By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
By Ben DuBose
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Calvin TerBeek
By Jeff Balke
By Jeff Balke
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.
The power of the union leader depends on relations with the superintendent, Mincberg says, and Paige is more inclined to keep her out. (Paige declined to be interviewed about his relationship with Fallon, other than to say his record in support of teachers speaks for itself.) Under previous superintendent Frank Petruzielo, Mincberg says, "They sat down with a beer and worked things out." Mincberg says Fallon doesn't like it that she can't get her problems with the administration settled with a phone call anymore. And Fallon cannot attack Paige too strongly, Mincberg says, because he is a visibly popular black leader, the first African-American superintendent in the history of HISD.
Fallon is smart and funny, and very aggressive, Mincberg says, but she doesn't believe her union has much of an effect on school board elections or local politics.
"I don't see her as a positive force for the schools because her priority is not student performance," McAdams says. "Gayle has not been a positive force. All I can see her doing is due process. But she can be a very effective irritant."
Especially irritating was Fallon's attempt two years ago to unseat McAdams in the last election, when she supported Keith Rudy, son of local businessman Alan Rudy. McAdams won with 53 percent of the vote, but he was forced to spend more money and energy against a more competitive opponent than he had faced in his first election. A former small college president with a doctorate in history from Duke, McAdams says that the key to school reform is concentrating more power in the hands of principals, and holding them accountable for school performance.
But concentrating more power in the hands of principals plays into the hands of Fallon's union, which organizes on the fear of teachers that principals cannot be trusted to wield power fairly and humanely. While teachers have long argued that they are professionals and want to be treated as professionals, the reality is that they have only limited control of what happens in their workplace. They seldom get to pick the textbooks and curriculum they use. And unlike most other professionals, they are governed by a constantly changing and extensive set of state and local policies.
Of the three largest teachers organizations in the Houston Independent School District, the HFT is by far the largest. In fact, if it surpasses 5,000 members this fall, as Fallon expects it to, the HFT will be the largest local in the Harris County AFL-CIO, surpassing the Communications Workers. The union's ethnic makeup fairly closely reflects that of the teacher work force, Fallon says, about 40 percent white, 40 percent black, and the rest mostly Hispanic. Its dues are $337 a year ($200 for some clerical employees and teachers' aides), which produces an annual budget of $1.7 million. For that money, members get a dental plan, training on such issues as student discipline and school policy, and an aggressive defense if they are sued, disciplined or fired.
Because many teachers leave the district each year and sometimes change their memberships according to the degree of comfort they have with their building principal, Fallon's stewards must recruit a thousand new members a year to keep growing at the rate of 200 to 300 a year. The union tracks its organizing efforts in more than 250 work sites on large wall charts in its main office. "If we had a warm, cordial employer," Fallon cracks, "we would not be growing."
The other two teachers organizations are the largely white Congress of Houston Teachers, which claims 2,200 members, and the largely black Houston Education Association, which claims 2,300 members. That means more than half of the district's 12,000 teachers have been organized. (Counselors, school nurses, some administrators, teachers' aides and blue-collar workers also belong to the organizations.)
The Congress of Houston Teachers, which has no larger statewide or national affiliation, calls itself a professional organization, not a union, says its president, HISD teacher Steve Antley. The Congress does not endorse political candidates. Unlike unions, which want to become an exclusive bargaining agent, "we believe in freedom of association," Antley says. "We view our approach as more collegial."
The other power in HISD is the Houston Education Association, which is affiliated with the three-million-member National Education Association. Its executive director, Lee Barnes, claims the HEA has more political clout than Fallon's union because of its national and statewide membership. The HEA charges dues of $322 a year, and also offers a vigorous defense for teachers, Barnes says.
But Barnes is contemptuous of Fallon's confrontational style, and says she creates fear and confusion in order to build membership. In an HEA news release last year Barnes called for a criminal investigation of Fallon's union for its recommendation of an insurance carrier to the board, and he also told HEA organizers that Fallon had made inappropriate use of HFT funds. Fallon sued him for slander. After the first deposition, Barnes said, his lawyers decided to settle with Fallon, who put the money in her union's political fund. Fallon said she was surprised that Barnes had mentioned the suit, since under the terms of the settlement both sides had promised not to discuss it.
"He accused me of using union money for a vacation," Fallon says, "and for taking money from vendors. God help the vendor who comes in here and asks, 'What can I do to get your business?' I throw them out. I don't mind being criticized for my opinions and my stands on the issues, but you cross the line when you touch on my personal life."
For a woman who often seems the picture of an old-fashioned, give-no-quarter union boss, Gayle Fallon springs from an unusual background.
