It's political theater imported from another time and place.
In the packed pews of Kirkwood Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in South Dallas on a recent night, two groups of actors--one speaking English, the other Spanish--reinterpreted a biblical story of Moses seeking God's counsel.
In this version, Moses, played by two women--one black, one Hispanic--tells God that his people are furious with the "Desert" Independent School District Board, which has turned down their request to fund after-school programs that would benefit children of the Desert's most disadvantaged denizens.
"Lord, the children of Israel are complaining that the Desert ISD won't invest in our children," says a sunglasses-wearing and toga-clad Moses. "We've been dealing with these Desert dummies for 40 years. What do we do?"
Yahweh, a tall black woman with a steely gaze, maps out a strategy for the frustrated Moses. "You must organize the Desert precincts--commit 50,000 voters to our agenda of issues," she commands. "For the only way to change the Desert way is to elect new officials."
Moses returns to his people and imparts Yahweh's simple advice: "Go forth and organize!"
It's political action, Dallas Area Interfaith style.
A multi-ethnic, inter-religious, grassroots organizing group, the four-year-old Dallas Area Interfaith has helped the city's poor tackle some of its most intractable problems--the need for decent jobs, effective public education, and clean, safe neighborhoods.
In a relatively short amount of time, the group has grown into a formidable presence--60 member congregations and 4,000 supporters--and has made impressive strides.
Using state and local grants, Dallas Interfaith launched a jobs program that is training and placing people in jobs that provide health benefits and a living wage--an average of $13 an hour. Working in concert with the Dallas County Community College District, it has increased the number of ESL (English as a second language) and citizenship courses. It has helped long-neglected neighborhoods extract from City Hall services that are rightfully theirs--from pothole repair to sidewalk paving.
And in its most ambitious--and controversial--campaign to date, Interfaith has begun teaching parents, teachers, and principals in some of the city's most troubled public schools how to work together to take control of their schools.
But despite Interfaith's accomplishments, it has drawn harsh criticism for its tactics. In record time, the organization has managed to become a headache for those who control the power levers of Dallas. And Dallas Interfaith's ambitious entry into school politics--one of the city's most volatile and treacherous arenas--could be the group's ultimate test. Interfaith will either win a place as a true political player or lose crucial credibility--not only with Dallas' historical power structure, but with its own grassroots base.
Interfaith had its first acrimonious brush with Dallas politics several years ago when its leaders pressed city council members to spend millions of dollars to help fund the organization's jobs program, which had yet to prove itself. (The program now has 187 people in training and has placed 50 people in jobs.) When Interfaith dismissed council members' reservations about the program and stepped up public pressure, an angry Max Wells, among others, denounced Interfaith's style as confrontational and threatening, and refused to vote for the program on those grounds alone.
After the council defeated Interfaith's request, the group packed the next council meeting with supporters, who, following carefully composed scripts, gave testimony on why the program was so crucial. Then the group--a veritable Rainbow Coalition of representatives from every quadrant and social stratum in the city--stood up en masse and exited the meeting.
Interfaith's most recent clash with the Dallas political power structure involved the DISD board. The two groups squared off earlier this year over the increasingly important, but fiscally complex, issue of after-school programs. For months, Interfaith organizers lobbied board members to increase from last year the amount of money they had allocated to after-school programs that had been developed in collaboration with Interfaith. The money would increase the number of schools with Interfaith-backed programs from 10 to 17.
These programs combined traditional recreation activities with tutoring and other offerings--from chess to crocheting. Their programs, Interfaith members argued, didn't just keep children out of trouble, they helped students become more successful in school. Some of Interfaith's schools had statistics showing that participants in their after-school programs improved their attendance, grades, and performance on standardized tests.
Last August, in a vote that split along racial lines, the board's five Anglo trustees not only voted against increasing the funding Interfaith had requested, but also voted to rescind the amount it had awarded the year before. "The school board cannot afford to fund after-school programs for all the children who need them," school board President Bill Keever explained at the time.
In an effort to pressure the board to change its mind, Interfaith, as promised, came out to subsequent board meetings in force, busing in 500 church leaders, parents, and children--some carrying placards reading "Save our after-school programs"--and warned they would return again and again until their request was granted.
