Dallas ISD home-rule leader targets trustee competency

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on April 10, 2014 at 10:44 PM

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DALLAS -- Last week, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said the Dallas Independent School District home-rule debate is bringing the city together in a conversation about education. But developments in the past week are causing many to believe the home-rule discussion is actually doing more to divide the city among racial lines.

Support Our Public Schools is the campaign to convert DISD from traditional state oversight to one of a local control, home-rule charter system.

What started as an initiative to improve graduation rates at DISD has evolved into an overt campaign to affect the make-up of the DISD Board of Trustees. Mayor Rawlings, the defacto leader of the home-rule movement, has been careful to use the word "governance."

"We need to turn our attention to governance,” Rawlings said in an interview with News 8 two weeks ago. “There's no question that governance is a big part of it."

But DISD Board Member Mike Morath, the originator of the home-rule movement, is less guarded in stating his motivation.

"We need to find the true civic leaders in town that can think about these big issues of how can our democracy most effectively executive its mission for our kids,” Morath said.

And for the first time since the home-rule campaign began last month, a key supporter - former DISD trustee Edwin Flores - is putting proposals on paper.

First among those is to "lengthen the school year," then "move school board elections" to increase voter participation, "strengthen board accountability," and "increase board skill sets" by eliminating three elected trustees and make them appointed at-large.

Morath openly states he doesn't think the current board is acting in the best interests of all DISD students.

"But if you were crafting the Board of Directors of a $1.6-billion educational institution, I'm not sure this is the current group of nine you would put together," he said.

Diane Birdwell, a teacher representative with NEA Dallas, said sentiments like that from Morath are telling.

"He's saying his fellow members on the board are as smart as he is,” Birdwell said. She said that, combined with the home-rule proposals laid out by Flores, make it clear to her the real mission is to eliminate obstacles on the board.

"It’s the ones they perceive as problematic,” Birdwell said. “Lew Blackburn, Carla Ranger, and Bernadette Nutall. Those three have become a problem for them."

Those are the three African Americans on the board. In the past three weeks, the toughest sell for the home-rule initiative has been in southern Dallas, the area represented by the three trustees mentioned.

At a home-rule meeting at an African American church, Trustee Bernadette Nutall voiced her objections to home-rule proposals and her perceived erosion of voting rights associated with them.

"Dallas fought too long to have single-member districts,” Nutall said. "Remember, you have the right to vote me and Mike Morath out."

Community leader Roscoe Smith, head of the Coalition for an Accountable System of Education, also sees home rule as an attempt to erode minority representation.

"We have put together single-member districts, and you are going to tear all of that down?” Smith asked.

Morath said the critics are missing the point, as well as an opportunity to provide meaningful input and help craft solutions.

Yet, even he admits, "this is not to say that race is not a factor,” Morath said. “But to say that race is a dominant factor is missing the forest for the trees."

Three of the five founding members of the home-rule campaign, Support Our Public Schools, are minority. But little is known about the movement’s major financial backers.

The petitions, which need an estimated 25,000 signatures to bring home rule to a vote, are reportedly being circulated mostly white north and east Dallas.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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