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Tongue Twisted

A matter of principal: Former NAACP Chief Lee Alcorn helped lead the opposition to the bilingual-principal policy.
Mark Graham

No matter what the city, school board meetings can be bizarre spectacles that blend clumsy gestures of civic pride with demoralizing flashes of stupidity from elected officials and parents. Around 10 years ago, the people who came to Dallas Independent School District meetings recast this shopworn script, adding dramatic flourishes, plot twists and angry confrontations worthy of an HBO series. The members of the New Black Panthers often made their presence known, including one ugly assault on a Hispanic DISD employee. In their nonviolent moments, they heckled the board with taunts of racism.

"Mr. Keever is a grandson of the Klan!" yelled one New Black Panther at then school board president Bill Keever during a meeting in January 1997. "Keever is a Klansman."

In October that year, school Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges after she used nearly $10,000 in district funds to lavishly furnish her bedroom. She went to federal prison, but not before generating a series of damning stories about her reckless stewardship. If her immediate successors improved on her record, it was only because they were never locked up.

Today, DISD is like any other struggling urban school district, generating a mix of good and bad news. There is still craven spending and high-level cronyism blended with skyrocketing test scores at unlikely places such as James Madison High School in South Dallas. Superintendent Michael Hinojosa has won the respect of the trustees, teachers and the business community while his unfussy, professional style serves as a welcome contrast to predecessors'. Meanwhile, the board meetings are usually mind-numbingly boring. Considering where Dallas came from, that's a good thing.

But on October 26, as the board met to discuss modifying a measure that affected a handful of the district's principals, the dispiriting rancor from a decade ago made an unexpected comeback. At first glance, no outsider to DISD could have expected that the policy up for debate would be the subject of dinner-table conversations and radio call-in shows for weeks beforehand.

That Thursday evening, the board planned to revisit an initiative requiring principals of struggling elementary schools to be fluent in Spanish if a majority of their students had limited English skills. Authored by the late trustee Joe May in August 2005, the measure affected eight or so of the district's 217 schools. Black board members wanted to scrap May's plan altogether while Hispanic members wanted to leave it intact. At least two of the Anglo trustees hoped for a compromise.

But before they could deliberate, the trustees had to listen to about a dozen residents who had signed up to give their opinions. What many in DISD didn't know was that May's measure had infuriated wide swaths of black residents, who were caught off guard when it passed last year. Black pastors leading enormous congregations tapped into the discontent.

Community leaders went on talk radio urging listeners to attend that week's board meeting and speak out. For better or for worse, that's exactly what happened, as a series of angry and indignant speakers blasted the board with outrageous and occasionally racist complaints. Somehow, a fairly limited policy managed to bring out the worst in everyday folk.

"Viva la gente negra," said one black woman, using Spanish to declare "long live black people." "I am here because I have deep concerns with this policy that is being proposed."

The woman, who said she had eight children in DISD, looked to be in her 40s. She was well-dressed and could have been mistaken for an accountant were it not for the long, passionate scowl on her face.

"I think what you're doing is very evil to the black race," she said as the crowd applauded. "Hispanics, you must stop being selfish. In my studies I learned that you never had to struggle, you never had to be oppressed."

There was the white-haired man with the rangy gut proudly wearing an American flag T-shirt. Beginning his talk with the first sentence of the "Pledge of Allegiance," the speaker fit the stereotype of the angry white male almost perfectly—except he was black.

"Hector and Julio can come into this country not speaking English...and I have to pay for it?" he said as people clapped. "You're making a big mistake. You're legitimizing something that's not legitimate."

A few Hispanics spoke out in favor of the policy, all of whom managed to stick to the issue at hand. No Anglo said anything. Several black speakers managed to express their discontent a tad more reasonably, but they still came off as angry and bitter.

"Spanish has no place in American public schools except in the classroom where it's taught like all other foreign languages," said another black woman. "This has never in the history of America been done for any other immigrants. Enough is enough."

 


For years now, tension between blacks and Hispanics at DISD has simmered more or less below the surface, but last October's meeting exposed the outright animosity many blacks have to the Hispanic leadership of a school system they fought in federal court to civilize. With whites more or less having abandoned the school system, blacks and Hispanics have become the major stakeholders in public education, with the two groups often seeing themselves more as rivals than as allies. The hostility between them manifests itself in outrageous ways, with influential black leaders pulling every rhetorical trick in the book to trivialize the plight of immigrant children and their parents.

