Old School

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Price explains that he went to Madison at the urging of the local AFT President Aimee Bolender. He says he merely wanted to defend himself and brought copies of the police report and affidavits that he thinks exonerate him from an unfair conviction. Remarkably, he tries to spin his attempt at a confrontation as a testament to his character. "That shows the willingness I have to open myself to people who may disagree with me."

Over the last year, the leadership of the Dallas Independent School District has taken decisive steps to model the school system after a modern-day corporation, with a central line of authority that adheres to standard business practices. This move has threatened to make Price and his up-close-and-personal style obsolete. For years, Price, 39, has blended his role of board trustee with that of a community leader, school superintendent and peacemaker, putting out fires in some cases, provoking controversies in others. But now a new bloc of trustees, overriding the heated concerns of Price and his African-American colleagues, has voted to lessen the power of the board, stripping themselves of their individual perks as a way to bring professionalism and accountability to an institution historically lacking in both.

Placing their faith firmly in school Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, the new guard has sought to streamline operations. Distrustful of unions, inclined toward experimenting with private-sector hallmarks such as merit pay, the majority bloc views DISD as a sloppy, unwieldy bureaucracy focused more on preserving a dysfunctional status quo than educating kids. This is, after all, an institution that for years has allowed its employees to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars of frivolous merchandise on district credit cards, as the Morning News reported at length recently.

"In my mind, the reformers are focused on one thing and one thing alone: student achievement and how do we get the best adults in the room to maximize student achievement?" says trustee Edwin Flores, who works as a biotechnology patent attorney. "Those who are wedded to the past, who liked what DISD was doing before, they're a little more adult-focused. I think Ron has voted for kids sometimes, and I think he's voted for adults sometimes."

If only it were that easy. If anything, the new bloc has distinguished itself by a solid trust in cold, hard data over the types of anecdotal evidence that used to drive decisions. In the past, any single board member could veto changes to the attendance zones in his or her district. Now, which schools kids attend is an administrative decision. That doesn't sound like much, but for DISD, it's a big deal. At a public meeting in May, nearly a dozen teachers, parents and students in South Oak Cliff begged the administration not to rezone children to different schools, going so far as to say that it could trigger gang wars. Their school board member, Lew Blackburn, implored the administration and Hinojosa to compromise, but they were unmoved. Attendance rates dictated that the zoning lines be redrawn, the administration explained. Satisfied with that reasoning, the new guard voted to keep their new zoning plan intact. The African-American members of the board--Blackburn, Price and Hollis Brashear--watched in horror.

At the new DISD, where it's not personal, it's just business, Price remains old-school. His colleagues insist that the days of the board micromanaging education are over, but Price still walks down the halls of his high schools to see what's going on. He has brokered meetings between hostile teachers and principals and hands out his cell phone number to students.

"He's in there working with principals, working with his area superintendents and his teachers to get the things he needs in his district," says Dale Kaiser, president of the Dallas chapter of the National Education Association. "And if he thinks a particular school needs a change of whatever kind, he's not shy about making that known to the principal."

Price is still all about ward-style politics, leveraging his status and unlikely star power to give his constituents what they want.

While it's hard to imagine any of his wonkish colleagues in any other elected office, Price is a natural politician whose interests expand to larger community concerns, from gang violence to high school tracks where elderly ladies can walk at night. But his penchant for controversies, confrontation and ethical imbroglios threatens to make him a relic--or perhaps a candidate for city council.

Over the last few weeks, Price has vacillated about whether he'd run for the South Dallas council seat of Leo Chaney, who is being term-limited out of office. The ambitious Price explains that relocating from DISD to City Hall is a mere lateral move. But with last week's announcement that Mayor Laura Miller is dropping out of the race, the veteran school board member now says he's considering a run for the top spot, reporting that he'll be meeting with business leaders, with whom he has very close ties, to discuss a possible candidacy. Of course, Price is not exactly zeroing in on the cutting-edge issues of the moment.

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Matt Pulle
Contact: Matt Pulle