Inside the Conspiracy of North Dallas School and Housing Reform

When Julian Castro had been on the job for about two hours, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings talked him into deep-sixing a five-year federal probe of housing fund irregularities in Dallas. Has Secretary Castro changed his mind with seasoning?
When Julian Castro had been on the job for about two hours, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings talked him into deep-sixing a five-year federal probe of housing fund irregularities in Dallas. Has Secretary Castro changed his mind with seasoning?
EPA/ Michael Reynolds

Dear Respected Supreme Leaders of the City: I see what you’re up to. I applaud your motives and the goal you seek to achieve. Your motives are my motives. Your goal is my goal. But I still think you’re kind of retarded.

All of a sudden and out of the wild blue yonder, you, Mr. Mayor, and you, too, Mr. School Superintendent: You are intent on “ending re-segregation” of Dallas public schools, which I think means you are intent on de-segregating the schools. That’s great.

But here’s what I think. The problem with the damn public is that they’re always too damn smart. Dammit! They’re going to notice something.

They’re going to notice that the Dallas public schools have been almost totally segregated forever. Forever. Not only did nobody care: For most of that time most of our Respected and Supreme Leaders, present company excepted of course, probably assumed segregation came from the Bible.

So the public is going to wonder, “Now all of a sudden what’s up? Why the big shift?” They’re going to start sniffing around, looking for something else to explain why all of a sudden you’re so dead-set on doing something about the schools. I’m telling you, this is how conspiracy theories often get started — with actual conspiracies.

The school strategy you have settled on is a smart and admirable one called “schools of choice.” This entirely non-coercive and voluntary approach will be mainly market-driven.

The school system looks around at its inventory and takes note of certain schools that are major market successes without being competitive admission magnet schools. They’re looking for schools lots of parents seem to want to put their kids in. The Dallas school district has several. The school system then clones those market successes in new locations in the majority white areas of the city, in the hope they will pull middle class or affluent kids away from private schools. The goal is for half of the student body in these schools to be middle class to affluent and the other half from poverty, as a means of achieving racial and economic diversity.

They’re not doing this blindly or naively. This idea is in use in other markets around the country. It works if the schools work, if the kids in them achieve well, which can be done.

Some middle-class parents will pull their kids from the privates and put them in these “schools of choice” to save money. Some will do it because they don’t want to raise kids who are afraid to sit next to people who don’t look like them. And I must say — based on real-life experience and not a joke — I believe that some affluent white parents will do it because they think it will help their kids play better basketball.

Hey. When you’re getting white people to sign up for desegregation, don’t be choosy.

So, Supreme Leaders, you ask me: “What have we done wrong, Jerk-Face? How is this not a great idea? Why are you saying we are retarded?”

And I will tell you. You are trying to exploit this excellent school idea as cover for another equally important initiative that you’ve always been scared to death of – de-segregation of housing. You’re using the school thing because you think it will soft-soap the housing thing for you.

Let me give you an example. Last week The Dallas Morning News ran a story suggesting that the city might try to locate some subsidized housing in North (white) Dallas at the request of the school system, so there would be enough poor kids up there to populate the schools of choice, which is just silly. Supplying poor kids to experimental schools is not the real challenge here.  Dallas is under intense federal scrutiny on housing segregation issues, especially with regard to the city’s new citywide housing policy, slated to be unveiled in a couple months.

In the Morning News story, you, Mr. Mayor, talked the housing issue kind of upside down and backwards:

“Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said Tuesday that he agrees that integrated schools are better schools. He said the city is working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to ensure that housing tax credits, provided to developers who create affordable housing, are spread throughout the city instead of being concentrated in poor areas.” 

Sir, with all due respect, you know full well that this highly experimental school program is not the horse pulling the cart of housing de-seg. We have way bigger reasons why we have to do housing de-seg, without any reference to the schools. So right there is where we see the big sore toe sticking out of your sock. Apparently you don’t want to tell the city: “Subsidized, racially integrated, affordable housing is coming to white Dallas; it’s coming soon; and it’s coming fairly seriously.”

An aspect of your problem is that you have assured everybody in town repeatedly that the Lockey and MacKenzie complaint and litigation are dead and gone. Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie are the two downtown tower developers who told HUD five years ago that Dallas had been taking tens of millions annually in de-seg money from HUD over a decade and spending it illegally instead to re-segregate downtown with fancy condo towers.

HUD carried out a five-year investigation and came to the conclusion Lockey and MacKenzie were right and Dallas was guilty. But you, Mr. Mayor, were able to go to Washington and use your Democratic Party connections to persuade then brand-new HUD Secretary Julian Castro, former mayor of San Antonio, to kill the investigation, for which you publicly thanked him. 

That was a little over a year ago. The story at the time was that the heat was off. Lockey and MacKenzie were no more. HUD signed off on a hand-slap settlement with Dallas that didn’t require the city to do squat. You and City Attorney Warren Ernst had whupped the tiger.

But of course you and I know that was never entirely true. The Lockey and MacKenzie matter is still very much alive. Federal District Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater is preparing to rule on a jurisdiction issue in a suit that MacKenzie brought against Secretary Castro last year seeking to have the HUD settlement with Dallas thrown out.

If Fitzwater decides to accept jurisdiction, the first shoe to fall will be a sweeping discovery order with your name on it for compelled testimony (see below). Is that what will happen? I really couldn’t bet a nickel one way or the other.

But I do see this much clearly: For whatever reason, related to Lockey and MacKenzie or not, the level of urgency about affordable housing has gone up by several magnitudes and only very recently. Nine months ago you and the City Council turned your backs on a relatively painless affordable housing proposal next to Klyde Warren Park. Just two months ago you went behind closed doors and cut a deal to let Lucy Crow Billingsley out of affordable housing requirements while giving big tax breaks to her luxury lakeside project anyway.

That recently, you were still acting like you were bullet-proof and didn’t have to worry about HUD. Much. Now all of a sudden the word all over City Hall and the council is that HUD has jumped back on your back and is pushing you hard to put subsidized housing into white North Dallas. So that brings us back to the flurry of activity around schools of choice this last week. 

The schools of choice thing, achieving integration by using market dynamics, is brilliant. But I’m sorry: Sticking the housing piece in behind it is a little too much like putting your SCUD missile launcher in a daycare courtyard. Do you guys think that somehow the school issue is going to soften the impact of the housing issue? Do you think people will think the schools are so cool that they won’t notice the housing?

And, I know: If you tell the North Dallas white people directly that you’re going to put subsidized housing in their midst, there’s going to be a firestorm. Do you think there will be less of a firestorm if you don’t tell them directly?

There’s going to be a firestorm. The only question is how you deal with it. You can do what local officials in Westchester County, New York, where the Clintons and Cuomos live, have done — plunge into a seven-years, costly and losing war with a federal judge. 

Or you — all of you, the mayor, the superintendent of schools, the editorial board of The Dallas Morning News, the private Dallas Citizens Council, the Real Estate Council — you could man and woman up and tell it to the people like it is. We have to do this. Better: We want to do this. Our city has suffered the bitter shame of segregation for too long, and we’re going to face the demon head-on and together.

Easy for me to say? Maybe. But do yourselves and the rest of us this much of a favor: Don’t put the kids out front anyway. Don’t hide the missiles in the school house. This program that the school system has developed is brilliant and truly promising.

Do the housing bit on your own, whichever path you choose, Westchester or not. But leave the kids out of it. It won’t work anyway. I told you. That damned public. They stick their noses into everything! They’ll see this trick coming a mile away. It’s one thing to make them mad. It’s way worse to get caught trying to trick them and then they get mad at you anyway.

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