Last week somebody called me and asked me to go back and listen to Krys Boyd's April 29 Think program on KERA radio, in which Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Dallas school trustee Bernadette Nutall debated "home rule," a proposal that could radically change the way we govern Dallas public schools.
I did go back and listen. I'm a print person. Sometimes I can't get it unless I see it in print, so I transcribed portions of the show, of which I'm only going to show you a few snippets. It did help. And hurt.
The main impression I drew from seeing these exchanges on the page was of Nutall. She simply would not or could not respond directly to any of the points Rawlings raised. She clearly doesn't like the home rule idea. That much comes across. But she's all over the map on the fundamental question of board responsibility for academic performance.
Sometimes she sounds as if she doesn't believe the board has any such responsibility -- it's all on the superintendent. But then she sounds as if she thinks the elected board is the only entity that has any true responsibility to students and parents, which I would take as responsibility for academic performance.
At one point, she says, "Let's clarify. There's a difference between governance and administration. Let's be clear about the governance. The board of directors, the trustees, are responsible for hiring and firing the superintendent, the budget, and we are responsible for policy. The administration is responsible for implementation of the plan. I think we have a difference of communication here. We are saying 'the board.' The board only governs the district, but yet there is a superintendent that we hold accountable through all of these things that it takes to educate children."
But later, discussing a home rule proposal that the board be automatically recalled if academic performance falls below the level of other peer districts, she says -- or seems to say -- that an elected board is the only form of governance that can be held accountable for academic performance.
"You hold me accountable," Nutall says, "and when we talk about accountability, you have the option to vote that trustee or elected official in or out. In three years you can replace that person, so it's very important to me to have that voice to vote with voting in or out or the other eight trustees, so I would not support appointing. So who appoints you is who you are committed to. We are committed as elected officials to our parents, our students and the constituents, and so I think the history of single member districts is very important, and I think you still need to remain single member districts for that voice for all areas of Dallas."
There was one point in this maddening sea of non sequitur when I thought Rawlings tried to crack through the fog with a single simple declaration. He said: "Here is one piece of data. Houston ISD has the same poverty level as we have. Twice as many college-ready students. Twice as many. That's just pure unadulterated facts."
Yeah. No kidding. Let's stop behaving as if we are inventing the wheel here. In Houston we have a peer city in the same part of the country with very similar demographics operating under the same state laws, and they produce twice as many college-ready students. I thought was a good brass tacks question, and I really wanted to hear how Nutall would answer.
She didn't. Instead, she rambled off in 12 different directions and never once addressed the Houston question. Finally Krys Boyd, the host of the show, tried to rein it in: "Bernadette," she said, "what is the one thing you would change?"
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Nutall said, "Right now what I would change, we have a $1.6 billion budget. So I would look to see how we spend our money. We need to look at the cost per student."
That's the one thing she would change? No, more to the point: was that even an attempt to answer the question just put to her?
It's not just Nutall. An awful lot of the anti-home rule rhetoric is an imprecise evocation of all the bad things that could happen under home rule, or the good things that might not happen, along with invidious suggestions about the real motives of people behind it, all of which winds up creating a kind of dark zone, a rocky fog-girt end of the ocean where mythical beings lurk in hopes of feasting on ship-wrecked sailors.
I'm not for home rule. I'm not against it. I just want to hear the duly elected members of the Dallas Independent School District board of trustees answer that one question about Houston. Really. I'm, curious. It's a good question. One question. Let's hear it.