Kress and the merry morons

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But there was a bigger issue here. Kress simply hadn't done anything wrong. I mean, everybody who worked with Peavy down at DISD, Kress included, knew what Peavy was like, but there was nothing you could actually stick under his nose and threaten him with--not even tasteless lawn ornaments, right, Ms. Gilliam?

What galls me most about what I saw on TV that night was that blacks were calling for the head of a white man who has spent the past five years of his life focused on one thing: raising the quality of education for black and brown kids.

While most people in this town spend a few weeks or months-- at the most--on a good cause, Kress has spent the length of his marriage on this mission. He was married in January 1990. The school board appointed him six months later to chair a citizens panel, the Commission for Educational Excellence, to come up with a blueprint for improving Dallas' public schools. He did just that. Then he kept going--running for the school board a year later in hope of implementing the changes he was recommending.

In the process, Kress, an attorney, has watched his personal income slide by some 60 percent because he was spending so much more time on his unpaid DISD work than on his law practice.

Think about it. Kress doesn't have a child in the school system. (Kress has one child, and he's not even two yet.) He isn't trying to get to the Oval Office. (Though he once led the county's Democratic Party and intended to run for the U.S. Congress, his labors on the school board have turned him off to politics for the foreseeable future.) And he isn't a masochist.

To the contrary, what happened to him several weeks ago not only stunned him, it pained him. "The two worst nights of my life--next to my father's death--were, ironically, the night I was first elected president and the night a few weeks ago," Kress says.

It's ironic because on the night he was sworn in as board president, he was confronted by the same band of merry morons, who accused him--before he'd even tried to accomplish something--of being a racist, honky enemy of black people everywhere.

His crime? Beating out black school board member Hollis Brashear for the president's post. His punishment? When Kress rose to make his acceptance speech, Ragsdale, Crenshaw, and others shouted him down, hurling racial epithets at him, and making it impossible for him to speak.

"To have my mother and my wife and my best friends in the audience on one of the proudest days of my life..." Kress says, his voice trailing off. "I'd been working on these school reforms as a citizen, and as a board member, and then as vice president, day in and day out. And I get elected president of the board, and you have about five minutes to say some things--issue some challenges--and you can't speak. You have the choice of having policemen take people out of the room so you can speak, or simply not speaking. It was a bad night."

What's most unfair about the trashing of Sandy Kress is that he's done a wonderful job--quite frankly, he's done for minority kids what no minority trustee has done.

Not even Ewell, one of his staunchest opponents on the board, can deny him his due. "I think he's done some good things," Ewell says. "He has lifted the idea of education to a very high level."

And what has he done wrong? "I think he's overly sensitive to negative reports in the media," Ewell says. "And I've been very concerned about all the hype--giving teachers money and fancy luncheons. Our teachers make good money already."

That's not exactly what you'd call a serious list of grievances. No, the proof is in the track record, and that's virtually unassailable. "I have said, 'judge me by the results,'" Kress says. "Judge me. Judge [Superintendent] Chad Woolery. Judge us by the progress we've made for kids."

And, by God, there is progress. There are incentives in place--money and promotions--for teachers and principals who improve their students' performance. There's been a districtwide housecleaning--an unprecedented number of bad teachers, principals, and administrators removed from their jobs. Dropout rates are lower. Test scores are much better--both in state-administered tests, and more significantly, in the national Iowa Test of Basic Skills. This year's Iowa test scores were the district's best in 20 years--and "within shouting distance," as Kress puts it, of the national norms. That's pretty impressive, considering that most school districts in this country are white, suburban, and middle class--while DISD is 86 percent minority and 73 percent poor. "Our district could get our youngsters to be above the national norm by the year 2000," Kress says. "In the late `80s, it had appeared we had peaked. Now it appears we can go to much higher levels. It's very exciting."

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Laura Miller

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