The North Dallas Plot to Take Over DISD

Sixteen years ago, the last time a bunch of well-funded outsiders tried to reform the Dallas School system, the results were a disaster. I remember it. Some of you may too.

Now the same kind of movement is starting up again, and so far it's been smooth as silk. So I have to wonder: Is somebody on vacation? Where are the shotguns and the televised wrestling matches?

In 1996, when well-funded, mainly white reformers came in with big manila folders of statistics under their arms preaching about outcomes and incomes, there was open warfare. Board meetings dissolved into riots.

The New Black Panthers threatened to show up at school headquarters armed with shotguns. Tangles between angry speakers and district security guards were beginning to make board meetings look like Total Nonstop Action Wrestling.

The New Black Panthers painted the white school board members as bogus crackers. Then a neighbor of one white trustee proved them right by wiretapping the trustee using racial slurs. The superintendent resigned. The next superintendent got sent to the pen. A dismal series of financial scandals ensued. The school district wound up looking like bad fruit erupted in the merciless Texas sun. So here we go again?

Maybe. Maybe not.

"The verdict is still out," says African-American board member Bernadette Nutall. "Until you see the achievement gaps really closed and you see academic achievement and you see economic development in our underserved community, I think it's an incomplete grade. But I'm always willing to listen."

The willing to listen part is new. On all sides.

"I think there's a new generation of leadership that has a different view of how you do this," says Mark Melton, a young white lawyer who is co-chair of one of two new reform-oriented political action committees. "You don't want to be the arrogant guy pushing this down people's throats."

You don't? That's new too.

But not everything is new. The goals and vocabulary of the movement are strongly reminiscent of the earlier effort, especially in calls for "accountability," which can be a code word for more testing and more teacher firings. The ZIP codes are familiar too.

In the recent Dallas school board election, an unprecedented river of cash poured into a handful of campaigns, the lion's share from donors in downtown, the Park Cities, Preston Hollow and far North Dallas. That money came from affluent people, the majority of whom are white, some of whom must think that sending their own kids to a public school in Dallas is like sending them to the gallows.

The amount of money was serious. In 2009, the last time Nutall ran for election to the District 9 seat in old South Dallas, she raised $2,718 in campaign contributions.

The next election, in 2011, was canceled for lack of interest. That's not a joke. The district canceled the entire 2011 Dallas school board election for three board seats — not Nutall's — because nobody showed up to run against any of the sitting board members. The incumbents will sit for two more years.

Since then, Nutall has supported closing so-called underutilized and inefficient schools in her own district, a move that was popular at school headquarters, deeply controversial among her constituents.

This year, when Nutall ran for re-election, she raised $54,527.06. Even though she was running a slam-dunk race against an unknown kid, Nutall was able to increase her fundraising by more than 2,000 percent.

Opponents accused her of earning her personal income from a nonprofit funded entirely by downtown business groups and white people. It was true. But she beat the kid handily anyway.

Even at that, Nutall didn't quite match the fundraising prowess of unknown newcomer Dan Micciche, who raised $56,479.57 to run against incumbent Bruce Parrott in District 3 in Far East Dallas.

Both Micciche and Parrott are white. But Parrott and his wife, a former board member who raised questions about school district contracts and legal fees, are unpopular with business groups.

Parrott raised $950. Micciche outraised him by 5,900 percent. Micciche won.

In Nutall's case, 56 percent of her windfall came from two new political action committees, one called "EducateDallas" and the other "Kids First." The same two PACs gave Micciche 64 percent of his campaign treasure.

This should all be déjà vu. The reform effort of the '90s was fueled by rivers of cash from white people and business groups directed into trustee campaigns. The goal then as now was to tip the board toward the control of the people giving the money. But, as Nutall says, the jury is still out on this one.

Given the passage of time and the march of history, it may no longer be enough to know that a lot of the people chipping in are rich white people. Maybe now we have to know what kind of rich white people.

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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