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Preston Hollow: Do the White Thing

After ignoring the trial in which a mother of three Preston Hollow Elementary School alleged the principal there was segregating Hispanic and African-American students from the white neighborhood kids, The Dallas Morning News this weekend ran two stories about its outcome. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Sam Lindsay ruled that principal Teresa Parker "unlawfully segregated [students] at Preston Hollow based on race and national origin"; you probably read that here Friday. Dallas' Only Daily, which ran a wire piece about the ruling on Friday buried deep within the Metro section, ran a front-page piece on Saturday by Kent Fischer. A day late, but fine; better than pretending the trial never happened at all.

Preston Hollow Elementary School's principal, Teresa Parker

But yesterday the paper ran a second front-page piece that served to contradict Lindsay's long-considered ruling that "Parker was, in effect, operating, at taxpayer's expense, a private school for Anglo children within a public school that was predominantly minority." In the story, three parents were quoted: Kaky Wakefield, vice president of the school's PTA; Joe Cranshaw, "whose stepdaughter is Hispanic and is in the school's gifted program," Fischer wrote; and Joe Bittner, the husband of PTA president Meg Bittner. Joe Bittner told Fischer there's no truth to Lindsay's ruling--even though, yeah, people who live in the mostly white, entirely affluent Preston Hollow do want more neighborhood kids going to the school. "As a parent, of course we want more of a neighborhood school," Joe Bittner tells the paper.

But at what cost? See, Kent Fischer omitted from his story yesterday something fairly significant concerning Meg Bittner, Teresa Parker and their attempts to lure more "neighborhood kids" to the school. That's after the jump.

What Fischer leaves out his story is that in the original federal lawsuit filed in April by Lucresia Mayorga Santamaria, it was alleged that Preston Hollow officials circulated a brochure to prospective parents in which Hispanic students were literally left out of the picture. As we mentioned in August, the lawsuit even contained an excerpt from an e-mail Bittner sent to Preston Hollow teacher Graciela McKay, in which Bittner explained the mysterious absence of Latino kids from the photograph in the pamphlet: "While our demographics lean much more Hispanic, we try not to focus on that for this brochure. A big questions [sic] that neighborhood parents have is about the ethnic breakdown of our school population. Our neighbor school, being most Hispanic throws the neighborhood families off a bit...I just don't want any hurt feelings if we use one or two Hispanic kids in the shot."

In his 108-page ruling, Lindsay goes into great detail concerning the brochure. He writes that in November of last year, the PTA, with Parker's blessing, decided to create a promotional brochure for the school. Two teachers, who have "predominantly Anglo mixed-age classes," were given release forms to give to parents so their kids could participate in the photo shoot. Lindsay writes that "no release forms were provided to the teachers of ESL-designated classes." In her e-mail, Bittner also wrote that the "purpose of the brochure is to get more of our immediate neighborhood families that live in big, expensive houses, to reconsider those private tuitions and send their kids to us."

Bittner was not named in the lawsuit, though she did testify with her attorney present. But Lindsay wasn't pleased with Bittner's conduct during her time on the stand. In general, he found her to be a lousy witness who refused to answer questions concerning the pamphlet and the e-mail she sent to McKay concerning the photograph. Writes Lindsay:

When questioned about this e-mail and other e-mails, Ms. Bittner exhibited numerous convenient lapses in memory, was reluctant to answer questions posed in a straightforward manner, and at times gave contradictory testimony. For example, when Defendants' counsel asked her what she meant in the e-mail by "immediate neighborhood families," she testified, "I guess I don't know what I meant by immediate. I don't know what I meant by immediate. I can't tell you, when I wrote this in November, exactly what I meant by immediate."

In her testimony earlier that day, however, she used the words "immediate neighbors" in responding to a question by Plaintiffs' counsel, indicating her familiarity with the term:

Q. (By Mr. Bernal) Ms. Bittner, how many of your neighbors send their children to Preston Hollow Elementary? A. I guess you need to define neighbors. Immediate neighbors? Q. Sure. Immediate neighbors. A. None.

Another example of her recalcitrance on direct examination took place when she was asked what she meant by the portion of her e-mail that said, "[o]ur neighbor school, being most Hispanic, throws the neighborhood families off a bit," she testified that she did not know what she meant by her words "throws the neighborhood families off a bit," and did not recall what she meant when she wrote it. Ms. Bittner was generally not forthcoming when asked questions regarding the e-mail.

At one point, she even tried to claim she didn't write the e-mail: "I am confused because I can't tell you if this is the e-mail I sent," she claimed. Lindsay didn't buy it:

It insults the court's intelligence for Ms. Bittner to refuse to acknowledge that the e-mail set forth in Plaintiffs' Exhibit 248 was her reply to an e-mail sent to her by Graciela McKay, and to testify that she did not know what she meant by certain phrases in the e-mail. Further, even though she stated in the e-mail that the purpose of the brochure was "to get more of our immediate neighborhood families that live in big, expensive houses, to reconsider those private tuitions and send their kids to us[,]" at trial she testified that the purpose of the brochure "was as a handout for what we were trying to put together[,] a playground grand opening event, after school event."

According to testimony presented during the trial, some Latino parents found out about the photo shoot last November and approached Parker on the playground about it. Several witnesses said she told the parents to wait while she went to look for the photo shoot. "When she did not return, the Latino parents went to look for the photo shoot themselves," Lindsay writes. "The photo shoot was in a mixed-age class, and Principal Parker was standing outside the door. Ms. Bittner also testified that Principal Parker was standing outside the door of the mixed-age classroom during the photo shoot."

In other words, Parker was standing guard, making sure no brown faces got inside the classroom during the shoot.

Eventually, a couple of Hispanic kids were used in the shoot, but first-grade teacher Sally Walsh and assistant principal Robert McElroy expressed their concern over the shoot. McElroy even sent Parker an e-mail in which he wrote, "It has come to my attention that my children were possibly used as 'tokens' for the photo shoot for the PHE brochure."

Writes Lindsay:

The court agrees with Ms. Walsh's assessment of the brochure. The court further notes that the brochure does not even come close to being representative of the ethnic makeup of the student body at Preston Hollow during the 2005-2006 academic year, which, as stated before, was approximately 18% Anglo, 66% Latino, 14% African-American, and 2% Asian.

With regard to the actual brochure, Ms. Bittner testified that Principal Parker reviewed the contents of the brochure prior to its final production. The photo shoot was on the Preston Hollow campus and was approved by Principal Parker. The brochure was distributed from the office of the school, even though at a December 2005 meeting with Latino parents Principal Parker informed them that the brochure would not be further distributed because of their stated concerns that it was not representative of the ethnic makeup of the school. Principal Parker told the Latino parents that another brochure, which would be more inclusive, would be produced, but it never was.

So, what was it Joe Bittner said in yesterday's Dallas Morning News? Oh, yes. Here it is: "Mr. Bittner and others say they shouldn't have to apologize, or be sued, for wanting more of their neighbors to join them." Yeah? Tell it to the judge. --Robert Wilonsky

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