Web Only / Features » August 20, 2014
Big Dallas Plunder (cont’d)
They fought the law and they won
From the start, SOPS’ campaign has been dogged by ethical questions. To get a home rule commission started, SOPS had to collect 24,650 signatures from registered voters in the district. Impressively, SOPS turned in about 48,000, but of these, more than 21,000 were disqualified because of double-counting, illegibility, non-district residence and unregistered voter status. Nonetheless, SOPS squeaked by the signature threshold.
After the petition was certified, the school board appointed a home rule commission. Rumors flew that the mayor and Morath had a hand in the members’ selection. In March, an inside city source reported to the The Dallas Morning News that Rawling’s spokesperson Sam Merten had begun recruit commissioners and planned to “propose a slate of people for the charter that they knew would put in place the charter they would want. They would have enough votes on the DISD board to get that passed. You’d have the folks in place already who are committed no matter the public outpouring or opposition.”
On June 19, the board of trustees unanimously approved a home rule commission. Without knowing who was on Morath and Rawling’s reported short list, there’s no way of knowing whether the mayor and the trustee influenced the selection.
What’s clear, however, is the selected commission fails to reflect the Texas Education Code’s mandate that a home rule commission’s “membership must reflect the racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic diversity of the district.”
Racially and ethnically, the 15-member commission is one-third white, one-third Latino, and one-third Black. The question of how to measure the district’s makeup has been a point of contention. Morath argues that the district population should take students into account, but be based on the district’s voting-age population, which according to his calculations to In These Times would make the racial breakdown 45 percent Hispanic, 26.5 percent white, 24 percent African American, 2 percent Asian, and 2.5 percent other. By this measure, the commission still falls short on representation of Latinos. If, however, one takes into consideration the families that actually send their kids to district schools —the law is not explicit—the breakdown would be 70 percent Hispanic, 23 percent African American, 4.6 percent white, 1.2 percent Asian, and 1.2 percent other—in which case the commission should have at minimum 10 Latino members and three black members, and just one white member.
Geographically, six of the commission’s members come from the rich neighborhoods of North Dallas—Oak Lawn, Addison, and White Rock—while none come from the Latino communities of West Oak Cliff, Pleasant Grove and South East Dallas or the African American communities of East Oak Cliff and West Dallas—despite the fact that significantly more students in these communities attend public schools than do students in North Dallas.
Socioeconomically, most of the commission is made up of lawyers, consultants, IT professionals, district officials, and political operatives—not representative of a city in which the per capita income is $27,011, and 23.6 percent of the population falls below the poverty line.
The Texas Education Code’s Home Rule provision also states that 25 percent of the commission must be classroom teachers “selected by representatives of the professional staff” on a district wide committee. According to state law, this committee is supposed to be elected by district teachers, which prompted the Alliance-AFT to take the district to court because, they charged,, such elections had never occurred and the selections were left up the dictates of improperly appointed district officials. On June 19, Judge Carl Ginsburg concluded that “a significant number of the DAC’s professional educator members, were contrary to statute, not elected, and thus the DAC was, indeed unlawfully constituted.” Despite this clear finding, Ginsburg argued that the district’s four selections were not demonstrated to cause harm to the interests of classroom teachers, and thus Alliance-AFT’s injunction attempt was defeated.
Last, many on the commission are Dallas elites and district insiders: At least two are former high-level district officials, one is a former North Dallas school board member, one is the husband of a former school board member, and another a son of a school board member.
To what extent such a skewed commission will affect its initial ballot proposal will only become clear in the coming months.
Initially, SOPS pushed for the home rule initiative to be on this November’s ballot. Local critics argued such haste would almost certainly mean a draft of the proposal had been written before the commission had even convened, given the time the proposal would need afterwards to be reviewed by the Texas Secretary of State, the US Department of Justice for clearance under the Voting Rights Act, and finally the Texas Commissioner of Education.
But numerous protests, community forums, and packed town hall meetings opposing home rule, organized by groups like the Texas Organizing Project, the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and Alliance-AFT seem to have made commission members wary of pushing through a proposal. None except Edwin Flores, the commission member appointed by Mike Morath, publicly supported drafting a proposal by the November deadline. As commissioner Lew Blackburn Jr. declared to Dallas’ NPR affiliate, “Now if we just want to rubber stamp something, and to say that the 15 commissioners were selected just to push this through and not to do anything, then [the aiming for the November ballot] would make sense. But that’s not why we’re here.”
With the filing deadline of August 18 past, the commission has a year to draft a proposal, which would then go on the November 2015 ballot.