"I grew up in Mississippi, and when they brought the slaves to this country, they didn't ask the plantation owner to speak African," says Jerry Christian, the senior pastor at Kirkwood Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Oak Cliff. "The slaves had to learn English because this is an English-speaking country."

Doubling as the president of the African-American Pastors' Coalition, which represents 45,000 parishioners, Christian doesn't exactly represent the fringe of black thought in Dallas. He says that the coalition, which has been credited for aiding the recent Democratic sweep in county elections, rallied opposition to May's measure after it passed last year. "The issue for me is not blacks against Hispanics," he says. "It's an unfair policy. We are Americans, and Americans need to speak English, and we need to get everyone in this country to speak English."

While it may sound unusual to hear prominent blacks employ the rhetoric of white conservatives, the two groups tug on parallel fears. In Farmers Branch, where white city council members passed legislation designed to restrict illegal immigrants from renting apartments and finding jobs, Hispanics have become the new blacks. They're viewed as a sign of unwelcome change, a harbinger of big-city problems, even as crime statistics and real estate values suggest that illegal immigrants have not had an impact on the city's quality of life.

At DISD, however, Hispanics aren't the new blacks. They're the new whites, at least in the sense that they're starting to take advantage of their strength in numbers to make the rules. Hispanics make up 62.5 percent of the school district's student population, a percentage that's sharply up from a decade ago and is only expected to increase. They also make up one-third of the trustees and over the last year have formed winning coalitions with the three Anglos on the board. Together, this Hispanic-Anglo alliance has given more power to the Latino superintendent while pushing for a business- and ethics-minded agenda, often over the angry protests of their black colleagues.

While disputes over policy are nothing new, few issues in DISD have galvanized blacks like May's proposition. This is something that hit close to home. Mainly, black opponents to the bilingual policy believe it will cost them high-paying administrative jobs, which until recently had been reserved for them as a part of a federal desegregation lawsuit.

"There were a lot of African-American administrators who were dissatisfied with this policy; there were a lot of African-American teachers who felt like this was wrong," says Lee Alcorn, who served as the president of the NAACP Dallas Chapter from 1994 to 1999. "This just seemed totally unfair in the African-American community, and that's why there was such mobilization in the African-American community."

But why get up in arms over a policy that, as it was originally written, will affect no more than a handful of principals? To hear both sides tell it, May's measure is a proxy issue for control over who gets work at DISD. For many blacks, requiring certain principals to be bilingual is the proverbial slippery slope to the day when all educators will be forced to be bilingual. This will obviously give Hispanic educators an edge over their black colleagues, who are not as likely to speak Spanish.

"We saw the policy of requiring principals to speak Spanish as a building block for institutional and cultural racism," says Holsey Hickman, an ordained minister and member of the Black Coalition to Maximize Education.


One of the most influential Latino leaders in Dallas in recent years, Joe May relentlessly pushed for measures to benefit Hispanic children and educators. His blunt political agenda rankled several of the black trustees and many whites, but May seemed to revel in the controversy. Earlier this year, he garnered nationwide attention and ridicule when he proposed that DISD hire illegal immigrants to serve as bilingual instructors. Soon after, May died abruptly after suffering a heart attack.

Following his death, the black trustees who often feuded with May saluted his dedication and work ethic. They said they never doubted his intentions, but elsewhere in the black community, May was regarded more warily, and his untimely death didn't heal all wounds.

 

"We felt like Joe May was going to promote Hispanic issues at any expense," says Alcorn, who dealt with DISD issues when he directed the NAACP. "There was a concern about the things he tried to do on the school board. That was a real bur on the side of many African-Americans."

To some, May's proposition was less about how kids get educated than who gets to educate them. Two years ago, DISD had 18 vacant principal positions and wound up hiring 16 blacks, one Hispanic and one Anglo, board members say. That infuriated May and might have prompted him to push for his initiative. One way for more Hispanics to become administrators was to have a bilingual hiring policy.