"A great deal of what they do is good--empowering people, informing people," Keever says. "Where I start having problems is with the methods they use--intimidation, threats. It's just ridiculous. They are unwilling to work with other groups. It has to be their way or no way. They are a group of people supported by churches who behave in anything but a godly way."
It is not just elected officials who take issue with some of Interfaith's tactics. Some principals and teachers involved in the after-school programs clash complain that Interfaith would rather ambush school leaders than engage them in honest debate. They claim the group's organizing efforts require teachers and parents to attend so many meetings pertaining to Interfaith's overall agenda that it steals time better spent educating children. Other principals say they feel intimidated--if they don't work with Interfaith, the group will work to get them fired.
And finally, critics also maintain that Interfaith manipulates the very people it claims to help by carefully controlling what they say and even how they say it. Often, they say, Interfaith's publicized consensus is achieved by not-so-subtle bullying.
Acutely aware of the political strength Dallas Area Interfaith's sister organizations have amassed around the state, particularly in San Antonio, some local leaders are determined to prevent Interfaith from gaining a foothold here.
"We were ready for them," says Lynda McDow, a school board trustee who presides over District 4, which includes Pleasant Grove and Seagoville, areas she says the school district has long neglected. The Anglo members of the school board--no slouches on organization themselves--have divided up the task of blunting the interloper's impact on the Dallas political scene. McDow, for instance, is looking into whether Interfaith violates the spirit of separation of church and state because it wades into public issues using muscle and money from its church-based memberships. Newly elected trustee Roxan Staff has been dissecting Interfaith's organizational structure and financial makeup, if only to see if it is in violation of its nonprofit status. Keever has accepted the job of publicly facing off with Interfaith--standing up to its supporters in meetings and in the media.
"We've divided this sucker up," Keever says, in his flip way that Interfaith members have interpreted as arrogant and disrespectful of their membership and goals.
Dallas Area Interfaith clearly has gotten the attention of Dallas' political leaders, though not the kind of attention it had hoped for. Yet even now, Interfaith's harshest critics agree with its overall goals and admit they're impressed with the group's passion and commitment. What they question is the group's methods and whether Dallas Area Interfaith's leadership and staff are as interested in helping their constituency as they are in simply building up political muscle.
Interfaith leaders argue that the poor and disenfranchised can't be helped without grabbing their rightful share of power. What elected leaders really fear, they say, is the balance of power shifting toward the grassroots.
Dallas Area Interfaith is headquartered on the fifth floor of a former hotel across from Love Field. The elevators rarely work, and at night, the floors above the Dallas Area Interfaith office are frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes.
In the Interfaith's dimly lit office, eight paid organizers devise strategies for teaching the city's disenfranchised how to participate in the political, social, and economic decisions that affect their lives. A huge wall map of the city dominates the conference room. The map divides the city into council districts and voting precincts, and the organizers map out on a large erasable board their activities for each day--the schools they'll visit, the religious organizations they'll try to enlist, political allies with whom their leaders will meet, and the foes they will try to convert.
The organizers see themselves as the foot soldiers of the organization. They say their bosses--the people who give the organization its power and vision--are the leaders of Interfaith's member congregations, which pay 1.5 percent of their annual operating budgets to belong. The membership encompasses a broad array of denominations from around the city, from Munger Avenue Baptist Church and St. Luke Community United Methodist Church on the east side of the city, to St. Rita Catholic Church and Royal Lane Baptist Church in North Dallas, to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the west, and Greater Mt. Pleasant Baptist in the southern sector.
"Being based in congregations gives us an edge and a capacity to deal with issues," says the Reverend Gerald Britt, pastor of the New Mount Moriah Baptist Church in South Dallas. "It nurtures us spiritually and motivates us politically."
It's obvious from a glance at the activity board that Interfaith's work begins early and frequently stretches into the late evening hours. There's a lot to accomplish--particularly in a city like Dallas, which historically has been run by a self-appointed elite.
"The introduction of a broad-based organization that is clear about its commitment to diversity, to providing a public voice for citizens with a wide range of backgrounds, is always met with a variety of reactions--fear, astonishment, resistance," says Maribeth Larkin, a nun with the Sisters of Social Service and Interfaith's lead organizer. "In most cities, and Dallas is no exception, the democratic process gets whittled down to a small group of people making decisions for everybody. This group doesn't tend to be inclusive."
