On March 22, I penned a story for this page in which I portrayed school district trustee Bernadette Nutall as appearing to be "neutral" on school reform.
Her apparent neutrality made her a very singular exception to the rule at a heated community meeting the night before at Madison High School, where other southern Dallas black leaders came out swinging against a crackdown on ineffectual school principals.
Can I reel that back in? Please? I believe I may have been in a state of self-induced journalistic coma. I like Nutall. She's smart. But, man, is she ever not neutral.
What I did not know at the time was this: Nutall, who represents district 9 in old South Dallas, and board President Lew Blackburn, from district 5 extending down into the old Wilmer-Hutchins district, are absolutely at war with Superintendent Mike Miles over school reform. They are fighting him tooth and nail over his campaign to house-clean principals in schools with terrible student achievement records.
The War in South Dallas started last February 21 when a mid-level district executive wrote Miles to report that Nutall was grilling her unpleasantly about the job status of certain principals. The executive told Miles that Nutall had warned her the community would "rise up against me" if one principal in particular was touched.
I know this stuff because this morning I got a stack of documents I had demanded some weeks ago under Texas public information law. I am quoting from letters and emails that DISD sent me in response to my demand.
Within three days of receiving that first letter of complaint, Miles had figured out that Nutall was systematically contacting people in the post of executive director -- the front-line implementers of Miles' data-driven assessments of principals and teachers.
On February 24, Miles received a copy of an email one executive director had sent to her immediate boss complaining that Nutall had accosted her at a school event: "She was sure to tell me that as the new ED, I, too, was being watched and that I needed to be careful not to 'believe the hype.'"
The email said Nutall had warned the executive director to keep her hands off a specific principal. "After she was complete in releasing her venom about the superintendent, she left."
On February 25, Miles wrote Nutall back: "Please stop this behavior, which serves only to intimidate the district's staff and does not serve the interests of either the district or its children."
Miles also put out the word to the executive directors that he had their backs, urging them not to fear reprisals from the trustees. "Do not let others, outside of school leadership, influence the [process] ...," he wrote. "The leadership team and I will support you as you carry out this important work."
Miles's messages to Nutall and the executive directors had two effects. Nutall was furious, but the executive directors had more to tell.
At 7:17 p.m. on February 26, a Tuesday, Nutall sent Miles a long angry letter in which she called him "intentionally misleading and dishonest." She categorically denied trying to tell the executive directors what to do and accused Miles of racism, even citing a landmark desegregation ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. She told Miles to "schedule immediately a meeting" with the executive directors who had complained about her "so that I may hear directly from my accusers."
Forty-one minutes later Miles shot back an email saying, "No, I will not call a meeting of my staff so that you can intimidate them further."
Blackburn joined the fray calling the charges against Nutall serious and demanding that Miles set up the meeting she had directed him to schedule.
On March 1, the following Monday, Miles received a copy of a letter that three executive directors had sent to their boss, who is just below Miles, laying out more specifically what they claimed Nutall had told them. They said she had told them to leave certain southern Dallas principals untouched no matter what. They said she had warned them "not to align ourselves with Mr. Miles." And they said Nutall had threatened that if they failed to heed her words, "the community would come after you."
Apparently all of this has discussed by the board in closed door executive sessions, which I'm pretty sure were illegal. They probably used the excuse that it was a personnel matter in order to hide behind closed doors. But how is this kind of basic question -- school reform and school district governance itself -- not an important political issue crying out for daylight? If this isn't public, what is?
I will have more on this in a column in the paper next week. Dallas is not the Lone Ranger in terms of this bitter coming fight over public school reform. It's a battle heating up all over the country, with the same heavy emphasis on race and job protection elsewhere. See two stories in The New York Times just this morning, one about a ground-breaking campaign in Tennessee to use charter schools to improve the achievement levels of poor black kids, and another about the fall-out from a cheating scandal in Atlanta.
As I said, I like Nutall and think she's smart. I certainly hope I will be able to talk to her more about this in the next couple of days.
But, look, all you DISD people who have been commenting here about what a son of a bitch Miles is and how there's too much pressure on you and so on? You need to know that these emails and letters, simply on the face of them, confirm that this battle is about job protection.
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Nutall clearly has been out there warning mid-level management that certain principals are protected no matter how bad their student achievement scores may be, that this is racial as hell, that keeping those jobs safe is a civil rights issue, and that anybody who obeys Miles and not Nutall will face the wrath of "the community."
I'm not saying you can't comment. Please, do. But do me a favor, OK: be honest with yourselves about the nature of this war and whose army you're in.