May's Hispanic colleagues on the board couldn't explain what exactly motivated their late colleague. On a general level they say that he was concerned with the relatively few numbers of bilingual educators in the district, which to him was an insult. How can immigrant parents become directly involved in their children's education if they can't talk to a single person at their neighborhood school?

"The tipping point for him was when he looked at many of our schools and saw dozens and dozens of schools where there was not a single administrator who spoke Spanish," says trustee Edwin Flores. "It's about the district understanding that our parents want to talk to somebody in a position of authority. The problem is that despite years and years of Joe bitching and moaning about it, the administration and leadership didn't take it seriously."

That began to change, however, when Michael Hinojosa became the superintendent of DISD in April 2005. Trustees say that Hinojosa made sure that schools with heavily Hispanic populations had at least one person on campus who spoke Spanish. May's policy, however, took it one step further by requiring that schools with high concentrations of children with limited English skills have principals who spoke the language of the school's children and parents. Principals who were not bilingual had three years to get with the program, and if they ran schools that were recognized by the state for meeting basic standards, they were exempt.

That's a key point, says trustee Jerome Garza, who points out that only principals at low-performing schools are required to become bilingual. Fewer than 10 schools would have been affected by May's policy, board members say.

"If the principal is struggling and they need help and they need to help children move forward, we are requiring that they acquire one tool to help them do that," Garza says.

Trustees passed May's measure in August 2005 by a 5-4 vote, with all three black members voting against it. Given the policy's limited scope, nobody expected the board to revisit the issue so soon, but earlier this fall, a new black trustee, Carla Ranger, proposed that the Spanish-language rule be scrapped.

"To coerce principals to be proficient in another language is inappropriate," Ranger says. "[The Texas Education Agency] requires that we speak English...so it's certainly inappropriate that we make learning another language a condition of employment."

Ranger's stance echoed the attitude of many high-profile black leaders, who viewed the bilingual policy as targeting black educators.

"We felt like it was aimed at removing African-American principals and that it was completely unjust and unfair," says Dr. Frederick Haynes, the senior pastor at Friendship West Baptist Church, who served as the co-chair of the city's recent $1.3 billion bond campaign.

Even away from the pulpit, May's policy on principals became an unlikely hot-button issue, if not a rallying cry. "These type of conversations were going on all over the black community," says Hickman, who has served as an advisor to Ranger. "People were talking about it over dinner and at bars. You didn't need to have a meeting about it; it was on everyone's agenda anyway."

That became apparent at the October 26 board meeting as an exclusively black cast of speakers railed against the policy during a contentious public forum. Two speakers in particular seemed infuriated, making venomous attacks on Latinos, only to be applauded by a largely black crowd when they were finished.

The 40-ish "long live black people" woman, for instance, referred to the days when DISD schools were legally segregated, with one set of schools for white children and another more impoverished system for blacks and Hispanics. In those minority schools, nearly all of the teachers were black.

"We taught you to learn and read and write," she said. "I have told many people that when they learn to read and write, they're going to kick us in the butt."

 

The woman didn't seem to speak from any notes. It seemed more as if she was channeling deep-seated grievances against Hispanics at DISD, if not everywhere else. She hopped from one taunt to the next, a somewhat more cogent, audible and prejudiced version of Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man.

"You all hide under the bushes," she said. "Many of you people, when you write your Spanish, you don't even know your own language. You misspell your own words."

If the woman were jeered, or better yet, if her monologue was met with silence, she could have been written off as just another disenfranchised quack venting her frustrations to anyone who would listen. But the crowd, which included black pastors and former school board members, clapped when she finished, and she wasn't the only one to use her dislike of the policy as an excuse to bash Latinos.

There was the rotund man with the American flag T-shirt who directly addressed the Hispanic trustees and Superintendent Hinojosa by name.

"I move that you gentlemen resign from this board and that you cease and desist from any agenda before you," he said, claiming they had no proof of citizenship. "You have no authority to make a ruling on any of this until you show that you're a naturalized citizen of this country. And to the remaining members I spoke of, you don't have to sit with these folks."

When he was finished, the crowd again applauded.

