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Mayor Mike Rawlings Walked Out of a Meeting Last Night on the Dallas ISD Takeover Push

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings last night walked out of a meeting he'd called to engage a broad cross-section of Hispanic leaders about the "home-rule" push, an effort to strip control of Dallas ISD from the board and possibly put it in the hands of him. Multiple sources who were at the closed meeting, held at an East Dallas church, called me last night to tell me Rawlings blew it -- big-time.

Led by trustee Mike Morath, Houston billionaire John Arnold and others, the home-rule push, if approved by voters, would blow up the school district's current governance structure, place control in the hands of a new commission and free it from some state regulations. Rawlings is heavily involved in the effort, and sources said he called last night's meeting to rally the troops.

But it unraveled quickly. People at the meeting told me political consultant Anna Casey challenged Rawlings when he presented statistics to show how badly the Dallas school district does at educating kids. She questioned the validity of his numbers and said she had numbers of her own, the sources said. They said Casey continued to ask Rawlings tough questions, but in a businesslike fashion.

Rawlings told Casey something to the effect that he did not intend to be grilled. When she persisted, Rawlings stammered and then stalked out without saying a word, the sources said. The 25 to 30 attendees were apparently astounded. His behavior was denounced as thin-skinned and disrespectful, even by conservative Republican Latino leaders normally in the mayor's camp.

I have messages in since last night to Rawlings, the political consultants running the home-rule push and to Jeronimo Valdez, who was supposed to be Rawlings' Latino consigliere for the meeting. I told them I was hearing that they'd botched the meeting, and I asked for comment. Valdez texted me back saying he would be happy to chat in the morning. I will let you know what he says and, if I hear from the other two, I will pass on their version of things as well.

Two sides to every story, right? But, man, I sure got an earful last night from the people Rawlings walked out on. They were not impressed.

When word of the upcoming meeting began to circulate early in the week, no contact yet had been made with many of the city's most powerful Hispanic leaders. District 3 LULAC Director Rene Martinez told me he immediately advised Valdez to call off the meeting, schedule smaller meetings instead first with surrogates to work out the issues and then bring the mayor in later, only after an agenda had been set. Obviously Martinez's advice was not taken.

What did happen from that point forward was that Valdez got on the phone and started calling the people who had not been invited earlier. That guaranteed a diverse but broadly representative crowd, which meant it was going to be a free-wheeling meeting.

I also knew early in the week that Casey would ask tough questions at the meeting. How did I know? I own a telephone. Anybody who bothered to pick up a telephone and call around town for a couple hours would have known in advance that Rawlings was going to walk into a bit of a wood-chipper.

But here's the other thing. After everybody got done being shocked by his performance last night, the conversation turned to the fact that few of the people at the meeting really want to be on the other side of this from him. The people who were invited early to the meeting -- the crowd Rawlings did want to see -- included a lot of contractors. One strategy of the takeover group appears to be to get the word out that contractors who want to be on the gravy train need to get up on that train early.

But many in the Hispanic community who are not contractors also have been broadly supportive of the school reform efforts underway within the school district under superintendent Mike Miles. Many agree that fundamental change is overdue at the school system. But last night's meeting made them uneasy.

A topic that came up after Rawlings left was the takeover process itself. A lawyer at the meeting told those present that the takeover group already has a contingency plan in case the school board fails to take action after the petitions have been certified. Many had assumed a refusal by the board to act on the petitions would stop the plan.

Instead, according to multiple sources at the meeting, they were informed that the takeover group can take their petitions to court and ask a judge to set up the rest of the process. Any ultimate new design for governance of the district would still have to be approved by voters, but people capable of putting on a $3 million campaign would be hard to beat at the polls.

Last night's little debacle may have begun to sketch a line in the sand. There is a difference, some people told me, between school reform and this takeover plan. No one doesn't want the former. But a few more disasters like last night and the city's Hispanic leaders might jump ship on the latter.

These responses this morning by text:

Mayor Rawlings:

"Jeronimo is a hero to me for what he has done and his poise. I don't know Mari had anything to do with this. It was supposed to be a meeting with a small group by invitation only to have a healthy give and take. There were a few people that crashed the party. Jeronimo and I decided to hold the meeting anyway. After three interruptions and angry comments it was obvious I had walked into an ambush and a few people were high-jacking the meeting. When that happens it's always best to de-escalate a situation so I left so the community could discuss amongst themselves Our Latino community is critical to the future of our schools and city. I respect the leadership immensely. I plan to reboot and continue the conversation."

Jeronimo Valdez:

"Last night I invited a group of Hispanic leaders to a conversation with Mayor Rawlings about how we can improve Dallas ISD in an effort to better prepare our children for college and the workforce. Unfortunately, a very few people who came to the meeting had a different agenda. Disrespectful things were said and the Mayor left so we could refocus the meeting on education. I don't blame him. It's a shame because the majority is focused on improving Dallas ISD. Having Hispanic parents and the community involved in any effort to improve Dallas ISD is critical to the success of our schools. We're already moving forward, meeting with more members of the community meeting with the Mayor and anyone who truly cares about improving our public schools."

