Tales of Two Boards: Under State Order, Dallas Tries To Clean Up Its Act

By Ann Bradley — April 29, 1992 21 min read

Many of the criticisms that have been leveled at big-city school boards have been thoroughly documented in the Dallas Independent School District. In fact, the Texas Education Agency was so appalled at what it found in Dallas that last August it appointed a special monitor to help the school board clean up its act. Now, the board is struggling to surmount its difficulties.

Boards of Contention
Boards of Contention: Introduction
Historians Cite ‘Steady Erosion’ in Local Control
In Cash-Strapped Districts, Spending Gets New Scrutiny
Tales of Two Boards: Under State Order, Dallas Tries To Clean Up Its Act
Tales of Two Boards: In ‘Good’ N.J. District, Board Tries to Find Its Way
Unions Strive to Elect Friendly Board Members
‘Minimal’ Training May Not Fit Boards’ Needs
Seven Days a Week
Up for Discussion
In Promoting Change, Board Support Is Essential
After 52 Years, ‘Hard Worker’ Is Ousted From Office

In 1980, D Magazine published a special report on the Dallas Independent School District called “This Chaos Must End.’' The story about the city’s school board, headlined “Dallas’ Own Taypayer-Financed Circus,’' was illustrated with a colorful drawing of laughing clowns.

The damning article called the school board “the worst elected governmental body that Dallas has ever seen,’' asserting that the school trustees “can’t function together as a deliberative, cooperative body.’'

Ten years later, during an accreditation visit to the school district, teams from the Texas Education Agency observed a different school board, but reached the same conclusion.

Board members, the agency charged in its report, were acting as managers instead of policymakers. They were holding time-consuming committee meetings that kept administrators away from their duties, visiting schools on “unauthorized business,’' and failing to set clear policies that focused the district’s attention on educating its students.

In fact, the report said, some board members were creating “divisiveness within the board and the community.’'

At the same time, the state accreditation report provided ample evidence that Dallas children were not faring well in school.

More than 26,250 of the district’s 132,256 students were attending “low-performing schools,’' as identified by the T.E.A. Half of the district’s 28 high schools fell into that category. And a large group of poorly performing secondary schools barely escaped it.

Virtually all of the students attending the troubled high schools were members of minority groups, as were more than 90 percent of the students at all but one of the low-performing middle and elementary schools.

Lionel R. Meno, the state commissioner of education, laid part of the blame at the board’s feet.

“The present functioning of the Dallas I.S.D. system of governance,’' he charged, “is an inhibitor to student performance.’'

In August 1991, the commissioner appointed Luvern L. Cunningham, a nationally recognized expert on public-school governance, to help the board examine itself and develop policies to address the state agency’s concerns.

The assignment is a tall order. Across the nation, urban school boards are suffering from many of the same ills that were diagnosed in Dallas. The scrutiny of the nation’s eighth-largest school district, then, offers a glimpse inside the workings of a big-city board and underscores the difficulties of governing urban school systems.

For Mr. Cunningham, the challenge is to assist trustees in relating the district’s policies to its budget process, and both to the board’s oversight responsibilities.

“Deeply entrenched policies of the past,’' he says, “have allowed these practices to go forward almost independently of one another.’'

‘Elites Decided’

In Texas, state law requires board members to act as trustees of the entire school system. But Dallas board members have been elected from nine different geographic districts since 1974, a political fact of life that has influenced the way both board members and the public perceive their roles.

“We’re not representatives,’' says C. Darrow Hooper, a board member elected last year from northwest Dallas, “but the majority on our board don’t understand that.’'

The tension between satisfying their constituents and making policy for the entire 351-square-mile district is heightened, the trustees acknowledge, by the racial tension that permeates the workings of the Dallas school board.

In turn, the divisions among the three black, two Hispanic, and four white board members mirror the racial discord in the city at large. Members of minority groups in Dallas are just beginning to score the gains in political representation that blacks and Hispanics made years ago in other cities.

Last year, for example, after a bitter 10-year battle, 14 new electoral districts were drawn to increase the number of blacks and Hispanics on the city council. The shift in political power was especially wrenching for Dallas, a pair of urban experts observed in The Dallas Morning News, because the prevailing culture of the city had been “elites decided, others went along.’'

