Agin and Agin

Talk about a showdown. Next January 19 in this city of just over a million souls, something in the neighborhood of 50,000 voters will show up at the polls--a pitiful showing predicted because of the timing of the election--and they will make fundamental decisions about the future of the city.

Latino voters may or may not make a huge difference. And it's all about aginners. Especially about aginners.

For decades in Dallas, aginner was what they called anybody who questioned anything the local real estate moguls wanted to do. Just for political accounting purposes and not because I'm biased or anything, I call those the "good aginners."

Then there are what I refer to, objectively and without judgment, as "evildoer aginners." Those are people who have set their jaws against the community itself. They live in the city, but they don't like the city. They're against every single community enterprise, no matter what.

The litmus test to tell the difference is schools. If you really don't care about the public school system, then you really don't care what happens to the children of the city, and that means you have closed your heart to the future.

What makes the upcoming election an especially white-knuckles deal for Dallas is that the fate of the school district is being put before voters on the very same day as a major electoral show-down over aginnism.

Dallas schools Superintendent Mike Moses has taken a brave, principled and very risky position by asking the school board to schedule its bond election that day--the same day the city will call voters to the polls for a special city council and mayoral election. In the past, the school board has been too clever by half about elections, picking cute, off-the-wall times for elections to cut down on voter participation. Of course, in the past, school board members had to assume realistically that most voters wanted to punish them for being idiots.

This time Moses is putting the board's proposed $1.4 billion bond issue to build and renovate schools right out on the table with the city council/mayoral election, no matter the consequences. He pulls no punches and tries no tricks with the public, but, man, does he take a chance.

The special mayoral election to replace departed Mayor Ron Kirk is shaping up as a definitive showdown over aginnism. City council member Laura Miller, the leading mayoral candidate, has made her name in Dallas politics by taking tough aginner stands in defense of neighborhoods and in the name of simple fiscal honesty at City Hall.

But the question, the unknown and the risk are in her voter base. The Laura Miller voters will have a major say in what happens January 19. But are they the good aginners? Will they vote for her and also for the school bond? Or are they evildoers? Will they vote her up and the schools down?

And which is she?

I'm in a crowded pew toward the back of Cathedral Guadalupe downtown, at a rally hosted by Dallas Area Interfaith, the grassroots community organizing group. This enormous sanctuary is standing room only; at least 1,000 people are here on a balmy Sunday evening; vast waves of emotion and sincerity surge through the air on the wings of mariachi music as speaker after speaker implores us to support the school bond issue; and, petty dog that I am, all I can think about is my property tax bill.

On a table outside, almost lost among other leaflets and handouts from DAI, was a five-page handout from the school district called "Financial Information." So, of course, while everyone else is praying and singing, I am trying discreetly to leaf through here and not rattle the paper too much and see if I can find out what the bite is.

OK, we're standing up now with our heads bowed, and I am doing a little mental math, and the answer is...$467. That's how much new annual school tax I pay if this thing passes.

Ouch and amen! And which am I, Mr. Finger-Pointer? Am I up for almost five bills in new taxes?

But it's the rest of the data that's really shocking. Of the 15 largest school districts in Texas, guess where Dallas ranks in terms of its tax rate for school buildings?

We are No. 14. We beat Ysleta.

Ysleta? That's El Paso.

Of all of the 34 school districts in Dallas, Denton and Tarrant counties, the Dallas Independent School District ranks No. 32 in the amount we tax ourselves for school buildings. We beat out Wilmer-Hutchins and Sunnyvale for last place. If you look at school debt per student--the burden each district is willing to shoulder on a per-student basis--of the 15 largest districts in the state we barely beat Ysleta. Again.

That stinks. If the bond issue passes, and my personal tax bill does go up by $467, that still only puts us at No. 6 among the biggest 15 districts in the state in terms of taxes for school buildings, right behind San Antonio.

San Antonio?

We just haven't been paying for schools in this city. And you and I certainly know the recent history and all of the reasons people have for being skeptical of the school board. But finally you get down to a certain bottom line here, and the basic fact is that we're not paying for decent schools in this city.

That's why we don't have them. It's at least part of why Boeing didn't come to town. It's our communal ball and chain: We have allowed our schools to go to hell.

Oh, it's not that miracles don't happen and wonderful instruction doesn't take place out there on the campuses in spite of the pitiful circumstances. But parent after parent is standing up here tonight in the cathedral talking about gut-level conditions in their kids' schools--elementary students who have to wait in line an entire class period to use the bathroom, high school cafeterias that don't meet minimal health standards, Third World conditions that are pervasive in the district.

When I look at these numbers for the tax rate, it all comes clear. These numbers are the footprint of abandonment. This is the real story--even more fundamental than all of the battling over desegregation and headquarters corruption. Dallas simply decided some time ago to stop paying to keep up the school system.

We all know this history. Reasonable people also recognize that the school district under Moses' leadership has dramatically cleaned up its act. But the danger in the Laura Miller vote is that so much of it comes from Northwest Dallas--home to many fine civic-minded people but also a bastion of the bad kind of aginnism, made up mainly of empty-nest or private-school white-flight types who are mad at City Hall and the school system because they think they have been taken over by people of color. Those voters may all say NO to the bond issue.

The crowd here at the cathedral tonight is somewhat mixed, but the overwhelming majority are Mexican-American. They are what community organizers call "the Cathedral vote"--a term originally from the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio where Mexican-American people actually vote, unlike Dallas. If they did vote here, in alliance with the African-American vote and the progressive white vote, they might provide the edge needed to overcome the bad aginners.

A few days later: Now I am sitting in the large, tastefully appointed office of state Representative Domingo Garcia, a former city council member, one-time mayoral candidate, lawyer and activist on education issues. He has been signaling in recent weeks that he may jump into the mayor's race for the upcoming special election. Today he is counting out the numbers for me:

"The mayor's race will have an eight to 10 percent turnout," he says. "When I ran for mayor in 1995, there were 44,000 registered Hispanic surname voters in the city of Dallas. Today there are 58,000."

Garcia tells me that he can win the election outright if he can take 60 percent of the Latino base and then pick up modest support among African-Americans and progressive whites.

Garcia represents a middle and upper middle-class Mexican-American element more interested in public education than any other issue. In the Legislature he has fought--sometimes successfully, sometimes not--to make public school systems in Texas come to grips with their shameful dropout rates and other ways in which the schools fail Hispanic students in particular.

He hasn't made up his mind whether to run or not. He tells me he's headed to Europe for a week with his wife, city council member Dr. Elba Garcia. They're going to think about it.

The Reverend Gerald Britt of New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, a leader in Dallas Area Interfaith, tells me on the telephone that he thinks the Cathedral vote may actually make it to the polls this time. "There is going to be a very intense effort and a lot of strategy and training to get the vote out in January," he says.

If that does happen, it's a revolution.

It would be wrong to think that the white community is opposed to good public schools in Dallas. The city's business leadership in particular has fought the good fight for schools for years, and there are lots of white people in the city who have been loyal to the schools through thin and thinner.

But Laura Miller is still opaque on these deep-running questions. (She did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.) Will she risk her Northwest Dallas aginner base by coming out foursquare and aggressively in favor of the bond issue? If not, will the Cathedral vote really show up at the polls in numbers sufficient to counteract the bad aginners?

That's a lot in the balance. It's really everything.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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