If Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert doesn't mention his ideas for taking over the Dallas school system at his town hall meeting Thursday at Harold Wendell Lang Sr. Middle School, you can bet somebody in the audience will bring it up. In fact, it sounds to me like people will be there at 6:30 p.m. sharp for that express purpose.
The mayor apparently has been talking to state Sen. Royce West about getting a new law passed in Austin to let him become czar over the Dallas Independent School District. Some people are saying to me that they wonder if this about education ... or contracts. People I talk to who watch these things closely are worried about what they see as a typical Dallas done-deal deal, with the opening fanfare from The Dallas Morning News to gauge what the reaction's going to be.
Starting Sunday and then again this morning The Dallas Morning News has been carrying out one of its classic flag-pole operations, with three reporters assigned to a story on the mayor's designs on the school system. But none of the reporters was able to nail down the normally talkative mayor for a serious interview. How does that happen? From the top down, brother. From the top down.
Why would the mayor -- facing a massive deficit in the city budget, still unable to get the Trinity River project off the decks and up against a referendum on his downtown convention hotel -- want to bite off control of the city's benighted school system? Insiders snapped to a line buried deep in the Sunday story: "[DISD superintendent Michael] Hinojosa said Friday night that he has talked to the mayor about ways to support the school system, including having the city help with certain business services, such as purchasing."
A-ha! Purchasing! The saga of the mayor's interest in public purchasing is one we have followed closely here. A name that crops up frequently in this connection is Willis Johnson, a radio personality and Leppert's Southern Dallas political consultant, who has won lucrative contracts for himself at DART, City Hall and DISD.
Willis Johnson also has been a player in the Inland Port story, as one of a group of people who went to The Allen Group and asked for $1.5 million and a 15 percent "equity" in the company in exchange for smooth political sailing in South Dallas. Unlike our mayor, The Allen Group said no.
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It is Willis Johnson, in fact, who set up Leppert's Thursday community meeting at Lang Middle School in East Dallas. Maybe this is supposed to be like the motivational session Leppert and Johnson did last year for minority contractors, telling them how to hop on the gravy train at DART. The un-stated lesson of that one was, "Call Willis."
I spoke today with people who are especially interested in the role of Royce West, who pulls down seven figures in a good year as an outside counsel for the school system but who might also wind up being the political broker for the mayor's plans for taking it over. Umm ... and Mr. West would be representing whom? In what? Where and when?
Chris Heinbaugh, the mayor's chief of staff, told me in an e-mail that the mayor's Thursday meeting will be strictly about neighborhood business: "He does these every so often to connect with different parts of the community. There is nothing particular on the agenda that I'm aware of aside from normal neighborhood, city services, crime and education issues we hear from the community."
I think something else is on the agenda now, whether the mayor knows it yet or not.