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Chaos theory

Just last month, Bill Keever called a press conference and tearfully announced that he would relinquish his seat on the Dallas Independent School District board. He hoisted a flag of surrender familiar to embattled politicians, saying he needs to spend more time with his family. Keever said he would step down in May, when his stint as board president ends, and let voters pick someone else to fill out the two years remaining on his term.

But as voters, parents, police, and fellow politicians have learned since the nine-member board elevated Keever to the president's chair in May 1996, there's no telling what the 36-year-old MCI executive might do next.

These days, Keever is talking like a candidate again, saying he might decide to run in the May election to fill the seat he just quit. Apparently, Keever is hearing anew the call of public service, inspired by eight parents in his district who have signed a petition trying to draft him for the race.

"I will win this seat hands-down," Keever told the Dallas Observer. "The issue is whether I want to work 100 hours a week."

As for the family, Keever said he hadn't yet discussed the possibility of another campaign with his wife and eight- and nine-year-old daughters.

That the wishes of eight potential voters could hold such sway in the school board president's political future seems only fit. And while Keever may be changing his mind about sitting out this year's election, his performance is among the reasons others are running away from the elections as fast as they can.

Keever may well be the most controversial elected official in Dallas County right now; the nightly news regularly features his clumsy efforts to preside over the DISD as it spirals downward into racial chaos.

But for all the controversy that has engulfed Keever and the DISD, school board elections remain a pathetic stepchild of Dallas governance. Adding up the votes from all races, only 18,993 people elected the nine sitting members of the board, compared to a total of 453,153 voters now registered in the district.

Keever--epicenter of a racial and political maelstrom that has earned Dallas embarrassing publicity nationwide--was elected for a second term in 1996 with just 1,107 votes, beating his opponent by a mere 229 votes.

Then there's Kathlyn Gilliam, one of three black board members, who has been accused of orchestrating the loud, vulgar, and decidedly unproductive disruptions at recent meetings. Gilliam was last elected to the board in 1994 with only 147 votes, facing no opposition in her district. She is running again in this May's election, so far, unopposed. (The filing deadline for candidates is March 19.)

The numbers hardly represent a stunning mandate for a board charged with overseeing the education of 142,000 students in the nation's 10th-largest public school district.

With Keever's resignation, four board seats are up for grabs this year, to be filled in the traditional May elections which generate little interest and few voters. With all the tumult showing up on the nightly news--and now the possibility of a Keever political flip-flop--voters can anticipate contentious campaigns.

That is, if the Dallas body politic doesn't tune out the whole DISD mess--a plausible outcome at this low point in school district history.

Election numbers tell only part of the story. School board politics are perceived as being utterly dysfunctional, and explanations for the predicament advanced by all sides seem convoluted, flawed, and contradictory.

So low is the board's prestige that even the well-heeled businessmen and lawyers who traditionally bankroll school board campaigns are expressing hesitation about reaching into their pockets this time.

"I want to take my head and put it under a pillow. I am very disillusioned with school board politics. Who would want that position anyway?" says Marc Stanley, a Dallas lawyer who has regularly contributed to board campaigns in the past. His sentiments are shared by others.

"I just think we've all been disappointed," says Texas Utilities Electric Company chairman and chief executive Erle Nye, who contributed roughly $2,250 to nine different school board candidates in recent campaigns. "I don't know what I'll do this year."

Adelfa Callejo, a lawyer and Hispanic community activist, isn't ready to throw in the towel. But even she says that the incumbent DISD board members have some explaining to do. "You have four new Anglo women on that board. They are inexperienced, but they didn't create those problems. If we don't help them, we don't have a right to criticize them," says Callejo.

Things are so bad that Carol Reed--a political consultant who has advised Keever and his predecessor as board president, Sandy Kress--has sworn off all DISD trustee campaigns.

 

Reed says she doesn't want to get sucked into the quagmire of litigation born of DISD's fractious politics. Rick Finlan and Don Venable--concerned citizens with a penchant for suing elected officials at the drop of a hat--have already filed suit seeking campaign records on several occasions, causing an administrative nightmare for Reed's staff, she says. Political consultants typically go where the campaigns are, but this year, Reed says the work that comes with involvement in DISD races isn't worth the risk.

