Now that DISD’s board of trustees has made a decision to equalize funding at learning centers and generally spare magnets and TAGs from similar cuts, and now that the board’s leadership has completely turned over, what does this mean for DISD’s future?

First, let’s think about the board’s leadership change, which now includes Adam Medrano as president, Lew Blackburn as first vice president and Carla Ranger as second vice president — three of the four votes in the minority opposing the learning center cuts. Talk about letting the fox into the hen house, if you’re one of the board members who voted for the cuts…

Actually, it’s a shrewd move on the part of the other board members for two reasons, which you can read about after the jump:

1) Three current board members (Leigh Ann Ellis, Edwin Flores and Ron Price) will likely face candidates in November’s delayed election, and given their votes to delay their own election and extend their terms (later shot down by the Texas Attorney General’s office), it makes sense that none of these three are in leadership posts. The public relations hit due to their decision is the worst thing going in DISD right now, and if, say, Flores had been elected president, imagine the public ruckus that would have caused among those outraged by the "naked power grab" of a trustee who illegally voted to delay his own election.

2) By voting against the learning center cuts, the three new officers clearly indicated they didn’t like Supt. Michael Hinojosa’s method of dealing with the funding issue. Now they’re in charge of the board, and they can set the agenda. The responsibility now falls to them to lead the board, at least through November. If they haven’t liked what has been happening, they won’t have anyone else to blame now. That’s bound to relieve the other board members (former president Jack Lowe, in particular), and it provides a new and potentially game-changing dynamic.

But being in charge often changes leaders’ perspectives. As outsiders, people tend to be hypercritical and hypersuspicious of everything. But when placed in charge and given the opportunity to lead, people often wind up supporting positions they earlier opposed — more knowledge and the weight of leading a decision has transformed more than a few members of the former loyal opposition. We’ll see what happens here.

And what about the learning center vote; Will it hold up against what is likely to be a legal challenge led by Ranger on the basis that the 5-4 vote violates a covenant a prior board made to the federal court years ago when it was being released from desegregation monitoring. The promise at that time was that the board wouldn’t mess with the learning centers on anything less than a 7-2 vote. Immediately after last week’s funding vote, Ranger said the board was violating the federal covenant; the alternative argument is that federal education officials forced the learning center funding change by threatening to withhold more than $100 million from DISD.

One of the most interesting exchanges of the entire eight-hour meeting was between Ranger and a DISD attorney; when the attorney told Ranger that he was sure this vote would hold up, Ranger correctly pointed out that he also had been sure DISD’s board could legally extend three members’ terms. As we all know, that advice was wrong, and there’s a fair chance the same thing could happen again.

The big negative of Ranger’s likely legal challenge, though, is that it could easily take months. And if she wins in, say, four months, DISD will just be beginning the 2009-2010 school year with reduced learning center staffing. A legal victory at that point would tear up DISD’s staffing and funding and could result in DISD losing the $100 million federal money mentioned earlier, creating another "funding crisis" this fall similar to what happened last year. Regardless, given the way this has played out, I don’t have a problem with Ranger pursuing this course of action. She was right before, and if the learning center funding changes are going to be done, they need to be done legally.

A final thought to end an already lengthy post: What’s going to happen over the next few years with the magnet and TAG schools, which basically remain comparatively overfunded by 10-25 percent or so?

Parents of existing TAG and magnet schools applied enormous pressure on the board, causing some trustees to back off Hinojosa’s request to take just a few teachers away from their programs. The result, assuming the learning center funding decision isn’t legally overturned, leaves the TAG and magnet schools hanging out there as the only DISD schools not forced to work with the same relative staffing and funding.

My prediction is that over the next few years, whoever is running DISD — whether Hinojosa sticks around or not — will begin chipping away at those programs, bringing them back to funding levels comparable with comparable neighborhood schools. If that doesn’t happen, the antagonism from DISD teachers at neighborhood schools dealing with less funding and less teaching equipment will continue growing, and eventually the internal pressure will do what the TAG and magnet defenders have been fearing — force them to work with funding levels similar to the other schools and/or force them to get out into the community and raise funds for operating costs.

Given the selective nature of the TAG and magnet enrollments — resulting in many of DISD brightest kids and most driven parents comprising the schools — you would think that comparable funding to neighborhood schools would still allow these schools to outperform the rest of DISD. If I’m ultimately correct, in about five years, we’ll know if I’m right.

Not everyone agrees with me, of course, Jim Schutze with the Dallas Observer has written extensively about how the five DISD board members who voted for the learning center cuts are little better than racists who don’t understand the district and it’s students. You can read Schutze’s argument here. He heard the same arguments I did at Thursday’s board meeting, but Schutze came away with a totally different conclusion.

I don’t buy it, but he’s articularing the alternative viewpoint on this and many of the other issues facing DISD, and it’s worth reading to understand the other side.



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