Democracy in Dallas By Carol Edgar Dallas History was made quietly here in this spring’s school board election. All nine places on the board were up for grabs at the mandate of a new state law creating single-member school board districts for Dallas. Less than 10% of the registered voters in the Dallas Independent School District gave the city its most demographically representative board to male chicano and a male black were elected. Kathlyn Gilliam, well-known in her south Dallas Community as an activist, is the first black woman ever to serve as a DISD trustee. Thirty-year-old Robert Medrano becomes not only the first Mexican American to be elected for a full term but also the youngest member in the board’s history. Dr. Emmett Conrad, who in 1967 became the second black trustee in the history of the board, was enthusiastically returned for another term. AS A RESULT of this year’s election, the long-lived and conservative Committee for Good Schools has suffered a setback. Unopposed this year by the deflated, progressive League for Educational Advancement in Dallas, it endorsed six candidates, keeping its hands off races in the three newly-drawn, minority-dominated districts. Five of those six candidates won. Two, however, were forced into run-offs. So only three CGS endorsees, all incumbents, won handily. Apparently the single-member district plan is eroding the influence of the business establishment on the politics of education in Dallas. Ironically, it was CGS people who clamored for the plan in the first place. Their rationale is said to have been that it would not only lock minorities into three board places, giving CGS a dependable six-member advantage, but that it would also deal a death blow to an ailing LEAD. By the time the Committee saw the clear and present danger of this new election arrangement, it was too late to renege. The most significant race this year and the most dramatic was the one CGS lost. Affluent northwest Dallas became a district divided against itself as two incumbents president Farrell Ray and Bill Hunter, faced each other because of redrawn district lines. CGS supported Ray, an oilman who had drawn criticism by placing Carol Edgar is an assistant producer of KERA-TV’s Newsroom program in Dallas. 12 The Texas Observer his only school-aged child in a private school. And Hunter, an attorney who in his one-year tenure on the board had shown himself to be an anomalous questioner of administrators’ recommendations, was decidedly the underdog. A third candidate advanced this close race \(Ray led on April Then Hunter turned on the heat, while Ray remained characteristically tepid. The final balloting was in Hunter’s favor, 1950 to 1832. All told, CGS, which only a year ago had an eight-member stranglehold on the DISD board, now hangs on with a 5-4 majority. CGS’s loss was also the Dallas Morning News’. The News, whose endorsements those of the Committee, smugly pronounced the failure of single-member districts \(“One-Member District Voting voter turnout was the lowest in five years. But was strong voter appeal the prime mover for the change to the one-member district plan? The chief argument, in fact, had been that a more representative school board could be elected. That has happened. CERTAINLY IT’S premature to assume that small voter turnout figures will characterize this new electoral scheme. This year there was the confusion about who lives in which district, and surely some people felt less powerful in being able to vote for one candidate instead of nine. But now the incumbent trustees have smaller geographical constituencies to cultivate. And it’s possible that, as they interact with citizens in their districts, the districts themselves will develop distinguishable identities. Hopefully voters will not only learn which district is theirs but will also be moved to the polls in future elections by an interest in district-oriented issues. Furthermore, a healthy voter turnout is probable for the next board election and DISD trustee elections will be held simultaneously. This year’s faint voter response should more rightly be attributed to the most perplexing problem facing public education in Dallas: the pervasive lethargy of a city dreading a massive-busing court order. The Dallas desegregation case has been pending before the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for nearly three years, and for almost a year now a decision has reportedly been forthcoming. Only days after the April 2 election, figures were released showing that anglos comprise 46 percent of the DISD school population, compared to 51 percent a year ago. Anti-busing voters who remain in the district feel they’re at the mercy of the courts. Apparently they realize that the most their school board could do about busing would be to appeal an unfavorable desegregation decision or pass a resolution endorsing an anti-busing amendment for the U.S. Constitution. Surely this feeling of powerlessness will affect board elections as long as the integration issue remains unresolved. WHAT WILL THE plan itself mean to Dallas educational politics in the years ahead? Because of the DISD’s uncertain future, speculation is dangerous business. But here are some possibilities. LEAD could concentrate its efforts in swing districts and elect “independents” to form a coalition with minority trustees, thereby de-throning CGS. The League’s unofficial influence made a difference in this year’s district 7 race. Dr. Don Johns looked for all the world like the ideal LEAD man: rational, articulate, highly educated and professional \(he’s a speech LEAD members \(and, incidentally, the editorial blessing of the Dallas Times Johns made an impressive showing Haskins. A stronger, well-organized LEAD effort might’ve gotten him through the resulting run-off. LEAD is also eyeing district 2, an upper-middle-class area where interest in education is said to run high. Regardless of its regrouping, the League’s plan as of now is to remain low-profile. Recent encounters with CGS polarized the organization into a pro-busing posture and spelled its defeat in last year’s election. Given the explosiveness of the busing issue, a LEAD endorsement per se could be a kiss of death. What’s ahead for CGS? Some observers say it’s going to have to do some image-changing and in the future look more grassroots and less big-money. The Citizen’s Charter Association, CGS’s counterpart in city council politics, made such a move last spring and maintained its strength on the council. A CGS higher-Up insists that his group is not out to control the school board, only to see that no one else controls it. But isn’t CGS control the only insurance against such a threat? If the Committee doesn’t retrench, it may well become precisely what the single-member district plan means for it, in its present form, to be: proportionately representative and very likely ousted from its power position. It’s clear that full-slate endorsements by a homogeneous political group have faded into the DISD board’s history. Diversity and decentralization are the bright promises of single-member districts. Perhaps the old-fashioned concept of the community isn’t yet dead here in the heart of the giant Metroplex. Proof of this now rests with Dallas’ new school board and more important with the voters themselves.
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