United in public, not in private; DISD trustees’ intense disputes on redistricting revealed in transcript

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
Page 35A

Dallas school trustees say they’ve found a way to coexist peacefully and effectively behind the high-profile chief executive they hired to turn the district around.

But transcripts of closed meetings that came out in the battle over the redrawing of voting boundaries indicate that, at least on one hot-button issue, their public unity masked intense private disputes.

The transcripts, hundreds of pages from meetings held between April and September, reveal board members who were highly concerned about their public image but who retreated to self-preservation and personal jabs behind closed doors.

At various points, trustees accuse one another of smirking inappropriately, use racially inflammatory language, and call each other “wimps” and “weenies.”

Trustees, whose comments are not attributed by name in the transcripts, acknowledge that redistricting was rough. It’s still rough – Friday a judge threw out their Oct. 1 approval of a new voting map because some of the meetings represented in the transcripts were illegal.

However, trustees stress that the private battles were an aberration from the positive working relationships they have developed. Residents, they say, should not think the board has resorted to fractious old ways.

“Redistricting is a highly intense, emotional issue, and I would respectfully ask people not to take little pieces of a supposedly private conversation and run with it,” trustee Ron Price said. “I think, personally, that the board’s behavior has changed 100 percent from before.”

“Sometimes politics is ugly,” trustee Roxan Staff said. “But in the last year, the school board has worked. We’re learning, and Dr. Moses is training us really well.”

Superintendent Mike Moses, who played no part in the redistricting process and attended none of the closed meetings, agreed that the board’s conduct has improved. During his time as Texas education commissioner, Dr. Moses once coached Dallas trustees to work together better.

“The board has done a 180 from the time I was involved with them as commissioner,” Dr. Moses said last week. “Are they perfect? No. I don’t defend them if they do something I don’t think is right, and clearly the redistricting issue has been difficult. But it’s a political issue, and it’s been tough for everyone who’s had to deal with it.”

The board’s public image is crucial to its No. 1 goal: passing a $1.37 billion bond proposal Jan. 19. Throughout the 1990s, the board’s division was one reason a bond proposal was politically impossible. The district’s last bond election was in 1992.

“We should have done this five years ago,” said Rob Steinhart, who is leading the bond campaign. “But everyone realized we didn’t have the credibility in the community to get it passed.”

Since Dr. Moses was hired last year, trustees have worked to present a unified front. Board meetings, once filled with dramatic spectacle, have become more sedate. An improved image followed.

“We know what all is at stake here,” one trustee said in the transcripts. “We don’t want to be looking defensive and going back to the kinds of things that took place a number of years ago.”

But the tenor clearly was different during some of the private discussions.

One trustee interrupts a comment to say, apparently to trustee Lois Parrott: “Lois, stop it. Just stop. I would like to say something, and I would like your attention. I’m asking you not to laugh while I’m speaking.”

Trustees also address the political implications of their actions openly. At one point, trustees say that Dallas’ black population would object loudly if they felt slighted in the redistricting process. “But I’d submit to you that in the Anglo and the Latino communities, there wouldn’t be an outcry at all,” one board member

Another trustee answers: “They don’t care at all.”

Throughout the transcripts, several trustees say they are being singled out for political mistreatment by proposed district boundaries, and some say they will take their case to the media.

“You know, it is not about trying to smear one another in front of the public,” one trustee said. “That’s what it [redistricting] is not about.”

Several trustees said the political nature of redistricting – which can go a long way toward determining who gets re-elected and who doesn’t – made the battle more tense than fights over most issues.

“Redistricting was emotional and personal from the get-go,” said board President Ken Zornes, who has said trustees thought the closed sessions were legal because of pending lawsuits over redistricting. “Any time you have those characteristics in a debate, it fosters more heated exchanges. …We are just regular folks who sometimes let our emotions get carried away.”

Mr. Zornes said that, while “some things might not have been said” if the board had been meeting publicly, he thought that trustees would have reached the same decisions on redistricting if the closed meetings hadn’t taken place.

Advocates of open government, however, said the process might have turned out differently if the private discussions had been held publicly.

“Because we, the public, would have been observing and able to hold them accountable for their decisions, their comments, and the process they went through,” said Wanda Cash, vice president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and editor-publisher of The Baytown Sun.

Ms. Cash said the release of the transcripts, and their contents, shows the importance of laws requiring government to keep discourse on almost all issues open.