After the speakers had their say, the board voted to discuss May's measure. The three black board members voted on a separate proposal from peer Lew Blackburn that essentially would have diluted May's bilingual-principal policy beyond recognition. But the three Hispanic and three white members shot them down, once again exposing a board fractured along racial and ethnic lines. Anglo board member Nancy Bingham proposed a compromise that said that at struggling schools whose kids have limited English skills, only a top-level administrator must be bilingual. That allows principals who don't speak a second language to remain at their jobs, if a member of their leadership team is bilingual. The familiar coalition of white and Hispanic trustees approved Bingham's compromise, which still galls Ranger and some of her colleagues.

"The board voted and decided it would adopt a compassionate policy," says Ranger, who does not think that any administrator should have to be bilingual at DISD. "I do question that. Compassionate to whom?"

Ranger's black colleague Ron Price seems conflicted about the board's actions. Since he was first elected to the board in 1997, Price has reached out to the many Latino parents in his Southeast Dallas district and has never been accused of showing one group or another any favoritism. If anything, he's more than willing to criticize his own black constituents, particularly those who have made the principal policy a centerpiece issue.

"The most important thing for black children is to improve their math scores, to reduce the suspension rate of African-American males," he says. "To reduce the drop-out rate. To ensure that black science scores improve. To improve PTA participation in the black community. If you want to talk about issues that really affect black education, those are the issues."

Still, Price, like many of the black ministers who have lined up against May's proposition, also draws upon the historical plight of blacks in America to suggest that supporters of bilingualism in public education don't know how good they have it. Like so many people who have spoken out against the hiring policy, Price gets caught up in the rhetoric of a debate that has reached proportions far beyond the policy's actual impact.

"You have to look at it from a historical perspective. Black people have never been given anything in this country. We had to struggle for every gain we achieved in this country. We have struggled for over 500 years, and we see that we never received any special courses, " Price says.

Price echoes the frustrations of many blacks in Dallas over the changing nature of DISD. "We learned English from the whip, not from a policy saying principals have to speak a second language to be employed. So because of that there is still some pent-up frustration. All of the sudden there is a group that didn't have to go through the struggle we had to go through, and they want us to go along with them because their numbers are high."

Following the meeting last month, relationships between the board members are a little frayed. Flores says that Ranger deserves some of the blame for the speakers, particularly those who lashed out against Latinos. He says that she recruited people to come speak at the meeting and never distanced herself from some of their more outrageous comments. Garza extends that same line of criticism to all his black colleagues.

 

"When you had some of those speakers unfortunately making racial and racist statements, every one of the African-American trustees sat in silence and did not distance themselves," Garza says. "But in silence, you embrace their comments. I promise you if Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson were there, if Senator Royce West were there, they would have been condemning it."

Ranger was reluctant to disavow some of the more outrageous comments made by the public speakers, even those who characterized the actions of her colleagues as evil. "As far as what the citizens say when they come to speak to the board, no one has any control," she says. "We are to listen to the remarks of the citizens."


Once upon a time, Hispanics and blacks were allies at DISD. In 1971, when the district was 70 percent white, black and Latino parents joined a federal desegregation lawsuit against the district, citing how Anglo control of education had created a thoroughly segregated system of education, relegating them to a vastly inferior system.

"They were attending second-class schools," says attorney Ed Cloutman, who represented black and Hispanic plaintiffs in the lawsuit for 32 years until it was settled in 2003. "They didn't have books or equipment. There were not enough teachers. You could plainly see the difference over what you would receive in the classroom based on if you were an Anglo kid or not."

But when the district began to try to close the gap between white and minority kids, blacks and Latinos started to view each other warily. Latinos became more interested in funding bilingual programs and less on inner-city programs. In particular, many Latinos didn't feel that they were benefiting from the 16 learning centers that the lawsuit helped create. The centers were supposed to close the achievement gap by having a longer school day and more teachers per students. Reading scores rose at first but then leveled out.

"There was a perception that we were funding programs that were helping African-American children and not Latino children," Cloutman says. "I had to tell the parents that there were Latino children at the learning centers, but that didn't carry the day."

During the duration of the lawsuit, federal court orders mandated that DISD hire more equitable percentages of blacks and Latinos than it had before litigation. But as the demographics of the district began to change in favor of Latinos, the court orders did not keep up and still required the district to hire blacks and Latinos at equal percentages. It would have been difficult for the courts to require anything more, given the persistent shortage of Latino educators. Still, for Latino leaders such as Flores, it's hypocritical for blacks to complain about how May's measure would have cost them jobs when they have been more than well-represented in DISD for more than a generation. It was the desegregation lawsuit that encouraged the hiring of a disproportionate number of black educators while creating more positions for them at various learning centers.

