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The North Dallas Plot to Take Over DISD

Todd Williams was a successful fund manager at Goldman Sachs when he left that world to help start a Dallas charter school.
Todd Williams was a successful fund manager at Goldman Sachs when he left that world to help start a Dallas charter school.
Jay Barker

Sixteen years ago, the last time a bunch of well-funded outsiders tried to reform the Dallas School system, the results were a disaster. I remember it. Some of you may too.

Now the same kind of movement is starting up again, and so far it's been smooth as silk. So I have to wonder: Is somebody on vacation? Where are the shotguns and the televised wrestling matches?

In 1996, when well-funded, mainly white reformers came in with big manila folders of statistics under their arms preaching about outcomes and incomes, there was open warfare. Board meetings dissolved into riots.

The New Black Panthers threatened to show up at school headquarters armed with shotguns. Tangles between angry speakers and district security guards were beginning to make board meetings look like Total Nonstop Action Wrestling.

The New Black Panthers painted the white school board members as bogus crackers. Then a neighbor of one white trustee proved them right by wiretapping the trustee using racial slurs. The superintendent resigned. The next superintendent got sent to the pen. A dismal series of financial scandals ensued. The school district wound up looking like bad fruit erupted in the merciless Texas sun. So here we go again?

Maybe. Maybe not.

"The verdict is still out," says African-American board member Bernadette Nutall. "Until you see the achievement gaps really closed and you see academic achievement and you see economic development in our underserved community, I think it's an incomplete grade. But I'm always willing to listen."

The willing to listen part is new. On all sides.

"I think there's a new generation of leadership that has a different view of how you do this," says Mark Melton, a young white lawyer who is co-chair of one of two new reform-oriented political action committees. "You don't want to be the arrogant guy pushing this down people's throats."

You don't? That's new too.

But not everything is new. The goals and vocabulary of the movement are strongly reminiscent of the earlier effort, especially in calls for "accountability," which can be a code word for more testing and more teacher firings. The ZIP codes are familiar too.

In the recent Dallas school board election, an unprecedented river of cash poured into a handful of campaigns, the lion's share from donors in downtown, the Park Cities, Preston Hollow and far North Dallas. That money came from affluent people, the majority of whom are white, some of whom must think that sending their own kids to a public school in Dallas is like sending them to the gallows.

The amount of money was serious. In 2009, the last time Nutall ran for election to the District 9 seat in old South Dallas, she raised $2,718 in campaign contributions.

The next election, in 2011, was canceled for lack of interest. That's not a joke. The district canceled the entire 2011 Dallas school board election for three board seats — not Nutall's — because nobody showed up to run against any of the sitting board members. The incumbents will sit for two more years.

Since then, Nutall has supported closing so-called underutilized and inefficient schools in her own district, a move that was popular at school headquarters, deeply controversial among her constituents.

This year, when Nutall ran for re-election, she raised $54,527.06. Even though she was running a slam-dunk race against an unknown kid, Nutall was able to increase her fundraising by more than 2,000 percent.

Opponents accused her of earning her personal income from a nonprofit funded entirely by downtown business groups and white people. It was true. But she beat the kid handily anyway.

Even at that, Nutall didn't quite match the fundraising prowess of unknown newcomer Dan Micciche, who raised $56,479.57 to run against incumbent Bruce Parrott in District 3 in Far East Dallas.

Both Micciche and Parrott are white. But Parrott and his wife, a former board member who raised questions about school district contracts and legal fees, are unpopular with business groups.

Parrott raised $950. Micciche outraised him by 5,900 percent. Micciche won.

In Nutall's case, 56 percent of her windfall came from two new political action committees, one called "EducateDallas" and the other "Kids First." The same two PACs gave Micciche 64 percent of his campaign treasure.

This should all be déjà vu. The reform effort of the '90s was fueled by rivers of cash from white people and business groups directed into trustee campaigns. The goal then as now was to tip the board toward the control of the people giving the money. But, as Nutall says, the jury is still out on this one.


Given the passage of time and the march of history, it may no longer be enough to know that a lot of the people chipping in are rich white people. Maybe now we have to know what kind of rich white people.

