The cabal that has always controlled the Dallas school district—and that includes the editorial page of The Dallas Morning News—doesn't even know what hit it in the recent school board election. I do. One word.
The teachers unions, traditionally fractured and at odds with each other, banded together very late in the day for this off-cycle election and fought for three candidates, two of whom won. In the long view of school board history here, that's pretty close to a revolution.
I will explain later how it happened. But first, I can't help myself. I just have to stop and marvel at the reaction of the Morning News editorial page.
Two days after the election, the paper ran an editorial warning the newly elected school board members that they had better shape up, toe the line and help the board keep on doing exactly what it's been doing.
Help me. I need to understand why the editorial page of the city's only daily newspaper would want this school board to keep doing what it's been doing.
In a little over a year the Dallas school system has made the single biggest budgeting mistake in its history. Then it clumsily hacked hundreds of teachers from the rolls to make up for it. The school system practically destroyed its own IT system in a purchasing scandal that has already sent one high-flying top official to the big house for 11 years.
The board refused to impose conflict-of-interest rules to prevent its own board president from doing millions of dollars a year in construction and repair business with the district. The board invented a phony-baloney legal argument to justify savaging faculties at its own very best schools, the magnets. And what else? Wasn't there something else?
Oh, yeah. The Third World banana republic thing. With all of these issues on the table and a punishing school board election coming up, the Dallas school board tried to suspend its own elections. It yielded only when the Texas attorney general told the board that elected officials cannot legally suspend their own elections in Dallas. In Texas, actually. Well, really, in America. Other countries, maybe. But it's definitely not a U.S. of A. thing to do.
Apparently the voters did. In the December 8 election, which the board was forced to hold against its will, incumbent trustee Leigh Ann Ellis repeatedly told crowds that she had voted to suspend the elections in order to save money on elections. She was defeated. It's called the old heave-ho—a tradition as ancient and revered as barrels of tea in Boston Harbor.
So two days after the election, the Morning News editorial page wags its inky finger at Bruce Parrott, the candidate whom the voters chose over Ellis, warning him that he had better not be "combative and unproductive" the way his wife, Lois Parrott, was when she was president of the school board four years ago.
"The district doesn't need another combative board to further complicate already difficult tasks," the editorial said.
That's like saying it would have been "combative and unproductive" for somebody in the wheel house that fateful night, almost 98 years ago now, to have told the captain of the Titanic, "I think possibly we should perhaps turn the boat, maybe, sir."
Combative? Could be. But unproductive? No way.
The productive thing is not to hit icebergs, which the Dallas school board seems to do on some kind of dreadful regular rotation, like they're out there actively hunting for them. What could be better or healthier for the Dallas Independent School District than new board members who will ask tough and even combative questions?
It's not that there are no such persons now on the board. Trustee Carla Ranger, who represents District 6 in southwest Dallas near suburban Duncanville, has shown incredible, indomitable courage in confronting the oligarchy on school issues, even when they went after her source of personal livelihood.
Board president Adam Medrano, who represents District 8 in northwest Dallas all the way up to the intersection of the LBJ and Stemmons Freeways, is less outspoken than Ranger but nevertheless has shown real independence.
Lew Blackburn, who represents District 5 in south central Dallas down to the suburbs of Hutchins and Lancaster, sometimes can be a shrewd and effective opponent of the controlling gang. But that does raise a question. Who is the gang?
I spoke last week with David Bradley, an activist in the Democratic Party for 25 years and one of the architects of the election strategy that took two key seats away from the establishment in the recent election. He told me he views the controlling gang as a group of powerful entities and persons who have traditionally made money doing business with the district.
"The biggest problem I think with the DISD," he says, "is the fact that what I refer to as the oligarchy—you may call them the establishment or whatever the hell you want to call them—view the school district as a revenue opportunity."
The fact that they make money off the district—in school construction, legal fees, banking and consulting—gives this group a powerful incentive to maintain control.
"The oligarchy in this town," Bradley says, "has a permanent 24/7 machine that has been going on for decades, and all they have to do is just flip the switch and the money starts pouring out."
Bradley, who has two kids in the school system, says the problem with parent outrage over the district's snafus is that it tends to have a very short half-life. He says the oligarchy understands all of that and wanted to delay the school board election, originally slated for last May, for that very reason.
"Between the budget snafu, the teacher lay-offs, the illegal extension of their term and cancellation of the election and going after the magnet schools, there was a brushfire in this town. If that election had been held in May, I think the incumbents would have been in bigger trouble."
Bradley says he thinks that incumbent Edwin Flores, a favored son of the establishment gang, would have gone down in a May election. But Flores survived the recent election.
"I thought the brushfire was still out there," he says, "and it was painfully evident to me this fall that it was not."
So why did the group he helped found, Dallas Friends of Public Education, nevertheless win two of three contests in which it backed candidates? The group helped Parrott take District 3 in Northeast Dallas and Bernadette Nutall in District 9 in East Dallas and South Dallas.
Bradley says the basic carry in this election came from labor organizations. "This was a victory for labor," he says.
Compensating for the short attention spans of angry parents, two major teacher organizations buried their traditional competitive axes and worked together, even sharing coveted membership lists. The National Education Association and the Alliance-AFT were able to provide the organizational heft needed to defeat better funded candidates backed by the construction lobby.
Rena Honea, president of the Alliance, and Dale Kaiser, president of the local NEA, both confirmed to me Bradley's account of their organizations' roles in the election.
I asked all of them—Bradley, Honea and Kaiser—if they think this victory is a watershed. Does it signal a time when there will be a permanent ongoing organized opposition to the people who view the school system as a cow to be milked for profit? They all said maybe sorta possibly but we'll have to wait and see.
There will be another school board election next May, when three more seats will be contested. "That really becomes the benchmark," Kaiser says. He says the opposition bloc on the board, now a very loosely associated group of four to five votes on a nine-member board, could become a bloc of six or even seven.
I spent a long time talking to Bruce Parrott last week after his victory. He demurred from laying out a specific course of action. But Parrott promised me he will not heed the dictates of the Morning News editorial page and hide his light under a bushel.
"I'm good at asking questions," he says, "and that's going to probably get me in some trouble. The one thing I enjoyed about college was asking questions. I never have hesitated. If I don't understand what the hell they're talking about, I'll say, 'Excuse me, do me a favor and put it in layman's terms.'"
You know, that could be all we need. I think back to that night 98 years ago. "Excuse me, sir. Could you explain in layman's terms why we want to run into the iceberg?" Of course, then we wouldn't have the movie.
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Honea of the AFT says she thinks a new day may well be dawning and that parents, teachers and labor organizations are natural allies in that dawn. "I do think the unions coming together made an impact," she says, "because that's not something that normally happens. But when you bring it down to the main issue, which is our kids, people finally said, 'Look, we have to come together on this and let people know. We have to take care of what's happening here and get past it.'"
In the last two years the school board trustees have been subjected to all kinds of mind-bending training by consultants brought in by the school construction gang to indoctrinate them. The lesson is always the same. It's the same mantra repeated last week on the Morning News editorial board:
Don't argue. Don't ask questions. Be team players. Go along to get along.
I guess I'd tell them the same thing if I were making a few mil' a year off them. But parents who want their kids taught and teachers who want to teach them will have a different perspective. And no matter what the News says, two perspectives are always better than one.