When Interfaith members try to point that out, city leaders inevitably get defensive, says Larkin, who like all Interfaith organizers is nothing if not painfully earnest. In a recent meeting, for example, Bill Keever told Britt and other Interfaith leaders that their organization was no different from the dozens of other special interest groups he deals with daily.
"He clearly doesn't want to listen," Larkin says. "A more relational response would have been, 'Gee, you're a group of African Americans, Anglos, and Hispanics, Baptists, Protestants, and Catholics all working together. That's no short order, especially in a city like Dallas. How do you do it?'"
An intense woman with piercing blue eyes, Larkin has worked as an organizer with Interfaith's affiliates around the country for 20 years, most recently in El Paso, where her group helped convince the state legislature to fund water and sewage treatment systems in the colonias along the border. Larkin admits without apology that Interfaith is clearly seeking power.
"Our mission is very clear," she says. "To gain enough local power to engage persons with power in face-to-face meetings where we can ask for what we want. Some people call that confrontational. Power means the ability to act. We're after the ability to act on behalf of the wide-ranging interests of this community. We firmly believe that the interests need to be represented by the persons themselves. Public officials tend not to be in relationship with members of a broad and diverse community. We're there to be partners with them, not to replace them."
If the history of Interfaith's affiliate organizations in Texas are any indication, it's a movement that's not used to losing.
Its roots date back 55 years, to the work of a famous neighborhood organizer in Chicago named Saul Alinsky. A criminologist by training, Alinsky helped combat problems plaguing Chicago's poorest areas by building "people's organizations" in which churches and neighborhood activists cooperated. In hopes of duplicating his efforts in communities around the country, Alinsky created the Industrial Areas Foundation, which was funded by philanthropist Marshall Field and guided by an iron rule: "Never do for others what they can do for themselves."
Today the IAF, which created a training institute in the late 1960s, has spawned a national network of more than 40 umbrella groups, including the Industrial Areas Foundation of Texas, which is widely regarded as the most successful. That reputation rests, in part, on the strength of San Antonio's 20-year-old organization called COPS--Citizens Organized for Public Service.
Founded in 1974 by Ernie Cortes, who studied at the IAF training institute, COPS has revitalized many of San Antonio's most disadvantaged neighborhoods, winning hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new streets, drainage systems, libraries, parks, and other services. In 20 years, COPS has become a major political force in San Antonio, responsible for the election of Henry Cisneros, the first Hispanic mayor of a major American city.
"We should look to San Antonio as a model. We should catch up to them in five years," says Gerald Britt, whom Cortes recruited to help start Dallas Area Interfaith--Cortes had heard about Britt's involvement in Dallas' redistricting battle. "But we're still debating whether [Dallas Area Interfaith] should be. We're arguing with the school district about funding after-school programs from the general budget when San Antonio regularly puts in $2 million for these programs. The City of Dallas just agreed to give Workpaths, our job training and placement program, $20,000. San Antonio gives $2 million annually to Project Quest. It is frustrating that we're not willing to be more entrepreneurial and creative about solutions to problems."
Four years ago, when Interfaith first arrived on the Dallas scene, its members decided that one of their first priorities was helping public schools in some of Dallas' neediest areas. This priority dovetailed nicely with a statewide initiative the Texas IAF had begun called the Alliance School project, in which schools make a commitment to achieve academic excellence by fundamentally changing the school's culture from a top-down, rule-driven bureaucracy to a collaborative effort among parents, teachers, principals, and the community.
The Texas IAF also helped secure $5 million from the state legislature in 1994 for a special Texas Education Agency fund that would reward public schools that are undergoing a community involvement metamorphosis with grants to be used for teacher and parent training and after-school programs. The law governing this money does not stipulate that it be used only for Texas IAF schools, but one of the conditions for receiving it is that the school works in partnership with a nonprofit, community-based organization which has a track record of organizing parents and community leaders.
Four years ago, a teacher at Roosevelt High School in East Oak Cliff heard about strides Austin Interfaith had made in improving inner-city schools. She approached the Dallas Interfaith leadership about working with Roosevelt, which was one of the lowest-performing schools in the district.
