Home Rule Meeting Recap: Serious Work, Good Questions, and Marcus Ranger

Plus: An apology to Shirley Ison-Newsome

Back from vacation and finally able to watch last week’s Home Rule Commission meeting. And, man, was it ever zzzzzzzzzz.

Kidding, kidding. Actually, the debate about setting the commission’s meeting schedule — how often it would meet, how many community meetings would there be, how often will it hold data-gathering sessions, would Marcus Ranger’s grandstanding lead to its own party game (every time Marcus Ranger says “radical,” we do a shot!) — was enlightening. As well, the Q&A with legal counsel about what the commission can/can’t/should/won’t/ do helped clarify for me who is at taking this job seriously (everyone except Ranger) and who is not (Ranger). To the bullet points!

• The HRC chairman, Bob Weiss, continues to prove himself a quiet badass. I think I have a man crush. He keeps the meetings moving but never seems in a rush. He has this odd voice that should come off as annoying but somehow is constantly reassuring. He can scold so gently commission members can’t help but smile even when they’re having their wrists slapped. And then he synthesizes unwieldy discussions in a way that makes me say, “Wow, yeah, I guess those were the salient, agreed-upon points one could take from the past 30 minutes.” Just a civic hero in my book.

• I owe Shirley Ison-Newsome an apology. I said she would be there as a protector of the status quo — she still might be, by the way — but I also suggested she would be a destructive member of the commission. Through two meetings, I couldn’t have been proven more wrong. She has been thoughtful and helpful to the board at large, giving insight where needed from her three decades in DISD. Except for the one moment when she briefly said something snide about the data-gathering of Commit — no secret, I’m a big fan of Commit — I found myself agreeing with almost everything she said. And even though she (as well as Edwin Flores) have more experience with the district than everyone else on that commission, she doesn’t try to monopolize the process. No, that distinction goes to …

• [BIG SIGH] Marcus Ranger. Just typing those characters exhausts me, and we’re two freaking meetings in. It’s so hard for me to properly capture the selfishness and obstruction he personifies, because he’s pretty good at pretending that he’s there to do something other than be selfish and obstructionist. His manner is always one that suggests seriousness and thoughtfulness. If you don’t listen to what he’s actually saying, any casual listener might think my exasperation at him is unfounded. Crazy, even. LISTEN TO ME! I’M NOT CRAZY! AND NO, I’M NOT YELLING!

Okay, let me be more specific. Have you ever tried to tell D Magazine editor Tim Rogers a joke? You’ll say, “So this guy walks into a bar,” and he’ll say, “Like a brewpub? A dive bar? A nightclub?” And you’ll say, “I don’t know, a brewpub. Point is, it has a bartender. And the bartender says to the guy …” and Tim will say, “So the bar is basically empty, because he talks to him as soon as he walks in? Is that correct? I’m just trying to get the picture in my head.” And you just give up and say, “Nevermind, it’s not that funny, anyway.” That’s what it’s like watching Ranger in these meetings. Only it’s worse. Not only is every point contested or expounded upon, they also serve as a point at which he can grandstand. Usually, that means he’ll be warning about the scary things that the commission itself might do if allowed — and these are early days, folks, while they’re just trying to fill in their damn calendar.

I want you to watch a few minutes of this video from the meeting. Click on this link, and it will take you to the 2:17:26 mark. At this point, the commission members are asking questions of (the outstanding) legal counsel provided the board. First you’re going to hear Dallas ISD parent Jeff Veazey ask a series of very good, specific questions. He wants to know how detailed the final charter has to be under the home rule provision. In other words, he asks, could the commission decide to change only one thing — in his example, that would be to alter the school calendar so it better aligns with the state testing calendar, which just happens to be a very smart thing to do — and leave everything else the way it is? Great question. The answer is yes, basically, provided you address some of the other things that are required. Then, Ranger chimes in. I want you to listen to it. I’m not going to excerpt it, because then you won’t listen. (I know I wouldn’t.) But I want you to hear him betray a) his contempt for the board’s mission (he talks of charter change as a “Trojan horse”; b) his suggesting that “radical” change is inherently bad; c) his continued ignoring of a basic fact — that under home rule, NO change to the charter, now or in the future, will ever take effect unless it is ratified by a huge block of voters (more voters than have ever cast a vote for any current school board member). Legal counsel eventually reminds him of this.

Understanding that this is his worldview — I’m riding in the belly of the horse itself! Let’s destroy it before we get inside the gates! —  you know why Ranger’s suggestions inevitably promote delay. Early in the meeting, for example, he suggests community meetings within all nine school districts. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s what the board ultimately decided to do. But he makes a point of saying they should happen once a month, so that they take the board all the way through May. This was quickly disagreed with, or course, because if you wait that long to get all your community input, you’d have less than a month to actually compose a charter — a rushed process that everyone on the board has already said makes no sense. (Ison-Newsome followed up with a much better suggestion for a variety of meetings, earlier on — some small, some large — from not only community members but from interest groups.)

• Earlier, Ranger said, “I do oppose this notion of rushing,” even though no one, at any point, in any context, in any subtext, in any language, with any sort of gesture large or small, had suggested “a notion of rushing.” Neat rhetorical trick.

• Ranger suggested that his entire motivation wasn’t to delay but just because he wants to hear the will of the people. “I am not an expert,” he said. “I think the community is an expert.” This I should note was roundly supported by everyone in attendance. One commission member said the group’s “No. 1 goal is public input.” Ignoring for a minute that we have a lot of public input already — 47,000 people gave signed a petition asking the board to make DISD’s charter one that helped promote better student outcomes — I’d like to address this notion of community input for just a moment. I don’t think this view will be popular, and to be honest I’m still trying to work through it completely. But here goes.

You recall the scene in High Fidelity when John Cusack’s character, Rob, says, “Well, I’ve been listening to my gut since I was 14 years old, and frankly speaking, I’ve come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains”? (No? It’s right here.) I sort of feel that way when we talk about community input and public schools. It makes sense on a gut level. But when you look at it objectively, does it work? I had a very wise educator, not in DISD, give me a great analogy that I’m going to butcher, but here goes.

For some reason, we pretend that “the community” — parents, basically, and taxpayers who want good things for the schools even if their kids don’t go there — has any idea how to run a good school, much less an enormous school system. And that’s because we don’t take schools seriously enough. We want to believe that because we WENT to school and because our kids GO to school, that the community knows how to run schools. This educator pointed out that we would never do that with a public hospital. We acknowledge that hospitals are vital to our community, we fund them, we elect commissioners to oversee appointed board members who make sure our money is being spent wisely. But we don’t go on blogs and rant and rave that we have any idea whether Parkland should pay its nurses more, or hire more Ambulatory Systems Analysts, or change its purchasing structure. All we care about with our hospital system are its outcomes — are people being getting healthcare that is on par with or better than its peers around the country (or world).

Not that community input shouldn’t be weighed, just as should teacher input, administrative input, special interest input, business input, board input, media input, perhaps even not-terribly-interested bystander input. But the idea that weighting community voices appropriately means I ignore common sense/data and promoting status quo policies/governance when DISD outcomes are so suspect? Sorry. I’m not on that trolley.

• It should be noted that reasonable HRC voices said that to finish a draft in time (should they decide a new charter is necessary; a big if), they’d need to be meeting among themselves and with community members concurrently.

•  Edwin Flores suggested a “data day,” where all the interest groups can present their take on the district. That, my friends, will be a fun day. Get your popcorn ready.

Programming note: Since we will clearly be taking the full year to work on this charter, I’ll be offering some suggestions along the way about topics the HRC should consider. First one tomorrow.

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