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

At last, Fallon contends, the board had its ultimate wish, which is to manage the schools.

Two strikingly different visions of the Houston public schools emerge when you talk to their leaders and when you talk to Gayle Fallon. Trustees Cathy Mincberg and Don McAdams tell of a school system being reformed from the top down by the board. They say the administration has been decentralized and its fat is being cut. Ultimate power now rests in the hands of parents, teachers and the principals through site-based decision making committees (SDMs). A new accountability system is forcing principals and teachers to gradually make the changes needed to help children learn. McAdams believes so fervently in what the board is accomplishing that he is writing a book about it. As for Fallon's influence on the schools, both Mincberg and McAdams say she doesn't count at all. The key to all this change, they say, has been a document largely written by school trustees McAdams, Paige, Mincberg and Ron Franklin in 1990 called "Beliefs and Visions."

"It's not our belief and it is not our vision," says Fallon. "If you look at any management textbook on change theory, it will tell you that you cannot implement change top down. We have no ownership. The board wrote the plan without consulting the teachers."

Last spring, when Paige announced a reshuffling of district superintendents accompanied by hefty raises, Fallon rolled her eyes. She has seen six reconfigurations of the administration and they amount to "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." The bureaucracy always grows. As for accountability, Fallon says that most teachers know only that it means their school will be lumped in a category according to test scores. And although the district has its own accountability system for measuring the improvement of the schools, the state has one that counts. This summer the state lowered the district's accreditation for its low math scores and high dropout rates. Fallon dismisses most of the site-based decision making committees as being preoccupied with the cost of toilet paper and other mundane details while the principals exert the significant authority without true consultation with their teachers.

It is an issue that has been on Fallon's mind lately. Outside the board room during the August 10 trustees meeting, she cornered an HISD administrator to give him a warning. At least 18 of her members had been suddenly given administrative transfers by their principals, she said. Such transfers are disciplinary actions subject to a fixed procedure requiring face-to-face meetings and paperwork. Fallon said some of the teachers had simply been phoned about the transfer, which is a violation of the district's policy, but that was not her real gripe. Many had been outspoken on the site-based decision making committees, Fallon said, and some principals just can't handle it when a teacher disagrees with them.

"You'd better look at those dimwit principals," Fallon told the administrator, "that are setting you up for the lawsuit from hell."

Two weeks later Fallon and union attorney Larry Watts conducted a press conference to announce that 11 teachers are suing. Fallon was dressed in black, and Watts, with a furrowed brow and a beard like Captain Ahab, looked as formidable as an Old Testament prophet.

The lawsuit points up a fundamental issue in the war between the teachers union and the HISD administration. If decisions are really being pushed down to the campus level, then teachers are going to be more outspoken about the control of the schools. Cathy Mincberg says Fallon just wants to turn over the schools to the teachers. Fallon puts it another way: "The administration needs to get out of the way and let teachers teach."

"I would like to be to the point where we could deal with the educational issues," says Fallon, "especially the curriculum, which the board has avoided and avoided. But there is a hierarchy of needs, starting with safety and security. I am not saying the teacher is always right, but they need a fair forum and if we can't get one here we will take it to the Texas Education Association, to the courts and to the streets."

Fallon is fond of saying that the district gets the kind of union it deserves, and right now it's an adversarial one. Fallon gives few signs that she is weary of her confrontations with the district. While staying up till midnight and working two weekends in a row, she has been traveling to Texarkana to testify in a lawsuit around which a new teachers local is being organized. Her son has been traveling with her, and she says she is glad he is becoming a lawyer because they will be able to spend "meaningful" time together.

There is one other aspect to Fallon that makes her a formidable opponent. Despite her anger and her sarcasm, despite the long hours and wearying grind of grievances and hearings, she has something going for her that seems to be in short supply among some of her adversaries: she is having fun.

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