Seize the Moment, Dallas Schools, and Decide for Good What Trustees Can and Cannot Do

Big teachable moment right now in the Dallas school system -- huge! -- and the school board and superintendent should rush to take advantage of it. I'm talking about the deal I reported here yesterday in which the superintendent called school district cops to physically evict a school board member from a campus.

See also: Mike Miles and Bernadette Nutall Slap Leather

Of course we mediatoids love a story like this because it involves cops and outrageous behavior, our favorite things. But the thing not to miss here is that the showdown yesterday between Superintendent Mike Miles and school board member Bernadette Nutall is really about the entire history of the district. It's about a crucial decision the board needs to make right now to determine the future of the school system.

How far should trustees poke their noses into the day-to-day management of the school system? As it is now, trustees are all over the district every day, in and out of offices in the administration building, in and out of schools, often on very strategic missions, sometimes in direct contravention of the superintendent's own orders to the staff.

For example in April 2013 a school district middle manager complained to her immediate superiors that Nutall had threatened her with repercussions if she carried out policies put in place by Miles. In her memo to her boss the district staffer said, "She (Nutall) was sure to tell me that as the new (executive director), I, too, was being watched and that I needed to be careful not to 'believe the hype.'"

See also: Bernadette Nutall Raises the Stakes in the War Over Protecting Favored DISD Principals

On the surface it seems crazy. How could a board member possibly believe she was doing the right thing by going around to staff members telling them to disobey their boss? But in fact -- and whether you agree or disagree with what Nutall did -- her behavior was not crazy. Instead it reflected decades of political history in the school district and city.

Dallas schools were not released from 32 years of federal court oversight until 2003. That's only 11 years ago. For decades before the courts let Dallas out of de-seg jail, the schools were run under a court-ordered regime including a federal court monitor whose full-time job was to assure the judge that the black community was on board with the way schools in the black southern hemisphere of the city were being run.

It was the Dallas version of apartheid, codified in a series of blandly worded court orders, and it came to this: if black elected officials, especially school trustees, told the court monitor they were happy with the situation in "their" schools that year, then the monitor told the judge that God was in his heaven and all was right in Dallas.

Over time that arrangement evolved to mean that the black trustees were the effective managers of all schools in southern Dallas, with green-light authority over the hiring and firing of principals and teachers, choice of curriculum and discipline policies in the southern Dallas schools. To make sure it worked that way, the district was carved into sub-districts and school feeder patterns whose borders were contiguous with the electoral districts of the trustees.

It was the political duty of black trustees to get out into those sub-districts and onto the campuses to assure that things were run in a way the trustees could certify to the monitor was satisfactory. And even though the legal underpinning for that system went away in 2003 when the courts bowed out, the system itself remained deeply embedded in the day-to-day culture and operations of the school system until the arrival of Mike Miles in 2012.

Miles' story here is pretty simple. He looked at the abysmal results of schools in Dallas and concluded that whatever the system here may have been in the past, it wasn't working. And with your permission, I'm going to skip the detail on that today. Let's just agree he looked at the school system and found that far from preparing kids for college, especially poor black and Hispanic kids, it was preparing them for lives of limited literacy and serial criminal incarceration.

Instead of a patchwork of mini-school systems run according to the idiosyncratic designs of individual trustees, Miles determined he was going to run the whole system one way -- his way. Let's just take note at this point that a majority of the school board has supported Miles at every step of his way. Our elected representatives on the school board, albeit with much debate and occasional rancor, have come around at every important waypoint and voted to support Miles in his campaign of district-wide reforms.

So what's with calling the cops on Nutall?

I was able to speak to Nutall personally about the incident. I had to talk to Miles' spokesperson for his side. I think in her own story on TV and in the daily paper , Nutall shifts her ground a bit too easily and conveniently. In one moment she says she was evicted for trespassing on the school campus, but in the next she agrees with the spokesperson's version, that she was evicted because she was insisting on crashing a closed staff meeting to which she was not invited.

