The Schools: Back to Mediocrity?

The reforms are working. But the knives are out.

ANYONE WILLING TO LOOK beyond the investigations, nasty accusations, and backbiting that have plagued the Dallas school board will discover good news hidden behind the headlines. Teachers are teaching and students are learning-and doing it better than at any other time in Dallas Public Schools’ history.

Reading and math scores at most grade levels are up sharply. “The reforms we fought for have taken hold where they were meant to, in the classroom,” says school board president Sandy Kress. “We have put accountability into the system. “

“The gains have been spectacular,” says Dallas attorney and reform advocate Tom Luce. “They didn’t happen out of the blue, They happened because Sandy held the board majority together and gave it direction.”

In the past few weeks, Kress has appeared worn out by the continuing controversies, which have led to demonstrations against him and even a mailed death threat. Nor did it help when his law firm, Johnson &Wortley, dissolved in the middle of his term. Few expect him to run tor re-election next year.

If Kress retires, that would leave two open seats to be rilled in the regular school board elections set for May. The January special election to fill Dan Peavy’s vacated seat would bring a third new member to the board.

Will die new members keep up the pressure for reform-or will the board settle back into its usual pattern of squabbling and stagnation?

“The answer rests entirely with the city’s leadership,” says Kress. “It depends totally on whether candidates can be enlisted to serve, and few qualified people will unless they know they’ll have support when it counts.”

Another district insider is not optimistic. “Face it. The business community’s record stinks. They make promises and then don’t follow up. There’s nobody to turn to. There’s nobody to count on. When the going gets tough, they disappear.”

And its not just the downtown white establishment that insiders blame. One critic notes the failure of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in the last round of school board elections, when two Hispanic seats were at stake. “They didn’t do a thing. That’s how Jose Plata and Kathleen Leos were elected, by simple default. Nobody else would run.”

One hope is that neighborhood leaders will step in where the business community fears to tread. “Who has the most to lose if the reforms falter, and who has the most to gain if they don’t?” asks one potential candidate. “The taxpayers. You can either pay for a rotten system that harms the city, or you can pay for a good system that produces good citizens. Either way, you’re going to pay.”

But if Kress gives up, who will continue to champion the cause of reform? “It’s an open secret that Hollis Brashear wants to be president,” says one insider. “If the newly elected members don’t include leaders who can forge a coalition, he’ll get it. And he’ll cave immediately. You have an alliance of bureaucrats and activists who are dead set against accountability, and who will do anything to undermine it.”

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