Education
5:30 am
Tue April 29, 2014

Dallas Home-Rule School Opponents Fear They'll Lose Representation And Rights

Dallas schools could be at a turning point. As officials consider a “home-rule” proposal that would remake the city's school system, here's a look at arguments against it. On Monday, we reported on home-rule supporters.

The KERA Radio story.

Within days of the low-key, unofficial home-rule launch just before the March 4 election, opponents started voicing concerns. Community activists, education leaders, and Dallas school board members simply didn't trust home-rule backers. DISD trustee Carla Ranger said home-rule supporters weren't open or cooperative with the board.  

“If people wanted to work with us, to talk with us about this, it would have happened long before Friday night when we got a letter after 9 or 10 o’clock," Ranger says. "This group appears to be going on with whatever they want to do.” 

DISD trustee Carla Ranger appeared at a rally against home-rule in front of the Dallas school administration building.
Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News

Ranger said Support Our Public Schools, which is known as SOPS, just appeared. Then it launched its effort to gather 25,000 signatures. That would force the school board to appoint a commission to write a new charter. That charter would still include a school board, but not necessarily an elected one. It could be appointed, and that possibility worries a lot of people, including former Dallas City Council member Diane Ragsdale. She helped fight for minority representation in Dallas.

“A governing board that is appointed or anointed flies in the face of our struggle for single-member districts," Ragsdale says. "Such a board violates one person one vote. An appointed board is an attempt to return us to the good old days of Jim Crow.”  

Diane Ragsdale, a community activist and former Dallas City Council member, spoke at a rally against home-rule. She worries that home-rule would undermine voting rights.
Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News

Home-rule supporters, including Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, say they don’t want to eliminate an elected board. But there’s no guarantee. Melinda Fagin, an attorney and PTA mom, also wants financial transparency from Support Our Public Schools.

“When they set up SOPS as a 501(c)(4), it enabled them to hide their identity and come forward only willingly," Fagin said. "There’s really going to be  no way to follow the money back to who the backers are of SOPS because of the way they set themselves up.”  

SOPS is paying people to gather signatures and it’s hired public relations firm Allyn Media, but it hasn’t disclosed a budget. Its only named funder is John Arnold. The DISD graduate became a hedge fund billionaire in Houston and gave money to the effort through his nonprofit. Business ties among all leaders backing home-rule bothers Harryette Eherhardt, a former educator and state representative. She dislikes what she calls a "know-it-all" attitude.

“'I know what’s best for you,'” Ehrhardt says, mimicking that attitude. “'I’m here and I’m going to tell you what you need to do.'”

Harryette Ehrhardt, a former state representative, helped organize opponents to the home-rule proposal. She thinks home-rule would be bad for the school district -- and for education.
Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News

Ehrhardt says business executives know how to fix some things, but not public schools. Leave Rawlings to Pizza Hut, she says, but leave public education alone.

“Public schools are about educating children,” Ehrhardt says. “They’re not about saving money. They’re not about closing schools because they’re not productive financially. They’re about educating boys and girls. And that’s very different from selling pizzas.”

Rena Honea leads the largest Dallas teacher group, Alliance/AFT. At a rally against home-rule, she feared the effort might wipe out state-mandated teacher rights and contracts.

“That kind of top-down approach undermines our ability to maintain a school system with educators who are well-prepared, well-supported, and who’ve been given the time and trust needed to build relationships with the students, parents and the community,” Honea said.

These fears may or may not come to pass, but nothing’s been written yet. There is common ground between the two sides. Both agree more improvement is needed in the Dallas school system. But those opposed to home-rule ask school officials what the effort would do to fix DISD that isn’t already being tried. 

Also: On "Think" at noon on Tuesday, KERA's Krys Boyd will talk about the pros and cons of the DISD home-rule proposal with Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and school board member Bernadette Nutall. That's on KERA 90.1 FM.