That point needs to be settled. As a trustee under existing rules and by long tradition, she almost certainly has a right to visit and inspect any campus she wants to, any time she wants to. But crashing a close staff meeting? That is where the rubber really meets the road. Does she have that right or not?

Historically and under the old system, Nutall could have barged into any meeting and told Miles, if he objected, "Hey, I'm the boss here, not you. Or do I need to dial up the monitor?" It was no idle threat. Dallas was way late settling its desegregation problems and could ill afford getting slapped around by the judge for more malingering. In those days Nutall would have had the full imprimatur of the courts behind her.

But that was then. This is now. The courts are gone. The monitor is gone. The school board hired Mike Miles. Miles scoped out, analyzed and comprehended the old system almost immediately -- an act of extraordinary political prescience in an extremely idiosyncratic city that usually defies quick comprehension by newcomers. And he took it all down.

Miles systematically took apart the school feeder patterns and administrative sub-district lines that underlay the old system. He set up an officers candidate school for principals -- a way of telling the black trustees, "Thanks for your help, but I've got this now."

And here, maybe because I'm an old white liberal goofy-pants or something, I must insert an observation all my own. The immediate reaction of black grassroots leaders to Miles' reforms has been that he's a racist. I feel compelled to mention, even though he never does in public, that Miles is black. I guess in theory he could still be an anti-black racist, but talk about goofy-pants theories. I believe Miles is a proud African-American, deeply concerned -- deeply -- with the plight of poor kids, including poor kids of color whom he believes are betrayed by a way of doing business that just does not work.

Just does not work. Look at the outcomes. For one moment banish certain mantras from your lips -- anything involving the terms grassroots, empowerment or participatory -- and look at what the Children's Defense Fund has documented as "The Cradle to Prison Pipeline." One in three black, one in six Latino boys born in 2001, according to the statistics, will wind up in prison. Those are national numbers. Every indication is that the Dallas numbers, if ever counted, would be worse.

I get accused of being a flak for Miles here. I see it very differently. If anything in the coverage of Miles by the usually very competent beat reporters at the daily paper and by TV reporters whose work on other stores I often admire, I see a common and simple-minded artifact of news culture when it comes to Miles. Miles is a tough executive, a strongman, the big dog, and we in the business are always supposed to take up the cudgel against big dogs.

I get all that, of course. But in this case taking the stick to the big dog just because he's the big dog is wrong-headed for us. It ignores the possibility that this big dog may be right. Just doing fair coverage, having a shot at getting the story right, requires us to hear this big dog out.

But enough about us. What about the school system? What about the city? Nutall and two supporters on the school board are demanding a special called meeting to discuss her eviction from a campus yesterday. Miles' supporters on the board seem to be resisting. That's a big mistake.

The board should have this meeting, maybe a series of meetings, and they should use the process to determine precisely what role trustees should play in the day-to-day operations of the district from here on out. The board has the legal authority to establish local rules governing board behavior down to the hours and conditions under which a board member may enter any school district premises including the headquarters building. They should hold to it

We have a history here that includes a board member (Nutall) persuading staff to carry out audits and investigations of the superintendent without his knowledge or the knowledge of the rest of the school board. In other words, a school trustee can order or persuade staff to work to undermine their own boss without any say-so from anybody but herself.

See also: Mike Miles Against the World

Clearly there should be rules governing if, when and how trustees may interact with staff. Obviously there should be clear rules governing trustee access to closed staff meetings. And just as obviously we need rules to govern physical access to buildings.

School board president Miguel Solis is a wise temperate person who doesn't have to be told that everybody on the board has a reason for seeing things a certain way. It doesn't all just spring from personality. It also comes from history. I believe Nutall is an idealistic principled person who believes she is in the right. I also believe she is way in the wrong.

But what I believe doesn't mean squat. The school board needs to decide what it believes. Then vote on it. That's the door to the future, and they need to open it.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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

Latest Stories