Blacks were hissing rudely at Hispanics. Hispanics were yelling at other Hispanics. And just about everyone was taunting distraught school board trustees, themselves appearing to teeter on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Ladies and gentleman, this is your Dallas Independent School District.
Last night, the DISD's trustees voted to suspend next year’s elections and change their own terms from three years to four amid an endless chorus of catcalls from a seething, restless audience. The board’s timing is rather elegant: In the middle of the darkest, deepest financial crisis in the history of the district, the board members who fiddled around while Rome burned want to remain Caesar.
One person sitting behind me, a furious white gentleman with a brown pompadour, finally got asked to leave after he repeatedly shouted, “Lowe must go” as the board members were talking business -- referring, of course, to board president Jack Lowe. Many others were just as disruptive. But though the trustees appeared horrified -- The barbarians were at the gate! -- they barely debated their loopy measure to cut back on democracy and close ranks.
Then again, what could they have said?
Trustee Carla Ranger, a bright, thoughtful woman buoyed by a supportive audience, tried to force a discussion by pulling the election measures from the consent agenda. That did nothing. Trustees Leigh Ann Ellis and Edwin Flores, who had been slated to run for re-election next year, didn’t take the time to detail their convenient votes. To his credit, trustee Ron Price did speak up. Also scheduled to go on the ballot next year, Price noted that the measure in question had been debated long before the district’s financial blunders.
“The timing is not the best in the world,” he said. “But in regards to this particular institution, it’s never the right time.”
That’s mighty reassuring.
Lowe, a guy I thought was lot smarter than the doddering, aloof businessman his critics say he is, didn’t utter a single word in defense of the term-limit measure. Even after one member of the audience after another spoke out against the board and its proposal to suspend its elections, the board president didn’t feel like he had to answer to anyone. You’d think that the time to be as democratic and transparent as possible is when you’re pushing something that is neither of those things.
In the end, only Ranger and Adam Medrano voted against the measure.
Let’s stay with Ranger for a second. I’m not saying she’s right on every issue or even most of them. She’s certainly on the wrong end of many 8-1 votes. But she does her homework and asks a lot of questions that make DISD suits squirm. Given where we find ourselves, that’s a small, good thing.
Before the trustees voted to approve the measure in question, Ranger picked apart DISD’s weary duo of attorneys, who have said that what the board is trying to do is legal. The attorneys raise a complicated, arcane case to support their position, and Ranger did her darndest to get them to explain it to the public. (There’s a notion!) I can try to detail what they were arguing about -- in short, it has to do with what happens when statutes conflict with each other and what is meant by the phrase “manifest intent” -- but that’s above my pay grade. From my cheap seat, Ranger made fools out of them, pressuring the lawyers to explain why they asked other attorneys if their legal opinion was justified, but not the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.
Where was she going with that? Well, the Texas Secretary of State is in charge of elections. And staff in Austin has told Ranger, repeatedly, that the deadline had passed for changing board members terms. So why again didn’t DISD attorneys give them a call?
“I don’t think our attorneys serve us well,” she said. “They don’t speak to everyone. It’s suggestive of not wanting to get all the answers.”
Ranger also took it to Lowe for not scheduling a “no confidence” vote on superintendent Michael Hinojosa, which she called for a month ago. Actually, she just wanted him to explain it, but he claimed she was out of order. Ranger, though, kept on pestering him to at least defend his actions.
“If the president violated the policy, disrespects board members when they ask a question … yet the president controls the agenda and won’t put the item on the agenda,” she began. “How can a trustee who represents her district, how can she have the opportunity to discuss with you or this board any questions?””
“I have noted your comments,” Lowe said.
“I don’t want you to note them. I want you to answer them,” Ranger responded as the crowd mmm-hmm'd in approval.
Other than the exchanges between Lowe and Ranger, which continued throughout the evening, the most entertaining -- and demoralizing -- part of the night came when the citizens spoke their minds. At DISD, that’s never a good thing. Just about all of the Hinjosa detractors glossed over the district’s stunning academic gains of the last year, which have extended to all types of students. Maybe Lowe was onto something with his anti-democracy kick.
Before we get to the speakers, a point of order. I’m going to give you the races and ethnicity of the people who voiced their opinions. It’s relevant. Maybe one day -- cue the string music -- it won’t be.
“I have always worked for people, not for Pauline,” said, well, Pauline Dixon, a black member of the Dallas County School Board. “But you did not fire any Hispanics.”
I’m going to double-check that later today, but I find that very, very hard to believe.
(Update: I checked with the DISD spokesperson Jon Dahlander -- who, at any other time but this one, might deserve a raise -- concerning Dixon's allegations, and this is what he told me: "The percentage of employees released by ethnicity closely mirrors that of the district. Hispanics number about 26 percent of district employees. And 24 percent of employees who were released are Hispanic.")
Of course, Dixon might not be the most credible speaker: “I am living in Garland; I did live in Hamilton Park until some things happened. “
Unfortunately, she never explained what those things were. Dixon did feel the need to tell us, apropos of nothing really, that she once voted her father off the deacon board.
A far more cogent speaker was Diane Birdwell, the executive vice president of NEA-Dallas, who was one of the few people to actually talk about what was on the agenda that evening.
“Is the issue that you’re slow to learn or is this place so screwed up that no one can understand it in three years?” said Birdwell, who was among the only white speakers during this portion of the meeting. “If the problem is that this building is so screwed up, let’s look at what happened. You hired the man who runs this district, he hired the people who worked for him.”
Then there was Claudia Fowler, a former Wilmer-Hutchins trustee, who is also black. (You know things are bad when the people in charge of the former WHISD are giving you the business.)
“You’re comfortable, you’re complacent, you think you can’t be beat,“ Fowler sneered. “Trust me. See you at the polls.”
We can’t forget Holsey Hickman, also black, who arguably drew the largest applause on the night.
“You are pouring gasoline on fire the way you’re conducting business and the way you’re not conducting business, “ he said, solemnly. “You’re making the minds of our children fodder for profit.”
Later, a series of Hispanic speakers affirmed their support of Michael Hinojosa, even though his future was not up for debate that evening. (You’re only supposed to speak on what the board is voting on.) This seemed to be a clear show of defiance to the African-Americans in the audience who made a show of their opposition.
“We are also watching from the Latino community,” said one gentleman. “We too will be voting, so feel free to do what’s best for our children. We will be educating our people to make sure they watch the school board and our children.”
Adelfa Callejo -- who's been picking fights with the African-American community for years -- also rushed to Hinojosa’s defense.
“The Hispanic community stands ready to assist you and stands with Dr. Hinojosa, “ she said. “We urge the board to stand with Dr. Hinojosa, this is not the time for divisive politics.”
Here the crowd booed, and from the back of the hall, Hispanic activist Carlos Quintanilla shouted out, “Adelfa, we love you very much -- but you’re very, very wrong!”
A police officer then emerged while a Hispanic man two seats behind me yelled, “Shut up, Carlos.”
I think we should end right there. I know we probably could conclude with disgraced ex-council member Al Lipscomb, who was looking for the opportunity to play to a friendly audience -- even though he didn’t sign up in time to speak. But, instead, let’s just end with one person telling another to shut up because he was shouting at someone else. It’s fitting on so many levels. --Matt Pulle