Miss Ponytail Dallas Morning News Throws a TJ Tantrum

An aerial view shows damage done to Thomas Jefferson High School by an EF3 tornado unleashed in Northwest Dallas on Oct. 20.EXPAND
An aerial view shows damage done to Thomas Jefferson High School by an EF3 tornado unleashed in Northwest Dallas on Oct. 20.
Kathy Tran
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The Dallas Morning News editorial page is schizzy. Most of the time, it’s pretty smart, even measured and thoughtful, at least on local non-partisan issues. But every fifth Thursday or something, a whole different crazy newspaper appears on my lawn.

Right toe forward, hands on the hips of its checkered skirt, ponytail whipping back and forth furiously, the other Dallas Morning News lets loose with some braying tirade of entitlement.

Last week, the one in the checkered skirt lit into the Dallas school board over a vote to renovate a tornado-damaged high school instead of doing what Miss Checkers wanted — a whole new school on the site of the damaged one. But the Morning News editorial page didn’t just bash the school district for not doing what it wanted it to do on the school building.

The editorial characterized the school district as a perennial loser and then issued a thinly veiled threat against an upcoming bond campaign, suggesting that North Dallas perhaps should not vote yes since they’re not getting the brand-new school they had hoped to get out of the tornado insurance.

“If there is one thing Dallas ISD has proved adept at over the years,” the newspaper said in its editorial, “it’s missing opportunities.”

The editorial went on: “So many of the district’s struggles have come from refusing to take bold steps in favor of preserving the status quo — even when the status quo is plainly failing students.”

Quite apart from the school thing, that characterization of the school district is pretty much the opposite of the truth. And when the Morning News isn’t being schizzy about it, the paper usually recognizes the real story and tells it faithfully.

The other version — that the Dallas school system is a loser afraid to take bold steps — sounds suspiciously like ill-informed chatter inside the isolated Gold Coast enclave of the Park Cities.

And anyway, tornado insurance isn’t really supposed to be Christmas. At best there’s some bad karma going on here, if not a scam. Should we all go over to the site of the wrecked school, scatter banana peels on the ground and pretend to slip and fall? Somehow that’s sort of what this feels like.

Silas Allen reported here last November on the way Thomas Jefferson High School, called TJ, was fighting back from the devastation it suffered when an EF3 tornado tore through North Dallas on Oct. 20. The campus on Walnut Hill near Marsh Lane in northwest Dallas was totally trashed. More than 1,800 students were displaced to emergency quarters five miles south in West Dallas.

But that was not the biggest story Allen told about TJ. The real miracle is student achievement. Four years ago the state designated TJ as a failing campus, the first step in a dismal process that can wind up in forced closure of the school.

In the past, when a school like this was headed for a crash, the school system had a hard time pulling the nose up and getting it flying again. But in recent years, Dallas has earned a reputation for pulling off amazing turnarounds.

Using systems of mentorship and teacher empowerment that are elements of a district-wide program of school reform, the district has been able to dramatically improve student progress at TJ. A failing campus four years ago, TJ now gets a B in the state’s letter-grade evaluation system.

The success at TJ reflects district-wide progress in recent years achieved through school reform measures introduced by former Superintendent Mike Miles and continued under current Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. The state now puts the Dallas school system on a par with all of its suburban competitors except Coppell, Highland Park and Sunnyvale.

The overwhelming story of the Dallas school system right now is of success, and most of the time the Morning News gets that story right and tells it to its readers. But then last week. Oh, my.

It started with a well-meaning, interesting piece by metro columnist Robert Wilonsky, a TJ alumnus. He said he had been contacted by another TJ grad, Jay Brotman, TJ ’74, an architect interested in designing a new school for TJ.

Brotman is interesting. He is a partner in the firm that designed the replacement school for Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20-year-old Adam Lanza gunned down 20 children and six adults on Dec. 14, 2012.

But when Wilonsky broached the idea with Hinojosa, the superintendent sounded much less than enthusiastic. He said he wanted to move faster than the schedule of several years that Brotman seemed to have in mind.