 

Of the 52 postal ZIP codes from which donors gave money to the two PACs, 11 ZIP codes contributed 91 percent of the quarter-million dollars the PACs raised in the last year. Those 11 ZIP codes are a solid band across Dallas' gold coast, from the enclave communities of Highland Park and University Park to the estate district northwest of the Park Cities.

The top four individual donors to the PACs, all white, contributed more than half the quarter-million dollars. They are, in order of their generosity, Ken Barth, a technology magnate; Harlan Crow, the international real estate magnate sometimes associated with conservative politics; Daniel Muzquiz, a venture capitalist; and Container Store founder and serial entrepreneur Garrett Boone, sometimes associated with liberal politics.

Why do they give a damn? None of them is involved in school district contracting. They certainly don't fit the demographic mold.

Of the 150,000-plus students in the Dallas Independent School District, according to state records, 87.1 percent are economically disadvantaged, 4.6 percent are white, 25 percent are black, 68.2 percent are Hispanic and only 14 percent of those who graduate from high school are ready for college in both English language arts and mathematics.

The two PACs, together with a new communitywide volunteer effort called Commit!, are part of a citywide reform movement loosely affiliated with a national movement sometimes described as "collaborative impact," aimed at coordinating and streamlining disparate do-good efforts to improve education.

The core of it is called "cradle to graduation," a concept that calls for diverse philanthropic entities to integrate and stage their resources in order to focus on student success from birth until college admission.

But that begs the question of why. A year after the district had to call off its board elections because no one gave enough of a damn to run, why do 11 of the city's most affluent ZIP codes suddenly cough up a quarter-million bucks to influence school board decisions?

School board member Michael Morath, a champion of the reform movement, goes straight for the most idealistic explanation: "We as a species would not have survived if we didn't fundamentally care about our young collectively. It is part of human nature that we do actively love children. You can say it's wired into us, you can say it's God-given, but it's there. Otherwise we would have died a long time ago."

So we are asked to believe that a bunch of wealthy white people woke up in the middle of the night and decided to start pouring their money into the Dallas public schools out of the goodness of their hearts?

Yes. On the one hand, it sounds preposterous. On the other hand, what if it were true? What if it were even half true? A quarter true?


The very suggestion of affluent white people wanting to do the right thing by urban public schools pushes a very angry button in the veteran education warriors — the high-seniority activists who have learned over the years to mistrust just such assertions.

Black community activist Joyce Foreman gets along great with white people most of the time. Quick-witted and business-sophisticated, she bridged gaps, formed alliances and earned credibility with white suburban colleagues as a member of the board of directors of Dallas Area Rapid Transit from 2002 to 2008.

But two big buttons got pushed for her earlier this year when DISD trustees, including Nutall, voted to close those schools in her community. At the same moment, Uplift Education, a charter school organization in Dallas, blundered into a brief but colorful zoning dispute over a school site Uplift had purchased in a neighborhood of bars. It didn't help that someone at City Hall surreptitiously slipped into a City Council agenda a measure to allow Uplift to use tax-exempt bonds to build more schools, in one of those not-quite-tricky-enough moves that always winds up making everybody crazy.

For Foreman, it was game on. She saw a pincer movement to shut down DISD schools and give the money instead to charters so they could snap up more real estate and skim easy-to-teach top students out of the district, leaving the truly challenged students behind to rot.

I asked her why anybody would want to do that.

"To continue to have an illiterate workforce that will work for menial pay," she said, "and who will not question the system."

That's a remarkably dark accusation. Foreman believes there are people in this city who would deform the minds of children in order to keep them in peonage.

"I believe that there are good people of all races," Foreman says. "Don't get me wrong. But if you just start looking at these do-gooders, who are all Park Cities people, wanting to come back here and just shower all of this good on DISD, it just baffles me."

 

The idea that rich white people would work deliberately to diminish the lives of black children — would pretend to do good while conspiring to do evil — is not unique to black Dallas. It reflects centuries of our national history, where, as a matter of fact, that happened.

