DISD Fumbles and the Dallas Chamber Punts

When the going gets tough, the Dallas chamber punts.

Besides the students themselves, no group in Dallas has a greater stake in our public school system than the business community. The Dallas Independent School District is responsible for producing the backbone of tomorrow’s work force, after all. And the system’s success—or failure—plays a key role in this area’s attractiveness to relocating corporations.

If you don’t believe it, look no further than results of the 2008 SMU Cox CEO Sentiment Survey (page 39). Asked what things they’d like to see changed in order to further improve the local business climate, 28 percent of the surveyed execs named public school education.

So, given the clear nature of DISD’s importance to local businesspeople, what would possibly possess the area’s largest chamber of commerce to turn its back on the school system when DISD’s leader came to it, hat in hand, asking for a show of support and solidarity? The answer is: We don’t really know for sure, because Jan Hart Black, the president of the Dallas Regional Chamber, declined to comment when we asked her.

But here’s what we do know:

In recent months, the DISD ran into a brick wall when a second-rate financial staff and an outdated computer system combined to produce a highly publicized, $84 million shortfall in the system’s budget. What got lost in the turmoil, though, was that, thanks to school board president Jack Lowe, the long-troubled district had been trying valiantly to set its house in order, and in fact was making good progress toward that end under Superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

While Hinojosa was forced to take drastic and painful action to help correct the error—including laying off hundreds of teachers—a handful of high-profile corporate executives stepped forward to help review the district’s financial problems. Those executives—including retired banker Ron Steinhart, Phil Ritter of Texas Instruments, and auto-dealership owner Carl Sewell—intend to serve as a sort of “kitchen cabinet” for Hinojosa, examining DISD’s finances and then offering their best advice.

That’s where the Dallas chamber comes in.

According to people close to the situation, Lowe asked for—and was granted—a meeting with chamber honchos where he explained the urgency of the situation, and asked them to support Hinojosa’s efforts publicly. The essence of their answer, sources tell us, was direct and disappointing: “Sorry. No can do.”

Which, to us, is infuriatingly unacceptable. If the area’s biggest, most influential business group can’t, or won’t, stand up to help an important Dallas institution in its hour of critical need, of what real value is that group to the community it purports to serve?

While we may be outraged at the chamber’s lack of spine, Lowe was too gentlemanly to point fingers. “Somebody said, ‘I bet you’re really mad’ ” about the chamber’s lack of support, the DISD board president told us the other day. “I said, ‘I don’t have time to be mad. I’ve got work to do.’ ”

If Lowe succeeds in that work, we know now, it won’t be because of the chamber. So who needs it?