Philip Kingston, left, and Mike Morath at the podium in front of Robert E. Lee Elementary School last November.
Philip Kingston, left, and Mike Morath at the podium in front of Robert E. Lee Elementary School last November.

"Home Rule" for DISD Is a Dead Letter, So Let's Go Back to Our Old Friend, Total Defeat

We have this basic impasse in Dallas where the public schools are concerned. The deal struck by the white and black leaderships 12 years ago was supposed to be that elected black leadership would get to run the school system and hand out the jobs and so on, and the white people would all please go away, put their kids in private school or move to Frisco. You know, do that white people thing and run away.

See also: Segregation Forever

But then the deal got messed up. Latino leadership looked around and said, "Hey, why are the black people running the school system when we have more kids in it than anybody else?" Next you had all these crazy white people, some of them rich even, sticking their noses back in and talking about "school reform." You know, weird stuff like really teaching the kids to read.

Lots of luck. The mountain that would-be reformers must climb is still the status quo. No matter who wants change, the sad truth is that more people are still invested in things the way they are now.

When a 15-member special commission announced this week it was giving up on even proposing a new system of governance for the schools, the sad outcome of their yearlong effort showed that the city's biggest education problem is still stasis.

So who are these people stirring the pot? One of them, school board member Michael Morath, was quoted on TV Wednesday night sounding awfully sour grapesy. WFAA news anchor John McCaa introduced the story by saying Morath had stated that, "Dallas does not really care about education."

Reporter Brett Shipp quoted Morath as saying, "I think the real problem is, we as a city don't actually care about our school system, and that is reflected in the people we elect to the board and the way that they behave."

Morath was the original architect of the whole home rule effort -- a kind of constitutional convention to create a new mechanism for governing the public schools. Coming from him, the remarks quoted by Shipp did sound bitchy. Shipp's a good reporter and wouldn't get the words wrong.

But Morath was also just telling the truth. One way or another, Dallas was perfectly OK with a public school system that did an utterly miserable job of teaching poor minorioty kids. Everybody had his piece. The accommodation was reached long ago. It was only when these Hispanics and these crazy white people started stirring the pot that we had trouble.

When I talked to Morath yesterday, he said the intention of his remarks to Shipp was not to cast aspersions on the moral character of the entire city so much as to decry the numb-toed moral paralysis that overcomes the city when the conversation turns to public education.

"When you look at the landscape of the governance of the 14th largest school system in the United States," he said, "every sitting trustee has been elected with a total of roughly 20,000 votes cast both for them and their opponents. That's all nine of us in combination.

"We represent a million people, but only 20,000 people seek to influence the future of the school system, with more than 20,0000 employees. We have 160,000 kids and only about 20,000 people casting an opinion on the future of the school system.

"If we as a city step up and say we are going to take responsibility for these kids as if they are our kids, then we will move mountains."

I also spoke to Bob Weiss, chairman of the home rule charter commission. I asked him if the law under which the commission was formed allowed it not to produce a draft charter for voters to vote on. He said yes. I asked him if it was legal for the commission to continue to meet after deciding not to produce a charter in order to produce "recommendations" instead. He said yes. He said the commission had consulted lawyers on both questions. Then he added, "I'm not stupid."

Good point.

"Home Rule" for DISD Is a Dead Letter, So Let's Go Back to Our Old Friend, Total Defeat
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Weiss said he thought the state law under which the home rule commission was formed is deeply flawed, because it requires that a majority of the members be appointed by school board members whose positions the commission is at least theoretically thinking about doing away with. Hence, the commission was heavily salted with members whose intentions from the beginning were transparently hostile to the idea of substantive reform.

It's kind of like asking the directors of a badly run company to apppoint a committee of outsiders to reform the company. You may be sure there will be sons and spouses of directors on that committee, as there were on this one (not kidding).

The effort also suffered mightily from a clumsy launch and a fairly appalling lack of preliminary political groundwork. City Council member Philip Kingston called the effort, "The textbook 180-degree thing from what they should have done."

He said the only way the effort could have enjoyed even a prayer of success would have been for a comprehensive political consensus effort in all parts of the city to have launched at least a year before anything was presented to the school board.

"You have to get everybody on board before," he said, "so that the school board at that point sees this massive broad consensus of people out there saying, 'I am part of this process. I don't know what the endgame is, but we are going to change governance in this district.'

"That's the only way it could possibly have worked. It probably still was a longshot, but the way that they did it definitely led to failure."

Kingston echoed another objection I have heard from other quarters concerning the role of Mayor Mike Rawlings. Rawlings and other leaders in the home rule movement insisted publicly at the outset that they had no agenda for the project, that the process was exploratory and open-ended. But Kingston says a Rawlings staffer handed him a white paper early on extolling the merits of mayoral control as a panacea for troubled school systems.

So that was either a smoking gun or at least a very inept move playing into the hands of people who were already stirring paranoia about the process anyway. I asked Weiss if the mayor ever gave him a white paper on mayoral control, and he said no.

I think Kingston is spot-on. If you start with the absence of political groundwork before the thing was announced, toss in the impression that the whole effort was a power grab by the mayor and you've pretty well shot yourself in both feet before the starting gun.

Weiss insists that despite all these failings the work of the commission was intense and mainly well intended or at least better intended than it could have been. He said he is commiteed to producing a body of worthwhile reccomendations for reforms that can be achieved under the present form of governance.

The other choice? Hey, let's just give up. Morath is exactly right. We have a history there.

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