he's said he's going to do, and he's done them," Solis says. "It hasn't been pretty, but that's to be expected in a large urban school system."
Then there was the surprise effort by a group called Support Our Schools, which pushed a successful petition drive that will eventually lead to a vote on whether to make DISD a "home-rule" district, free of some state regulations. That, some have said, provided a vital distraction this spring, coming just in time to get Miles from under the gun while his pay reform plan was coming up for a vote.
But the distraction theory misses an important fact: The vote on pay reform was 7-2. It's not just Miles driving reforms; it's a solid majority of the board that hired him, retained him against all odds and faced the heat to approve his projects. Solis suggests that behind the noise and bloody vignettes that make great news fodder, the board and city leadership are taking unprecedented steps to focus on the issue that matters: student achievement.
"I'm very excited about where Dallas wants to take our schools system, and that's the key," he says. "You're seeing a city that doesn't want to settle for the status quo."
But passing reforms is one thing. The big question is: Will they work?
Nineteen graduates of DISD's first principals academy class led schools this year, and the Morning News looked recently at their results on the statewide STAAR exams in reading and math for fifth- and eighth-graders. It was a mixed bag, with schools led by academy grads frequently dropping a few points in passing rates over the previous year. End of course scores for high school students were released last week. Overall, Dallas' passing rates on the STAAR exams were up, but the district still lagged behind statewide figures.
It's trite to say "it's too soon to tell," but in this case, the trite truth is that it is ... oh, let's let Solis finish the thought:
"You look at [the academy principals' numbers] for what it's worth," he says. "They're mixed results. I think for the first few years, that's what you're going to see. ... I think the real test for Mike Miles and the board is looking at the next few years."
Given DISD's history of turnover at the top, a few years is a lot to ask for. But if Miles survived his first two, anything's possible.
* Repeated from previous 42 years
Introduction to Walking and Other Modes of Transportation That Don't Involve Ford F-150s
Assessment by: Eric Nicholson
You might say that Dallas has a love affair with the car, but you wouldn't be quite right. Dallasites' relationship with the automobile is far messier, less a passionate, carefree fling than a failing, decades-long marriage filled with emotional and physical abuse.
Why do we pile into our cars by the hundreds of thousands — more than 90 percent of Dallas County workers commute by car — to inch miserably down Central or Stemmons or Interstate 30 with all the grace and efficiency of a drunken sloth? Because we don't have a choice. Not in Dallas.
Or so we've gotten used to telling ourselves. Lately, though, a different vision for the future has emerged, one in which neighborhoods are dense enough that people won't necessarily need to hop behind the wheel to pick up a carton of milk, where they can walk and bike places without becoming bug spatter on the grill of a Ford F-150.
Some smart, powerful people get it. See the mounting opposition to the Trinity toll road and the push to tear down I-345, that clogged stretch of concrete separating downtown from Deep Ellum. Notice the dense (by Dallas standards) developments in downtown, Deep Ellum, along Ross Avenue, in Trinity Groves.
And be encouraged that at least a portion of that vision is turning, however slowly, into policy. There's a bike-share program on the horizon. There is a complete streets manual, and a handful of complete streets to go with it. Uber and Lyft appear to have broken Yellow Cab's decades-old taxi monopoly. The city has added a couple of miles of actual (i.e. separated) bike lanes, and it looks poised to accelerate the process now that it's hired a new bike coordinator to dust off a 2011 bike plan. Later this year, a new streetcar line will be zigzagging from downtown to Oak Cliff. DART continues to expand its light-rail line, with an expansion to DFW International Airport scheduled to open in August.
Not that this has persuaded anyone to get out of his car yet. Recently released census figures show that a paltry 0.1 percent of Dallas' working population bikes to work, the lowest figure of any major American city — including Arlington. The number of people walking is similarly low. Public transit, meanwhile, is still synonymous in the average Dallasite's mind with poor people. And typhus.
What progress has been wrung from City Hall has come in slow drips. This is a city, after all, that has spent well over a year debating whether it should continue regulating sidewalk cafes out of existence, and where a wily developer like Trammell Crow can ramrod approval for a Sam's Club in CityPlace with no one noticing. It's a long way from tackling things like parking requirements and zoning rules that have helped exacerbate sprawl and therefore made alternative forms of transportation untenable.
Dallas will probably always be a car city. That's how it was built. Slowly, though — very slowly — it's becoming a place where people can at least survive without one.
Remedial Environmental Sciences
Assessment by: Amy Silverstein
There are aging coal plants upwind, toxic cement kilns to the south and 15,000 gas and oil wells on all sides. North Texas has the eighth-worst air quality in the nation, and is facing a crippling drought. So, yeah, Dallas has, finally and inevitably, begun embracing the idea that maybe people need fresh air or water or something besides a stable job and recently waxed truck. But it's still a gentle, reluctant embrace.
We are finally following coastal cities in recognizing that the convenience of grocery bags is not worth littering our oceans and landfills with disposable plastic. At the end of March, the Dallas City Council passed a law requiring stores to charge you for your choice of paper or plastic. But it stopped short of banning them altogether.
Officials cracked down on Columbia Packing Co. for dumping blood into the Trinity River, but last month District Attorney Craig Watkins dropped all the charges because his investigator had trespassed to collect the evidence. Would he have done the same on a drug case?
Dallas adopted its drought plan this year, which will wisely involve charging people more for water when reservoirs get lower. Yet maybe we should think about also charging corporations more if they want to use our land that we depend on for water. The City Council in February approved a little-publicized measure to allow an oil company to build a heavy crude pipeline across land where a spill could threaten Dallas' water supply. The company, Enbridge, is already responsible for costliest pipeline-related spill in history. The price it paid Dallas: $1,600.