James Tucker, publisher of the only black newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is involved in a dispute with Mike Miles, a school superintendent there who is about to take over leadership of DISD. Tucker believes Miles is in league with people whose deliberate aim is to prevent black students from becoming educated.

Tucker doesn't believe, as Foreman does, that rich white people would deliberately keep black kids uneducated in order to employ them in menial jobs. He believes white people want to keep black children in prison as slaves.

"The end result," Tucker told me, "is the fact that most of those kids are not being educated. They are basically finding a way to put them in what I call plantation prisons. They're selling our kids. If they weren't selling our kids, we would not have more kids in prison than in college."

Usually, white Americans, at least older ones, react to that kind of accusation by angrily denouncing their accusers as crazy, lazy, paranoid, unable to break their addiction to the race card and victimhood. But I found a very different response when I raised the issue of mistrust among the affluent whites associated with the new school reform movement in Dallas.

Morath, who is white and retired at age 35 after selling his stake in a tech company he helped start, believes profound mistrust between whites and blacks is natural, inevitable, even necessary, at least for a long while to come.

"I had a professor in college who was one of my favorites, in an African-American literature class," Morath says one afternoon at an Uptown Starbucks. "She said, 'Have you ever been in a bad relationship with somebody, and you break up? How long does it take when you meet them on the street and you don't have feelings of euphoria or anger, so it's just even-steven?'

"She said, 'For me it's generally been about twice the amount of time that I have been in the relationship. If I was with somebody in a relationship for about a year, if I saw them on the street two years later, I'd be OK.'

"She said, 'Now we [whites and blacks in America] have been in a bad relationship, depending on how you count, for about 300 years.'"

That puts it in perspective for Morath, whose take on things is informed by other experiences that might seem anomalous in the background of a rich white guy. When he was a student at George Washington University in Washington, he was the only white member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation's most prestigious black fraternity.

"I attended the Million Man March," he says.

That kind of experience does not make Morath the Lone Ranger among the young affluent white people involved in the PACs or the new reform movement. Melton, the co-chair of EducateDallas, is a 34-year-old international tax and deal-structuring lawyer with a major firm. At an East Dallas bar one late afternoon, he, too, says mistrust across racial and ethnic lines is natural.

"I recognize that there's a history that's legitimate."

He believes knowing the history and accepting its consequences can give rise to a whole new approach to education reform.


The '90s reformers were not aristocrats riding around handing each other Grey Poupon from the windows of their Bentleys. Many of them were liberal Democrats in their 30s and 40s. But it's possible that people who are in their 30s and 40s now, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, simply have a different view of the world, informed by different experiences.

In response to questions about his own background, Melton says, "I know what it's like to scramble."

Married at age 20 without a college degree, Melton scrambled through Tarrant County Junior College in Fort Worth, then the University of Texas at Arlington and finally SMU law school at night. He and his wife were so poor their young children qualified for the Texas Children's Health Insurance Program.

To keep his own spirits up, he says, Melton told himself, "Someday this will all pay off, and I'm going to be the guy helping out some kid."

Melton participates in a mentoring project at DISD that includes dinners for high school students where they sit side by side with attorneys, many of whom are black and Hispanic, and who have their own scrambling stories to share.

In what Morath, Melton and others associated with the reform movement have to say about the schools, certain themes recur, and it's not all about empathy and mentoring. These are people from professional and entrepreneurial backgrounds, and eventually they all come around to talking about a more businesslike "systems approach" to running the district. Often their observations include a distinct emphasis on evaluating teachers and getting rid of bad ones.

 

The clearest statement of it comes from Barth, a 50-year-old serial tech magnate who was the single largest donor to the two PACs. Through a recent venture, a company called Symphonic Source, Barth has contributed more than $30,000 to Kids First, almost all of it in the form of salary for two executives whose time and effort Barth is contributing to the PAC and to an effort called "Leadership DISD," designed to recruit and train community volunteers.

Rattling around the huge living room of an unoccupied North Dallas mansion he uses as his office, Barth, a youthful 50-something, paints a picture — his picture — of an educational system in which kids come last. He describes a personnel system encrusted with arcane practices and ornate policies, heavily influenced by teachers unions and in which management has no incentive for even trying to get rid of a truly bad teacher.