The flood plain of the Trinity River divides the city like Dallas’s “own Berlin Wall,’' they wrote. To the north live the elites, who are white, while South Dallas is home to 83 percent of the city’s blacks and 53 percent of its Hispanics.

Between the two stand the glittering towers of downtown Dallas, which the urban experts complained has “that neutron-bomb look,’' so empty are its streets of people and vitality.

For the three African-American board members, in particular, the city’s racial tensions and the school system’s continuing desegregation order provide an ever-present backdrop for policymaking.

“We definitely have some problems in the area of race relations,’' says Kathlyn Gilliam, who, with 18 years’ service, is the dean of the school board. “It has to do with people continually trying to hang on to control. There are only 15 percent Anglo students left in the school system, and the Anglos are nearly frantic to hold on to control and power.’'

Mr. Cunningham, the state-appointed monitor for the board, agrees. Issues of race and class are “the most basic problem in large-city education everywhere,’' he asserts. “Until we come to grips with issues of equity--lay it right on the table and talk about them as a phenomenon which must be addressed--all the rest of this is playing games.’'


When Mr. Cunningham began working with the Dallas trustees, board members were spending 30 to 35 hours a week in meetings, attending an average of eight meetings a month.

Under a 20-year-old committee system, the trustees convened in small subcommittees to discuss school support services, personnel, community relations, and education. They also met as a “committee of the whole’’ to talk about the entire range of the district’s programs and issues.

The typical meeting, the accreditation team found, lasted from four to six hours.

The meetings usually were not just attended by the trustees assigned to the committees, but by all the board members. The situation led to a chaotic atmosphere in which a committee chairman “chaired a committee of the whole,’' says Rene Castilla, the current board president.

During the meetings, it was not uncommon for trustees to berate members of the district’s administrative staff and to air unsubstantiated complaints that had been passed to them by concerned parents.

When T.E.A. team members examined the schedules of Superintendent Marvin E. Edwards and his staff, they discovered that the administrators devoted two hours to preparing for each regular and special meeting of the board. They also spent an hour at the beginning and end of each meeting conferring with the chairman.

That was, however, not the end of their work. During meetings, individual trustees frequently asked for additional information, analyses, or studies without bringing their requests to the entire school board for a vote.

In a report to the trustees, Mr. Cunningham notes that one committee meeting in September 1990 generated “eight follow-up items’’ that called for “substantial staff time’’ to comply.

“There is a tendency to become a small group of ‘micro-managers,’'' says Mr. Castilla, “and we fell into that. The staff was consumed with reporting to the board of education. It shut down the system.’'

Shortly after the trustees began working with Mr. Cunningham, at a retreat to examine the district’s governance structure, the board members decided to abolish the committees.

Instead, the trustees now meet in two “work sessions’’ each month to discuss items that later will come before the board for action. The late-afternoon sessions precede the evening board meetings, providing a deadline that encourages the trustees to conduct their business efficiently.

To establish a mechanism for oversight, the trustees also created monthly “board briefings’’ to examine educational and business issues. The briefings, which all trustees are expected to attend, are carried over the district’s cable-television channel.

The decision to eliminate the committee structure was not a popular one with the three African-American board members, who argue that they have lost a mechanism for delving deeply into critical issues. Some observers also say the televised briefings have become a public-relations vehicle.

“I feel we need the committee structure,’' says Thomas G. Jones, a black trustee. “Right now, the board is not fulfilling its oversight responsibility. We have no formalized mechanism that allows us to do that.’'

Political Alliance

The committees were jettisoned after Mr. Castilla was elected president by a new five-vote majority, which emerged following an election last spring.

The board will change again on May 2, when voters in all nine districts will go to the polls and elect at least two new board members to replace incumbents who have chosen not to run again.

The political alliance between the two Hispanic members and three whites marked a turning point for the board.

With the assistance of a parliamentarian, Mr. Castilla began using Robert’s Rules of Order to conduct meetings, ruling some discussions out of order and moving issues to a vote more quickly.

Bringing a more professional atmosphere to the board meetings was essential, he argues.

