Tomorrow, the Dallas ISD school board meets for the first time since Justin Henry defeated longtime trustee Bernadette Nutall for the District 9 seat. Late Saturday evening, my phone was blowing up with joyful texts, emojis, Bitmojis, and GIFs. Why? Partly because people are very happy Nutall is gone. She was a divisive trustee who formed — with Audrey Pinkerton, Joyce Foreman, and Lew Blackburn — a strong status-quo bloc on the board, one that cloaked itself in the language of fiscal responsibility but that really worked for special interests unrelated to student outcomes. That’s why many see Henry’s election as a catalytic event, one that is sure to help kids in the short and long terms.
I should point out that Henry is no yes man. From the time I met him years ago, to the point at which I heard his shaky voice deliver the first draft of his stump speech in his campaign manager’s living room, all the way up to election night, he has been a thoughtful and independent candidate. Henry has spent years thinking about the best policy for kids, debating policy questions with people from all sides of the education table. He has come to his conclusions organically. Anyone, even his allies, who thinks otherwise will be in for a unpleasant surprise.
That said, here are a few predictions about the ways in which Henry’s election will change the board dynamics:
The TRE vote. Corbett Smith’s story linked above and this Dallas Morning News editorial lay out pretty clearly that Henry’s inclusion is likely to give the pro-TRE bloc the super majority it needs to send the question to voters and let them decide whether they want to increase taxes to pay for new programs. But it goes deeper than that. Up until Saturday night, DISD officials had been working on a TRE proposal that made concessions specifically to Audrey Pinkerton, the Oak Cliff trustee who was too busy stargazing — literally — to attend the previous TRE vote. (She would have voted against it, but that way she didn’t have to go on record as voting against it.) Now that version was scrapped and one of the previously submitted plans — you know, the one that all along officials believed was best for the district and for kids — will most likely be voted on in August. (The budget vote tomorrow will assume an upcoming TRE.) It will be up to voters to pass it in November, which is no guarantee given the nutjobs who will come out against it. But at least it puts that decision in the hands of voters, as it should be.
A comprehensive equity policy. Nutall chaired the board’s racial equity committee but never worked to produce a serious racial equity policy. Anything productive would detract from her continuing message of division, much to the off-the-record disappointment of committee members. With Henry onboard, the district will once again take seriously the important task of producing a comprehensive racial equity policy.
Continued expansion of early childhood programs. This was a key point of emphasis in Henry’s campaign, that we can’t lose the momentum gained by the district’s early education progress in the past few years. With the hopeful passage of a TRE in November, there will be money to match the programmatic support.
Thoughtful refinement of TEI. The teacher evaluation system has been a success overall, driving out the worst teachers and identifying (and rewarding) some of the district’s best teachers. But even its supporters have acknowledged it needs refinement. Too many good teachers still aren’t being rewarded properly by its metrics. But trustees were reluctant to make big changes because that opened the window for status quo trustees to gut or eliminate TEI. Now they have the votes to protect the system overall, but work to make it more fair going forward.
Modeling effective leadership. This is going to be Henry’s biggest challenge. For decades, special-interest-led trustees have used the board as a place to grandstand, suggesting to constituents that opposition was in and of itself a worthwhile goal. This is goes back to Harryette Ehrhardt and Ron Price and continued through Elizabeth Jones and the current status-quo bloc. The younger group of school leaders — Henry, Miguel Solis, and Jaime Resendez are all in their 30s — are laser focused on improving student outcomes, the one goal of a trustee that should supersede all others. This means not only will more good work for kids get done, but when Henry disagrees with the board, he will actually be taken seriously, because other board members will trust that it’s honest debate, not a power play. The winners will be students and District 9 constituents — and, come to think of it, all of Dallas.