You are here

Ragland: Dallas ISD home-rule panel may be seeking exit strategy

Dallas Morning News
December 16, 2014

By James Ragland

The panel charged with charting a new course for the Dallas Independent School District is trying to figure out whether to fold its tent and go home.

The 15-member commission was appointed six months ago “to frame a home-rule school district charter.”

It’s increasingly clear that there’s not a majority of home-rule commission members in favor of turning DISD into a home-rule school district, which could lead to more local and less state control.

So much for that bold idea.

Or so long, I should say.

But several panel members do want to tweak the current system, perhaps by forwarding some recommended reforms to the school board.

So, you could say the panel is looking for some middle ground — an exit strategy, if you will.

Late Monday, the commission agreed to reconvene next month — either Jan. 5 or Jan. 20 — and figure out its next step, either with a straw vote or a formal one.

“We’ve met for six months, learned to work together, built respect and a rapport,” said Bob Weiss, chairman of the commission.

And after holding 28 different meetings, hearing from 13 groups who overwhelmingly oppose creating a home-rule charter, and spending about $66,203 of its $281,910 budget, the panel needs to “set a direction,” Weiss said.

“We owe the second conversation, which is to ask each other about how we feel moving forward with a charter or not,” he said.

Mike Morath can read the writing on the wall. He’s the one, along with Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who got the home-rule ball rolling.

“I would guess the commission will go through the motion and do nothing of consequence,” Morath told me this week.

Morath, who represents District 2 in North and East Dallas, said the commission was “clearly not serious” about making the fundamental governance changes that some believe are needed to turn the district around.

He didn’t fault Weiss or single out anyone, but he said the push for major reforms was doomed from the start.

“I’m a big fan of Bob. He’s doing a good job as chair of the commission,” Morath said. “The school board members chose to appoint people not necessarily dedicated to making governance changes. It’s an exercise and defense of the current power structure.”

Even before the Support Our Public Schools (SOPS) campaign launched its home-rule initiative in March, opponents jumped all over it. They called it a “takeover” by wealthy power brokers in the city.

But the group collected roughly 48,000 signatures on a petition that forced DISD trustees to appoint the home-rule commission.

The SOPS group also wanted to strike while the iron was hot and put a home-rule charter on last November’s ballot. But commission members and community leaders balked at that tight deadline because the election had to be called too quickly, by Aug. 18.

It didn’t help matters that Dallas was a test case. Support Our Public Schools was the first to use a 1995 state law that allows a voter-approved charter for a public school district.

“The process, as designed by Legislature, is to maximize opposition to it,” said Morath.

And boy, did he get opposition.

“This is a very thoughtful, slow, deliberative procedure to go through the process of writing a new constitution for your school system,” he said. “You sort of start it without knowing where you’ll wind up.”

He wound up at the bottom of a political volcano. But once the clamor died down, the process evolved into a good forum for folks to air their frustrations and their own ideas for improving DISD.

“I expected the opposition that we got,” a deflated Morath said. “I was just hoping the commission would use this as an opportunity to lead.”