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Dallas School Board Members Square Off At Home-Rule Meeting

Bill Zeeble
Wilton Hollins, who heads Support Our Public Schools, spoke at Monday's meeting about the home-rule effort at Salem Institutional Baptist Church.

Two Dallas school board members disagreed over whether they’re doing enough for student education. Mike Morath and Bernadette Nutall faced off at a meeting on home-rule Monday night.

Morath backs the home-rule effort that could change the way Dallas schools are run and governed. Bernadette Nutall opposes it, saying the district’s improving under Superintendent Mike Miles, and he’s got the board’s support. The South Dallas crowd at Salem Institutional Baptist Church was already suspicious of the plan, fearing it could eliminate elected board members for appointed ones. But they listened intently as Morath criticized the board he sits on.

“Very rarely do we ever talk of solving problems for our kids,” Morath said. “They’re usually  arguments by adults for adults about adults. This is a tragedy. We argue amongst ourselves incessantly. I think we do a horrendously bad job in serving our kids. I’m not sure why it is, I just know the nine of us are not getting it done for our kids.”

Trustee Bernadette Nutall, among the meeting’s speakers, did not take the attack lightly. 

“All of this home rule charter is an adult issue,” Nutall responded. “It was generated by you without collaboration, coordination, nor communication with any of us to talk about what are the things wrong. We’re not saying DISD is perfect. We all want improvement. But we must communicate with each other.”  

The group pushing home-rule is led by Wilton Hollins, a businessman. His organization is gathering signatures that could force a committee to write a new school charter that could change the district’s governance and free it from some state rules. Hollins rose from a church pew to defend home-rule.

“Support Our Public Schools has been successful already because the conversation has begun,” Hollins said. “This is exactly what we needed to do. If there were no problems in DISD we would not be here right now. To say that everything is great in DISD, that’s a misnomer.”

The crowd was at times loud and emotional, but ultimately respectful of all speakers. The meeting  was organized by two Baptist preachers, who said they planned more meetings. Members of Support Our Public Schools said the same.

Home-rule supporters say it could free the Dallas school district of some state rules so that bad schools could improve faster. But with nothing on paper, opponents fear a district takeover, the elimination of an elected board, or both. But Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has said none of those drastic ideas are in the works.

The Texas legislature approved home-rule charter districts 19 years ago. But no Texas district has ever passed it, perhaps because it takes a lot of signatures -- 5 percent of registered voters -- to get it on the ballot. After that, a quarter of registered voters must turn out when it’s on the ballot.

A petition drive is underway. About 25,000 signatures need to be collected. If it's successful, DISD trustees would appoint a 15-member charter commission that would create a governance plan over which trustees would have no power or control.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.