John Fullinwider is one of many community leaders who have specific ideas for fixing the mess at Dallas school headquarters.
John Fullinwider is one of many community leaders who have specific ideas for fixing the mess at Dallas school headquarters.
Mark Graham

One honest man

Listen to this: It is a semi-serious theory I have heard a few times in the last week from people familiar with Dallas school board politics. Call it the theory of "racial math."

This theory holds that the Dallas school board picked Chad Woolery, a white man, to be superintendent in 1993, replacing a black superintendent, because the board figured a white guy would represent a defeat for both blacks and Hispanics on the board--or at least a draw--and therefore he would be able to keep the blacks and the Hispanics from each other's throats. But it didn't work, because then the blacks and the Hispanics ganged up on the whites. (Didn't see that one coming, I guess.)

In 1997, the whites joined up with the Hispanics to pick Yvonne Gonzalez as superintendent, according to this theory, because both sides thought she would have what it takes to beat up on the blacks. But that didn't work, either, because before Gonzalez could do anything she had to go to the pokey. (Can anyone guess the moral yet?)

Waldemar Rojas was the perfect racial math consensus candidate, according to the theory. He was chosen last year because, as a black Puerto Rican yankee who talks like a made man in the Mafia, he could keep everybody in line. This was the one racial formula that looked for a while as if it might actually work.

Tragically, however, as soon as the school board was finally forced to get in line, it had a nervous breakdown.

I hear this stuff. It's funny for a while. Then I want to go shoot myself. This kind of talk is depressing in the end, because we all fear it may contain more than a grain of truth.

Now let's get serious. No jokes. What on earth could the people of Dallas do right about the schools for a change? What would it take?

In a week of taking this question to a number of thoughtful people, I learned two things that surprised me and actually gave me the smallest tingle of hope: There is a diffuse community of citizens out there, many of whom don't even know yet that the others exist, who are all intensely interested in this very question, and there is a strong shared intuition that the moment is ripe.

Ah, don't say it! I am not talking about that bad statement we all learned never to say several years ago: "Well, at least we know things at Dallas school headquarters are so bad now, they can't possibly get any worse."

Don't ever say that again.

What the people I talked to seemed to feel, instead, was that the pent-up frustration and cynicism and apathy over the school system have reached a point in the city where something has to pop.

"It is a movement waiting to happen," said John Fullinwider, a longtime community activist and organizer who now teaches in the Dallas Independent School District.

Even though there is a division of opinion about the performance of the school board, nobody seems to think the board can be the source of change that we need in Dallas now. It has to come from outside normal formal institutional politics.

State Rep. Domingo Garcia, a former Dallas City Council member and an outspoken advocate of education reform, said, "There will have to be a broad-based citizen reform movement that can coalesce the major players, put together a simple list of three or four or five objectives, and then go to the school board."

State Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt, who is a former school board member, goes further: She believes the community must take responsibility for the change, because the community often has been responsible for the mess.

"There have been a lot of failures, including things the community has done that have been inappropriate. I think there has been a demand for political special interests that have not been in the best interests of our children, and the school board may even be a scapegoat for some of that."

There are people out there who have very specific thoughts on why it hasn't happened already--why a community movement to fix the schools hasn't already caught fire. The Rev. Gerald Britt, co-chairman of Dallas Area Interfaith, talked to me about a state-funded program called the "Alliance Schools," which is designed to make a connection between communities and their schools.

"The Alliance Schools program has been under way for six or seven years, with tremendous results in other cities," Britt said. "When it comes to Dallas, however, it has been a tremendously tough go to try to get this stuff done."

Britt blames what he calls a hard-shell "culture of experts and professionals" at Dallas school headquarters. "They believe that they have the answers, and they believe the place of parents and clergy and community leaders is way down at a low level."

The greatest harm wrought by the administration of Superintendent Waldemar Rojas, people told me, has nothing to do with budgets or personnel. The real damage has been to the few struggling community involvement programs that previous administrations allowed.

Ruth Houston, immediate past president of the Dallas PTA and a respected grassroots organizer on school issues, said, "Everything at 3700 Ross now is a secret. You go and ask for information, and they say, 'Did you clear that with so and so?'"

The really good news, in all of this, is that smart people in the community have been giving the schools a lot of thought and are beginning to come up with a variety of ideas for making things better. You don't have to agree with any specific idea: It's just good to know people are tossing some things around.

Britt, for example, says we have the same problem on the school board that we have on the city council: If we want to attract more people to the office of school board member, he says, we will probably have to offer something like a full-time salary. "You need some people on the board who understand the role of a board of directors," he said. "You almost hate to say it, but you are going to have to pay these folks. If you don't pay them, you're not going to get the best the city has to offer."

Fullinwider, the community activist and teacher, thinks there are structural changes in school governance that could help the board do a better job. "The board does not have any structural way of receiving citizen input. They don't have a plan commission, the way the city council does, or an urban rehab standards board."

He suggests the board would be able to concentrate more on true policy issues if there were formal bodies beneath it where citizens and other interests were required to take their issues for a first hearing. "We need to institutionalize some other layers of citizen input, so a program like Edison Schools would have to filter up to the board instead of just getting dumped on them cold."

I ran that idea by school board member Lois Parrott, who snapped to it right away. "At least that would get the contractors off our backs," she said.

If there were to be some broad-based, truly grass-roots initiatives for change, some of us might have to go into it prepared to give up or at least compromise on our most dearly held beliefs. In recent years, I had come around to the idea that the school district really needs to get out of court--that is, persuade U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders and the various parties to the decades-old desegregation suit that it's over.

But a number of people with whom I spoke this week pointed me to the work of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation and its director, Gary Orfield. Studies by the Harvard Project have shown that in cities where federal desegregation orders have been lifted, segregation has grown markedly worse, as have test scores for minority students. Orfield argues that the "re-segregation" of urban schools is bad for both white and minority students.

So maybe the court's influence and the suit itself aren't as negative as some people think. The point, anyway, is not that anybody's single idea here is the shining banner. It's more that people are thinking. They care. The seeds of change are out there.

The people who have been out there trying are much less cynical about the chances for success, I found, than the rest of us who are just guessing. As PTA president, Ruth Houston spent a lot of time trying to enlist parents in the cause and is still at it. She says it absolutely can be done. "They're busy. They're working two jobs. You have to get out there, and you have to be talking to the parents sitting out there waiting for their kids to get off school. But once you explain it to them and the light goes on, those parents will do anything to help."

Glenn M. Linden, an SMU professor who is author of the 1995 book Desegregating Schools in Dallas, is one of a number of citizens who have been working with the Greater Dallas Human Relations Commission and the League of Women Voters to come up with ideas for the schools. Linden is a student of both education and history, but when he talks about what it might take to really ignite a movement in Dallas, he goes Biblical:

"Think of the Bible. If there are enough right-minded people around him, one poor man can save the city."

You know whom I thought of immediately when Linden said that? Gee, I hope the guy doesn't think I'm volunteering him. I don't mean that at all. Just as an example.

Tim Daniels.

He's the guy, remember, who had never been involved in city politics at all, but he heard about the city closing all the neighborhood swimming pools for poor kids, and he decided to do something about it.

A whole bunch of noise and about $100,000 in private donations later, he did it. He saved our pools. One guy. The spark was lighted in him, and he became the torch. He turned the whole city around. He fought City Hall and won.

So maybe that's what our children need. A Tim Daniels for the schools.


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