Also this morning, Dallas city councilman Philip Kingston, who attended the meeting, confirmed general characterizations of the events that I had heard from others.

"The first part of the meeting was useless, because he left," Kingston said. "The second part of the meeting had some interesting exchanges in it. I think there was some learning on both sides. But it raised almost as many questions as it answered."

Kingston said he thought the mayor stumbled immediately by identifying the takeover movement with charter schools, which are regarded with skepticism by many Latinos.

I asked Kingston to tell me, based on this meeting, if he thinks school construction and maintenance contracting will be a major issue or driving force in the upcoming debate over home rule.

"Regardless of anyone's intentions about the outcome of the process," he said, "when you change governance you change the way contracting is done, and it's a really big number in the case of DISD. That's not a criticism of home rule. That would be true of any attempt to change governance."

Also this morning: Multiple sources speaking not for attribution said they see a basic deception being practiced in the home rule campaign already. In response to a question last night, Valdez denied there was an agenda in place to put the schools under mayoral control, according to people present at the meeting. Those people told me they believe the home rule idea is being pitched in other parts of town as a plan for mayoral control.

Also this morning: Mayoral spokesman Sam Merten told me he thinks the sneak-attack theory on mayoral control is misconstruing how the process has evolved. He said early on the thinking among the Support Our Public Schools group pushing home rule was that they needed to present specific outcomes to people in order to explain the potential for change. He said one of those ideas may have been mayoral control, because it has been done in other cities.

Merten said the early feedback led the SOPS group to change its mind and stop presenting specific outcomes of any kind. The decision instead was to emphasize the open-endedness of the process -- the fact that it could produce any of a zillion different possible formulations on governance.

"One of the hiccups may have been not going back to those people who were spoken to early on," he said. He said he thought they were hearing the new open-endedness rhetoric and assuming duplicity or a hidden agenda based on what they had already heard. Instead, he said there has been a genuine change of strategy reflecting a change of heart on how to present the underlying concept of home rule.

Spoke with Anna Casey just now. She is the political consultant who grilled the mayor at last night's meeting, apparently causing him to bolt the meeting. I asked for her version of their exchange.

She said, "He goes, 'Well we all know what the facts are.' I said, 'Mr. Mayor, do you mind going over and telling us what you believe the facts to be, because I am not sure we all agree with that?'

"He said, 'Well, OK,' and he started over, and he said, 'Well the facts are that our public schools are dark places without hope, and charter schools are bright. They're optimistic.' He flat out said that he was against public schools and for charter schools."

Another person present at the meeting confirmed to me that Rawlings did begin early in his remarks speaking favorably about charter schools.

Casey told me she said to the mayor at that point, "I don't think we agree on that."

The mayor went on to talk about the need for a provision allowing recall of school board members. Casey says she told him that school board members, who must run for election every two years, are already more subject to dismissal by the voters than he is with a four-year term. She said Rawlings said he still thinks there is a flaw in the system of electing board members.

I asked Casey to confirm what I had heard from other people at the meeting -- that at that moment in the dialogue, she asked Rawlings if he was a flaw in the system.

She said, "Oh yeah, I think I might have said that."

At that point Rawlings walked out.

Casey told me her impression was that the original list of attendees was weighted heavily to contractors, many of whom do not live in school district. She said the concern that caused her to attend was her belief that Rawlings doesn't believe in public education and that the line he and the SOPS group are pursuing is damaging to the district.

"He said things, Jim, that to me hurt Dallas and hurt the district. It's the kind of thing that the suburbs and the private schools want out here. They directly profit from the perception that our public schools are bad, and the mayor is just feeding that. He's feeding our enemy."

Casey -- pretty well recognized in Dallas, even by her foes, as an expert grassroots election tactician -- said she believes the outcome for the home rule process is being gamed much more closely and cleverly than people realize. She said the timing of a charter election to coincide with a gubernatorial rather than presidential election is a move to guarantee maximum older white Republican turnout.

She called it "the best shot that they'll have for getting an electorate that hates public education." She said, "They want an increased Republican turnout of older white people who don't want to pay any of those taxes and they don't want their dollars to go to educating those little brown and black kids.

"It's very calculated," she said. "They act like, 'Well, we're just trying to shake it up and do something positive,' and this is really, really frightening. I'm afraid." She called home rule "a power grab to control all the money, control all the contracts."

I told her, far from frightened, I heard a rumor she had a den at home with all kinds of moose heads and bear heads on the wall and that one of the new heads on her wall was Rawlings. I said, "Is that true?"

"No," she said. She paused a beat. "But I'm holding a spot."


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