Brotman was talking about leading a “community engagement process” first, similar to what took place in Newtown, with a soft completion date somewhere in 2023. Hinojosa wants the TJ kids back in their own school no later than August 2022.

My own thought at the time was that the two situations were significantly different. Newtown needed community engagement and a lot of time to process its grief, because 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 and six adults were murdered there.

TJ just got blown down by a storm. It was terrible, yes, but this is Texas. We can hardly call every tornado a tragedy. More like a bitch. It happens. We clean up. We get going again.

In subsequent school board briefings and meetings, more detail has come forward about the rebuilding process for several schools shut down by the same tornado, including Walnut Hill Elementary and Cary Middle School, which were deemed total losses. The school district is able to invoke certain emergency provisions to streamline the legally required procurement process, but only by using architects and contractors already on a list vetted several years ago for just such an eventuality.

And then you have that bigger TJ story, the real one that Allen told here in stories last November about the incredible academic progress the school has been making. None of that was easy. In the period right after the bad designation by the state four years ago, state monitors were on campus at TJ every day, exerting great pressure on the faculty to get things right. Everything since then has been a heavy lift.

Obviously the most important thing is to keep that effort and that culture of success cooking, in temporary quarters if necessary, back at the home campus as soon as possible. But then last week Miss Ponytail Morning News stepped out onto the lawn and began doing her very dysfunctional cheerleading moves.

Incredibly, the Morning News sneered at Hinojosa’s emphasis on students over real estate: “Unfortunately,” the paper said, “Superintendent Michael Hinojosa failed to champion a bold initiative. His primary concern has been getting students back into TJ as quickly as possible rather than recognizing this is a chance to shift entrenched opinions about DISD.”

What “entrenched opinions” are we talking about? What could improve opinions more than student achievement? Are we talking about the opinion that Dallas public schools must be for poor people because the buildings aren’t luxurious? What to say? As if.

Wilonsky, by the way, didn’t have anything to do with the editorial. I asked him.

Then the editorial said this: “Many of the voters who have supported the district’s bond requests over the years live in and around TJ. And they have been clear they wanted the district to scrape the site and start over.

A North Dallas home devastated by the October tornado
A North Dallas home devastated by the October tornado
Lucas Manfield

“Those voters, who pay substantial property taxes to DISD, might wonder what they are getting from the school district’s leadership in return for their support.”

It’s true that North Dallas voters have supported past school district bond issues. So have southern Dallas voters. So has East Dallas. And by the way, all taxes are pretty much equally "substantial." My smaller bill is just as substantial to me as the bill that goes to a wealthier household. (Morning News editorialists: If this concept is too complex, email me, and we'll go over it again privately.) 

It’s truly reprehensible to suggest now, over one school, over one Christmas present that Santa failed to deliver, the pony not waiting in the yard, that voters should pull the rug on the whole upcoming bond program. You know what that’s called? Spoiled.

We should always take a sharp pencil to whatever the school board sends us in a bond proposal. They’re talking about borrowing something in the $3 to $4 billion range this time, and, of course, they always say it won’t raise anybody’s taxes. We should all put on our green eyeshades and get out our counting beads every time a bond proposal comes our way.

But compared to past borrowings, this debt proposal will present us with an additional new political challenge. District administration, backed by a majority on the board, wants to carve out a relatively small portion of the money raised in the borrowing for an idea it’s calling “equity in bond planning.”  Aimed at very poor racially segregated neighborhoods around certain schools, this program would provide brick-and-mortar space for community services in places that have suffered extreme disinvestment. The idea is that fear, hunger, bad diet, poor health and a sense of not belonging are all important factors in a child’s ability to learn. By providing space for services near schools, the district hopes to entice other units of local government to provide those services near schools in challenged parts of the city.

It’s an exciting idea. It’s new. It’s fairly radical — exactly the kind of “bold step” the newspaper accuses the district of failing to take. But the idea will be an easy political target for all those same reasons.

We need to be talking about making the whole city stronger by building citywide equity. Doing that will require us to recognize attitudes of entitlement when we see them, especially in ourselves. Wouldn’t it be a shame to see this unique effort and the entire bond program go down because somebody didn’t get a pony?

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