Readin', writin', racism

Universal Academy founder Diane Harris, left, and Janice Blackmon, director of administrative services, show Chace Johnson and Shandolyn Devereaux how to set up a chessboard.
Mark Graham

"Let me get a look at them," a petite twentysomething black woman says to the woman sitting next to her in the city council chambers. "I like to look my adversary in the face." She stares at the white man with silver hair taking a seat in her row. They lock eyes for a few moments, sizing each other up.

Watching other elderly -- mostly white -- homeowners file into the chamber, another black woman remarks, "I don't see what they're so upset about. They've got one foot in the grave anyway." About 30 minutes later, a white woman says in a stage whisper to a friend, "You ought to try to have a conversation with some of these people. They barely speak the English language."

It's January 13, and more than 250 people have gathered for a City Plan Commission meeting to decide whether the Universal Academy Charter School should be allowed a special permit to allow it to continue operating at a church in Northwest Dallas. It's a mundane issue, or least it would be except for one fact: Most of the school's students, teachers, and administrators are black, while the neighborhood where the school is located is mostly white. In Dallas, nothing black and white is ever simply black and white.

In June, the school signed a $5,000-a-month lease with New St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church at 10345 Webb Chapel Road to operate the charter school in a church building. The church is in a neighborhood zoned for residential property, and the school needs a special-use permit from the city to keep its doors open.

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The Webb Royal Homeowners Association claims that noise and traffic from the school are lowering their property values, and they want they school to move elsewhere. To make matters worse -- from the neighborhood's point of view, anyway -- the school originally wanted to erect 11 portable classrooms on the church grounds, hauling the buildings in from the school's previous location on Fitzhugh Avenue.

The school's board of directors chose to move the school to New St. Paul because the building was already equipped with classrooms, lecture halls, and a gym. Two acres of vacant land next to the building were an added bonus because the academy would have been able to keep the portable buildings.

"Economically it was feasible, and most businesspeople would say very prudent to utilize the structure as it existed," says Janice Blackmon, director of administrative services at Universal Academy.

But nearby residents like Fred Gross complain of noisy kids, slamming car doors, and car alarms going off in the church parking lot. He and his neighbors have been trying to reach a compromise with the academy since September, when the two sides met at the church sanctuary for their first "friendly" meeting, hosted by city Councilwoman Barbara Mallory Caraway.

The meeting, which was videotaped by school representatives, wasn't friendly for long.

Many homeowners were unaware that a school would be operating out of New St. Paul's facilities until contractors began to lay the foundation for the portable buildings last summer. At the meeting September 16, Caraway's constituents made it clear they did not want the school in their neighborhood. One woman said that her dogs barked more frequently since the school opened. Many neighbors said that extra traffic generated by the school was a safety hazard. One woman claimed that two independent real estate agents told her that the value of her home would drop 20 percent.

The meeting deteriorated until some residents walked out after Universal Academy parents suggested the neighborhood was racist.

When Caraway asked a school official to stop videotaping the meeting because her constituents were uncomfortable with the camera, things turned uglier. Edwin Harris, director of media services for the school, refused to stop taping. Caraway threatened to move the meeting to another location if Harris did not turn off his camera. Finally, the councilwoman exploded at Harris.

"I said turn the goddamn camera off!" she hissed.

He did, but when a neighborhood resident discovered that someone else from the school had secretly continued to tape the meeting from the balcony, two uniformed Dallas policemen escorted the cameraman out of the church.

Blackmon and Harris say that after the camera was out of the building, phrases like "you people" began to ring out from the white residents. They say Caraway warned parents that they needed to win over the community because they could be "voted out" of the neighborhood.

Caraway did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Despite their differences after the first meeting, the two sides continued talking. Universal Academy decided not to erect the portable buildings, though it cost the school more than $200,000 to have the units towed to a storage facility in Waxahachie. They've been stored there at a cost of $8,000 a month since July.  

Even without the portables, the school still needs the special-use permit. Blackmon says that after the September meeting the sides agreed to talk over their differences, but city officials made it clear that the school must overcome the complaints. Because of neighborhood opposition, city rules require a three-fourths majority of the city council to approve the permit. Dr. Frank Payne, president of the homeowners association, says 500 signatures opposing the permit have been gathered.

Blackmon says Payne met with Universal Academy administrators on December 15. At that meeting, Blackmon agreed to install a 6- to 8-foot masonry wall around the school to screen the noise. She also agreed that the school would never enroll more than 415 students. If the school approved all of these terms, she says, Payne said the community would drop its opposition. School administrators left the meeting believing that their problem was solved. It wasn't.

On December 22 they received a call from the city health department. Someone had reported that the school's kitchen was in violation of city code. Inspectors found that the kitchen needed a different ceiling and new cabinets. Students -- on vacation at the time -- were not affected. Universal Academy is now bringing in boxed lunches for the children.

On January 3, Becky Pils, an urban planner with the city, told Blackmon she was going to recommend that the Plan Commission disallow Universal Academy the permit. Blackmon says Pils told her that the permit should not be approved because the community did not want the school there. But a week later, Blackmon says, Pils told her the planning department did not believe the school was the proper use of the facility.

School administrators say that since they agreed to the neighborhood association's terms, they could only conclude that the community's real issues were not traffic or property values. Blackmon says the neighborhood recently agreed to a special-use permit for a smaller Montessori school less than a block away from Universal Academy. Now, Blackmon says, Universal Academy is prepared to take the city to court.

"We're going to charge -- and I think we have substantive proof -- that this is racial discrimination," Blackmon says.

So on January 13, Universal Academy's administrators, parents, students, and attorney found themselves sitting in a five-hour meeting with the Plan Commission. At that meeting, Payne admitted that the agreement had been reached by the two sides but said the school never followed through with the plans or contacted association representatives about the process.

Pils presented her recommendation to deny the permit based on the impact the school would have on traffic, though Pils later told the Dallas Observer that no traffic survey had been done for the area.

Ninety-five percent of the school's 410 students are bused in from as far away as Mesquite, Garland, Rowlett, and Richardson. Administrators say that they have a few Hispanic students, though the other students are black. The state-funded charter school is the vision of Diane Harris, who serves as its director of educational services. Harris, who has more than 30 years of experience as a teacher and administrator, says she wanted to operate a school with a "holistic approach to education" and lessons geared specifically to each student's needs. When Universal Academy received its charter from the state in 1998, it was one of the highest-rated schools, receiving 110 out of a possible 125 points on its application.

School administrators say they are hard-pressed to believe that four school buses coming and going twice a day will hurt the neighborhood. Blackmon says the school has been trying to cooperate, but she doesn't believe that the neighborhood association members honestly want to work toward a compromise.

"The community was told early on that it was all up to them and that if they voted against this issue we would have to go away," Blackmon says.

At the end of the January meeting, plan commissioners decided to delay a vote on the special-use permit until March 9. Commission Chairman Hector Garcia urged school officials to follow through on its agreement with the neighborhood.

Blackmon says it was unreasonable to expect that the school would be able to find contractors to erect a fence over the holidays. She also says that Oakley, Pils, and Payne could not be contacted over Christmas and New Year's.

"What they're saying is that I was supposed to make phone calls back to them and get all the changes to Becky [Pils] over the Christmas holiday. She wasn't even in the office," Blackmon says.

Pat Cotton, a resident of the neighborhood since 1964, says her biggest problem with the school is that it's operating without the proper permits.  

"Had they done it right in the first place, we wouldn't have had a reason to fight it," Cotton says. "There's no racial factor to this at all. Some years ago the church tried to put up a nursing home, and we fought that."

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