Published Online: January 29, 1997

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Hiring of Hispanic Sparks Tensions in Dallas

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The appointment of the first Hispanic superintendent of the Dallas public schools has reignited the racial tensions that have long plagued the city's school board.

In a decision boycotted by the three African-Americans on the board, the remaining members voted 6-0 on Jan. 9 to name Yvonne Gonzalez, who had been acting superintendent since August, to the top job.

The protest stemmed from charges by the black board members that the majority on the board had given short shrift to other finalists for the position.

"It became clear to us it was a charade, and we were not going to participate further," said Hollis Brashear, the board's second vice president and one of the three members who walked out of the meeting before the vote.

Board member Roxan Staff stood by the appointment.

"I saw the work that Dr. Gonzalez has done over the last few months, and based on that and the strength of her character I believe she was the best candidate," Ms. Staff said last week through a spokeswoman.

Question of Input

The appointment of the 44-year-old Ms. Gonzalez sparked protest among some black community leaders and residents who said the selection process was racist. Some prominent African-Americans, however, have praised the appointment and pleaded with the community to support the new superintendent.

The tensions spilled over into the board's Jan. 16 meeting, when a board member, Lois Parrott, who is white, said the protests were not about racism but "sour grapes." The comment drew angry responses from the audience and led board President Bill Keever to abruptly adjourn the meeting.

The incident was reminiscent of a brawl that broke out at a meeting last May, when members of a local activist group, the New Black Panthers, were arrested after refusing to comply with Mr. Keever's request to sit down.

Ms. Gonzalez, who was formerly an interim superintendent in Houston and an administrator in San Antonio and Santa Fe, N.M., said last week that her tenure has been a challenge from the outset.

"It appears that ever since I landed in Dallas 10 months ago as deputy superintendent my role has been controversial," she said in a telephone interview. "Obviously I did not know the depth of emotion."

She said that only a small, vocal group of militants had opposed her appointment because she is Hispanic.

But the board's three black members and several community leaders insist that their protest is not a matter of the superintendent's race, but of the lack of input they had in the selection process.

Racial strife has plagued the board in recent years. In 1995, board member Dan Peavy, who is white, resigned following the revelation of a taped telephone conversation in which he used racial and other slurs. ("Racist, Sexist Remarks Put Dallas Board on Edge," Nov. 8, 1995.)

Although the enrollment of the 155,000-student district is about 42 percent black and 46 percent Hispanic, the board has four white, one Hispanic, and three black members. And the Hispanic population is booming. District officials estimate that enrollment will grow by as many as 5,500 students a year over the next decade, 5,000 of whom will be Hispanic.

The black members have accused the other board members of conspiring to override their efforts with their majority voting block.

Lee Alcorn, the president of the Dallas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, last week sent a list of requests to Ms. Gonzalez, saying that protests will continue at each board meeting until they are met. The list calls for improved academic programs for black students and the hiring of a black deputy superintendent.

Ms. Gonzalez said she will not be deterred from her mission to ensure that the needs of all children are met.

Conflicting Views

"I will not be pressured into making any decisions that are based on race, gender, or ethnicity," she said. "I am appalled that we cannot have a school board meeting, whose mission is to educate children, without these hatemongers bashing people who are trying to move the district forward."

Mr. Brashear, a retired Army officer who describes himself as "moderate and mainstream," said he shares Ms. Gonzalez's goal. He said, however, that what he views as the board's disrespect for its black members can only be described as racist.

"I'm just about at the end of my patience," he said. "We are mistreated and our input is excluded."

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