Out of bounds
Among the parents living in the tidy, peaked-roof cottages of Dallas' 'M' Streets neighborhood, it has been fodder for gossip for months now: How did Pete Sessions, Republican candidate for U.S. Congress, get his 6-year-old son into highly coveted Stonewall Jackson Elementary while living outside the school's boundaries?
Did Sessions, son of former FBI Director William Sessions, innocently fall victim to a snafu on kindergarten registration day? Or did the 40-year-old candidate--now engaged in a running debate with his opponent over who is the straightest, staunchest, law-abiding Republican--choose to break the rules?
At issue are the Jackson boundaries. They generally encompass the area east of Central Expressway to Abrams Road and to Lovers Lane on the north, but the southern boundary takes some odd jags, cutting right through the middle of blocks 5700 through 6000 of Monticello Avenue. Children living at odd-numbered addresses--on one side of the street--attend Jackson, nine blocks to the north; children from the even-numbered houses--on the other side of Monticello--go to Robert E. Lee Elementary, three blocks to the south.
Pete and Juanita Sessions and their two young sons live in a rented tan-brick bungalow at 5834 Monticello, a home they rented after the politician first decided to run for the fifth congressional-district seat held by U.S. Rep. John Bryant.
Stonewall Jackson is a jewel in the Dallas Independent School District crown. Consistently cited for high academic achievement and parental involvement, the school is also the site of DISD's program for deaf and hearing-impaired students. Parents--many of them white, urban professionals who have gentrified the neighborhood over the last decade--proudly describe the school's mandate that hearing children learn American Sign Language alongside their deaf peers, in order to communicate fully.
Jackson is also overwhelmingly white: 61 percent of its 558 students are Anglo, 20 percent are Hispanic, and 16 percent are African-American. The school features a veritable who's who of mover-and-shaker parents: Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk's children attend Jackson; the DISD school-board chairman, Sandy Kress, and Sessions' Republican primary opponent, former Dallas City Councilman Glenn Box, also live within its boundaries, though their children are preschool age.
In contrast, Lee--with lower test scores and fewer parent-driven bells and whistles--has labored in Jackson's shadow for years. A shiny new wing was recently added to the school and test scores are steadily increasing, says DISD's Kress, but white flight from Lee and other predominantly minority schools in the neighborhood has continued. For the current school year, Lee's ethnic composition is 11 percent Anglo, 10 percent African-American, and 78 percent Hispanic.
Several Jackson parents charge that the candidate--locked in an increasingly rancorous primary-election battle with Box--slipped his child into Jackson even after a neighbor alerted him last summer that his son should attend Lee. Those parents say Sessions chose to look the other way after the school mistakenly allowed his son in on registration day.
Sessions confirms that a housekeeper who works several hours a day at his home sends her own kindergarten-age daughter to Lee Elementary through an approved DISD transfer. "She called DISD to find out what her options were, and she was told it [Lee] was the closest school to our home," he says. "She was told that Lee was the neighborhood option. I don't know how it happened. I don't know exactly how she did it."
So each afternoon, Sessions' maid picks up her daughter at Lee, then picks up Sessions' son at Jackson. Sessions says he never found it odd that the two children--each using the same address for the purposes of school enrollment--would go to different schools.
"The school system needs to be responsible for the mistakes they make. If I had even one indication from anyone that we were wrong, we would have corrected it," he says.
The subject of transfers and boundaries in the neighborhood took on hot-button status last spring, after a memo from DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery closed the district's overcrowded schools this school year to all except majority-to-minority transfers. Jackson, at 114-percent capacity, is supposedly closed to any new Anglo students; Lee, at about 115-percent capacity and predominantly Hispanic, remains open to Anglos as a result of the memo, which complies with the 1987 federal desegregation order for public schools in Dallas.
