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DISD OKs Merit Pay, but a Debate on Contracts Hints at a Long Road for Reform

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Last night the Dallas school board passed into law a merit pay system for teachers in the biggest victory yet for school reformers and for Superintendent Mike Miles. We probably are about to find ourselves under the national microscope as media and academics from everywhere come here to hover.

They will want to see if our new system works. Merit pay systems elsewhere have stumbled. I'm writing a column about all that for the paper next week. But today before it gets lost in the rush, I wanted to pass on to you another little chapter from last night's meeting.

Before the board got to the merit pay issue, it received verified petitions calling for a "home rule" charter in Dallas, a totally separate issue from merit pay and Miles' reform program within the district. Home rule is an external reform program that might alter the basic system of school government, if approved eventually by voters.

Naturally in conjunction with the long-awaited acceptance of the petitions there were tons of public speakers expressing opinions for and against home rule. Smart folks spoke on both sides. Lawyer Jeronimo Valdez, a product of Dallas public schools, made an impassioned and deeply personal appeal for the kind of quantum change he thinks only home rule can deliver.

Former state Representative Harryette Ehrhardt , recent winner of the Dallas League of Women Voters Susan B. Anthony Award for equal rights, gave a rousing funny speech against home rule in which she excavated some of the home rule law's dubious origins when she was in the Legislature (1995-2002). Ehrhardt can still rock the house.

That's not what I'm talking about.

Later in the meeting, after home rule but before the merit pay deal, school board member Mike Morath put forward a "modest proposal" (in the Swiftian sense) to change the way the school board reviews contracts. The rule now and in the past has been that the board must vote on any contract over $50,000. He wanted to raise it to $1.6 million.

This is in an organization that has an annual operating budget of $1.2 billion (not including construction). Think of it like this. You work for a $1.2 billion a year company. Your boss in St. Petersburg has told you to install two small men's and women's bathrooms on the 10th floor for the data processing people being relocated from Davenport. The bill is going to be $60,000. Better get on that plane to New York. You'll have to take this one to the board of directors.

No, that's not how $1.2 billion operations work. In fact it's crazy. It wastes countless hours of school board time in the aggregate, makes service on the board feel like a form of perpetual waterboarding and invites more corruption than it could ever eliminate.

Supposedly the $50,000 limit was to allow the board to protect the district from crooked employees who might steal the toilets otherwise. But the evidence of my own eyes has always been that it works exactly the other way: everybody with a $51,000 contract gets on the horn to some soft-target board member, and now you've got the board member pulling the item from the consent agenda and asking all kinds of challenging questions, hectoring the staff in the public board meeting, on and on until finally the light bulb goes off: Just steer this turd to the board member's buddy and get on with life itself.

Morath's idea was one small expression of a much bigger basic concept, the idea behind home rule, that something has to be done, some kind of big change that will get the school board out of the contracting business and into the education business. Something has to deliver a message that tells the board to forget about the $51,000 contracts. Educate the children. Hire a staff. Look at the big reports at the end of the year. Set a metric. If the money's off more than 3 points, fire their asses. Otherwise think and talk only about education.

So when Morath makes his proposal, this huge push-back ensues. The black board members accuse him of some kind of attack on their civil rights. I think that's in that constitutional amendment I missed in school that says Congress "shall pass no law that inhibits the right of certain people to help certain other people get certain contracts."

Morath's idea was defended by board member Miguel Solis. He said, "I believe the current policy we have over-manages. We have hired brilliant people to do this work for us, and I trust them and will continue to trust them."

But the board member who delivered the death knell was white North Dallas member Elizabeth Jones. She said, "I will not be supporting this. The role of the board is to do the checks and balancing. We are an independent body that has the ultimate authority to do the oversight of this district's finances. No amount of validation of any internal audit can compensate for that or can substitute for that."

Yeah. You could see the nods of agreement. This is our power, man. This is our stuff. That education talk is all pie in the sky mumbo-jumbo. Nobody ever takes you to Sevy's for lunch to talk about reading theory. They take you to lunch to talk about copying machines.

Anyway, they punted the whole thing. Couldn't decide. Gonna take it up again next month. Pathetic!

Morath told me recently he believes the real argument for home rule has nothing to do with the personalities of his fellow board members, in spite of their injured feelings about it. He said the real argument for home rule is that the present structure, no matter who occupies the chairs, is politically incapable of engaging major change. And always will be.

The opponents of home rule launched all kinds of good zingers last night, criticizing the way it was rolled out and talking about how it has a bunch of rich people behind it. I love that stuff. I love talking bad about the rich. It pushes all my ancient hippie buttons.

But by bringing up the contact review limit, Morath proved he's right. He's just right, man. Love it or hate it, the man is right. This system will not and cannot get its nose up out of the minutiae long enough to notice that the flowers are dying. I don't know what the answer is. It's not this system.

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