Three prominent Dallas business leaders have written a caustic public letter to Dallas ISD Superintendent Mike Miles, taking him to task generally for not conferring with them personally on school reform and specifically for threatening the job of a particular high school principal popular in South Dallas.
Everybody is entitled to an opinion, and all three of the letter-writers -- J. McDonald Williams, Arcilia Acosta and Pettis Norman -- have solid credentials for community involvement. But it's worth reflecting on other baggage they may carry with them into this fight.
In their letter beating up on Miles for pushing too hard on school reform, Williams, Acosta and Norman position themselves as members of Dallas Achieves, a business group put together by establishment political consultant Carol Reed with a goal of winning the coveted Broad Prize, an annual award for the nation's most improved public school district. It was to be won by the year 2010, a goal Dallas Achieves never achieved.
Williams is former chairman and CEO of Trammel Crow Co. and founder of the Foundation for Community Empowerment. Acosta is CEO of Carcon Industries. Norman is president of PNI Industries. All three have long records of community involvement beyond and outside their business interests.
But they do have business interests. Acosta, in particular, is at or near the top of the heap of minority-owned public works contractors who do business with the Dallas Independent School District, as well as the regional transit agency, the city and the airport. Her own corporate web page brags that her company is a general partner in the school district's $1.3 billion building campaign, a joint venture partner in DART's $700 million rail expansion program, program manager in the Fort Worth school district's $600 million building campaign and a joint venture partner in the Dallas Fort Worth Airport's $1.6 billion building campaign.
What's wrong with that? Nothing, nada, zip. They're in business. They do business. But it's worth noting that Acosta's company lives and dies -- mainly it lives very well -- on local politics. This is somebody whose personal livelihood is directly tied to staying right with local elected leaders.
Williams' foundation has done a lot of good in southern Dallas. He takes strong and courageous stands on southern Dallas issues, often making the city's comfortable elite a little less comfortable with the city's long sordid history of neglect. But all of FCE's biggest initiatives, like the rebuilding of the Frazier courts public housing project, depend utterly on support from local elected officials, especially in southern Dallas.
Norman, a former pro footballer who played for the Cowboys and the Chargers in the '60s and '70s, has a long solid track record of constructive involvement in civic issues. But his personal history also includes instances where his public cachet and his business interests seem to have been closely interwoven.
In one of those instances, he was a principal in the so-called SALT Group, accused of using political pressure to wring a contract and a surrender of partial ownership from the company developing the city's Inland Port shipping and warehousing project.
Apparently that involvement is why Norman and Jon Edmonds, a former executive of McDonald's FCE, were subpoenaed to appear two years ago before a federal grand jury investigating the affairs of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price.
None of this is to say that these three should not speak out on school issues when they feel the need. Again, they all have personal histories on broad over-arching public school improvement efforts going way back. What is a little peculiar about their involvement right now in school reform, however, is their extremely narrow focus on particular district employees.
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In this recent letter to Miles, they focus on the job of Madison High School principal Marian Willard, who apparently will be out of a job at the end of the year. Last November, the trio penned an essay for The Dallas Morning News complaining about the termination of school district executive Shirley Ison-Newsome, who enjoyed major political support from black elected leaders and little if any support at all among Hispanic leaders.
Why is the narrow focus now significant? By going to bat for particular employees in the midst of a difficult district-wide campaign of reform, the three surrender the high ground on education issues and look instead like they're responding to sharp yanks of the political chain out there in the community. This may be unfair, but I can't avoid wondering if J. McDonald Williams, Arcilia Acosta and Pettis Norman had to come to the defense of Ison-Newsome and Willard if they wanted to keep their own enterprises afloat in southern Dallas.
At the very least, a small disclaimer would be nice, next time they ride into town beneath the banner of Dallas Achieves and other selfless expressions of civic responsibility. They could put an asterisk on the next letter and maybe have some small type at the bottom saying, "All three of us must depend on the kindness of elected officials."
A previous version of this article had a headline that was written by an Idiot Named Joe.