“In the past, what this board managed to do was to alienate everyone--the chamber of commerce, the business community--through our own behavior,’' Mr. Castilla says. “Anyone who came before the board was put through an inquisition, approached as though they had an agenda. So no one wanted to talk to us.’'

The emergence of a voting majority from the chorus of nine voices came about out of “frustration that the district was standing still,’' says Betty Vondracek, a trustee who often votes with the majority.

Despite their differences, she adds, the five board members are united by their “absolute determination’’ to move the district forward.

Harley B. Hiscox, the executive vice president of the Alliance of Dallas Educators, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate that represents 3,000 of the city’s 8,500 teachers, says board members had to “put their egos away’’ to come together in a majority.

“They stopped being intimidated by the African-Americans, who overplayed their hand,’' he adds. “In the committee system, they would wear everybody out.’'

Racial Tensions

“When I joined the board,’' recalls Ed Grant, a white board member who often casts his votes with the new coalition, “it was really fragmented, and the African-Americans were dominating the board through the committee structure and rhetoric. If you opened your mouth, you were a racist.’'

Yvonne Ewell, a black trustee who is a former top Dallas school administrator, says the racially tinged outbursts that have contributed to the board’s poor public image stem from the black trustees’ frustration at the system’s failure to educate minority children well.

“The minority board members raise issues related to the systemic needs of minority children which get glossed over and ignored,’' she says, “and it turns into a kind of personal encounter.’'

Under Mr. Castilla’s leadership, she complains, there is less opportunity for dialogue. “For a lot of the board members, it’s: ‘Let’s call for the question. We’ve got the vote, and we’re going ahead with it.’''

The African-American board members’ determination to look out for the interests of minority children, she adds, has contributed to the conflict over what duties fall to trustees and what should be left to administrators.

The black trustees do not hesitate to press administrators for action. “If it doesn’t come down from the board,’' she says, “then the administration is not as assertive as I think it should be, and that leads to some distrust and some of the conflict.’'

But board members who say they favor taking a more hands-off, policymaking approach to district issues argue that the constant barrage of inquiries has demoralized and frustrated district employees.

“The morale,’' Mr. Castilla contends, “is so low around here.’'

The five-vote majority has now “communicated to the superintendent that you don’t do anything unless the corporate body tells you to,’' he adds. “In the past, the superintendent changed directions at the request of one board member.’'

Early in his tenure as superintendent, Mr. Edwards says, he recommended that the board’s committee structure be changed. But the modifications he proposed lasted only three months.

The board has improved somewhat since trustees began working with the monitor, Mr. Edwards notes, adding that he could work under either governance arrangement.

“As superintendent, you learn to work with whatever system is put in place by the board,’' Mr. Edwards says. “That’s the board’s prerogative.’'

‘Unauthorized’ Visits

While the frequent committee meetings provided forums for board members to make requests of the district staff, their activities did not stop there.

The state agency found that administrators were receiving an average of 15 voice-mail telephone messages a day from trustees, usually in the form of complaints.

Eight of the nine trustees also told T.E.A. team members that they had visited schools on “unauthorized business.’'

Many of the trustees now dispute the charge that they were meddling in individual school matters.

“As far as I am concerned,’' Ms. Gilliam says, “that was not happening in Dallas.’'

But some board members acknowledge that they are torn between their policymaking responsibilities and the temptation to involve themselves in handling problems.

When a parent raises an issue, Mr. Grant says, “What do you do? Do you sit there and look at a policy, or do you deal with the problem? There’s a real conflict there.’'

Although Mr. Cunningham has helped the trustees develop a policy that discourages board members from personally investigating complaints, Dan Peavy, who is running for another term in next month’s election, says he will not hesitate to go to bat for the residents of his district.

“The monitor doesn’t walk in my moccasins,’' Mr. Peavy says. “We are elected by constituencies and I feel my first obligation is to them, 100 percent. If someone calls me about trouble with school A, and I happen to know the principal, I will call’’ him or her.

“If you run for public office, then you’re a politician, aren’t you?’' Mr. Peavy continues. “I don’t think that necessarily keeps you from being a good policymaker, as it relates to education.’'

