The time escapes me. At least 20 years ago. I am seated outside the office of a prominent African-American clergyman in South Dallas waiting for an appointment that was to begin 45 minutes ago. The waiting is the South Dallas white man's tax. I knew all that before I showed up, and I will pay the tax, gladly, because I need to talk to this guy and this is the only way. This many years later I have no inkling what I was there to talk to him about. In that episode, as in much of my life, I only remember the eavesdropping.
His door was open. Look, I'm a reporter. It's like leaving a known cookie thief alone in the room with an open jar. You must want him to take one.
A young African-American woman is in there with him -- a teacher, as I am able to discern by leaning forward slightly and cupping my right ear, ignoring the glower of the nearby church secretary. The young lady in there with him wants the job of principal at the nearby elementary school.
The minister sounds like every smart boss I have ever had when I ask for something: Oh, she is doing a splendid job, and, yes, it is wonderful that she is so ambitious, but, no, sadly, this is not yet the time. Mizz So-and-So is still doing a fine job over there as principal, and she needs to be left alone a few more years until retirement. You do know she's the lead soloist in the church choir? When she retires the minister will seriously consider this fine young woman for the post.
I believe the online expression that would describe my reaction is WTF?! This minister hires, fires and promotes people at the nearby elementary school?
Years of reporting and talking to people gradually confirmed exactly that, and eventually I even came to understand why. It was an outcome and legacy of federal court desegregation in Dallas, a somewhat anomalous outcome compared with other cities, I think, although I guess I don't know that for sure: The hiring and firing of people working in schools in the of-color subdistrict of the Dallas school system was the private bailiwick of community leaders in southern Dallas, mainly clergy.
Until 2003 when a federal judge released Dallas schools from supervision, a court monitor reported to him every year on how well the school system was living up to his interim order and whether or not the minority community -- actually always the black community, even though the schools were already majority Hispanic -- was happy with how things were going.
The monitor checked with black elected officials. They reached back into their constituencies and checked with the effective political sub-units on the ground -- the churches. In this way the ministers derived effective hiring and firing power over school staffs in their neighborhoods.
Was this an unintended consequence, an accident, a political mishap of some kind? Absolutely not. It was the way things were supposed to work, ordered by the court and totally legitimate in terms of the intentions. No one would ever have questioned it, in fact, were it not such a massive failure.
Two years ago when the new school superintendent, Mike Miles, got here, what he found on the ground was a school system with an abysmal record of student achievement generally and an especially vicious record where certain sub-groups were concerned, notably black males. There, the record of the school district in preparing black boys for the future was best captured in the phrase invented by the Children's Defense Fund, "Cradle to Prison Pipeline."
That's a national slogan, by the way. In terms of outcomes, Dallas is by no means the Lone Ranger, and especially since Miles got here the district has made great strides. But the fact is that when Miles came to town, what he found was a deep-rooted system of jobs patronage in the South Dallas school system, stoutly defended by the people who benefited from it, all of whom believed and still believe that the system is theirs by right, a kind of political patrimony that they actually inherited as if it were land or shares in a company. Notice how many generations of the same family are involved in the district's latest athletic recruitment scandal. Some people in the black middle class in southern Dallas regard the school district almost as their own family business.
The first thing Miles did when he got here was take all of that apart. His approach was brilliant. He found the underpinnings of it in the way school feeder patterns matched the boundaries of the old black subdistrict left over from de-seg. He found the way the subdistrict's boundaries matched school trustee districts. He re-drew everything as if he were the League of Nations after World War I, abolishing some countries and creating new ones.
He also took the hiring and firing of principals entirely out of the hands of the churches and put it into a new system based on an OCS-like leadership academy. And he fired the person who had been the de facto superintendent of the minority sub-district. More recently, Miles succeeded in getting the board to adopt the most comprehensive merit-pay system for teachers in the country -- the final nail in the coffin for the old patronage system.
Along the way, not surprisingly, the old southern Dallas political machinery made common cause with the teachers unions and tried and failed to get Miles fired. They did manage to claw back a good deal of his compensation and to vacate an automatic renewal clause in his contract.
Please don't give me some wide-eyed thing about, "How could black leaders oppose a person who is working to improve the destinies of black children?" Oh give me a break. It's about jobs and economic survival for some, power and glory for others. My immigrant grandfather was a self-made man: I don't remember him shedding too many tears for the poor children left back in the German slums of St. Louis. People think about Number One and their own families. Miles went right after a whole bunch of number ones, and they fought back. I think it's called human nature.
Now Miles is in the process of trying to win back some of what was gouged from him, specifically a contract renewal and the right to earn money on the side as a consultant. Today on The Dallas Morning News opinion blog, under the headline, "Too early to be talking to DISD Supt. Mike Miles about a raise," editorial writer Tod Robberson paints Miles as being just a little bit too grabby. "He wants the school board to give him a raise before he's demonstrated that his structural and administrative changes are leading to improved student performance," Robberson writes.
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I understand Robberson's point, but it's a perspective that ignores or is totally unaware of the underlying realities, almost like saying after the successful invasion of Normandy in World War II, "Oh, well, we won't be able to declare Eisenhower the victor until we see whether the German economy recovers after the war."
The fact is that Miles is already an enormous success, having wrought more real change in the landscape than the last half dozen of his predecessors. Of course the people whose ox was gored have been after his head, and of course the battle has not been bloodless. With the magnitude of change he has been able to wreak, bloodshed is just a part of the deal.
We're already way ahead for his tenure so far. If Miles lost his patience and walked out of here tomorrow, his successor would find a landscape in which the old patronage machinery has been totally disassembled, where new state-of-the-art machinery is in place to cut that cradle to prison pipeline into pieces and replace it with a conveyor belt to the future for every kid in the system.
Sure, we can continue to ding him and pluck at him and try to wear him out, but stop for one split-second and consider this: Who do you think is really behind the campaign to bring him low? Why would we help them?