The city is also adjusting to the idea that there are ways to prevent West Nile Virus that might be healthier and more effective than spraying a bunch of toxins into the air. According to the city's 2014 Mosquito Abatement Plan, the city will distribute free, non-toxic larvicide dunks to residents. Unfortunately, the plan also mistakenly tells people that a toxic, synthetic chemical found in adulticides called pyrethroids is an all-natural substance coming from a flower. It suggests you put the pyrethroids on your apples and peaches. Don't.
And while the city's fracking regulations are, for now, strict, what happens when the price of natural gas increases and drillers get anxious about the gas lurking beneath the Barnett?
Advanced Placement Urban Policing
Asessment by: Joe Tone
There was a time not long ago when Dallas seemed destined to struggle in this area forever more. It was the summer of 2012, and the city was on its way to a record year for officer-involved shootings — 15 shot, 10 killed, the most in a decade. Then, one afternoon that July, police chased 31-year-old James Harper from a suspected drug house and, after a protracted fight, shot him dead. An autopsy would later reveal the wounds to be in his chest, but witnesses swore he'd been shot in the back, and the neighborhood, on Dixon Street in southern Dallas, emptied into the streets, forcing police to fend off a riot. "Police are always killing people, and it's always our people getting killed," a woman said in the streets that day, sparking a conversation that's endured ever since. "Every time you look around one of us is dead."
The bloodshed dipped slightly last year, but the ubiquity of video kept that narrative — "Police are always killing people" — alive and well. A dashboard camera captured officer Amy Wilburn firing one shot at an unarmed 19-year-old after the officer moved in on a stolen car, hospitalizing the teen. Though the video didn't show it, an eyewitness claimed the teen, Kelvion Walker, a passenger in the car, had his hands in the air as the officer fired. Another video, captured by a neighbor's security camera, was less ambiguous: It showed officer Cardan Spencer opening fire on a schizophrenic man standing idly in the street.
As the calendar flipped to 2014, it seemed almost impossible that law enforcement, to shift perception if not reality, would not react. And in ways, it did. Police Chief David Brown, already known for aggressively (and transparently) rooting out officers who commit off-duty crimes, fired both Wilburn and Spencer. Then, after District Attorney Craig Watkins vowed to investigate police shootings more aggressively, a grand jury indicted both officers, the first indictments of an officer for a shooting since 1973. Brown also called for officers to be equipped with body cameras, although those may be a ways off, with the city facing a $30 million shortfall and Mayor Mike Rawlings eyeing public safety for cuts.
It's felt generally like progress. But not many see it that way. A spokeswoman for Watkins says the indictments are the result of damning video evidence, not redoubled efforts by prosecutors, since that will take new and substantial funding from the county. The Dallas Police Association's president, Ron Pinkston, has aggressively fought Brown's crackdown, writing that his "up in the air policy creates doubt and hesitation in an officer about when/if to use deadly force, which ultimately is going to result in an officer and/or a citizen getting killed." And in southern Dallas, the seas of distrust that washed up on Dixon Street two summers ago are still rising, says activist the Reverend Ronald Wright, of Justice Seekers Texas. They'll continue to, Wright says, until an independent review board is in place, and until "we get a true indictment — not an indictment where it's, 'Hey, we got you on TV.'"
Advanced and Annoying Weather Systems
Assessment by: Gavin Cleaver
Coming off the back of 2013's icepocalypse, which heralded a winter so terrible that many people were simply unable to drive to work, little Dallas had a lot of work to do through the first half of 2014. If it were ever to regain its reputation as a city where the weather was at least not entirely appalling, all Dallas had to do was avoid further icescapades. Did it do that? No. No it did not.
Instead, the first part of 2014 was marked by a deeply unfriendly number of freezes, as Dallas' supposedly subtropical climate became something more akin to the North Pole. Countless people presumably froze to death, which wasn't reported due to the gigantic media conspiracy we're all a part of. I feel confident in saying, however, that there is no way anyone could have survived the winter of 2013-14 intact.
February saw the dreaded rollout of ICE FORCE LEVEL TWO across the city, when it became clear that the efforts of ICE FORCE LEVEL ONE could do absolutely nothing to contain the rampant spread of Jack Frost's malevolence. In March, several thousand drivers spent an entire day stuck on I-45, which resembled a skating rink, only without the easy access to soft pretzels.
Sure, Dallas wins some marks back for not being "entombed in ice" again, like the end of 2013, but instead, as the weather crosses over from "frozen" to "burning," we're faced with our old foe: the tornado. There also have to be some marks taken away for the shortest spring in the whole history of mankind, which lasted approximately one hour, during the afternoon of May 11.
There was also the fact that our Lord saw it appropriate to confine all terrible weather to the weekend, tempting office workers with sunshine they could see from their office windows only to cruelly remove said sunshine as soon as any of them had the chance to go outside, as was the case with the Final Four concerts. Perhap s God is just a massive Springsteen fan and didn't fancy a crowd? Either way, dissatisfaction with the weather is at a high right now, as the single hour of spring has given way to temperatures in the 90s and the prospect of temperatures staying in the 90s basically for the rest of human existence.
There is one shining light, however. St. Delkus, patron weather saint of Dallas-Fort Worth, suggests that July might have a little bit of rain and maybe not burn all of us to death. So there's some optimism to cling to, as long as your definition of optimism is "not burning to a crisp within six seconds of stepping outside." As always, it's a good time for deodorant manufacturers and AC repairmen. Also, with all the ice over the winter, global warming definitely isn't a thing. In fact, global cooling is now the trend. Lord knows Dallas loves a trend.
Weather Grade: D
Delkus Grade: What's above A+ again?