"At every bargaining table you have two constants," Barth says. "You have management and the union. The customers, who are the kids, are never represented." His own children went through DISD schools — an unusual thing among people who have spare mansions to use as offices.

DISD teachers threatened with firing, he says, are entitled to multiple appeals hearings as well as outside arbitration. He states as fact that teachers are entitled to "four or five layers" of appeals, costing huge amounts of time from management and even the school board, which must hear one of the levels of appeal itself, not to mention a cost to the district, he says, of $30,000 to $50,000 in legal fees.

The picture Barth paints is either vividly distorted or pretty close to the mark, depending on who's commenting. District spokesperson Jon Dahlander provided text of the underlying board policy, which does seem to provide for multiple layers of appeal. Dahlander said the cost in legal fees is "closer to $30,000" per dismissal.

In the school-closing vote in January of this year, the school board also endorsed a plan to lay off 177 teachers. Teacher representatives tell me almost all laid-off teachers appeal. So at 30 grand per dismissal, the January layoff could be expected to cost $5.3 million in legal fees before it's done with.

A quibble with Barth's view would be that there are no teacher unions in Dallas. Texas places severe restrictions on the ability of public employees to bargain collectively. Some, but not all, Dallas teachers are members of voluntary associations whose main function is to provide them with legal advice and representation. The leadership of those organizations takes strong exception to the picture painted by Barth.

When she hears the story about a personnel system hobbled by too many hearings, too much disincentive for management to take a strong hand, Rena Honea, president of Alliance-AFT, the largest of the associations representing DISD teachers, can barely contain herself.

"I just want to fly off the handle when I hear that," she says. The most common problem she and her staff see is incompetent administration, not incompetent teachers.

"This, quote, reform push that they're looking for, they don't have any idea what it is. Nobody can really tell you what reform is," she says.

"All I've been given so far is, 'We need the best teacher in front of every student, and we need the best principal leading the school.' Well, how do you know you don't have the best teachers already?"

She thinks the freer, heavier hand the reformers want to give principals is a dangerous pipe dream. "Many of the principals that are in the campuses right now only have three years experience as an educator. They haven't even got their feet wet."

Angela Davis, Region 4D president of the smaller Texas State Teachers Association, says the grievance processes in which her group represents fired teachers rarely get to the question of competence, because so much effort is taken dealing with sloppy administrative practice.

"They don't do their documentation," she says. "Then at the last minute they don't have enough paperwork to get rid of the teacher. And you can't do that. They have to have due process."

Her association doesn't really fight the district on competence questions, Davis says. "What we say is that as long as they have followed protocol and given that person due process, then they have the right to do what they need to do. But if they have not followed due process, then we're going to come in and we're going to fight them."

 

The vast majority of the firings she has seen in the last year have been wholesale responses to budget emergencies anyway, with very little time given to individual evaluation of teacher competency.

The budget pinch also affects competence, Davis says. "When you put more than 22 students in a classroom and you have overcrowded classrooms, you have students that have special needs that need to be in a smaller group but you put them in one classroom, you cannot teach that many students with that many issues."

Honea cites shrinking budgets and shrinking pay as forces already pushing teacher morale to what she thinks are record low levels. She fears a reform movement based on even tougher treatment can only make a bad situation more dismal.

"The morale of the workforce is already lower than I've ever seen it in my 34 years of being in education in DISD," she says. "We're not scraping the bottom of the barrel for low morale. The barrel has a hole in it, and it just keeps sinking, because of the way people have been treated.

"They're not treated as professionals. There's not a lot of respect. Things are just being done to them."

Are the teacher associations saying all teacher firings are unfair and unjust? Not according to them. They say rules exist for a reason, and management should follow those rules the same way they expect teachers to.

The associations are not alone in their frustration over what they say is a lack of specifics in the program and goals of the reform movement. Even though Nutall was supported by the reformers in her re-election campaign, she chafes at their tendency toward vague generalities.