To help increase parent involvement in the school, the first thing Interfaith organizers, church members, and teachers did was canvass the neighborhood, asking parents what they liked and disliked about the school, and what they envisioned the school could become. This "Walk for Success," which is done at the beginning of each school year, was followed by house meetings, where small groups of parents and teachers continued their discussions on ways to improve the school.
Out of these meetings grew a host of course offerings for adults, from computer training to ESL classes. This year, the parents decided they wanted sewing classes--so they could make their own clothes. The funding for parent education, as well as teacher training, comes from the fund the Texas Education Agency makes available for Alliance Schools.
Conversations about school improvement were being conducted simultaneously among teachers, who worked on restructuring the entire school day. With special waivers granted by TEA, Roosevelt instituted block scheduling. Instead of seven 55-minute periods, the school day now consists of four 90-minute periods. "This helped us address the needs of the overwhelming number of academically challenged students," says Marvin Traylor, Roosevelt's principal for the past nine years. "It allows students to complete a year's work in a semester. If they fail, they don't have to wait to summer school to take the course over."
Today, Roosevelt's performance has put them in the top quarter of Dallas public schools. In just three years, the number of students who passed the math portion of the TAAS test jumped from 20 percent to 70 percent. Last year, 80 percent of the students passed the reading and writing portions of the TAAS test, up from 52 percent the year before. Attendance has shot up 10 percent, which earned the school a $59,000 district award, the highest amount any school in the district received.
"We're kind of a quiet success story," Traylor says. "But we're not where we need to be." Traylor gives Interfaith credit for spurring the reforms at Roosevelt. "They were instrumental at the outset in helping us stress the importance of parental involvement. And the grants we received through the Alliance School initiative enabled us to do a lot of things. The ideas were there, the resources were not."
Interfaith is now working with a dozen or more schools that have signed on to the Alliance School program. It was from meetings with parents and community activists involved with these schools that the issue of after-school programs emerged--the issue that would ultimately divide the school board along color lines and make Anglo members suspicious of Interfaith's motives.
"In all our meetings, the number one issue parents raised was the safety of their children from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.," says organizer Leonora Friend, who headed Interfaith's education initiative. "But safety wasn't their only concern. They also wanted activities that would enhance their children's learning."
Eighty DISD elementary schools have some type of after-school program, while another 60 elementary schools do not. Interfaith's approach increased the number and variety of programs at several schools and created new programs at a few schools that offered nothing. And the programs Interfaith helped create in the district were impressive. Take Obadiah Knight, for example. Located near Love Field in a predominantly working-class Hispanic neighborhood, Obadiah Knight had a small after-school tutorial program, funded by the Episcopal Diocese. Then two years ago, Interfaith convinced the city and school district to fund after-school programs in the 10 schools with which the organization was working.
Together, the city and district kicked in $400,000. Half of it came from federal community block grants administered by the city's Parks and Recreation Department. The other half came from the school district's budget--after the board narrowly approved funding in a 5-4 vote. Kathleen Leos was the only Anglo member who voted in favor.
With the infusion of $40,000, almost 300 Obadiah Knight children enrolled in after-school activities including music appreciation, stained glass making, and crocheting (taught by school principal Manuel Medrano). Others spent their time in a homework center, TAAS tutoring sessions, computer lab, or practicing with a newly formed school football team.
Having tracked the students in the after-school program, Medrano found that their performance in school improved. Their daily attendance increased, as did their grades and behavior. "Children with discipline problems improved 99.9 percent," Medrano says.
The other Interfaith schools were seeing similar trends. In a study conducted by Peter Witt of Texas A&M on two of Austin's after-school programs, he found that students who participated in the programs increased their grades and attendance by 4 to 5 percent points. He also says their self-esteem improved significantly.
The school year wasn't even half over before Interfaith began pressing the DISD board for significantly increased funding to after-school programs. Interfaith leaders initially asked trustees to support a proposal for $2.5 million for all schools. They would eventually--and reluctantly--whittle their request to $340,000, to be paid from the district's operating budget of $770 million.
Interfaith leaders complain that despite the success of the programs, the board did nothing but put obstacles in the way to defeat them. First, the board said that the district needed to write a policy governing after-school programs that would cover the application process, develop standards for quality care, create an evaluation process, and do a school-by-school needs assessment.