Several board members said the conflict is especially acute because they have little faith that complaints will be resolved without their intervention.

“We have constituent problems that are not solved in a bureaucracy,’' Mr. Hooper says. “We need a problem-solving mechanism in this bureaucracy that everybody admires.’'

Trustees have intervened in school matters for so long, observes Robert L. Johnston, the board’s secretary, that “people call the board members before they call [the central office] when they have a problem.’'

‘Coercive’ Activities

Mr. Cunningham also has taken the trustees to task for writing letters to district officials, including a “caustic letter to the superintendent’’ criticizing an appointment he had made.

Mr. Peavy admits that he wrote the letter to the superintendent. “I have an opinion,’' he says.

In pointing out a series of similar, individual activities that had not been sanctioned by the entire board of trustees, the monitor also cited:

  • A letter written by a board member to a principal, following a visit to the school, to discuss a lack of classroom management.
  • A memo about a transportation issue from a trustee to a central-office administrator that discussed an administrator’s failure to respond to an earlier request for information by a board assistant.
  • A memo sent by a trustee to area administrators in her district summarizing what was discussed at a community meeting on education and asking them to respond to the suggestions and observations in the memo.
  • A note to school principals announcing another school-related gathering and asking them to assemble groups from their schools to attend. The principals also were asked to be there or to designate someone to take their place.

“Each of these trustee-directed activities may seem innocent enough on the surface,’' Mr. Cunningham warned in his report. “Their purposes may be useful in intent, but they intervene in the everyday life of the school system, encumber staff time, pull personnel away from giving direct attention to children, and are administrative in nature rather than policy or oversight functions.’'

He also noted that the actions taken by the board members were likely to be “perceived as coercive’’ by district employees.

Grassroots Meetings

The question of how trustees should relate to voters is further complicated by some Dallas trustees’ practice of holding community meetings in their districts.

For years, Ms. Gilliam has convened meetings of a school-advocacy group called District Nine on the Move, for example. And Trini Garza, another board member, recently held a “Town Hall meeting’’ in his district to bring parents up to date on school happenings.

These grassroots gatherings, Mr. Cunningham says, are fine in themselves. But they raise a number of touchy questions about the interaction of board members with district employees.

Under a policy developed with the monitor’s assistance, for example, the trustees are prohibited from requiring principals or other staff members to attend their community meetings.

They are also not permitted to use staff members--other than the people assigned to work directly with the board--to help them make telephone calls publicizing the events.

The gatherings also must be directed toward building support and understanding of the district’s programs, the guidelines say, and are not to be used by individual trustees to promote their election campaigns.

Until the board’s spending practices were overhauled, it was not uncommon for trustees to bill the school district for refreshments served at such functions. The practice fueled charges that the trustees were using the gatherings to enhance their own political prospects.

Mr. Garza says he used the presidents of the parent-teacher associations in his district to help organize his Town Hall night. At the meeting, he explains, three top administrators discussed what was happening in schools in their regions.

By inviting the area directors--who are part of the superintendent’s cabinet--to speak to the parents, Mr. Garza says, he was respecting the monitor’s cautions not to get involved in “school-site administration.’' His prime motivation in holding the meeting, he adds, was to encourage parental involvement.

“I am going to continue to do that,’' he asserts. “The arguments for having them are stronger than the arguments against.’'

Noting that no one is required to attend her District Nine on the Move meetings, Ms. Gilliam says she is bothered that “all these positive things got passed on as a problem.’'

“People deliberately misrepresented what was going on,’' she says.

‘Strange Relationship’ Questioned

Last month, at the height of the election season, Ms. Gilliam found herself on the defensive about the activities of a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation she heads called Clean South Dallas-Fair Park.

In a lengthy article examining what it called the “strange relationship’’ between the neighborhood-beautification organization and the school district, the Dallas Observer reported that Ms. Gilliam’s group occupies free office space in Lincoln High School and has had free printing work done by the district’s print shop.

A number of district employees also serve on the group’s board.

The organization has a $20,000 budget of city grants, but Ms. Gilliam has refused to make its financial records public.

“Why do D.I.S.D. and so many of its public employees help Gilliam’s organization in so many ways?’' the article wondered. “Could it be that Gilliam, as a veteran member of the D.I.S.D. board, is in a position to help or harm them?’'

