Dallas School Board trustee Bernadette Nutall, with her back to the camera, welcomes U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Dallas School Board trustee Bernadette Nutall, with her back to the camera, welcomes U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Stephen Young

Dallas White Old Guard, Dallas Black Old Guard: Peas in a Bad Pod

It’s unfair for me to spend time here tearing into the city’s old rich white elite and never say anything about other people’s elites. Everybody’s got one.

It’s hard to generalize about the city’s Hispanic leadership because they’re very diverse politically, and frankly, I really don’t see them doing much goofy stuff. When’s the last time you saw a Latino leader in Dallas lobbying for the city to build fake kayak rapids?

Now, the black political old guard is another story, and I think that particular topic may be where I have been most derelict. If I’m going to go around all the time harping on how crazy and hypocritical the white old guard can be, it’s wrong of me not to take at least a potshot now and then at the city’s black elected leaders. And talk about fish in a barrel anyway.

Example: Two public school trustees, Joyce Foreman and Bernadette Nutall, who are at or near the top of the black elected elite in the city, have been forceful foes of charter schools for several years. But right now they are engaged in a campaign so totally at odds, upside-down, crazily contradictory and opposite of all their publicly stated principles that a person would be justified in wondering if they both got conked on the head or something.

Charter schools are public schools that operate outside the city’s main public school district. Foreman and Nutall oppose the proliferation of charter schools, or so they have always said. They have argued consistently that charter schools cherry-pick the best students, luring them away from the main public school district and weakening the district by siphoning off state funds.

But it’s more than that. Their opposition to charter schools is part and parcel of a larger worldview by which they see charters and many other approaches to school reform as the cunning work of conservative Republican corporate types whose secret agenda is to privatize the country’s educational system. The two trustees have garnered strong support from local teachers’ unions, which tend to share their view of the world in one degree or another.

I’m not here to argue with any of that. At least not today. Today I just want to make the point that Foreman and Nutall have consistently opposed most of school reform in general and charter schools in particular; they have based that opposition on the assertion that these things are the work of rich white conservative corporate finks; and, for that, they are beloved of the teachers unions.

The first big sign that Nutall had fallen off her philosophical hobbyhorse and possibly landed on her head came in early April when we learned that she had gone to work for Charles Koch, the nation’s best known, most influential antagonist of teachers unions. Koch is an uber-wealthy activist who is a proponent of school reform, and he is a champion of charter schools and privatization.

When Nutall told me why she was working for a group funded by Koch, her explanation reminded me of the line spuriously attributed to Willie Sutton, a notorious bank robber of the 1950s. Asked why he robbed banks, Sutton supposedly said, “Because that’s where the money is.”

Asked how she, a foe of privatization and charter schools, could take money from Koch, Nutall said, “You apply for grants, and you get the money. I don’t get funding from everyday people. I don’t get funding from anyone in South Dallas. The majority of my funding comes from North Dallas.”

After I wrote about it, I was criticized by a reader who told me that money from the Kochs comes with far fewer strings attached than “money from North Dallas,” the suggestion being that Nutall had liberated herself, relatively speaking, by moving away from North Dallas money and toward the Koch money.

The problem with that is that shortly after going Koch, Nutall showed up on TV squiring around Trump’s visiting education secretary, Betsy DeVos, an ultraconservative union-buster who filled her staff in Washington with former executives from the nation’s shady for-profit schools and then killed the department’s ongoing investigation into crooked practices at shady for-profit schools. So DeVos is not merely a champion of for-profit schools, but she is a champion of for-profit schools suspected of shady behavior.

I can guarantee you something. No matter how much money anybody in North Dallas ever gave her, no one in North Dallas would ever have had the temerity even to suggest that Bernadette Nutall squire Betsy DeVos around town like she was her hostess. If it’s true the Koch money comes with fewer strings, then those few strings must be made of steel and have one powerful big yank to them.