"Reform and the definition of reform is change," Nutall says. "So when you 'reform,' what are you reforming? What needs to change?

"We all can say the buzzwords. Is it the community that needs to be changed to drive the education of children? Once you identify what needs to be changed, you can get to the how-to."


Of all the people involved in the new reform effort, Todd Williams is the prototype. Still young, Williams is so successful and rich he doesn't have to work anymore.

A 1982 graduate of Austin College, son of a Dallas sportswriter, graduate of Bryan Adams High School in DISD, Williams retired as a partner at Goldman Sachs in 2009 after co-managing an international real estate portfolio worth $60 billion. He and his wife are co-founders of a Dallas charter school.

Williams now is devoting himself full-time to something called Commit!, an organization of 10 people that sits at the top of the reform pyramid in Dallas. Its mission will be to put together a cradle-to-graduation collaborative impact structure similar to what has been done already in Austin, Cincinnati, Harlem, Houston and Los Angeles, bringing all of the philanthropic players in Dallas interested in education into one room and trying to persuade them to work under one yoke.

At a picnic table on the grounds of the offices of Crow Holdings, where Williams works from donated space, he says, "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. They're all the same concept. We're a regional collaborative. The idea is, let's figure out through data what's really working and how to scale it."

But what does that mean?

An article in the winter 2011 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, a scholarly journal, gives a somewhat fuller, though technical, description involving two main underlying concepts. The first is based on the belief that children not born into a culture of upward mobility at home need help getting there from the moment they are born to the day they graduate from high school.

The second principle, a little more esoteric, has to do with how philanthropic organizations spend money. Most, according to the article, try to focus on a single goal so they can have some hope of knowing whether their money is achieving anything. The problem with that approach is that it doesn't line up with the cradle-to-graduation strategy necessary to help kids make it.

The authors cite a program called Strive in Cincinnati and others around the country: "These varied examples all have a common theme: that large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations."

The phrase "better cross-sector coordination" isn't a very stirring battle cry and certainly wouldn't satisfy Nutall's hunger for specifics from the reformers, but it doesn't sound terribly fascist either. And there is much about Williams at a personal level that might assuage fears about Commit! as some kind of Trojan horse for white control.

Speaking barely loudly enough to be heard over traffic on Maple Avenue, Williams told me about his decision to leave Goldman Sachs and devote himself to education reform in Dallas.

 

"I had already had more success than I had ever envisioned in life," he says. "I went to the funeral of a mentor I had had at Austin College, almost like a second father of mine, a basketball coach, and I listened to what everybody said. This was a guy who had touched a lot of people. I looked at myself and said, 'What am I doing with my life?'

"My wife is Hispanic. She grew up in a single-parent home. Her mom worked three jobs. She went to SMU."

Through Junior League, Williams' wife, Abby, became involved with North Dallas High School. "She just had a passion for kids," he says. "Together we started funding scholarships, primarily for kids from DISD.

"I started spending more time with the kids. I went on the board of Uplift Education [the charter school organization] in 2004. I really enjoyed it. I found myself being lured more and more to the other side. What I really had a passion for was this stuff.

"In '07, my wife and I helped start a school that's operated by Uplift called Williams Preparatory. It's in Northwest Dallas about four miles from our home. It's 98 percent Hispanic and upwards of 90 percent free- and reduced-lunch kids.

"We got really involved in that school and started spending a lot of time with the kids. I think we just got deeper and deeper into it. Finally, I looked up and I said, 'I really want to spend the rest of my life helping.'"

He resigned from one of the best business positions in the world and went to work as a volunteer trying to fix schools in Dallas. How do you fault somebody for that?


Some of the difference between now and 15 years ago may simply have to do with having history as our guide. The reformers in the '90s had to learn it all head-on, the hard way.

Sandy Kress, a former Dallas school board president, later a White House adviser on education under President George W. Bush, remembers being totally unprepared for the racial enmity engendered by his efforts in Dallas.