Ms. Gilliam calls the article “smut’’ and “a racist move to discredit what African-American taxpayers are doing to take control of their own destiny.’'

The work done by school employees, she says, “is strictly volunteer. They don’t do it on school time. These people live in the community, and they want to see it survive.’'

Clean South Dallas is not the only Dallas community group that has a free school-district office; a parent-teacher organization and a school-advocacy group called Positive Parents, for example, operate out of the administration building.

“We don’t have anything to hide about it,’' says B. Rodney Davis, the director of information services. Over the years, he adds, the district has done a small amount of free printing work for all the groups.

‘Pulling Back’

Most observers agree that the school board is conducting its business much more smoothly today than when the T.E.A. team visited the district. They cite the combined effect of the new political majority under Mr. Castilla’s leadership and the assistance of Mr. Cunningham, who attends every board meeting.

“The impact of seeing him there ameliorates their attitudes,’' Mr. Johnston, the board secretary, says. “If you’re a kid misbehaving in class, and you see the teacher coming down the hall, you tend to pull back.’'

Not every meeting goes smoothly, however. At a February meeting, Mr. Jones began repeatedly shouting “Let me speak! Let me speak!’' when he was prohibited by the board president, under parliamentary rules, from commenting on an item. Mr. Castilla was forced to call a recess to restore order.

At the same meeting, Mr. Jones also challenged Mr. Grant’s use of the phrase “shot in the dark,’' saying, “Could we get a definition of what a shot in the dark is? What does it mean?’'

When Mr. Castilla replied that it was just a statement that meant nothing, Mr. Jones shot back, “Why not a shot in the white?’'

Impending Election

The school board will undergo further transformation after next month’s election, when voters will elect all nine trustees from newly configured districts.

Ms. Vondracek, who is not running again, has thrown her support to Sandy Kress, a lawyer with a downtown Dallas firm and the former chairman of the Dallas County Democratic Party. Mr. Kress, who is regarded as having close ties to the civil-rights community, had at one time considered running for the Congress.

Most recently, he chaired the Commission for Educational Excellence, a board-appointed committee that released a report last June calling for sweeping changes in the school district.

Instead of releasing its report and disbanding, the commission “politicked the plan,’' Mr. Kress says proudly--holding community meetings, mailing fliers to residents, and running a telephone bank to encourage Dallas residents to write and call board members urging their support for the reforms. They also had the entire report printed in a Dallas newspaper.

The trustees eventually approved the report unanimously, but it was clear in recent interviews that few, if any, view the plan as a true blueprint for improving Dallas’s troubled schools.

Mr. Kress does. He says he is running for the board to see that the recommendations for school-based management, accountability at all levels, teacher training and support, community involvement, and multicultural education are carried out.

‘A Crusade’

“This is a crusade,’' Mr. Kress says. “There’s a lot of momentum underneath the system to make these things happen.’'

He notes that an advisory committee is already working with Superintendent Edwards to implement the recommendations.

Mr. Kress has the backing of a tri-ethnic group that is raising money to support a slate of candidates who support the excellence commission’s recommendations. The group was backing a candidate against Mr. Jones, who has decided not to run again.

The involvement of prominent local politicians and business leaders in the campaign has raised Ms. Gilliam’s hackles. She charges that the white business community is trying to reassert control over the district.

“To think that in 1992 they would have the audacity to try to select who’s going to serve on the board,’' Ms. Gilliam says, “to put up the money and run the race and dictate.’'

Such opposition, as well as the complexities of governing a district where many policies are determined by a desegregation order, has led some observers to conclude that Mr. Kress may be frustrated in his attempts to implement the reform plan quickly.

Ms. Ewell, who has known Mr. Kress for years, says she has cautioned him not to be “overzealous’’ about what he can accomplish.

The commission’s recommendations, Mr. Garza notes, cover just one aspect of the complex business before the Dallas trustees.

“When he comes on the board,’' Mr. Garza says of Mr. Kress, “he will see it from our point of view.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Boards of Contention: Under State Order, Dallas Tries To Clean Up Its Act