"I just cannot put my company in that jeopardy," she says.
Even board members concede that the district's battered image is quelling optimism about this year's campaigns.

"The frustration doesn't surprise me," says board vice president Kathleen Leos, a white member who is not up for re-election this year, but is considered a likely candidate to replace Keever as president in May. "I don't think the whole nature of the issue is understood. I think the real issue is, How do you reduce the words to all make sense to people? It's so convoluted at this point."

When Kathleen Leos last ran in 1995, she says, she had little trouble raising $24,000 for her campaign. Her experience was typical for board candidates in the past who have simply made the rounds seeking contributions from Dallas power brokers.

On average, the DISD trustees reported raising roughly $15,000 in the month before their most recent elections. Big contributors typically included the political action committees of the teachers and administrators. Money also typically flows in from a long, predictable list of prominent business and civic-minded movers and shakers, like oilman Ray Hunt, lawyer Tom Luce, car dealer Carl Sewell, TU Electric's Nye, and real estate developer Trammell Crow.

But the school board's seemingly endless string of public relations nightmares is making the business crowd wary about contributing to DISD campaigns.

First came racially charged demonstrations at the Talented & Gifted Magnet High School in late 1995 over where that program was located, which spawned the emergence of the New Black Panthers.

Then came the notorious Peavy Tapes, in which former board member Dan Peavy was heard uttering racial epithets provocative enough to force his resignation from the board. Peavy was then indicted--and acquitted by a jury--on federal bribery charges stemming from his handling of school district insurance contracts.

The selection of Hispanic administrator Yvonne Gonzalez to take over as superintendent further fueled the outrage of black protesters. During the past six months, school board meetings have become ground zero in the city's combative racial politics, with screaming protesters and belligerent Panthers all but shutting down the normal course of business.

Keever, a five-year school board veteran, has found himself at the center of the storm, and his future political ambitions may be its surest victim. (After announcing his resignation, Keever briefly floated the possibility of running for state Land Commissioner, but statewide office seems an unlikely prospect for Keever at the moment.)

Since his election as board president--over the objections of black members--Keever has drawn sharp criticism from the black community, dismissed as another doughy-faced white guy who was elected to his leadership post solely because he was the Anglo male with the most seniority on the board.

For his part, Keever has gone a long way to prove his detractors right, escalating the battles with protesters by bringing in disproportionate police power and dragging his feet before setting out rules for meetings that would restore some semblance of order.

"I don't know why it took so long," Keever concedes. "I was trying not to draw a line in the sand. I wanted to work through these issues. I wanted it to be, uh, less rigid. I didn't want people to have just three minutes to speak."

Keever's conduct in his private life has not done much to instill confidence. In a widely reported episode last December, the school board president brandished an unregistered--and, Keever claims, unloaded--gun during an argument with another customer at an automated bank teller machine. Keever said he only had the gun in his car because he was taking it in to be cleaned. A grand jury no-billed Keever on gun possession charges a few weeks later.

One could almost hear sighs of relief when Keever made his tearful announcement on January 25 that he was stepping down from the board. Politically, he has become an undeniable embarrassment.

"He's trying to do the right thing. They all do," says Nye, Keever's onetime benefactor. "They just don't get it right." Rob Allyn is a Dallas political consultant who previously advised former DISD president Kress and now advises Mayor Ron Kirk, who has publicly bickered with Keever. Keever, Allyn asserts, is a political has-been. "I don't know of anyone who takes his future political ambitions seriously except for Bill Keever," asserts Allyn.

 

Allyn's assessment, however, came before a small group of parents launched its draft-Keever petition drive, and Keever discounts the rush to write his political obituary.

"I don't do this job to please the media and political hobbyists like Rob Allyn," Keever says. "I do public service because I think it's a tool to improve the quality of life for the people you serve."

Perhaps aiming to quash the notion that he is fatally damaged, immediately after talking to the Observer Keever apparently telephoned Harley Hiscox, one of his financial backers in previous campaigns.

Within two hours, Hiscox--president of the Alliance of Dallas Educators, a teachers' organization that gives thousands of dollars to school board campaigns--made an unsolicited call to the Observer, reaffirming his support for Keever. "We have supported him in the past, and we will in the future," Hiscox said in a telephone message he left.