This policy had been under development for several years since the school board--which has been awarded a dependent care planning and development grant--convened a coalition of youth service organizations, called the Consortium for School-Age Child Care. The consortium made several recommendations, many of which were carried out--such as model after-school programs at three Oak Cliff schools. But the momentum on the issue died, because the district did not have funding for a coordinator of after-school programs, something the consortium called for.
To its credit, Interfaith brought the issue of quality after-school programs to the fore again. The Consortium for School-Age Child Care was once again pressed into action. It met throughout the spring and summer to hammer out a district policy. Interfaith helped organize the press conference that kicked off the initiative, but did not show up at any subsequent meetings, leading trustees to conclude Interfaith wasn't really interested in working cooperatively.
Organizer Leonora Friend says that Interfaith was never invited to attend. "We didn't know a group was continuing to meet," Friend says. "We got wind of it, but we can't be expected to chase down everything we hear."
Mary Taylor, hired in January to coordinate Dallas Public School after-school programs, says she sent an invitation for every meeting to Interfaith leadership.
The consortium completed a policy in October. But by then, the school board had voted down Interfaith's funding request and refused to reconsider it. The trustees who ultimately voted against Interfaith's requests--Keever, McDow, Leos, Lois Parrott, and Roxan Staff--say that to a large extent, it was a question of equity--how could the board fund just a handful of schools when so many of the 210 schools in the district needed programs like these? Some trustees, including Leos and McDow, also say they were starting to hear that some of the schools were disillusioned with Interfaith, but put up with the organization because they desperately needed the after-school programs.
"There are some good things about Interfaith and some bad things," says Enrique Carranza, president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Obadiah Knight for the past two years. When Carranza first took office, the Interfaith organizer assigned to his school gave him ideas for increasing PTA membership. "He told me to get into the crowd, to make them part of the PTA meetings, instead of talking at them from behind a podium," says Carranza. "It really helped."
But he gradually became disillusioned with the organization, beginning when Interfaith leadership invited trustee Kathleen Leos to a meeting at My Lady of Perpetual Help, a Catholic church whose priest, Father Ignacio Cizur, is on the Interfaith executive committee.
When Carranza arrived at the meeting, an Interfaith organizer told him and some other parents in attendance that they were to clap when she signaled them to. "I looked at her and said, 'You want me to do what?' It completely turned me off. The meeting was more like an ambush. They didn't give Kathleen a chance to say anything. All the Interfaith people there said they were representing Obadiah Knight, but many of them I had never seen before. The parents who talked about the program read from scripts on little index cards. They all sounded alike. It was so cookie-cutter. I walked out of the meeting."
Several teachers at Obadiah Knight agree with Carranza's concerns about Interfaith. One teacher, who did not want to give her name for fear of being ostracized by Interfaith supporters, says when she canvassed the neighborhood and asked parents what they wanted to see at the school, Interfaith organizers told her and others exactly what to ask. "Interfaith wanted us to ask specific things they were interested in as an organization," she says.
When a new Interfaith organizer assigned to Obadiah Knight this year asked Carranza to become a member, he declined. "She told me I was a community leader. I'm just someone who is working on behalf of my kids. I told her that my family left Mexico because they were persecuted for fighting oppression. I think Interfaith uses some of the same things they use in Mexico. They bring people from outside the community to show support for something, and they put words in people's mouths."
Carranza believes Interfaith used the after-school issue as "a carrot to build their agenda. I think a majority of schools in the district need after-school programs. In the end, I think Interfaith's tactics wound up hurting us."
Carranza was disappointed when Obadiah Knight lost the district's $20,000 appropriation, which has reduced the number of children participating by half--to about 150. (The school still obtains funding from Parks and Recreation and has found additional funding from private businesses that support the campus.) But he says as a businessman--he manages a large Fort Worth restaurant--he understands the budgetary reasons Leos voted against it.
Several times last year, Leos says she asked an Interfaith organizer to provide her with the budgets for their programs so she could see how many children were served and where the money went. She received four budgets, only two of which gave a detailed accounting of how the money was spent, Leos says. She was also troubled by the wide differences in the number of children being served at different schools--which received equal amounts of money. When Leos pressed organizer Friend for more budgets, Friend says she pointed out to Leos that she could get the information herself through the district administration.
