Ross to the rescue

With little fanfare, Ross Perot launched his plan to rescue the embattled Dallas public schools. In January and February, a team from Sirota Consulting, a New York-based firm specializing in rehabilitating Fortune 500 companies, not ragtag urban school districts, held focus groups throughout the district to find out what was good and bad about the Dallas public school system.

This information will be analyzed and used to create a questionnaire to be completed by parents, teachers, administrators, and assorted community members.

It doesn't take an expensive, time-consuming survey to know that one of the biggest problems in the district is that it is beset by racial politics. The Sirota people learned that firsthand, when the ethnic makeup of its project team became an issue in one of the focus groups.

It seems that a number of people had a problem with the fact that no Hispanics and only one black Sirota employee are working on the Dallas Public Schools project. The outcome of that focus group was clear: Before the Perot-funded Sirota survey could attempt to fix the school system, it had to fix itself.

In all, the Sirota company held almost 120 focus groups around the city. Half of them were with community leaders--people involved in the arts, philanthropy, business, politics, etc.--the other half with parents, teachers and administrators. Both groups were asked what they thought were the district's strengths and weaknesses.

One of the focus groups was held with board members and constituents of the Greater Dallas Community Relations Commission, a nonprofit organization that works to improve race relations. One of its high-profile efforts over the years was attempting to strengthen the Dallas Citizens Police Review Board in the aftermath of controversial police shootings of minorities.

So perhaps it is not surprising that before the assembled group was willing to answer questions about their perceptions of DISD, it had a few questions of its own.

They wanted to know the racial makeup of the team surveying a district that is 90 percent minority. Of the eight survey team members, one was African American, one was Asian, and the rest were Anglos.

"Everyone there was shocked," says John Fullinwider, a longtime Dallas activist and DISD teacher who is working on the Community Relations Commission's Across the Racial Divide project. "The formulation of the questions on the survey is going to set the agenda for the district."

Liz Flores-Velasquez, executive director of the Community Relations Council, agrees. "If the process is flawed, the product will be flawed."

After the focus group ended, Flores-Velasquez fired off a letter to David Sirota, Ross Perot, and school board members.

"I told him that we had concerns that the folks who comprised the team conducting the survey were not as diverse as they could be," says Flores-Velasquez. "We suggested it be expanded to be more diverse."

Two days later, Ross Perot called Flores-Velasquez with his response. "'Good point, let's fix it,'" Flores-Velasquez says he told her. "I was rather amazed. We raise issues like this all the time. We don't always get a response, much less a quick, affirmative response."

It was too late to make changes in the project team, as almost all the focus groups had been conducted. So, the way Sirota decided to fix the problem was to create another project team with Hispanic, African-American, Asian, and American Indian members from Dallas to review the survey questions for cultural bias.

"It's obviously a very political environment down there," Sirota Chief Executive Officer Jeff Saltzman says over the phone from New York. "We're trying not to get involved in the politics. But they don't know who we are. We do half of our work outside the country, where we need to be extremely culturally sensitive.

"Some were hostile, but not about the process," Saltzman adds. "You have some racists in Dallas who were hostile to me because my skin is white."

Cultural sensitivity was not the only problem the focus groups had with Perot's plan. According to Fullinwider--who also attended a meeting with the DISD's districtwide committee, which is composed of teachers and administrators--some teachers and community members said they had doubts about the survey itself.

Some of the teachers were concerned that Sirota had never surveyed a school district before. Another complaint was that Sirota got the contract without bidding on it.

"One of the perceived problems in the district is that the business community has undue influence over the trustees," says Fullinwider. "One of the teachers pointed out that the Perot survey is a perfect example of that. And they're being coy about Perot's connection. All the brochures say the survey is being funded by the business community, but in fact, it is the Perot Foundation."

The fear, says a community leader who wishes to remain anonymous, is that the business community will use the survey as a mandate for more control over the district.

In November, Perot met individually with board members and offered them an opportunity to retool the district by funding this survey. (The cost of the survey was not released.) When he chaired the committee that helped reform the state's education system in the mid-1980s, he hired the Sirota group. The information gleaned from its surveys resulted in such legislative reforms as uniform student testing, higher teacher standards, and "no-pass, no-play."

"Perot thought the survey would be a way to find out what the customer wants from the school district," says DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander. "It's a way to get back to education issues and off high center."

Of course, even at the meetings at which the survey was criticized, the participants eventually got around to discussing the district's strengths and weaknesses. It is obvious from some of the comments that the district's weaknesses depend on where you sit. It is equally obvious that Sirota Consulting has its work cut out for it.

For example, at a focus group held with the districtwide committee meeting, teachers complained about salaries and a lack of funds for programming and field trips. Robby Collins, special assistant to the superintendent, also thought there were problems with the budget--and how it shortchanges the administration.

According to Fullinwider's notes of the meeting, Collins said, "We sacrifice everything on the altar of salaries, benefits, and programming at the expense of staff support for the central office."

Rebecca Pendergrass, a DISD parent of a high school and an elementary school student, left a focus group wondering what the survey would actually accomplish. "The problems that were mentioned were obvious--the board is fractured, there is no accountability or leadership from the central office," Pendergrass says. "This is the same stuff we've been talking about for 10 years."

At this focus group, the subject of racial politics also was broached, but almost as an afterthought. At the end of the meeting, the Sirota group leader asked the audience what they thought of racial friction in the district, but cautioned them to give their answers in only one word, because they had run out of time.

If nothing else, maybe the survey will convince the business community that what the district needs is its money, not its interference. Apparently that fact is something Perot needs to learn. At the same time that Perot is attempting to rescue the school district, his own company is turning its back on one of the district's schools.

For the last six months, Perot Systems was providing several hundred dollars a month in manpower and supplies to photocopy and collate Kramer Elementary's 26-page student newspaper. Right before the March issue was to be put together, Perot Systems told the school they would no longer be helping, because it had put a moratorium on charitable contributions.

Perot giveth to DISD, Perot taketh away.