Dallas school Superintendent Mike Moses, such a success for four years, has misstepped seriously in handling the inflammatory issue of school attendance zone re-mapping. It's bad enough that some people--by no means all, but some--are whispering that Dr. Moses may have reached the city limits of his gifts.
This is all about the district using its 2002 $1.37 billion bond program to build 20 new schools and to add on to 58 more buildings. If you add that much new class capacity, with a stated goal of getting rid of temporary classrooms, then it's logical to expect some students to be shifted.
And that's the mistake: trying to be "logical" with schools like Stonewall Jackson Elementary, at Mockingbird and Matilda in the East Dallas "M Streets" area. The "Stonewall" attendance zone in East Dallas is a kind of holy city within the city of Dallas. People beg, borrow and fake hearing problems to get children into this famously wonderful school. My kid went to a private school nearby. We were all excited when we found out then-Mayor Ron Kirk was putting his kids into our private school. Then we found out he was just parking them there until he could get them into Stonewall. Made sense.
Stonewall is the deaf education elementary school, with an ethnic mix roughly in thirds. The deaf kids make up a small portion of the student body, but all children at Stonewall are taught to sign. People in this school have an eccentric, rich, shared culture.
I slipped into the back of a Stonewall Dad's Club meeting in the auditorium one recent evening. Someone was saying that one way to solve the school's overcrowding issue would be to move the "deaf ed" program elsewhere, making room for more neighborhood kids.
The suggestion was met by a long silence. Then a dad way in the back spoke up to say that having the deaf kids at Stonewall was part of the attraction. "It's great for my kids, because you have to look at these kids differently, and you learn to look at yourself differently. I would hate to see that transferred to a different school."
When East Dallas people talk about the Stonewall principal, Olivia Henderson, they sound like Shiites speaking of certain imams whom they greatly respect and...well, sort of also fear quite a bit. There are teachers who have been at Stonewall so long they are described only by their last names, like landmarks. Proximity to Stonewall is the single most powerful factor in residential real estate values in that part of the city.
Do we think people might be sort of serious about keeping their kids in Stonewall? Should this be a question on an IQ test for school superintendents?
But when Moses approached the problem of school attendance zones, he began by setting in motion an entirely bean-counting demographic process to determine how many kids live near which schools and how to make the attendance zones tight and tidy. And then he made it secret.
East Dallas activist Jesse Moreno, revered for his volunteer efforts at Woodrow Wilson High School and elsewhere, was one of 18 people tapped to take part in a so-called community review of the bean-counters' work. He said, "We were told we were not able to speak to anyone about it by orders of the school district."
That was all Moses. His spokesman conceded to me last week that this entire process was designed personally by Moses to be a closed-door affair until the end of the deal.
Last February, Dallas Morning News reporter Tawnell Hobbs (a good hand) jacked a bunch of memos out of Moses, I assume through an open records demand, since that's starting to be the only way to say hello. One was a memo Moses had written in which he said he wanted the attendance zone process kept "confidential until such time that some recommendations and decisions have been formulated."
I tried to ask Moses why the process was not more open. In a written response to my written questions, his spokesman said, "Final decisions will be made in public. Attendance zone changes must be made. At this point in the process, there is little point in pitting communities against each other. Board members will have the final decision."
Yeah, but...that won't work. Not in real life. Secrets that big don't keep that long in real life. Several weeks ago, when this process was six months along, the Stonewall parents still knew nothing of it. They went to a community meeting at J.L. Long Middle School to discuss a totally separate issue. But when they got there en masse, school board member Ron Price handed out maps showing them for the first time that 40 percent of them were about to get evicted from the Stonewall attendance zone.
People who were there tell me it was like handing out porn at a Church of Christ picnic. Ballistic!
"I thought they had a right to know about it," Price told me.
Life is complex. The Stonewall people are not in Price's district. Their board member is Jack Lowe. At the moment when Price delivered this particular load of dynamite, he and Lowe were contending for the presidency of the school board, which neither wound up getting. The board member with egg on his face for not having warned Stonewall was Lowe.
But welcome to the big city. The mistake was thinking something this hot wouldn't leak for some reason and that you could spring a 40 percent eviction rate on Stonewall at the last minute.
Moreno had been battling behind the scenes to save Stonewall from an even more severe gutting, according to every account I have been able to gather. But because of the way it broke, he was vilified for having taken part in a secret process. Now he wishes the whole thing had been open from the get-go.
"The way I personally looked at it, we should have done that from the very beginning," Moreno said. "We were not doing anything suspicious or anything, but it looks suspicious when you're not out in the open, and that really bothered me, because you're dealing with people's emotions, people's futures.
"I felt over six months of my life was a waste of time. It was a no-win, no-win situation for me, personally."
He's not the Lone Ranger. Another enormous blow-up happened when people in Seagoville, not a part of Dallas but a part of the Dallas school district, found out half of their elementary kids were going to be sent across Interstate 635 into predominantly minority Pleasant Grove schools.
I think I don't even have to spell this out. Think Seagoville: Think outpost of East Texas. Now think Pleasant Grove: upwardly mobile South Dallas. Now, think oil and water.
When I spoke with George Williams, the outgoing board member for Seagoville, he took most of the blame on himself for not having opened up this process sooner. "I should have had a town hall meeting," he said several times.
The problem is that the process was designed to be closed by Moses.
There is good news here: All of the most severe blow-ups over attendance-zone changes probably will be fixed in the weeks ahead. But they will get fixed in a process opposite of the way Moses thought it would be done. Nothing will be logical, tight or streamlined. It will all be gnarly, idiosyncratic and rife with exceptions to rules. And the outcome will not be something school board members impose on the populace like a Supreme Court ruling. If anything, I see more examples of school board members on all fours doing salaams in front of their constituents to try to calm them down.
Seagoville, for example, wants to keep the portables at its three elementary schools. Why? If they keep their portables, they're not overcrowded. The kids don't have to move.
The Stonewall parents know that people have been bootlegging their kids into the attendance zone for years. The school used to let kids in if there was a history of hearing loss in the family. I have several neighbors who went up there for the interview (we're way out of the attendance zone), and when they got to the part when they were asked if there was any history of hearing loss, they said, "Whaaat? Speak up, willya?"
They got in. I can tell that story now, because those kids are already through Stonewall. If I put something like that in the paper when the kids were still there? Next move: Change name, move to Ohio at midnight!
So with great reluctance, the Stonewall parents are agreeing to a more rigorous policing of the attendance zone to throw out the infiltrators. They hate it, but they hope it will be enough to save the school.
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It'll all get worked out. But it will be worked out in the big, messy, political, sausage-factory way that things tend to get worked out in the big city.
Moses did have to do this. The zones did have to change. And it was never going to be bloodless. On the big broad administrative challenges he faced when he took over the district four years ago, he's done a great job. But the attendance zone issue is in some ways the first time he's had to deal with grassroots, door-to-door, school-to-school community politics.
Board member Ron Price was defending Moses' handling of it to me, when he said: "He's never been the superintendent of a massive organization like this. He's only been in relatively small school districts."
Now we find out.