Chaos theory

Just last month, Bill Keever called a press conference and tearfully announced that he would relinquish his seat on the Dallas Independent School District board. He hoisted a flag of surrender familiar to embattled politicians, saying he needs to spend more time with his family. Keever said he would step down in May, when his stint as board president ends, and let voters pick someone else to fill out the two years remaining on his term.

But as voters, parents, police, and fellow politicians have learned since the nine-member board elevated Keever to the president's chair in May 1996, there's no telling what the 36-year-old MCI executive might do next.

These days, Keever is talking like a candidate again, saying he might decide to run in the May election to fill the seat he just quit. Apparently, Keever is hearing anew the call of public service, inspired by eight parents in his district who have signed a petition trying to draft him for the race.

"I will win this seat hands-down," Keever told the Dallas Observer. "The issue is whether I want to work 100 hours a week."

As for the family, Keever said he hadn't yet discussed the possibility of another campaign with his wife and eight- and nine-year-old daughters.

That the wishes of eight potential voters could hold such sway in the school board president's political future seems only fit. And while Keever may be changing his mind about sitting out this year's election, his performance is among the reasons others are running away from the elections as fast as they can.

Keever may well be the most controversial elected official in Dallas County right now; the nightly news regularly features his clumsy efforts to preside over the DISD as it spirals downward into racial chaos.

But for all the controversy that has engulfed Keever and the DISD, school board elections remain a pathetic stepchild of Dallas governance. Adding up the votes from all races, only 18,993 people elected the nine sitting members of the board, compared to a total of 453,153 voters now registered in the district.

Keever--epicenter of a racial and political maelstrom that has earned Dallas embarrassing publicity nationwide--was elected for a second term in 1996 with just 1,107 votes, beating his opponent by a mere 229 votes.

Then there's Kathlyn Gilliam, one of three black board members, who has been accused of orchestrating the loud, vulgar, and decidedly unproductive disruptions at recent meetings. Gilliam was last elected to the board in 1994 with only 147 votes, facing no opposition in her district. She is running again in this May's election, so far, unopposed. (The filing deadline for candidates is March 19.)

The numbers hardly represent a stunning mandate for a board charged with overseeing the education of 142,000 students in the nation's 10th-largest public school district.

With Keever's resignation, four board seats are up for grabs this year, to be filled in the traditional May elections which generate little interest and few voters. With all the tumult showing up on the nightly news--and now the possibility of a Keever political flip-flop--voters can anticipate contentious campaigns.

That is, if the Dallas body politic doesn't tune out the whole DISD mess--a plausible outcome at this low point in school district history.

Election numbers tell only part of the story. School board politics are perceived as being utterly dysfunctional, and explanations for the predicament advanced by all sides seem convoluted, flawed, and contradictory.

So low is the board's prestige that even the well-heeled businessmen and lawyers who traditionally bankroll school board campaigns are expressing hesitation about reaching into their pockets this time.

"I want to take my head and put it under a pillow. I am very disillusioned with school board politics. Who would want that position anyway?" says Marc Stanley, a Dallas lawyer who has regularly contributed to board campaigns in the past. His sentiments are shared by others.

"I just think we've all been disappointed," says Texas Utilities Electric Company chairman and chief executive Erle Nye, who contributed roughly $2,250 to nine different school board candidates in recent campaigns. "I don't know what I'll do this year."

Adelfa Callejo, a lawyer and Hispanic community activist, isn't ready to throw in the towel. But even she says that the incumbent DISD board members have some explaining to do. "You have four new Anglo women on that board. They are inexperienced, but they didn't create those problems. If we don't help them, we don't have a right to criticize them," says Callejo.

Things are so bad that Carol Reed--a political consultant who has advised Keever and his predecessor as board president, Sandy Kress--has sworn off all DISD trustee campaigns.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen