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If DISD Trustees Sack Mike Miles This Week, It Will Not Be About the Coggins Report

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More than just today, maybe every day this week we need to talk here about the Dallas school superintendent and school reform, mainly because this may all be over by the end of the week. The school board will meet later this week, and the anti-reform wing of the board probably will move to fire Superintendent Mike Miles based on an investigative report released at the end of last week.

If they succeed in sacking Miles, it will be done with all sorts of blah-blah-blah about how it's not the end of reform for the Dallas public school system, just the end of Miles. Believe me, all of that will be face-saving cover story. If the anti-reformers do manage to shove Miles down the elevator shaft based on this report, they will never -- never ever ever -- allow the hiring of another seriously reform-minded superintendent in Dallas.

In fact, before we dive into all this who-shot-john he-said-she-said about the report, let's back off, lift our eyes up from the ground clutter and look at the mountains. Under the old court-supervised Dallas deal on desegregation, black South Dallas was granted its own separate de facto school district.

I wrote about this a decade ago. In the settlement of the city's major desegregation lawsuit filed in 1970, the black plaintiffs in Dallas basically rejected integration as their goal. Instead they wanted their own separate but equal school system. A certain architecture ensued from that settlement, enforced by a federal court monitor.

Elected black trustees ruled over areas whose boundaries were roughly the same as the boundaries for a set of "sub districts." Under that system, each trustee was sort of the superintendent of his or her little school district.

If that system had been a big success, we wouldn't be having this conversation. We would not need school reform. Miles wouldn't be in town. And presumably education experts from around the nation and maybe the world would be traveling to Dallas to find out why Dallas public school students were so darned successful.

That did not happen. The school system is a dismal failure in the preparation of poor minority students for success in life. Instead, Dallas, like many major urban centers, is running what education statisticians are calling a "cradle to prison pipeline."

Hence, school reform. Hence, Miles. And why would anyone be opposed to school reform and making the schools better? This is a key point. It's why the anti-reform element wants Miles out of town, and it's why, if they succeed, they will never ever allow another reformer back into district headquarters.

The first thing Miles did when he got to town was dismantle and obliterate the basic architecture of the trustee-run sub-districts. Miles set up a new system of "executive directors" with very direct control over schools and principals. It's based on "feeder patterns" -- the series of schools from elementary to high school that a given group of kids attend all the way through -- rather than being based on political sub-districts. And the executive directors all report to him, not the trustees.

He also set up an officers training school for principals. In the old days the trustees picked or at least signed off on principals. That's over. Now Miles and his people pick principals. Trustees have nothing to say about it.

I think a lot of us missed some of the fundamental nature of these changes at the time. I know I did. Miles basically blew up the building. His executive director system, coupled with the academy for principals, effectively demolished the basic architecture of the old patronage system by which trustees ran the schools and even governed principal and teacher hiring within their own bailiwicks.

I can look back now on some of what was going on earlier this year and understand it more clearly than I did at the time. Last April I wrote about trustee Bernadette Nutall going around button-holing area directors and basically telling them not to do what Miles, their boss, told them to do and not to cross her. I had always had a lot of respect for and a pretty good relationship with Nutall, and I just didn't get it at the time. Why would she be doing stuff like that?

Now I do get it. Now it does make sense. The imposition of the new system pulled the pins from under Nutall's personal control over the schools in her own trustee district -- "her" schools, as they were commonly called before.

I also get the history better. Calling it a patronage system can be entirely pejorative, as if Nutall is some kind of crook, which she is not. The concept that minority trustees should have direct executive control over schools in their own districts evolved from the peculiar Dallas history of racial politics.

I do call it patronage. But Nutall, who is a smart person grounded in the history of her own constituency, calls the old system justice, her community's due. Her problem is that it doesn't work as way to teach kids.

These are deep-running questions. There is nothing easy about them. In order to change the existing system, the reformers had to expect major blow-back, and they've got it. If white people and business leaders and people in the rest of the city really don't give that much of a rat's ass about the public school system and can't stand the blow-back, then they can walk on Miles and walk on reform. If they do care, they have to take the blow-back.

I'm going to talk tomorrow about the external investigation into a contracting matter, about the report the board received on it last week and what's good and what's bad in that report. Just as a preview, I will tell you that the one thing I did like best in the report was that it mentioned my name. I just love that, no matter what.

The report clears Miles of all the serious allegations made against him in an earlier internal school district report. His main accuser, former TV news person and one-time head of school district communications Rebecca Rodriguez, is painted in a most unflattering light -- most unflattering!

The report also contains some factual errors and some all-around sloppiness. We'll get to that, too, of course. The worst of the errors concern the role of Lisa LeMaster, a public relations consultant. The report says things about LeMaster that are flat not true, and I think Coggins knows they are not true. More on that tomorrow.

The board is supposed to decide today when it will meet, probably later this week, to discuss what to do based on the report. At that meeting, the anti-Miles faction -- four of the sitting eight board members -- probably will try to win a vote fire him.

The point I'm trying to make here is that the Miles vote, whenever it happens, will not be about the report. The report comes down to the flimsiest sort of window-dressing -- less substance than a damp Kleenex.

The vote is about the area directors and the principals academy. The vote is about the sub-districts. The vote to get rid of Miles is about this question: Does Dallas want to go back to the old system of mini-school districts run by trustees at a cost of $1.7 billion a year? Because if the gang of four can become a gang of five and they succeed in dumping Miles, the old system is baaaack. Forever.

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