"You talk about naïve," Kress says. "I was kind of a progressive Democratic politician wading into all this, and I had no idea. I had been the Democratic Party chairman, and I had worked with a lot of people, and I wandered into this. It was a rude awakening"

Kress remembers trying to persuade the late Kathlyn Gilliam, an African-American board member, that it was important to keep affluent white people from turning their backs on the district.

"She used to give me lectures on Park Cities types and North Dallas types," he recalls. "I felt that there were a lot of people on the right who would just as soon build their gated communities and get the hell out of here, take their money and their kids and just sort of write it off.

"I said to her, 'You cannot let these people go. When you let them go, it's not going to be good for African-American kids.'

"She thought I was an idiot, mainly because these people had been shits for centuries to her community and to her kids, which was true. So how do you deal with all these things?"

Bob Weiss, now vice president for administration of the philanthropic Meadows Foundation, was an important behind-the-scenes supporter of Kress back in the day and a proponent of reform. He thinks one of the big lessons of time is just that — time. Reformers in that earlier wave were naïve about how much time it would take to get anything important accomplished.

"The degree of difficulty and the complexity of it was totally underestimated," Weiss says. "I think the overlay of class and race was underappreciated against what looked like objective data about results."

During the long, agonizing passage from that earlier campaign to now, some of Kress' fears of white abandonment certainly were realized. It's hard to believe many people didn't simply give up on DISD. One of the more intriguing aspects of the new movement is that it may be helping turn some of that around already.

The second-largest benefactor of the two education PACs after Ken Barth is Harlan Crow, chairman and chief executive officer of Crow Family Holdings, a company devoted to managing the assets of the heirs of the late Trammell Crow. In his early 60s, Crow is a very wealthy man with a reputation for consorting with conservative political figures like his buddy, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

I asked Crow why he thought all of this reform activity was churning up just now.

"That's a fair question," he says. "I have asked myself that same question. The answer is this: As the years have gone by, the long number of years, I did lose hope for DISD, and I just put it out of my thought process as something I wouldn't pay attention to.

 

"I ignored it, because I felt like it was hopeless. And then maybe a couple years ago I started to see some stirring of good things happening over there. I didn't pay a lot of attention, because I don't wake up thinking about that.

"But then I started thinking, well, shoot, maybe I'll pay a little more attention. And I did that. And I came to the conclusion that there is hope today. And, gosh, if there is hope, it's worth spending a little time and money and putting some oxygen to it."


Mike Miles, the incoming superintendent of schools, is well aware of the reform movement in Dallas and conversant with the principles of cradle-to-graduation and collaborative impact. I spoke to him briefly by phone from Colorado Springs, where he is winding up his tenure as a superintendent before reporting for work in Dallas.

"I welcome groups like Commit! because I think then we can focus and channel those efforts," Miles says.

I ask him who is going to run the district, him or Commit! He chuckles.

"You don't know me," he says. "I was hired to do the job. I'm not going to let somebody else do the job. I'm going to do the job. But, look, you can't run a district the size of Dallas without partners. I hope that almost goes without saying. I'm not a Lone Ranger. I'm not going to go it alone. You gotta have the community involved."

When I spoke with DISD trustee Morath, I asked him about generational change. I told him that the affluent white men I had been interviewing for this story all had personal experiences of diversity, both ethnic and economic, that made them quite unlike what I had come to expect of affluent white men of my own (older) generation.

Morath agreed. "As more and more people have more exposure, race as a category means less and less, and that's only going to happen as generations come and go. People have to die off."

I silently hoped that would not have to include me or Crow any time soon. But I saw what he meant.

The new reformers don't have every answer. I'm not sure we know yet that they have any answers. But they're also not your grandfather's rich white people. Well, wait. I guess they're not my rich white people.

They reflect a change in the culture that is natural and predictable. Morath is right. Their own personal experiences include much more diversity and rubbing shoulders than older people knew growing up, conservative or liberal, rich or not, and that has changed the way they approach people and problems.

It doesn't make them right about anything, but it does make them not automatically wrong. It does mean we are at a moment when people probably need to hear one another out decently. Maybe first we should all reintroduce ourselves.

Mark Melton scrambled to the top.
Jay Barker

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