Hey, Mayor Mike: The School Thing Is Way Worse than a Simple Question of Personalities

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings wants the Dallas school board to fish or cut bait on the school superintendent. "We need the school board to decide whether Mike Miles is going to be our superintendent of schools," Rawlings says in today's Dallas Morning News.

"If a majority says that we don't want him, we need to get somebody else in there and move on. If he is, then we all need to get behind him and focus on these kids."

Good thought. Good intentions. Bad analysis.

Rawlings told reporters, "I've looked at this pretty closely and I find this is heavily personality driven."

He's wrong.

Miles' personality is not at issue and is not what's driving the turmoil on the school board. And we don't get to just fire Miles and move on. Getting rid of Miles right now will be a fundamental failure, maybe even the fatal bullet for the school system as it exists today.

The real problem is way tougher than personality or public relations. Over the last several decades, an entrenched political patronage machinery, operating mainly through African-American clergy in southern Dallas, has taken on a shared ownership of the district, partnering with the mainly white old-line public works construction lobby. Why? Because somebody had to own it.

For decades, major decisions about who should be made principal of a certain school and who should get hired as a teacher have been made by "the community," meaning the patronage machine. The first objective of the school reform effort led by Miles was to pull the plug on that machine -- to hire, train and assign principals through a central academy run by the superintendent without input or influence from elected officials or the preachers.

When the machine finally saw that coming -- it took a while -- the machine went to war against Mike Miles. It's important to remember that some of Miles' most committed foes now on the school board were supporters of school reform earlier, before they perceived that school reform was going to pull the plug on the patronage machine.

Before Miles showed up, school trustee Bernadette Nutall, now his nemesis, was a staunch and courageous supporter of school reform, sometimes at bitter personal cost. In January 2012, three months before Miles was hired, people in the audience at a school board meeting shouted "Shame!" at her when Nutall nevertheless bravely voted to support the closing of several schools in her own district, an efficiency measure designed to improve quality in remaining schools.

That all changed later when Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, king of the machine, signaled that Miles was persona non grata. In April of this year Price sent out an ultimatum in the form of a letter to southern Dallas ministers, telling them they were not to support Miles or even allow him to appear in their churches.

The black board members all got the message. Nutall, who is very close to Price (she asked him to conduct her swearing-in ceremony after her 2012 re-election to the board) turned on a dime against Miles. Board member Lew Blackburn had been a cautious supporter of Miles and the reform effort and was never especially close to Price. But after Price's preacher-letter went out, Blackburn too flipped and began fighting to slow or sabotage Miles' campaign to replace principals.

Black board member Carla Ranger had been a fiercely independent voice on the school board who often traded verbal blows with Blackburn and other black board members. But after Price declared Miles as Public Enemy No. 1, Ranger clicked her heels, saluted and fell into line.

The fight going on now about school reform is not about Miles. This is about a half century of accommodation and compromise by the old leadership of the entire city, in which white people and upwardly mobile minorities effectively told black southern Dallas it could have the school system, a $1.7 billion-a-year enterprise, as long as it didn't get in the way of the construction contracts.

The old city is not the new, but the old is not dead. In the last 30 years an entire new sophisticated, diverse, urban cosmopolitan culture has been overlaid on the old matrix. But the old matrix is still down there, and it still rules on issues like this one. In that old order, a longstanding culture of racial separatism is founded on the rock of school system patronage.

The question before us is whether that rock can be smote in pieces, the old patronage system destroyed and real reform achieved. Can it be done? Is the new culture strong enough, smart enough or sufficiently committed to the cause to take on the old and vanquish it?

It's a huge mistake for the new culture to take this is as a question of public relations and personality. That is the road to defeat. If Miles is tossed out, it means the patronage system cannot be defeated. Which is possible. Some people might say it's likely. Right now, please don't ask me to bet five bucks.

But if that happens -- if the John Wiley Price patronage machinery wins and succeeds in getting rid of Mike Miles -- then it will mean there is no plausible way to achieve school reform from within the school system. Hire all the new superintendents you want, sign up an army of P.R. consultants: None of that will even scratch the rock, let alone split it. And that fact alone -- that the machine governing the school system cannot be defeated -- will turn the public school system itself into the new city's Public Enemy No. 1.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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