Gayle Force

A vigorous advocate for teachers and the bane of HISD administrators, confrontational union boss Gayle Fallon wields a growing power over the direction of Houston's public schools

The case involves a black teacher who is considering converting to Islam and has taken to covering her head and wearing ankle-length dresses. That scares the principal, says Fallon, who still hasn't grasped the fundamentals of multiculturalism. A child told the principal that he had seen a gun in the teacher's purse and the principal fired her without a careful investigation.

"HISD just encourages lawsuits by failing to follow due process," Fallon says. "You want to see the gun?" she asks with a grin.

She reaches into her desk drawer and pulls out an ominous, big-gripped, black-handled glue gun.

"No one has ever asked to see it," she says. "Do you realize what a great visual this will be on TV?"

(Lawyers for the school district say they aren't backing down from their intention to prove that the teacher carried a real gun to class.)

After a long call with a union attorney, Fallon calms down a bit. She used to get so angry that she suffered from heart trouble, she says. She gave up smoking regretfully, because she had used it for negotiating leverage. Her tactic had been to walk into an administrator's office, rearrange some of the papers on his desk, set up an ash tray and fire up the longest cigarette she could buy, 110 millimeters. The action was calculated to intimidate. Fallon says you can tell she's learned to manage stress by her file cabinets. They aren't dented, but there was a time when she got so angry at the way teachers were treated in the grievance procedure that she kicked them in frustration.

The ultimate goal of the union is to finally be able to negotiate a contract for the teachers, as the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association does with the city. Since Texas is not a collective bargaining state, the term is "meet and confer." Such power would unquestionably swell the ranks of the HFT. But until that happens, Fallon is essentially bargaining her contract every day. The demands can be exhausting. During the school year, the phone starts ringing at 3 p.m. and continues at home until ten at night, if she is home. If there are no union or school activities, there are political meetings. Recalling growing up, Jamie Fallon says, "There weren't many home-cooked meals, but I ate a lot of hors d'oeuvres at Democratic fundraisers."

Fallon's biggest frustration, she says, is that the HFT is being bogged down with grievances under the current administration. Both Joan Raymond and Frank Petruzielo, the superintendents who preceded Paige, had come from districts with strong unions. They preferred to deal with Fallon behind closed doors, and tried to settle grievances and disputes privately. The disadvantage to that, Fallon says, is that the union doesn't always get credit for its accomplishments.

The first thing Raymond did, Fallon recalls, was invite her to submit the names of the ten worst principals in the district. Fallon submitted the principals with the most grievances, along with documentation, and, Fallon says, Raymond pulled eight of them from their schools and sent them to a principals academy, a public humiliation disguised as an honor. When Raymond wanted to extend the instructional day an extra 15 minutes, Fallon says she won a concession that is still in force in HISD policy. For years teachers had been complaining of principals who kept them in long faculty meetings, often reading them memos they could have read themselves. Raymond decreed that principals would be limited to one 45-minute faculty meeting a month. If they had more information to convey to teachers they could write a newsletter. (Raymond did not return calls to be interviewed for this story.)

In 1991, Fallon helped recruit Frank Petruzielo from the Dade County, Florida, schools when the board became fed up with Raymond's obsession with control and her refusal to quickly decentralize the schools. Fallon says she guaranteed labor peace to Petruzielo in exchange for a chance to be consulted on reform issues. Petruzielo believed the union had to be a part of the solution for the schools, and had a reputation in Florida for good working relations with teachers. For six weeks, Fallon recalls, she had the union staff send him copies of the daily complaints that teachers had with management. There were principals who screamed at teachers in front of their colleagues and parents, male principals who entered the women's restroom and yelled at teachers to get out, there was sexual harassment.

In what Fallon says was a first-of-its-kind meeting, Petruzielo brought his top school officials and district superintendents to the union's office and told them in front of Fallon and her staff that the stream of complaints must stop. But Petruzielo ran afoul of board politics, Fallon says, for wanting to cut administrative costs too sharply. When an opening for superintendent arose in his hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Petruzielo was gone after only two years in Houston. (Petruzielo also did not return calls for comment for this article.)

Two years ago, when the school board chose one of its own trustees to be superintendent, HISD finally got its first African-American leader. Paige, an education professor from Texas Southern University and a Republican, was well respected by white trustees, and he brought no baggage from having worked in other school districts.

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