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Bored to cheers

How's this for a novel idea, Dallas: A black school board president.
Thank you. It took me a long time to come up with that.
We're supposed to be way beyond racial hang-ups, I know. We're sophisticated folk, savvy enough to purge the N word from our vocabularies and subject ourselves to sackcloth and ashes and cultural sensitivity training.

How does that go? A man should be judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin?

A noble ideal, anyone would agree.
Of course, character hasn't exactly been the measure of men and women in recent years among DISD's leadership. One needn't look too deep down the list of villains and villainesses for proof. Just go as far as G for Gonzalez, Yvonne, our blues-singin', bed-embezzlin', alley-prowlin' onetime superintendent; and K for Kress, Sandy, our amoral former board president, who figured out how to rig board committees so that none had a black majority, then did perhaps the only thing politically that registers as sin to him--got caught.

(A confession: The Dallas Observer once called Kress the "minority students' best friend." Yikes.)

But here we are today. Hollis Brashear has been DISD board president for three months, and the sky hasn't fallen--teachers are still teaching, kids are still graduating, and Brashear is still black.

Granted, the teachers as a whole aren't teaching as effectively as we'd like, and Hispanic kids are still dropping out in droves. But you get the point: Brashear's tenure hasn't brought catastrophe.

Whatever it is that the board's old white-Hispanic majority--better known as the Slam-Dunk Gang--fought so hard to prevent hasn't happened. Ebonics hasn't replaced standard written English; baggy-butt hoodlums haven't taken over district headquarters; and Brashear hasn't treated his white and Hispanic colleagues on the board like...well, some of them once treated him.

What was it that everyone was so afraid of?
We have just emerged from an uproarious, wrenching three years of racial discord, in which three white board presidents in succession presided over a district in which only 11 percent of the student body is white.

That caused problems. Black protesters whooped and hollered at every white face in authority during board meetings, and while many of these protests were undoubtedly racist--silly spectacles manufactured by a small group of men and women with too much time on their hands--you had to kind of wonder after a while. Things just weren't working with white folks in the top elected seat; too much mistrust had built up over the years, too many bad memories had accumulated.

Add to that two board presidents--Sandy Kress and his successor, Bill Keever--who turned out to be losers in different ways, and maybe there's a time simply to acknowledge things aren't working, make a change, and refrain from assessing blame.

All of that has something to do with why Hollis Brashear, a six-year board veteran, emerged as the peace candidate for board president late last year. Brashear hadn't exactly dazzled us with vision and courage up until then. In fact, he seemed rather lost and forlorn at times, while the loudmouths ran amuck at board meetings, screaming, jeering, and making a mockery of the democratic process--which isn't to say that anyone else thrived in this environment.

But something strange or spiritual must have happened as soon as Brashear assumed the leadership role, because today he's a man transformed.

In his own, low-key way.

I am so sick of charisma.
Talk about an overrated trait. "Dr. G" had it in abundance, and look where it got us. It's evident now that she possessed charisma and little else. District officials speak freely these days about her inattention to detail, about her utter disdain for policies and process, particularly when money was involved.

Gonzalez moved so fast, though, that the school board to which she was, in theory, accountable never caught up with her until it was too late. "We had a superintendent going to the board and charging accounts and not saying anything about it, taking insurance checks and depositing them in the wrong accounts," says trustee John Dodd, who was elected in the midst of Gonzalez's short reign. "She did not have the proper respect for the board, but had a good enough relationship with some people on the board to ensure that no one said anything about it."

One thing emerged with certainty in conversations I had during the past few weeks with six of the nine board members: Brashear, Dodd, Yvonne Ewell, Lois Parrott, Ron Price, and Don Venable. All of the trustees learned some bruising lessons from getting sucked into the vortex of the "Human Tornado," as Gonzalez was called in some circles. Those lessons were so "gut-wrenching and emotionally devastating," as Dodd puts it, that I doubt these people will ever make the same mistakes again.  

Crisis really has shaped this group of elected officials, and they're better for it. As they embark on a new superintendent search--one of the school board's most sacred functions, the only position for which it's authorized to make a hire--you can be assured we will not end up with another callow and callous young whippersnapper like Yvonne Gonzalez.

These days, thanks, in part, to the steady ways of Hollis Brashear--and his similarly mild administrative counterpart, acting Superintendent James Hughey--things are kind of boring at district headquarters.

If you read between the lines, some enormously important things are going on, but, for a change, they've got nothing to do with race and sex. Things are so bland that reporters feel relaxed enough to hang out in the DISD press office during board meetings and munch Girl Scout cookies, knowing they're not going to miss anything important--i.e., a riot.

It's sleepy down there, and I like it that way. The protesters are gone. The back wall of the auditorium at district headquarters is no longer lined with enormous security officers during school board meetings. District staffers are coming up for air. Trustees are mostly succeeding at being civil to each other. It's safe to bring children to board meetings again, knowing they generally won't be subjected to shameful displays of disdain and disrespect by their elders.

It was racial politics that brought us Brashear as board president; that's reality. I don't like it; you shouldn't either. But Brashear, a 62-year-old engineer and retired Army officer--a stolid, churchgoing man--was the only experienced candidate who didn't carry heavy baggage. He wasn't close to Gonzalez; he wasn't identified with the black extremists; and he wasn't a crony of that ol' slickster, Kress (who still has the nerve to call board members and foist his bright ideas upon them).

