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Ragland: DISD is grappling with broken trust, broken system

Dallas Morning News
December 19, 2014

If there’s one word that cuts to the heart of the persistent political tensions at DISD headquarters, it is trust.

Or should I say “a lack of trust.”

That was the big hurdle that Support Our Public Schools faced after launching an unprecedented effort to turn the Dallas public school system into a home-rule district.

A lack of transparency early on — including the failure to succinctly explain the idea or identify those who were peddling it — fueled distrust among many community and teacher groups. They set their sights on stopping the initiative in its tracks.

Right out of the gate, opponents branded the SOPS campaign as a “takeover” by wealthy business interests. It wasn’t a fatal blow, because the group still got enough signatures — about 48,000 — on a petition to keep the ball rolling.

But for all practical purposes, it sapped the life out of the effort. And it revealed how reluctant minority groups and teachers are when it comes to hitching their wagons to every new savior or sales pitch lobbed their way.

They weren’t buying it.

“I don’t know of anybody who was advocating a takeover,” said Mike Morath, the DISD trustee who worked behind the scenes to get the home-rule ball rolling. “That was a game plan with reckless abandon. They used the worst-case scenario even though no one advocated for that.”

The strategy worked — which is why we’re back at Square 1, dissecting the home-rule effort and debating the next step.

We learned this week that the 15-member home-rule commission may be ready to shift gears and go down a different road. Call it the path of least resistance.

Rather than writing a new charter that would give the district more local and less state control, the panel could vote to disband and go home.

Or — and I’m sensing this is the more likely scenario — the group could keep working on a list of recommendations for improvements that it can hand the school board.

I’m sure that sounds like a cop-out to those think the school board is one of the problems.

“Everybody I talk to in this town all agree on one thing,” said Morath, who represents District 2 in North and East Dallas, “the school board is broken.”

But I’ve been hearing something else, too.

For a long time, I might add.

I hear frustrations with the board and every superintendent hired to run herd over the district.

I hear an urgent desire from those who want to be more engaged, not less, in figuring out how to improve DISD.

And now, I hear people saying that for the first time in a long time, they feel like they’ve got a platform — the home-rule commission forum of all things — where they can press for changes they’d like to see.

“We’ve given people a belief that everyone’s voice matters,” commission member Ron Oliver, a DISD teacher, said at the panel’s public meeting on Monday. “We’ve opened some doors and opened some eyes to things that weren’t possible before we formed.”

This may not be the outcome Morath or Mayor Mike Rawlings and others pressing for bold solutions had in mind.

It may be a step in that direction, however. If nothing else, the home-rule commission has, perhaps inadvertently, awoken more people to the reality that changes are needed.

And if they don’t do something about it, someone else will.

So no one can afford to sit back and wash their hands of the district any longer.

If a home-rule charter isn’t the answer, for whatever reason, then what is? If we’re dealing with broken trust and a broken system, how can the district move forward?

Commission member Bonita Reece, another teacher, put it this way: “We shouldn’t just walk away, because some action needs to come into play,” she told her colleagues. “Stopping is not the answer.”