Sessions, a former Southwestern Bell district manager, denies the charge that he skirted the rules to get his son into Jackson. The school, he says, made the mistake on registration day by affirming his residency and signing up his son. "When we went to formally register, we looked at a book at the school showing the boundaries," Sessions says. "It looks like the whole street is included in the Stonewall Jackson district, and I challenge you to look for yourself and see if you can tell the boundaries.
"I have never gone to the school or asked anybody for special favors because of who I am, and to imply otherwise would be absolutely untrue."
Jackson principal, Olivia Henderson, confirms that a "well-intentioned volunteer," unfamiliar with the school's exact boundaries, "just saw the street name Monticello, and didn't know to ask what side of the street the family lived on. Sometimes we have a couple that get missed and slip through the system."
This year, six families in all slipped through the system, Henderson says. All were informed by letter of the problem last October, she says, and were told they would have to move their children to the proper schools for the 1996-97 school year. Henderson says she felt forcing the children to leave six weeks into the school year would have been too disruptive.
Sessions, citing the other families involved, questions why his situation should be singled out. Of course, no members of the other families are running for public office, especially on a conservative platform of righteous rectitude.
A neighbor of Sessions, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Observer she raised with Sessions the issue of which school his son should attend as early as last spring. The neighbor lives on the same side of the street as the Sessions family, and was aware that the proper neighborhood school is Lee. She says Sessions advised her his son would attend Jackson.
Sessions confirms having had the conversation.
"Yes, she asked me if I was sure Bill should go to Stonewall Jackson, and I said, yes, because we called the school and told them our address. She asked me if I was sure, and I said, 'Well, I really don't know for sure.'"
Rather than make a call to the school district to verify the boundaries or ask an official about proper school selection, Sessions says, he and his wife "trusted the principal and teachers to do what is in the best interest of parents and children. I'm trying to be a parent who comes and participates and cares, not one who makes trouble and second-guesses the school.
"As far as I know, this has gone all the way up the line," says Sessions. "I was told that Sandy Kress was at least aware of it."
Kress says he learned of Sessions' situation "a few weeks ago, but I don't know what he's talking about with everyone up the line knowing. I don't know whether district officials closed their eyes to this or if any politicking was done for him or by him. Since there were only a few families, they were probably let in unknowingly."
Judy Thomas, student-transfer coordinator for DISD, refused to discuss the Sessions case, but confirms that the district is aware that some parents slip their children into schools that are legally closed to them. "It is done, but the practice is not prevalent. There are cases everywhere, all over the place--districtwide, statewide. Whenever we find them, we investigate them and take the proper action."
Meanwhile, 'M' Streets neighbors continue to steam. "I'd love to see my friends who live right on the border be able to go to Stonewall," says one Jackson mother, "but they're playing by the rules. It peeves me when people can find ways around the rules and pretend to be teaching their kids honesty and integrity."
Cindy Hess, PTA president at Jackson, says the Sessions case has caused dissension among parents at the school. "As an officer, I won't comment specifically, but the PTA would never condone fraud or dishonesty in any way," she says.
Candidate Glenn Box says the issue is not who made the mistake, but rather that "clearly, Pete Sessions knows or should know that he's not in the Stonewall boundaries. It sends the wrong signal when you're not willing to live under the same rules you expect those you represent to live under."
Late last week, Sessions' campaign strategists were working overtime to cast the situation in the best possible light.
Minutes after the candidate finished an interview with the Observer, George Young, who identified himself as a "longtime friend of Pete Sessions and a worker on his campaign," called. "This isn't even an issue," he declared. "I can't believe you would drag a 6-year-old into a political campaign."
In a subsequent interview, Sessions insisted that his behavior was above reproach. "My family has always tried to follow the rules and regulations to a 'T,' he said. "I can assure you that we always have. This is off the record, but my father is the former FBI director. And I only bring that up to show how I have lived under scrutiny for 15 or 20 years, and everything I've done is aboveboard."
Next year, Sessions says, will bring changes. "I have every reason to believe my son is going to attend public school. If he goes to Lee and they tell us he is in the right district, then we'll go by what we're told.
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.