A few days later, however, when the Observer reached Hiscox, he conceded that the alliance he heads has decided not to back Keever. Hiscox said an alliance committee assigned to dole out campaign contributions had met and nixed the idea of giving to Keever's campaign if he decides to re-enter the race.

Even as his supporters defect, Keever argues that the rap on the DISD board as dysfunctional is undeserved. "Aside from the garbage you see on television, we have made massive progress on academic performance," Keever says. "Nothing else matters."

Dropout rates have fallen at DISD during the past several years--black students, for instance, are now dropping out at a rate of about 2 percent, down from 17 percent nine years ago.

During the same time period, scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test have inched upward, but hardly enough to crow about.

Yet despite Keever's protestations, academic performance is far from the only thing that matters at DISD right now. In fact, education has been all but lost in the fiery racial battles which have taken DISD hostage.

It is almost a plaintive cry coming from Bill Keever and other white school board members. As protesters and outsiders seem intent on applying racial tests to every action the school board takes--from the time of day it holds it's meetings to the search process for a new superintendent--Keever says the board itself is not racially polarized.

Despite widespread perceptions, board members have voted along racial lines only a handful of times during his tenure, Keever contends. And he has documented evidence to support that contention--sort of. Like so much else at DISD, the patterns of board votes are a matter of interpretation.

Sometime in early 1996, board secretary Robert Johnston grew tired of constantly scrounging about for information to answer reporters' questions about racial divisions among board members.

Every few weeks, another journalist would ask Johnston about the DISD board's voting patterns. Invariably, comments from one of the three black board members would have prompted the queries.

A silver-haired, 35-year school district veteran, Johnston decided to do something about it.

Black board members have long told reporters--and often state as an article of faith--that a voting bloc of white and Hispanic trustees dubbed the Slam-Dunk Gang consistently conspired to outmaneuver and outvote black board members.

Johnston began keeping a running tally of board votes--when they were unanimous, when they split, and who sided with whom. Nowadays Johnston's secretary, Edna Wagner, can--at a moment's notice--produce a computer printout showing five years of trustees' voting patterns.

When Johnston first started producing the charts regularly in early 1996, his statistics-at-the-ready approach did indeed help advance the argument that many white board members made: the DISD trustees were not racially divided, despite a widely reported perception to the contrary. From 1991 until last year, Johnston's graphs show, the board had split its votes only rarely--3 to 5 percent of the time. Moreover, only a handful of times did those divisions fall strictly along racial lines. Most of the time, the trustees--black, white, and Hispanic--cast their ballots unanimously.

But in the past year, Johnston's charts have started to show a different picture. The number of split votes rose to about 10 percent in 1996, including votes on some critical district business.

So steep and sudden is the jump that Johnston has seen fit to add a footnote to his chart. "Votes taken on large portions of the agenda due to meeting disruptions," states the board secretary's annotation at the bottom of the 1996 chart.

The cryptic "meeting disruptions" to which Johnston's footnote refers are the all-too-familiar bouts between white board members and the heckling, occasionally armed, black protesters.

On Johnston's graph, for instance, an asterisk marks the DISD board's voting results for the November 12, 1996, meeting. Held at A. Maceo Smith High School in South Oak Cliff, the autumn gathering ranks as one of the first nights among many when vociferous protesters--some 30 were present that evening--refused to yield the floor to Keever.

 

On that November evening, Keever attempted to thwart the protesters by calling for a quick, blanket vote on the entire board agenda. Two of the three black members--Kathlyn Gilliam and Yvonne Ewell--voted against the eight agenda items, while Hollis Brashear, the third black member, abstained from all eight votes.

All in all, it was a detrimental evening for Johnston's previously tidy voting charts; there were eight split votes, all along racial lines, so Johnston slipped in the footnote for damage control.

The board also split directly along racial lines when it wrestled with two other major issues: the funding of after-school programs, and the appointment of the new superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez.

Whether its voting patterns reflect a true racial rift or not, the DISD board is unquestionably saddled with widespread perception that race sets the tone for its politics.

That perception is making some of the power brokers who typically give to board campaigns more than a little nervous.

If Bill Keever does decide to jump back into the school board race, he will most likely attempt to tap some of his past contributors for more financial backing.

In previous elections, Keever's financial support came from the traditional quarters.

