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"Home Rule" Drive for DISD May Be in for a Brake Job This Week

There is a distinct possibility the mayor or somebody else associated with the public school takeover effort now underway -- called "home rule" by its backers -- will announce this week that they are "tapping the brakes," pausing the campaign for now. That will make lots of people happy but not me, because I don't think I will believe it.

Multiple reliable sources close to the effort told me last week and over the weekend that home rule will be put on hiatus. Quite apart from any merit the idea itself may have offered, the execution is being viewed by insiders as one of the more spectacular cluster-conjugations in recent memory. Supposedly the mayor and some of the others taking the egging for it would like to take a breather.

And so would you in their shoes. What a mess. The deal being presented to voters is this: We are supposed to sign petitions giving a blank slate to a group of people who, except for a few big names out front, have so far declined to identify themselves. With our permission in hand, they will use an arcane state law to uproot the existing system of school governance and replace it with something else. But nobody will say what that will be. That is one tough sale.

Word I am getting is that their petition drive, which must log almost 25,000 valid signatures to trigger the next step in the process, has hit a tough slog. People may have gotten the idea petition drives are easy, because Angela Hunt pulled one off in 2007 when, as a freshman City Council member and completely green officeholder, she gathered enough John Does to force a referendum on putting the Trinity River toll road inside the levees.

But Hunt's petition drive was a demonstration of pure political genius. She's a one-off who, in spite of her inexperience, was able to stitch together all the requisite elements of personal charisma and down-and-dirty grass-roots organizing. To the extent the current home rule petition drive has been identified with Mayor Mike Rawlings, it has demonstrated that Rawlings, good a mayor as he may be, is no Angela Hunt.

I worry, however, that the predictions of a retreat may contain a major dose of wish-projection by people who hated this whole thing from the beginning. The problem is that there is no room for a hiatus in the timetable. The goal of backers is to put a proposal before voters next November.

If the petition drive continues and hits its mark, and if and when those petitions are presented to the school board, then the state law sets a strict time-table for the rest of the process. A true pause now -- a halt in gathering signatures -- would probably kill the whole thing until 2016, when the petition gathering would have to start again from scratch.

It seems unlikely that whoever has been bankrolling the petition drive so far -- using paid signature gatherers as Hunt and her opponents all did in 2007 -- is going to agree to call off the effort now and throw the signatures they have already paid for into the landfill. It's more likely they will quietly keep on keeping on, and if and when they get to their 25,000-signature mark, the pressure within their group will be immense to file the petitions with the school board.

If that's what is happening, then the so-called brake-tapping or hiatus will turn out to have been yet another ruse, a pretend hiatus to try to take the heat off while they keep right on doing what they were doing. I don't think the effort can afford to look any more tricky than it does already. It already feels way too much like the way cheerleaders are chosen in the Park Cities. (If you have to ask, you're not in the running.)

More on all of this in a column in the paper later this week. In the meantime, if anybody tells you they're tapping the brakes, just make sure they're not right behind you.


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