Recently elected board member Joyce Foreman thinks that community opposition to SOPS is what convinced the commission to take their time drafting a proposal. “[SOPS] tried the hard sell and it didn’t work,” said Foreman, who won her seat on an anti-home rule platform, in an interview with In These Times. “Now they’re trying the soft sell by promising not to change governance, not to change teacher contracts—what they’re not telling the public is that, after a year, they can start making [home rule] charter amendments.” At an August 4th, home rule commission meeting school district lawyer Lisa McBride confirmed this possibility, explaining, “A board or voters under the amendment process … can submit an amendment.” In other words, given the public outcry, even if board were to propose a moderate home rule proposal—once accepted, after a year drastic amendments could be made to it from the inside.
Dallas’ low-income communities of color have fought back against home rule in part out of fears that it could help real estate developers accelerate the black flight afflicting the district. DISD’s property assets include 269 facilities spread across 26,248,469 total gross square feet. A recent district assessment found that were all school sites refurbished to optimal conditions, the district’s building would have a total replacement value of over $8.13 trillion dollars, a source that charter school entrepreneurs or real estate developers could tap into on the cheap if able to push through mass school closures.
By closing down and consolidating schools, a school board under mayoral control could dislocate communities by depriving them of public resources and community nexuses—a hallmark of state-engineered gentrification policies. The poor black communities of East Oak Cliff and South Dallas lie near the downtown financial district. As UT Austin Education Professor Julian Vasquez-Heilig argues to In These Times, “What’s happening is that these schools sit on prime real estate. It’s not just the schools—it’s the neighborhoods, as in east Austin, and as in Freedman’s town in Houston,” said Heilig. “They want to clear black folks out. It’s all about future value.”
In these poor neighborhoods, local public schools are some of the few sites left in which communities can organize and foster a collective sense of identity. By closing down schools and busing kids into consolidated charter schools, which have a financial incentive to maximize student population while minimizing student services, such community hubs would be lost, giving residents little incentive to stay.
The home rule campaign, then, is not just a fight about school control; it is a struggle over who will have a say in the future of Dallas. Perhaps no single event signaled the community’s opposition to the home rule campaign more than the landslide run-off election of Foreman to the DISD board of trustees this June, a month after the home rule commission campaign first started to pick up momentum. Foreman, a 40-year resident of Redbird, one of Dallas’ historically black communities, made a name for herself fighting against the 2011 school closures at a raucous school board session, famously shouting, “Wake up people; are you asleep? Are you sick? Or what?”
The stakes of her election could not have been higher. Carla Ranger of District 6, the only board member to never receive money from the chamber’s PAC, announced her retirement at the beginning of this year. The business community moved fast. On the first day of filing, Bertha Bailey Whatley, an unknown district lawyer, stepped into the race, and quickly, endorsements started pouring in from the Dallas Morning News, The Real Estate Council, MetroTex Association of Realtors, Educate Dallas, and Kids First—and with them money, more money than anyone can remember in a school board race, even in Dallas.
In total, Whatley raised a whopping $104,012.30, spending $60,127.84 on the advertising services of Allyn Media—curiously, the same PR firm hired by SOPS to oversee the communications of its home rule campaign. According to campaign records, Whatley even received $5,100 from Trustee Mike Morath. Morath’s decision to step into another district race raised eyebrows, as did the $10,000 of “consulting” services he offered to Whatley according to campaign records. In a phone interview, Foreman held little back. “My question has been: what kind of consulting could he do in my community? He doesn’t know it.”
But what Foreman lacked in funding, she made up in organizing and community respect. “People in the district, no ifs, ands, or buts, are against this—they don’t trust the system. This was rolled out against the people, they remember fighting for single member districts, so they want to have people they elect.”
Foreman also calls out SOPS for its attempts for its superficial attempts at appeasing communities of color. “They had two African Americans and a Hispanic leading it, trying to convince us this was a good deal. [SOPS president] Wilton Hollins tried to come down here from Plano [a rich Dallas suburb] and he got jumped,” she laughed, “people were giving him hell.” Foreman also recalls Whatley’s attempts to distance herself from home rule, “At a board meeting, one of her advisors had her put on a T-shirt against home rule, as if that would fool the people.”
By the time the Foreman’s grassroots campaign went into full effect and people started hearing about the home rule campaign, Whatley had no chance. Foreman nearly doubled Whatley’s vote total, taking 65 percent of the vote. “While I have been a street fighter for the kids, now I have to give this an opportunity,” Foreman said. “That doesn’t take away any of my edge by the way.”
Foreman and her community allies have their work cut out for them in the months ahead. The Dallas business community, highly involved in the growing local charter school movement, and their hopes to cash in on the district’s budget will not be going away anytime soon. Much more organization and mobilization will be needed to vote down the home rule charter next year.
Reflecting on her successful community-based campaign, Foreman says, “We know what works. The question is: Do we have the will?”
This report was made possible by a generous grant from the Voqal Fund.
George Joseph is a reporter focusing on education and labor issues in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @georgejoseph94.