"For 35 years under the court order the school district ran like a big, fat jobs program," Flores says. Today, blacks make up close to 50 percent of the principal and assistant principal positions at DISD. Latinos, despite a far greater number of children in the district, make up close to 30 percent of those positions.

Over time, DISD gradually replaced an enforced system of segregation with a more voluntary one. Black parents began to call for the end of busing, while white parents began to flee the system as if it were in the path of a tornado. Whites now make up only 5 percent of the student population at DISD, leaving blacks and Latinos as the only real constituents of public education in Dallas. In the classrooms, hallways and lunchrooms, black and Latino kids get along just fine, teachers say. It's the adults who are the problem.

"The black and Hispanic communities simply don't work together," says DISD teacher Diane Birdwell, a representative of the National Education Association of Dallas. "I want to see them work together to push their kids toward achievement."

May's proposition was hardly the first issue to divide the board along racial lines. Last year, Latino and white trustees voted to eliminate the $3,000 in discretionary funds trustees could use in their districts. To them, the money was nothing more than an ill-disguised slush fund, and getting rid of it was simply a good business practice. But the black trustees saw the measure as racist, since it forced them to pay for community events in their districts out of their own pockets. When the board finally voted on the issue last fall, none of the black trustees showed up.

 

But that issue didn't approach the contentiousness of May's principal policy, which seemed to irk blacks inside and outside DISD.

In the days prior to the heated October 26 meeting, callers lit up the lines at black talk radio stations.

"It was a top, top issue, because many blacks in education felt like their livelihoods were threatened." says KHVN-970 AM host and news director Robert Ashley. "The majority of our listeners we have heard from say we should be speaking English and if people are here illegally and can't speak it, that's a result of them coming here illegally."

To hear some say it, May's proposition exposed some latent frustrations in the black community. "There are a number of African-Americans who believe that Asians and Hispanics have taken advantage of the Civil Rights era that black people gave their blood for," says Willis Johnson, who hosts a talk show at KKDA-104 FM. "Whether it was the Civil Rights Act or affirmative action, those were put into place because America was black and white."

Trustee Edwin Flores was reluctant to talk about how he and his colleagues were treated at the October 26 meeting. A biotechnology patent attorney, Flores is a data hound who can cite the latest findings in educational research. Still, as much as he tried to remain above the fray, he was clearly irritated over how the speakers lashed out at him and his colleagues.

"If I were them, you know what I would be angry about? The piss-poor performance in that part of the district," he says, referring to several schools in the southern sector. "For the amount of money we pour into the district and the results we get out of it, I'd be mad as hell."

Lost in the debate is whether May's original policy is good for education. Many of its critics say that principals should be judged on the kind of school they run, not on whether they can speak two languages. "Bilingualism is not a bad thing, but I'm against putting translation above administration" says Birdwell, the DISD high school teacher. "Is it important that principals speak Spanish or that they run a good school to help Spanish achievement?"

But others insist that May's bilingual proposition never applied to those types of principals anyway. It was only for those in charge of struggling schools with high percentages of children who can't speak English.

"If the building isn't functioning and the administrator can't speak the language of the parents, he needs to learn the language or change jobs," says Bayardo Arelleno, a second-grade teacher at Leila P. Cowart Elementary in West Dallas, which he describes as being 99.9 percent Hispanic. "If he doesn't, I don't know what business he's in, but he's not in the business of education."

Of course, it's a perfectly defensible argument to respond that principals shouldn't have to learn a second language to keep their job. And where exactly does it end, anyway? Asked if May's policy should apply to teachers as well, Garza didn't dismiss it out of hand. "I don't know the answer to that," he says.

In any case, Garza can expect that black leaders will be watching this time. One of those is Haynes, whose church has nearly 10,000 members, including District Attorney-elect Craig Watkins. Haynes says that he and several other black residents have formed an informal group that plans to serve as a watchdog of DISD.

"At every district trustee meeting, we will have a presence there. Not only to take notes, but so we can be there at a moment's notice to speak out against anything that is not in our interest."


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