Without the budgets, Leos refused to vote for the program. "I was dealing with Leonora Friend at all these meetings, now suddenly she tells me it is not her responsibility to get me this information," Leos says.
"The district administers the programs, not us," Friend responds. "They have whole staffs that can access that information for them."
It was a stalemate that hardened while both sides continued professing to represent only the best interests of children.
But Leos admits she had another reason for reversing her previous vote giving Interfaith programs their initial funding. She remembers a chance meeting she had several weeks ago in Austin with Ernie Cortes, who now heads up the Industrial Area Foundation in Texas and the Southwest. "He asked me didn't I believe that parents who organized--who asked for what they wanted--be rewarded? I told him I didn't think that was necessarily true. I asked him, should parents be punished because they're not organizing and rattling chains?"
Leos became the swing vote that killed the after-school funds. As a result, Carranza and others say, Interfaith is targeting her for defeat when she runs for re-election this spring. Shortly after the school board voted against awarding Interfaith programs $340,000, a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help who is very active in Interfaith wrote to the DISD administration, requesting a list of financial contributors to the campaigns of all the Anglo trustees. The point was not lost on the already hostile board members.
"Leos has been like a breath of fresh air," Carranza says. "We've had our differences, but at least she comes to our community and listens to the parents and meets regularly with PTA presidents and SCE committee chairs. If going against Interfaith is the worst thing she's done as my representative, I'll still vote for her. I see a lot of good."
Interfaith, for its part, denies seeking to unseat board members such as Leos. "We don't target candidates," says lead organizer Maribeth Larkin. "Our agenda of issues is our candidate."
Trustee Lynda McDow has also felt the sting from the way Interfaith does business. Last year, when Interfaith started its full-court press on board members to commit funds to after-school programs, its members would show up at every board meeting, whether it pertained to Interfaith's programs or not. They buttonholed each trustee, asking them whether they would support Interfaith's after-school programs. They gave them exactly 30 seconds to respond.
McDow's response never wavered: "The schools in my district are very needy and have been neglected by the district. My constituents feel they didn't have enough support for their day-time efforts--for education during 8 and 3."
Last winter, a woman McDow knew and respected from her district asked her to meet once again with Interfaith members. McDow told her she would come only if the woman promised she would be allowed ample time to state her position. The woman gave McDow her word that she would.
When McDow showed up, an Interfaith leader--a teacher from a local school--started to lobby McDow intensely. But the woman who brought McDow to the meeting gave the trustee ample time to respond--much to the Interfaith leader's displeasure, McDow would later learn.
Some time later, the woman phoned McDow in tears. "She told me she had a burden she had to get off her chest," McDow recalls. "She said she was supposed to follow a script that morning and hadn't, and the teacher reprimanded her for not being hard enough on me.
"And they call themselves Christians?"
Foster Elementary School worked with Interfaith for a year, then voted to sever its relationship. Located in Northwest Dallas, Foster is severely overcrowded, and the overwhelming majority of students are economically disadvantaged. There are 1,350 students in pre-K through 5th grade, and 97 percent of them qualify for free lunch.
When an Interfaith organizer first approached Foster Principal Ruth Wilson almost two years ago, he talked to her about helping her school secure funds to expand her after-school program, which at that time consisted of two teachers and an assistant who tutored children. No principal would turn away an offer of more money for the kids, but Wilson says she didn't realize what she was buying into.
"As they pursued the after-school money, they started asking us to come to meetings throughout the city," Wilson says. "They talked about job training, which was of great interest to our parents. But when it came time to hand out the jobs, our parents weren't eligible, because they didn't speak English. They should have been up-front about it. Every time we turned around there was another meeting for their agenda, which was good, but ultimately didn't impact our community. Many of our families aren't eligible to register to vote."
Supporting Interfaith initiatives was zapping the energy of her teachers and parents, many of whom were fully extended as it was. Wilson and her staff were already in the throes of turning the school around academically. Many teachers came in at 6:30 a.m., and others stayed to 6 p.m. to help their students. They were also providing English classes for parents at night. The efforts at Foster paid off. They were recently recognized by Texas Monthly as a four-star school--one of only four in the district. The criterion is that the school have a passing rate on the TAAS test in the top 15 percent of schools with a similar percentage of disadvantaged students.
