Several minor political brush fires sent up smoke at the Dallas public school system after a tough new reform-minded superintendent took over the reins last July. But in two months the whole woods will be on fire, with Superintendent Mike Miles in the middle of it.
Does he survive? I don't know. Do we?
In early April the district will send out an innocuously titled document called a "growth plan" to some number of principals among the district's 222 heads of schools. In spite of the bouncy title, everybody who gets one will know exactly what it means — a bull's-eye on his or her back.
The district operates a multipart assessment system for school principals based on numerous criteria with multiple written reports along the way. A growth plan comes almost at the end of that process.
A principal who receives a growth plan is actually being put on notice that it ain't working. Something serious has to change in that principal's performance before May or the principal will be fired, or, as they put it in the ever-gentle lingo of public education, "non-renewed."
Most of the brush fires around Miles have had to do with complaints by teachers and their union reps that they are being treated harshly or unfairly under the new superintendent's reform regime. But in board meetings and public appearances, Miles has made it clear his first major target is not the teachers but their bosses. His whole deal is that schools only prosper under strong leadership and part of bringing that about is tough accountability for the principals.
So who could argue with accountability? Oh, man. Where to start? For the last half century the public school system in Dallas has been the city's main engine of political patronage. If anybody really needs a lesson plan for that, just think back to last November when Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price showed up at a school board and told the TV crews that Miles was running the district into the ditch.
Think about it. What in the hell is a county commissioner doing at a school board meeting? Aren't they supposed to stay busy building roads and bridges and keeping track of drainage? Price wasn't at school headquarters to talk about education. As the county's most powerful African-American elected official, he showed up at Ross Avenue to put Miles on notice. His message was plain. Do not mess with my protected people.
So I could tell you that the machinery of patronage and protection will really get cranking when those so-called growth plans start hitting the desks of DISD principals and some dozens or more of them find themselves on the fast track to sack city. But that would not be entirely accurate. In truth the machinery started cranking a month ago. In response to my request for public documents, district lawyers provided me with a stack of emails showing that two district board members have been demanding detailed information about the growth plan process before the documents even go out to principals.
One in particular, board President Lew Blackburn, has demanded copies of all the growth plans and supporting documentation for the entire district. Blackburn was frank and open with me about his intentions, which are to closely monitor the entire process and presumably to interject himself and the board into it in instances where he thinks principals are not being treated fairly.
"The key word is fair," he told me. "I don't question the administration's decisions about hiring an employee or terminating an employee other than, has that employee been treated fairly, especially when it comes to a termination or separation? Are we treating our employees fair across the board?"
Blackburn told me he will do his own private analysis of all the principals who receive growth plans in April. "Rather than ask the administration to give me their assessment, I am just asking for those documents, and I will do my own assessment and will draw my own conclusions from that."
It seems like a daunting task. Blackburn has demanded not just the growth plans themselves but other benchmarks including a goals statement and a mid-year assessment. He says he is looking for cases in which there is a noticeable discrepancy between earlier positive assessments and a negative assessment in the growth plan.
"That would be a red flag to me," he told me.
This seems like very thin ice in terms of the clear direction of state law and specific language in the superintendent's employment contract. By law and by contract, Miles has total control over personnel decisions. The law pointedly bars school district trustees from meddling.
In Texas if trustees can't stomach a superintendent's actions, their recourse under the law is to fire him. What's more, there are provisions in the law whereby a fired employee can appeal to a committee of the board sitting as a quasi-judicial body. Any trustee on that committee who has already been involved in that employee's case might have a legal conflict.
Blackburn says his interest is not in individual decisions but overall fairness. "If we want to keep good employees, I think we have to have a fairness about how we treat our employees."
The other question is this. How in the world would an unpaid volunteer board member even have time to analyze the entire careers of dozens of principals who may get growth plans?
Some outside close observers of the district tell me they suspect a very different agenda here. These demands for detailed information from personnel files have less to do, they think, with general policy than a desire to get ammo for the preservation of a few key patronage posts.
In particular a good deal of rumor and alarm has been swirling around two high schools where long-tenured principals enjoy popularity in their communities and strong political support. The Lincoln High School of Humanities and Communication and Madison High School are held in high esteem in black southern Dallas.
They shouldn't be. Both schools have dismal overall academic performance records and do an unforgivably bad job of teaching black and brown kids in particular. In 2011, 1.1 percent of the kids at Lincoln who took SAT or ACT achievement tests received what the state considers a "criterion" grade, roughly translated as a passing grade. Of black students at Lincoln, the percentage who made the state criterion was 0. Among Hispanic students it was 3.1 percent.
Madison High School in 2011 reversed things, more or less. There, it was 2 percent of black students who passed and 0 percent of Hispanics.
These are two big ones to watch in April. If those principals get growth plans and the political machinery goes into action to protect them, that will be more than handwriting on the wall where school reform is concerned. It will be artillery shells blowing holes in the walls.
Bernadette Nutall, the other trustee who showed up in my stack of emails demanding details about personnel assessments, also was candid with me about her interest. She just wants to know. She suggested broadly that white trustees ask for stuff like this all the time.
"If you look at the data that other trustees are requesting, it's OK, but if I request data, I'm doing something wrong. I'm crossing the line."
I tried to reach every trustee and the superintendent to discuss this. Other than Nutall and Blackburn, the only other three who responded, trustees Mike Morath and Dan Micciche and Superintendent Miles, all declined to comment.
Nutall is making an important point. When those growth plans go out and everybody knows which principals have targets on their backs, you can bet the black trustees will not be the only ones taking angry calls from parents and various political string-pullers. Every trustee who has even a single popular but targeted principal in his or her district will be under searing pressure to find some way to protect that principal.
And that moment will be the test. Does Dallas really want to do anything to fix the school system? Or is it all hot air? Is Dallas pretty well satisfied with a system in which popular high schools continue year after year to crank out one or two or zero minority graduates capable of going on to college but provide well-paid jobs to well-connected professionals?
Let's not relativize too much. The fact that white and Hispanic trustees will come under the same pressure as black trustees does not make this a race-neutral question. For decades in this city, up until perhaps 15 years ago, the public school system was the single most important economic engine in the creation of whatever black middle class the city had. Those positions flowed from hard-fought battles over civil rights and segregation, and so those jobs have been welded together in people's minds with justice itself.
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But here is the reality. Many of the people in those positions are doing a bad job. They are sending our city's children out into adulthood prepared for little more than a life of serial imprisonment, especially our children of color.
Now we face the enormous and bitter irony of a black superintendent fighting to repair the fates of his black students, who may be about to get his head handed to him by black trustees who care more about black jobs than black children.
This is a tough one, isn't it? I won't generalize about Hispanic parents and citizens, who seem to be fighting the good fight wherever they can. But when white people in Dallas see a fight like this brewing, we tend to retreat in search of our fainting couches.
When this gets going in earnest, none of us can afford to faint, to flag or to fail. This is it. This is what we said we wanted. Here it is. Hardball. Put on your helmets.