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DISD Board Offers Something for Everyone, from Number-crunchers to God

I attended a Joyce Foreman spiritual revival last night that was quite enlightening. (It was billed as a DISD board meeting, but that didn’t break out until much later.) But once District 6 folks completed their hourlong touchdown celebration, some important board work took place: naming a new board president, giving teachers a 3 percent raise, 2014-15 budget approval, and issuing a guiding set of principals for the home-rule commission, which will hold its first meeting in mid-July. To the bullet points!

• The evening began with Carla Ranger stepping down and Joyce Foreman being sworn in as trustee. The auditorium at 3700 Ross was packed, and many of those in attendance were friends and family and well-wishers from southern Dallas. John Wiley Price was there to address the crowd and did not disappoint, equating a vote for Foreman as a “celebration and understanding” of Freedom Summer, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. As if that were not lofty enough, Foreman — after promising to be “direct, firm, and fair” — said that there has been “a song in her heart” since the election. “God has spoken,” she said, drawing smiles and a loud simultaneous speak-along from the audience. “Let the church say amen!” Just so we’re clear: Foreman is an instrument of divine providence.

• That said, I completely understand the dynamic on display. You’ve got a longtime community activist who can best rally her supporters by saying that her well-funded opponent was a tool of billionaire overlords intent on a hostile takeover of the school system. If you think that fantasy plays well in the Crazytown world of union-driven talking points and made-up bogeymen, it plays spectacularly in poor black neighborhoods where such a narrative mirrors real injustices they’ve experienced for decades.

• But where it breaks down for me is how her supporters continue to look at this as a referendum on the question, “Are you black enough?” Three trustees did not offer public praise to Foreman: Morath, Bingham, and Blackburn. When it became clear those three would not follow the procession of congratulations from the horseshoe, the audience murmuring against Blackburn reached very high levels. (No one seemed to care or be surprised that Morath or Bingham were silent.) One man near me yelled out, “Give that man a bandana!” A reference, of course, to the term “bandana head,” which is another way to say “Uncle Tom.” Just so we’re clear: If you don’t kneel before the instrument of divine providence, you ain’t black enough. Which, again so we’re clear, is a hateful, disgusting, bullying way to frame disagreement among black officials. Unfortunately, it’s pretty damn effective as a tool to mute that disagreement.

• Eric Cowan, citing work/family ball-juggling (note to self: find better term), stepped down as board president. Miguel Solis was voted new president; Lew Blackburn stays as 1st VP, and Elizabeth Jones is 2nd VP. I’ll have more thoughts on this next week, but if you listened to the podcast I recorded recently with Solis, you’ll hear Solis’ thoughts on how he thinks the board should practice governance. It has to do with setting priorites and hiring people to put systems in place that address those priorities — and supporting those efforts except when they’re out of bounds. (Hugely paraphrasing; you should have a listen.)  I would argue his efforts to do this will be at best problematic based on …

• The budget discussion last night. I’m going to spend a lot of next week breaking down the wrongheaded way the board treats its mission, especially financial oversight, as well as district employees. And I’ll use examples from this meeting. For now, I’ll go ahead and point out two examples from the hours of line-item questions board members threw out last night. First, a lot of time was spent asking CFO Jim Terry and his associates why this employee bonus was $3k vs $4k, or why teacher bonuses couldn’t be be $500 more, etc. The rationale was always, well, we need to prioritize teachers, or this helps children, or some other nondescript, inarguable Mrs. Lovejoy stance. Elizabeth Jones, for example, took many valuable minutes off my life in the 10 p.m. hour asking specific, often circular questions of CFO Terry, who would answer them, and then she’d ask again, and then she’d go off on a rant about the way the board made its decision on Mata months earlier, and then remind everyone that she’s a finance person and that this is her role. It was excruciating for me. I can’t imagine the serenity-now exercises Terry and his team must go through to endure it.

• Both Morath and Bingham called out trustees for doing just this, and both were promptly told by Jones and Foreman, HEY, this is what we do. They basically said, sorry, we ask tough, detailed questions because this is our job as trustees. Okay, let’s assume that’s true. (It’s not, at least not in this fashion, in this instance.) Then is it too much to ask that they ask questions that are consistent with what they’ve said are their priorities as governance officials? Example: In her speech to the audience, Joyce Foreman said that one of her top priorities was rewarding and retaining experienced teachers. Fine. Now let’s assume there is a huge body of scholarship that says teacher experience correlates to excellent student outcomes. (Spoiler alert: there is not.) That means you should be asking Mike Miles and Jim Terry, hey, how do these salary and other teacher programs we’re funding identify, incentivize, monitor, and report on our efforts to keep experienced teachers? And if they say, they don’t, you say, not good enough, find a way to make that happen, we need such data to make strategy decisions. That is proper board governance. But there was not one such question asked. There was instead a lot of trying to find $1k bucks here, $500 there for groups of employees that were in no way broken down by experience. Remember: These trustees are trying to move handfuls of dollars around on the day they’re supposed to approve a $1.3 billion budget. It boggles.

• Also, it’s mostly political theater. The board has to approve the budget, by law. It’s largely a way to placate various interest groups, at the expense of cordial relations with administrators (Jones and Nutall are especially rude and condescending, but Blackburn edges that way with his eyebrows-held-high snarkiness). Jones has a point that the budget process is a little too rushed, but that’s a system problem that Miles is working on. It’s just low priority because, you know, eliminating cradle-to-prison pipelines take priority.

• After midnight, the board also approved a set of operating guidelines — suggestions, really — for the home rule commission. This was done at the request of commission members, who said they would appreciate a starting point for home rule discussion (even though they aren’t required to follow said guidelines). Thankfully, they then went away for two weeks. Hallelujah.