Now this: Last week, Foreman and Nutall were behind a proposal brought to the school board asking the district to give away $10 million to a charter school. So, before we go on, let’s be clear. Yes, $10 million. Yes, charter school. Yes, give away. And no, that’s not all.

According to the deal brought to the board at the behest of Foreman and Nutall, the district also would give away a building — a shuttered elementary school. The $10 million would go toward renovating it. Then the district would provide the charter school with $175,000 a year in perpetuity to maintain the place. And, no, sorry, but that’s still not all.

At the school board meeting, some appalled school district trustees asked what the district would get in return. The chief financial officer informed them that the district would get nothing. Zero. The 10 million bucks, the building, the annual amount would go out the door. Nothing would come back in.

In fact, I started thinking about Willie Sutton the minute I heard about this. I was wondering, “What’s the difference between making a proposal like this and handing the teller an open satchel and a note?” I guess in both cases you can always claim later it was just a suggestion.

As long as we’re on the topic of the city’s black elected elite, it would be remiss of me not to revisit what happened just a couple of weeks ago when three of the four African-American members of the Dallas City Council sided with a roomful of gum-smacking Confederate Yosemite Sams and voted to reverse a decision of the council last year to remove all of the city’s monuments to Jim Crow.

Once again, let’s slow down and go back over it one step at a time. There are four black members of the Dallas City Council. The Jim Crow statues are ostensibly Civil War memorials but were erected decades after the war, at a time when the South was hardening the rules of racial segregation. Last year, the council voted to take them all down and initiated a process to get it done.

Two weeks ago, three of the city’s black council members — Tennell Atkins, Dwaine Caraway and Casey Thomas — joined with conservative whites on the council and voted to halt that process and preserve the Jim Crow statues in place for an indeterminate period, maybe forever.

John Fullinwider, a longtime community activist, was forcibly ejected from that council meeting for loudly denouncing the vote from the public pews. Later, he wrote a piece about it for The Dallas Weekly.

Fullinwider’s essay was a deeply thoughtful, carefully wrought response to the question raised in its headline: “Why Did the Dallas City Council Vote to Preserve a Confederate Monument Downtown & Why Did 3 Black Council Members Go Along With It?”

Fullinwider concluded, “One way to view the votes of Thomas, Atkins, and Caraway is that they used the deferral vote to gain time to somehow untether their support of a takedown from retribution by the mayor in the form of economic isolation of their districts.”

Got it? He’s saying they voted to reverse the takedown to keep the mayor from sabotaging their districts on economic development projects. If that’s true, let me offer you an imaginary moral parallel. It’s Dec. 1, 1955, and a black seamstress named Rosa Parks just refused to move to the segregated seats at the back of the Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Three young African-American men — we’ll imagine their names are Dwaine Atkins, Tennell Thomas and Casey Caraway — come forward and tell the driver, “We’ll get Ms. Parks to go sit down in the back of the bus and be quiet if you’ll get the bus company to give us jobs.”

History went the other way in Montgomery. Not in Dallas.

That brings us, I think, to the bottom line on the two Dallas old guards, the white one and the black one. The two have been able to work together so seamlessly over the last many decades because they share a great secret: Neither side operates from any consistent moral or philosophical base, and in the end, both are interested only in their own power and gratification. They are not burdened by any sense of the greater good.

Look closely at the white old guard. Everything they fight for is something to benefit them, like those stupid fake suspension bridges over the river named after their mothers. But look just as closely at the black old guard.

Foreman and Nutall have even opposed measures like the Accelerating Campus Excellence school program and the tax ratification election, both designed to pump resources into schools serving their constituents, merely because they fear those programs and ideas might erode their personal control.

Of course we have black, Hispanic and white elected officials and leaders who are not part or parcel of either of these old elites. But when you put the black old guard next to the white old guard and hold them in the same focus, they are one thing — the unified party of self-seeking.

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