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Rena Honea and Mike Morath Debate Making DISD a Home-Rule District

Eric Celeste, Rena Honea, Mike Morath and Tarick Ward.
Eric Celeste, Rena Honea, Mike Morath and Tarik Ward.

Today is D Academy’s education day. We’re holed up in a classroom at Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy. Students were telling me how they’re learning Chinese and might go to Japan. I would like to do both of those things, but no such luck. In any event, as part of the day, Eric Celeste was set to moderate a panel with Mike Morath, District 2 Dallas ISD board member; Rena Honea, Alliance AFT president; and Tarik Ward, who is literally a rocket scientist but now works at Commit! I’m sure this panel would have been perfectly interesting if it had occurred a few weeks ago. But holy hell, it got interesting in light of the current home-rule discussion. Video to come, but for now, here are some highlights.

As we’ve discussed, last weekend brought news of Support Our Public Schools’ creation and its push to turn DISD into a home-rule district. A 1995 state law makes that a possibility, but there are no home-rule districts in the state. Dallas would be the first.

Celeste, looking rather snazzy, kicked it off. It was impassioned from the intros, stats rolling off Morath’s tongue – Only eight out of 100 students are ready for college coming out of DISD; 89 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, an indicator of poverty and a statistic that puts DISD higher than anywhere else in the state. One positive: graduation rates are up. Wonderful, but everyone agreed something needs to change. How that should happen, however, was a point of contention.

“We’ve got to talk about what we can do for our kids,” Morath said, mentioning that the school board is typically stuck debating things like vendor contracts for seven hours rather than talking about education. “Thank God this opportunity has come along for a city because it will give us a chance to do that.”

Honea’s response?

“Adults are playing games with children’s lives.” Legislators, she said, need to spend time in the classrooms to get an actual understanding of what education is rather than dictating from the top. The games, she said, stem from the lack of transparency surrounding the formation of this group and the entire petition endeavor.

“Why has this process been so secretive? When was the discussion started? Why wasn’t it brought out to a whole lot of people?” she asked. No one answered. She continued. “If you’re going to have a conversation, you don’t bring it to the public first. The people are being asked to vote on something they know absolutely nothing about.”

Like that, the unraveling began. To be fair, Morath has been studying up on this law for months. He knows it inside and out. Honea hasn’t had that luxury. She found out, it seems, just like the rest of us this weekend. But there is no voting yet. And by the time it would come to a vote, voters would theoretically be informed of the proposal. How the process would work: petitioners must collect some 25,000 signatures. From there, the school board would appoint a 15-person panel, which must have at least four classroom teachers. That commission would draw up a constitution of sorts, and then it’d be put to a vote. Twenty-five percent of registered voters would need to show up at the polls, and a majority of that 25 percent would need to approve the suggestions. Then DISD would become a home-rule district.

“This is a great exercise in local democracy,” Morath said, mentioning that to get this through, more voters than have ever showed up for a school board election would have to venture to the polls. Home rule would allow DISD to change its governance structure, would exempt the district from certain labor laws, and would allow for simple things like starting the school year before the fourth week in August. But what else? It’s, as Morath said, a “big open question.”

As with most complex issues, the conversation ended, though we could have asked questions for days, and the room was divided. People could sympathize with the plight of the teachers, who as Honea said, are blamed for everything and haven’t been invited to take part in the conversation just yet. At one point, she appeared to be in tears. The teachers union and teachers contracts could both be up for discussion by the commission. That’s a scary place for teachers to be.

I, myself, was tempted to call B.S. on a number of Morath’s claims toward the end. Support Our Public Schools has been criticized for its lack of cooperation with the media since announcing the endeavor, to which Morath said the members perhaps lack media savvy and have been too busy working their day jobs to respond to every request. I find that hard to believe.

Regardless, this is a conversation worth having. Getting those 25,000 signatures would allow for that. The school board members Dallasites have elected would appoint that commission. And at the end of the day, if you don’t like what that commission recommends, you could make that known with your vote.

Still, it’s all just a little frightening. As most change is.

  • Wylie H Dallas

    Look forward to the video.

    Eric Celeste looks cool in all black… does he wear that every day?

  • Capasso

    Only when he’s on a mission to destroy the shield generator on the forest moon of Endor, or some other Jedi-ish business.

  • Alexander

    Still no answers. What do they want to do!?

    Look, I understand that the commission has to come up with recommendations and that the commission doesn’t exist yet. But there HAS to be at least one overriding policy goal. Guys with money don’t write checks so we can all enjoy democracy. (Oh and Morath makes it seem like people have to be singularly interested in education to vote, but 25% will be hit easily because of the midterm elections, HA DUH)

    What is the policy goal? There is one. Tell us what it is. Now! Own this. (We might like the idea!)

  • Eric Celeste

    I could not agree more that the messaging on this, once the idea was out there, has been atrocious. I think it’s fine that they kept it close to the vest until the DMN put it out there on Sunday. However, at that point, you’ve got to have everyone ready to go on every TV station, answer every phone call, and hammer home your central thesis (or theses). When they didn’t do that, they left themselves open for the debate to be swung from reform to “shadowy outside forces trying to take over our schools.” I don’t believe that, but they invited that sort of accusation by not having a plan.