When Don Venable--who is white, unencumbered by political alliances, and ferociously independent--was elected to the board last December, he destroyed the old Slam-Dunk power base that Gonzalez had relied on to look the other way during her flights of fancy. The effects were almost immediately known when Venable and another independent-minded white trustee, John Dodd, helped depose Kathleen Leos, at one time Gonzalez's biggest ally on the school board, as board president.

(Leos, who is an Anglo but represents Hispanic interests, had made the unfortunate mistake of believing in Gonzalez a little too long. Her disputed role in some of the disgraced former superintendent's schemes is still a cause of bitterness among her colleagues, though Leos has handled this backlash with grace. Few people doubt her sincerity and worthiness as a trustee.)

Since Venable and Dodd weren't so dumb to think another white board president would help bring sanity to the district, they pushed out Leos well before her one-year term as president was up and rallied behind Brashear. He stumbled into the leadership role as a result.

It was all kind of ugly, this bloodless coup. But somehow it worked for the better.

Wondering whether today's seeming calm had any basis in fact, I sat down with Hollis Brashear for a long interview and watched him in action on several occasions last month at board and committee meetings.

I came away impressed. While Brashear lacks the crackle of charisma, the flip side is that he does not appear to be swayed by personalities. He is gentle, straightforward, and discreet--to the point where it's frustrating for a journalist, because he refuses to discuss some of the board's agonizing missteps in the Gonzalez era, even ones for which he wasn't in any way responsible.

At meetings, Brashear moves methodically through the agenda, allowing time for debate but reining in trustees who have a tendency to graze in the weeds.

He seldom injects his personality into the proceedings, which makes the mouthier board members practically glow in the dark.

Typically plainspoken, Brashear describes his role as thus: "My objective is to stabilize the district financially and bring back esteem and morale to the teachers. I'm not going to respond to anything that's going to open wounds that have closed."

His leadership style, as such, is about as thrilling as a dictionary footnote. "I like to listen to people," Brashear says. "Once I feel it's the right thing to do and there are a majority of people who go along with it, I try to get in front. I don't believe you sit in the back and count votes."

Stirring stuff this is not. But even the board's curmudgeons, such as Lois Parrott, have to search to come up with gripes against Brashear. In general, she says, "he's doing a good job."  

Yvonne Ewell adds, "Hollis is a peacemaker by nature. He tries to be very open and accommodate other people, even when they don't deserve it. Probably he's too fair for me. There's some things he'd overlook that I wouldn't. But we all needed some peace and calm."

Brashear points to the settling of the extremely debilitating and time-consuming Kathleen Leos-Matthew Harden lawsuits; the focus on a fair and democratic process in board meetings, leading to the restoration of order; and the passage of a technology plan to usher DISD schools into the '90s (yes, you read that right) as accomplishments during his tenure.

But the thing he refuses to talk about is actually his most critical achievement. He has helped this board exorcise the ghosts of Yvonne Gonzalez and the Slam-Dunk Gang.

What we see today is an emerging democracy. It's not a tidy spectacle; individual agendas are coming to the fore again at board meetings, resulting in the usual complement of rolled eyes and disdainful snorts and snickers.

Don Venable is focused on the minutiae of the process, exasperating and confusing his colleagues. Lois Parrott wants the district's internal investigation to go on forever and ever, till everyone who's ever walked past Gonzalez's shadow gets indicted. Yvonne Ewell is--as Venable puts it--"Old Faithful," spurting forth homilies about ancient struggles at predictable intervals.

Behind the scenes, there are scars. Leos' alleged involvement in attempts to oust former district chief financial officer Matthew Harden, who is black, disgusted trustee Ron Price, and he hasn't bothered to conceal his resentment. It's also a sign of deep-seated mistrust--not necessarily dedication--that most board members show up for every committee meeting, thinking their colleagues might pull a fast one. Personality clashes still flare from time to time, although you get the sense that these folks are continually surprised by the discovery that their colleagues aren't the ogres they expected them to be.

So problems remain, but no trustee is careless, clueless, or hopelessly in it for personal gain, unlike several members of the Dallas City Council (see Jim Schutze's cover story this week).

All of this might not look like a revolution, but those who've been around long enough know it is.

There are no longer any established factions on this board. Everyone, including Brashear, has to scramble to get a five-vote majority.

The Slam-Dunk Gang is dead.
"You're dealing with nine intelligent people who, out of public view, get along a great deal better than it seems," says Venable, echoing the thoughts of several of his colleagues. "This board is much more aware of its need to control personal behavior and appear to be functioning as a board."

One telling sign was how several of the trustees with whom I spoke, black as well as white, mentioned the district's desperate need to accommodate the explosive increase in Spanish-speaking students. They mentioned it matter-of-factly; there was no racial or political tint to anything said, just a sober acknowledgement of an urgent priority, a job that must be done.

This willingness to move beyond traditional racial agendas is what's left after a crisis in which everyone got his backside burned.

Something good, after all, has survived the stained vision of Yvonne Gonzalez.

Readers may e-mail Dallas Observer editor Julie Lyons at jlyons@dallasobserver.com. Please note whether your comments are intended for publication.


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