"Supporting Interfaith was taking away our energy from our main focus--educating the children," says Wilson, who is now principal at Marsh Middle School, which she also expects to turn around--without the help of Interfaith. "It got to the point it wasn't working for us at Foster. This past spring, the School Centered Education Council [a campus-based committee of parents and teachers who make policy decisions] voted not to have any more dealings with Interfaith. They decided the school should not be used as a vehicle to support an agenda that did not impact our families--even if it meant losing after-school programming funds."
While the Anglo school board trustees criticize Interfaith's tactics as manipulative and Machiavellian, their own behavior has not been above reproach. Interfaith leaders complain they can't even get a straight answer from Kathleen Leos on why she voted for after-school funding two years ago, then turned around and voted against it this year.
Leos says the first time the school board voted on the issue for the 1995-1996 budget year, the resolution was confusing and was amended three times before the final vote. She says she thought she was voting to allow schools to use their federal Title 1 funds for after-school programs. But Leos' explanation rings hollow because schools don't need board permission to spend those funds.
Asked if she would have voted for the funds the first time around if she'd had a complete understanding, Leos hesitantly says no. She now gives a host of reasons for opposing the expenditure of money--but overshadowing them all is a distrust for Interfaith, and part of that seems to be rooted in ignorance. Leos mistakenly believed that the money for after-school programs went directly to Interfaith. "That's what they told me," she says.
Then there's board chairman Bill Keever, whom Interfaith leaders describe as being arrogant and insulting in their dealings with him. In one meeting with Interfaith leaders, Keever, after being asked about the procedures involved in determining the school district's budget, finished by saying, "Let me tell you something. I'm running a one billion-dollar company. I'm the one in charge, the one calling the shots."
"What a great idea of democracy," says Interfaith activist Francisco Castruita, who attended the meeting.
Several weeks later, after Interfaith lost its after-school program funding, it had another meeting with Keever. The Reverend Barry Jackson of Munger Avenue Baptist Church told Keever that Interfaith was bringing 500 people to the next night's school board meeting to ask the board to reconsider its position.
"Come on big guy, you bring 500 or 5,000--I don't care," Keever said. "I'm not changing my mind."
"Why should I respect that person? He doesn't care about the constituents," says Cynthia Salinas Dooley, a Spanish professor at SMU and Interfaith executive board member. "What makes them all so arrogant?"
Now Keever is on the offensive, stooping to conquer. A few days before the school board voted on the district's budget on August 22, the board held a hearing for public input in a small meeting room in the administration building on Ross Avenue. In typical fashion, Interfaith packed the meeting room beyond capacity. Keever refused to let more people in and locked the door on scores of Interfaith supporters. Trustee Lois Parrott, who came late and found herself locked out, asked Keever to move the meeting to a larger room, but he refused.
A week later, Tom Plumbley, senior minister of Midway Hills Christian Church in Northwest Dallas, wrote an article in the church bulletin about Keever's actions that night.
Incensed, Keever phoned the church and asked for a copy of the membership directory so he could write to church members and tell his version of events. The minister refused.
"I got the directory anyway," Keever says. "Two can play at that game. They're amateurs."
In the end, the real losers, of course, were the 1,000 or so children who are either left alone from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. or spend their time in less enriching pursuits than studying music appreciation or leatherworking.
"This whole debate was not about the children, but simply political," Keever says. "It was about Interfaith saying we can force you to spend this money so they could show their communities they have political muscle. If it was about children, they would work with the board in trying to develop programs that meet the after-school needs of all the kids who need them, instead of forcing the board to fund programs at just a handful of schools."
Keever says after-school care has to be a community-wide initiative, involving the city, the school district, the county, and the business and religious communities.
Interfaith leaders have no argument with that. "Keever's point is valid. We just believe the school district must take the first step," says Britt. "They need to stop talking about how important children are. It's only a serious priority when you put money behind it."
The problem, as Britt sees it, is this: "The Anglo board members are having trouble dealing with the fact that there is a rising tide of citizen involvement that wants to go beyond boards and commissions and advisory groups, that wants to be substantially involved with the advocacy and initiation of how their tax dollars are spent.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Dallas, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.