Weeks After West Dallas School Reform Announcement, DISD Board's Ready for Details

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa drew a roomful of huzzahs two weeks ago when he announced that DISD was getting involved in a new effort for school reform in West Dallas. A handful of DISD trustees were among the cheering crowd, including Lew Blackburn and board president Adam Medrano, but not Carla Ranger.

On her blog the next day, Ranger wondered why she'd heard nothing about the program before, especially given that the plan put DISD in partnership with Uplift Education, which runs a handful of local charter schools, and the Dallas Faith Communities Coalition. Ranger wondered what the district was getting into, and why Hinojosa had never brought it in front of the board. (Blackburn, whose district the initiative is based on, said he's been in the loop for the last year.) Ranger demanded a special board meeting to help clear the air.

Well, that meeting's just started at 3700 Ross Ave., where DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander says Hinojosa "will likely try to clarify what discussions he has had with different entities about some of the initiatives there, as well as provide an update." While there won't be time for public comment, teachers' union leaders and community groups involved in the so-called West Dallas Education Initiative will be filling the board room as well.

Update: Jump for a recap of the one-hour meeting. We'll recap the meeting in the morning, but 

DFCC executive director Regina Nippert tells Unfair Park she's been surprised at the backlash from unions and board members, and says rumors and misunderstandings are to blame. "There's this idea out there that we're going to make all the schools charter schools," Nippert says, which is just not the case." The partnership Hinojosa announced was formed to establish a leadership academy to train principals and teachers -- one that Nippert says would focus initially on West Dallas, before extending its reach to the rest of the city.

"What we're doing is so helpful. It's training for teachers," Nippert says. "I'm surprised that the teacher's unions haven't clicked to this, because part of the problem DISD has is that it's hard to hire tecahers and principals for these schools because nobody wants to teach there."

"I'm a little concerned that we're looking at partnering with private ocmpanies to do education in the city," says Dale Keiser, NEA-Dallas teachers' union. "We've been through this once before with Edison," he says, recalling the charter company DISD contracted with until breaking off the partnership in 2003.

"The faith-based organization [DFCC] has been doing this operation for three years, so why are we just now hearing about it?" wonders Alliance-AFT president Rena Honea. "There's some concern here, Honea says. "If it checks out to be on the up and up, whatever's best for children is in our interest."

Update at 7:23 p.m.: The meeting ran a little over an hour and drew a packed house to the old DISD board room, and the overflow room across the hall. Hinojosa laid out details of the West Dallas initiative to kick things off, recalling that he'd mentioned a possible partnership with DFCC at the board's February retreat, and met with them again in early April.

Ranger and Hinojosa spent the rest of the meeting going back and forth over whether he'd overstepped his authority, while the rest of the board seemed to wonder, most of all, what they were all doing there.

"I believe that you exceeded your authority in partnering with Uplift on a grant that will affect our schools," Ranger told the superintendent. "That affects policy, and this board makes policy." Ranger pressed for a chance to discuss the partnership.

Hinojosa stressed that DISD would only be involved as a partner in applying for the federal grant to start a training academy. "We're just trying to build the pipeline to get great leaders for our schools. Uplift has the same problems. It was just a common need," he said.

Ranger looked increasingly alone in her concern as the meeting went on; other members took the chance to thank Hinojosa for getting DISD involved.

"I'm all for administrators taking initiative," said trustee Jack Lowe, especially given how busy the board already is. "I was humbled just to be a part of it," said trustee Jerome Garza.

"If we're going to have a meeting for every grant that we're potentially going to apply for, we're gonna have a lot of meetings," said trustee Edwin Flores, who looked particularly impatient -- rolling his eyes and flicking through pages on his phone during Ranger's questions -- before ducking out a few minutes early.

"That is a ridiculous statement," Ranger said later about Flores's comment. "Nobody denies that it's good to have relationships," she said, but that it was worth a discussion before partnering charter schools. "We end up rubber-stamping things that come before us. We shouldn't be a rubber-stamp board," she said.

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