His campaign records on file at DISD read like a roster of the city's upper crust. Keever received donations of $100 or more from Erle Nye, Ray Hunt's right hand man John Scovell, Carl Sewell, Trammell Crow, wealthy Texas benefactor Peter O'Donnell, and the law firm of Tom Luce.

Keever amassed his impressive list of political benefactors, in part, because of his close ties to Sandy Kress, his predecessor as board president who didn't run for re-election and left the board in May 1996.

During his own school district campaigns, Kress was a phenomenally successful fundraiser. The former Dallas County Democratic Party chairman, Kress set all-time records for campaign fundraising at the school district level, raising some $75,000 during 1992 and 1993. Kress received campaign contributions from many of the same individuals who later contributed to Keever.

According to one school board member and two lawyers who contributed to Kress and other school trustee campaigns, Kress acted as a financial funnel for DISD board colleagues that he favored. The Kress group included Keever, Peavy, and more recently Kathleen Leos, a former board member says.

Kress would ask his network of contributors to send money to other board members. The two lawyers both say they cannot remember precisely whose campaigns they backed--records show they gave to Leos and Keever--but that they did so at Kress' behest.

Former board president Rene Castilla recalls that Kress lorded his superior fundraising contacts over the rest of the board. "We knew that he was the guy who could get money," says Castilla. "Sandy created the impression that he could see that the money got to you or not."

Kress puts a more kindly spin on his fundraising efforts. "I ran as an effort to further reforms for educational excellence," he says. "I did encourage people to contribute to those candidates that were also supporting reforms."

For his part, Keever says: "When I first got started, Sandy helped me out. But I don't need Sandy Kress to raise money now."

But in the topsy-turvy world of DISD board politics, impressive campaign finances are not always critical. Indeed, one of the trustees who is perceived as being extremely influential has never received much money for her campaigns.

The fundraising achievements of Kathlyn Gilliam, who has served as a DISD trustee for 23 years, stand in stark contrast to those of Keever or Kress. She raised a mere $7,000 in the same years that Kress raised his $75,000.

But then Gilliam, who has been accused of orchestrating the disruptive African-American protesters at board meetings for her own purposes, has not needed too much money for her campaigns. She is frequently unopposed. To say she has an easy time of it understates the case. She's the one who prevailed with 147 votes.

Gilliam's low vote tally is particularly noteworthy given that she is often cited by other (usually white) board members as the principal reason the DISD board appears so ineffective. Wealthy campaign contributors and other board members frequently mention her name as the chief reason why DISD schools seem to be stalled. She has opposed reform at every turn, they contend, and instead protected the financial benefits accrued by a minority of students as a result of the court-desegregation order.

 

In the upcoming May election, the voters will select a trustee to fill Gilliam's seat. So far, no one has filed to run against her, perhaps just waiting until they get closer to the March 19 deadline. It seems likely, given the shape that debate has taken at DISD, that Gilliam will have an opponent for the first time in years.

Castilla recalls that when he would seek money from wealthy contributors, they typically presented a laundry list for him to sign off on. "They wanted conservative moderates. They wanted you to hold the line on taxes. They wanted you to try to involve the business community, and they always wanted you to fight Gilliam," Castilla recalls.

A quick glance at DISD board secretary Johnston's voting charts shows that the majority of the board members at least partially followed those contributors' instructions. Gilliam ranks as the trustee who split most frequently--26 times in 1996 --with the board majority vote.

"Kathlyn's agenda is very obvious," says Keever. "It is a very racial agenda."

Gilliam seems unfazed by such criticisms. "That's [Keever's] problem," she says.

But Keever and Gilliam may both wind up facing the voters again this May--though it seems unlikely very many will turn out.

The two of them most personify the perceived racial polarization of the school board, but even they are seeing the need to tone things down a bit.

For her part, Gilliam gives Keever the benefit of the doubt, in a backhanded sort of way.

"I think Keever could have done a much better job if he had stood on his own two feet," she says, intimating that Keever is a puppet for bigger political movers and shakers. Asked who might be pulling Keever's strings, Gilliam replies: "Let him answer that question."

Keever balks when asked whether he will try to recruit an opponent to run against Gilliam. "Who am I to say who should represent her district?" he says.


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