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On the first Thursday afternoon of August, Gayle Fallon, president of the largest local teachers union in Texas, is perched on a table while the three top financial officers of the Houston Independent School District attempt to conduct a news conference on the annual budget. A short, red-headed woman in green slacks and a cotton vest, Fallon never misses an opportunity to ridicule the HISD administration, contradict its facts and denounce any policy she thinks might threaten teachers.
Typically, Fallon has studied the budget for a month before it is to be presented, and should be poised to point out administrative fat and other examples of bureaucratic excess. But no copy of the budget is to be had, not even by members of the school board. At the public hearing that evening Fallon will call it the "stealth budget." Increasing the perception that they either have something to hide, or are simply bunglers at media relations, the three HISD officials inform the assembled reporters that they are willing to discuss issues in the budget but not numbers. The reporters are so astonished by this performance that they are not even angry. They figure they can always turn to Fallon for a good sound bite.
Since there are no numbers to discuss, Fallon goes after the administration's proposal to replace the district's across-the-board "step" raises for teachers with a "range" plan. Under a range plan, the amount of raises could be determined by principals, and if there is one axiom that has driven the steady growth of Fallon's union, it is that the administration, and especially its principals, cannot be trusted to play fair with teachers.
"This gets us back to the days," Fallon explains, "when your raise will be determined by how well you grovel to the principal."
It won't come to that, of course. Groveling is something that teachers have done a lot less of in the 14 years that Gayle Fallon has reigned as president of the Houston Federation of Teachers.
Backed by a devoted membership that she expects to number 5,000 this year, Fallon has become adept at playing the politics of the nine-member school board. When the step raise was threatened, she and her union went to work.
For the last two years, the four white members, who are often critical of the union's positions, have usually pulled a swing vote from one of the two Hispanic board members. But recently, the board appears to have coalesced along ethnic lines, with the three African-American and two Hispanic members voting together. Although the two other major but smaller teachers groups supported the abolition of the step raise, and the district sent the teachers three mailings on the issue, Fallon mobilized the members of her AFL-CIO affiliate and inundated the board with protests. Like many votes at HISD, this one was never made in public. But after a week of behind-the-scenes politicking, when Superintendent Rod Paige presented the budget to the board on August 10, he had restored the step raise, because, he said, of "concerns that have been raised."
Paige didn't mention that those concerns had been raised by Fallon and her membership. But every teacher, administrator and school employee in the board auditorium knew who had forced Paige's polite withdrawal. It was Gayle. In local education circles, says one longtime teacher, nobody needs to use Fallon's last name anymore.
Fallon's sardonic wit, unflagging energy and media savvy have made her one of the most quoted and visible figures in public education not only in Houston, but in Texas. One of the more unusual manifestations of Fallon's influence is her cordial and respectful relations with players in the business community.
Darvin Winick, a management consultant from Dickinson who for the last 15 years has worked with such groups as the Texas Business and Education Coalition and the Business Roundtable, says Fallon is well-respected among business leaders for her knowledge of the schools and her skill at building working relationships with people she often disagrees with. For example, when former HISD superintendents Joan Raymond and Frank Petruzielo first came to town from outside of Texas, Fallon arranged meetings for them with the Houston business community.
"She has leadership," Winick says. "She has a vision of what schools ought to be like. She is an advocate for the kids, too. I think she really does care, and I think she understands management better than some of the board members."
Not everyone, however, believes in Fallon's power and influence. And some who do don't necessarily believe it's a good thing.
Her critics, including some school board members, dismiss her as simply a strident labor leader obsessed with winning better wages and conditions for her members, who builds her membership by constantly crying wolf and who will protect a dues-paying member at almost any cost, even if it means keeping a bad teacher in the classroom.
Cathy Mincberg, who won her first school board election about the time Fallon was named president of the HFT, believes that Fallon's power has been on the wane since Rod Paige was appointed superintendent. Mincberg has worked with Fallon under four superintendents, sometimes on the same side of the issues, but lately in opposition.