Running from DISD

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This is the board's last briefing before it must vote on a $1.2 billion annual budget. Jones says, "I really want to understand. I think it's in our interest to do so, because we put money into specific initiatives [and] we should understand the relationship between the dollar in and also the opportunity cost of what that could have supported, everything else being equal."

Well, sure. So, yes. So, here we are. So how's the weather over there?

She talks some more. Miles tells her he doesn't understand what she wants to know, what's missing. She goes at it some more, saying she wants more measurements, wants to know things, understand things. Miles says there was a curriculum, and they were tested and the ones who passed the test graduated. Then she wants to know how he knows the money was better spent than money spent training other school leaders who don't go to the academy.

Finally fellow board member Mike Morath, who normally would be taken as her ally, tells her nobody can understand what she wants.

"If there's a way that you could sort of make a list with some generic descriptions of the things that are not here," he says, "because I'm not sure anybody is going to intuit how to give this to you without some guidance."

Jones tells him, "I want to put it all together. I want to see the totality of that, and what I see here is a bunch of slices. From a budgetary perspective we have one of the finest budget guys around. That, I'm not taking issue with. But from a management and a performance (perspective), I don't have a whole lot of insight in a lot of that area, and this concerns me."

Mm-hmm. Ouch! I think maybe I whacked myself in the ear a little too hard on that one, because all of a sudden I had a vision of an assistant city editor I worked for 100 years ago in Detroit, very bright, straight into the newsroom from a distinguished academic career, not a day of newspapering behind him when he came to the task. He used to stare at my stories when I submitted them, shake his head, rub his eyes and say, "Jim, there's something missing."

I would say, "What?"

He would turn to me, face riven, like we were watching a horror movie, and mutter, "I do not know."

I remember that I fantasized leaping forward and choking him to death. Terrible thing. Fortunately I was able to self-medicate at that point in time with a locally made psychoactive compound called Stroh's beer. I remember you had to take tremendous amounts.

Elizabeth Jones is that man. She sounds like she's making sense. She is not. And it looks to me as if she drives Miles and his top executives crazy. Ku. Ray. Zee.

As she did me, when I called her. I cannot take you back through our phone conversation here because of space constraints and the limits of my sanity which may be, who knows, pretty limited. I asked her what she wanted. She said she wanted to know if the $4 million spent on the leadership academy was well spent. I asked her by what rubric or metric she would measure that. She said, "Opportunity cost."

I tried to get at opportunity cost. She said it was the money spent on this versus the money spent on that. I asked what rubric or measurement would be useful to determine if the right amount of money was spent on either this or that. She said opportunity cost. Again.

Look, there's a very distinct possibility here. Maybe she's the next Simon Kuznets, an American economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1971 "for his empirically founded interpretation of economic growth which has led to new and deepened insight into the economic and social structure and process of development." And maybe the rest of us are idiots.

I don't think Morath is an idiot. Miles doesn't seem like an idiot. Eric Cowan, the board president, seems very un-idiotic. He told Jones the best way to see how well-prepared the academy graduates are for leadership is to see how they do. If Cowan wins a Nobel Prize, maybe they'll say it is "for his empirically founded interpretation of how well-trained people are according to how they do."

But let's cut to the real issue here. We hear all the time in this town that the public schools are the city's greatest handicap, the drag-anchor holding Dallas back from what feels like an enormous burst forward waiting to happen. We hear all the time that we're going to fix what's wrong. We know that reform will be difficult — terribly painful for some — because we're not idiots. We hired these people to come in and do the basic bushwhacking for us.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze