Old School

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"Number one on my list after getting rid of drugs in my district is a city ordinance that will outlaw sagging," he says proudly. "I don't think it is appropriate for a man to walk around publicly with their underwear showing or their pants below their buttocks."

While the corporate leadership approach of Hinojosa and the trustees may have shortcomings, the public face of DISD has come a long way from the 1990s when the district was about as harmonious as the Gaza Strip. The lowlight of that period was the felony conviction of school Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez, who didn't exactly draw a clear line between the school budget and her personal bank account. In addition, just about every school board meeting gave prospective parents a laundry list of reasons to move to a neighboring district.

Even the New Black Panthers showed up at a few meetings. In one case, they assaulted a Hispanic DISD employee while a gaggle of DISD security guards looked on passively. Mostly, however, they heckled the board with taunts of racism.

"Mr. Keever is a grandson of the Klan!" yelled one New Black Panther at then school board President Bill Keever during a meeting in January 1997. "Keever is a Klansman, he hook up with R.L. Thornton."

African-American trustee Kathlyn Gilliam, who served on the board for 23 years, particularly stoked racial animosity. At times she even seemed to be collaborating with demonstrators during breaks in public meetings. So in 1997, when Gilliam had a smart, young, reform-minded challenger named Ron Price, the Morning News endorsed him without qualification, citing his activism and energy. In particular, the paper was impressed with how Price founded a youth group called the Pearl Guards, which fought for zoning regulations to lower the number of liquor stores clustered around South Dallas schools.

At the time, Price was working at Madison High School, where he was responsible for handling security on campus. Approaching 30, Price wasn't exactly on the fast track to success, but despite his rather anonymous job, he managed to stand out. "The kids, the parents, the teachers, they all loved him," says Leon Hamilton, principal of Madison when Price worked there. "He always kept a smile on his face. I never saw him get angry. He just drew people to him, especially troubled kids. He had a great rapport with them."

In addition to the Morning News, Price garnered support from the white business community, adding an odd dynamic to the race. While that group as a whole has largely given up on public education, judging by where they send their own kids to school, they took a liking to the young Price and set out to get him elected. Donors such as developer Harlan Crow and banker Robert Lane opened up their checkbooks to the challenger and handed him a decisive fund-raising advantage.

Price ended up winning by a scant 34 votes as Gilliam bitterly accused him of buying the election, but while Price did have the backing of the white establishment, he did surprisingly well in South Dallas where residents also had tired of Gilliam's confrontational style.

Nine years later, Price would again be involved in another tough election, eking out a close win against challenger Bernadette Nutall. This time the roles were switched: Price was the entrenched incumbent closely wedded to the district's troubled past while Nutall filled the part of the outsider bent on reform. Earning the endorsement of the Morning News, Nutall harped on Price's cell phone bills and travel expenses, which were picked up by DISD.

"I see him as a self-promoter," says Nutall, who helps operate a South Dallas summer school for girls. "There are schools without books, and we have $19,000 cell phone bills?"

Price won by 67 votes. Blaming his slim victory on an onslaught of bad press from the Morning News, Price had little to say about his challenger.

"I wasn't even going to run until other people started begging me to run," he says. "They said you need to run. You can't have her on the board."

While Price continues to complain about the tactics of his challenger, he was the one who ran a rather underhanded race. In his campaign flier, Price included the names of dozens of organizations, ministers and political leaders who "supported and endorsed him." But some of them never backed Price. The Dallas Breakfast Group, an influential organization of local business leaders listed as one of the groups that endorsed Price, does not endorse candidates. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, who is listed on the flier, had backed Price in the past but stayed neutral in the 2006 race. When pressed, Price says that both Johnson and the Breakfast Group support him, even if they did not endorse him.

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Matt Pulle
Contact: Matt Pulle