  • Eric Celeste

    Suit is dark grey, shirt is black. And no, sometimes I add a monocle.

  • Dubious Brother

    Just a guess, but I would think the goal is to improve the outcome for DISD students. As for me, I had trouble getting past the second sentence but I did figuring that everyone needs a good joke every now and then.

  • Tim Rogers

    I’m with Eric on this. Either SOPS has a media strategy I don’t understand (keep quite, don’t tell anyone what we’re REALLY up to), or they don’t have a strategy. Both nature and James Ragland abhor a vacuum, and you don’t want Ragland filling your vacuum, as he did here, referring to SOPS “blowing up the school district”:

    http://www.dallasnews.com/news/columnists/james-ragland/20140304-plan-to-overhaul-school-district-getting-some-folks-worked-up.ece

    The only other thing I would add is that I prefer my panels to be seated behind tables, preferably tables with tablecloths. That way I don’t have to see Mike Morath doing morally questionable things with his water bottle.

    Also, give me Tarik Ward over Eric Celeste any day. The matching tie and socks KILL Eric’s black (or gray) suit.

  • Wylie H Dallas

    Notice his upwards gaze… there’s definitely something otherworldly going on… either that, or he’s receiving inbound communications from the Dallas Citizens Council.

  • Wylie H Dallas

    Are you actually sporting a pocket square?

  • Anonymous

    “Support Our Public Schools has been criticized for its lack of cooperation with the media since announcing the endeavor, to which Morath said the members perhaps lack media savvy and have been too busy working their day jobs to respond to every request. I find that hard to believe.”

    I tend to think they should have more transparency from the start, but I always cringe when I see a reporters’ self-serving statements like these. There is just something so narcissistic about someone in the press thinking that the first thoughts on everyones minds would be the press. It’s kind of like lawyers who think everyone has run something by a lawyer before speaking. Anyhow, just something about which I wish the press would be more self-aware.

    By they way, which of the backers have declined to answer your questions so far? I do think that is something that is worth putting out there so that people can consider whether the people behind this are really dedicated enough to advance the cause. I’d hate to put my faith in a group of people who only have a couple hours a month to devote to this.

  • Anonymous

    My personal belief is that they are not tossing out specific proposals now because they are afraid that anything they propose will inspire extremely vocal opposition from a small group, but probably will not inspire the same level of enthusiasm from supporters even if it’s a good idea (this tends to be how most good policies die in today’s political environment). They’d rather get some enthusiasm for a general and vague message of “change” without explaining what that change will be. And given the status quo, there probably is a lot of support for vaguely defined “change” for change sake.

    There also is the problem of giving ideas now, before the commission has been appointed, making it appear that the whole thing was rigged from the start. If they say they want a longer school year, then a commission gets appointed and recommends a longer school year, then opponents will say that the commission was tainted because only people who supported the policy proposal would be appointed to the commission. I’m not sure being silent now really gets them out of that bind, but it does at least give them a fig leaf–they can say that it was the commissioners, not the billionaire financiers, who came up with the idea.

  • Eric Celeste

    It’s after 10 a.m. What am I, a farmer?

  • Anonymous

    “Support Our Public Schools has been criticized for its lack of cooperation with the media since announcing the endeavor, to which Morath said the members perhaps lack media savvy and have been too busy working their day jobs to respond to every request. I find that hard to believe.”

    They should have more transparency from the start and their PR strategy should be criticized, but I always cringe when I see a reporters’ self-serving statements like these. There is just something narcissistic about someone in the press thinking that the first thoughts on everyones minds would be the press and the first priority responding to the press. It’s kind of like lawyers who think everyone has run something by a lawyer before speaking. Anyhow, just something about which I wish the press would be more self-aware. Perhaps more factual statement would work without the need for commentary.

    By they way, which of the backers have declined to answer your questions so far? I do think that is something that is worth putting out there so that people can consider whether the people behind this are really dedicated enough to advance the cause. I’d hate to put my faith in a group of people who only have a couple hours a month to devote to this.

  • Anonymous

    “Support Our Public Schools has been criticized for its lack of cooperation with the media since announcing the endeavor, to which Morath said the members perhaps lack media savvy and have been too busy working their day jobs to respond to every request. I find that hard to believe.”

    They should have more transparency from the start and their PR strategy should be criticized, but I always cringe when I see a reporters’ self-serving statements like these. There is just something narcissistic about someone in the press thinking that the first thoughts on everyones minds would be the press and the first priority responding to the press. It’s kind of like lawyers who think everyone has run something by a lawyer before speaking. Anyhow, just something about which I wish the press would be more self-aware. Perhaps more factual statement would work without the need for commentary.

    Which of the backers have declined to answer your questions so far? I think that is something that is worth putting out there so that people can consider whether the people behind this are really dedicated enough to advance the cause or are deflecting legitimate inquiries. I’d hate to put my faith in a group of people who only have a couple hours a month to devote to this or who don’t think it’s necessary to be transparent. And by going into that, you can let readers decide for themselves whether the press-relations strategy is reasonable.

  • Sandy Kay

    “Regardless, this is a conversation worth having. Getting those 25,000 signatures would allow for that.” What’s the barrier to conversing during the petition drive?