Her father was a Philadelphia Mainliner whose family lost millions in the 1929 stock market crash and became "comfortable," Fallon says. He was an amateur historian who could trace his Hamilton family back to the royal Stewarts and talk you through the battle of Scotland, Fallon recalls. Her mother was orthodox Jewish, her father was Catholic and there were also Quakers in the family. She has inherited some money, she says, and has no trouble meeting her needs on a salary pegged to the rate of the highest paid teacher in the district.
Fallon came of age during the '60s and was shaped by the turbulent social changes of that time. She attended American University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in political science and got a close-up view of American politics. She worked on voter registration drives in the South, was arrested in demonstrations and was present when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Music was also part of her transformation. She was just a suburban Philadelphia girl, she says, who fell in love with the acoustic blues guitar, which she still plays. She traveled to the black clubs and neighborhoods, sitting for hours watching Elizabeth Cotton and Mississippi John Hurt play and getting them to teach her. When she became a teacher, she would often sit on the floor and play guitar as a way of getting the interest and attention of her students.
But first she made a detour that seems to have shaped her attitude toward large bureaucracies. Graduating from college in 1966, she was slow to see the implications of the Vietnam War, and after scoring high on the hiring test for the National Security Agency, she was employed as a cryptographer for three years. NSA sent her to military language school, where she became fluent in Vietnamese in eight months, and then she began working on breaking enemy codes. It is work she cannot talk about to this day, but she does recall the incident that made her quit. One day her supervisors dumped a handful of Vietnamese billfolds on her desk. One of them was clotted with blood. "Don't worry about it," said one of her colleagues, "they've been sanitized."
"That drove me into teaching," she says. "I decided that I never wanted to do anything again that would destroy an innocent person."
Late in her college career she had married James Fallon Jr., the easygoing son of Oklahoma ranchers, and in 1968, they decided to move to Houston and get jobs in education (Fallon's husband has been a counselor in HISD for many years). After a few months working as an oil-company clerk, Gayle Fallon was hired in the fall of 1969 to teach the fifth grade at Oakwilde Elementary, a poor school off the Eastex Freeway in the Aldine School District. While working on her teaching certificate, she was thrown into a room with 12- to 14-year-old fifth-graders, but she found she could deal with kids.
"I never had a discipline problem," Fallon says. "I had kids who said I could just look them in the eye and that was all it took."
She got the books and read all summer, but mastering the required paperwork was the hard part. Years later, Fallon's union would protest excessive paperwork by stapling it together and rolling it out at length for television crews.
Fallon also taught special education and was teaching middle school when an opportunity opened up. For violating its desegregation order, the Aldine district was ordered by the courts to create a "contemporary learning center" for high school children in danger of dropping out. Situated in the old George Washington Carver High School in the low-income black neighborhood of Acres Homes, the center required that teachers create highly individualized curricula for their troubled students. In 1978, Fallon jumped at the chance to teach government to juniors and seniors at the contemporary learning center, even though it meant doing much more preparation than she had previously.
There she met Joe Colvin, who was working on his doctorate in curriculum instruction at the University of Houston. Colvin loaned her his books and explained what he had been learning in graduate school.
"Gayle is brilliant," says Colvin, "no question about it. She just picked up on my whole doctoral program in a few days. She was also an extremely good teacher. She knew how to communicate with kids."
Colvin recalls that Fallon and three other teachers shared an old gym that served as a resource center and open classroom. When Aldine administrators would walk in, most teachers would jump to their feet.
"I remember she just ignored them," Colvin says. "We were there for the kids, not the administrators. The administrators would pick on little things. They would just harass us."
Fallon was teaching government through case law, showing the students how to stand up for their rights and petition government about their grievances. When the water well for the high school was cut off for three days, the administration insisted on keeping the school open, and toilets were flushed with buckets of water.
"We all got into trouble for teaching the kids how to find information and get it to the news media," Colvin says. "The kids called the TV stations and the administration wrote us up for not handling discipline."
Colvin, Fallon and some of the other teachers began taking over the leadership of the Aldine Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate. Fallon got the idea of running a candidate for the school board, and the state organization, the Texas State Teachers' Association, sent national campaign help. The teachers' candidate lost, and the administration transferred the six ringleaders out of the alternative learning center. What really burned the teachers was that the administration denied them their promised summer work, which was to evaluate the individualized curriculum they had spent the past year writing. Fallon and five others were told by friends in the Aldine administration that once they had been transferred, their new principals would start writing them up and get them fired.
Fallon says she called the TSTA and asked for legal help. "The whole top line of the Aldine Teachers Association was being transferred," she says "and I called the state representative and was told, 'They haven't fired you yet. Call us when they do.' I developed a deep hatred of the TSTA. They got us out on a limb and then sawed it off."
Fallon also developed a strong dislike for administrators.
"It was the first time in my life I hated them," she says. "That transfer had nothing to do with children and it was retaliation for protected political action. I would have retired in Aldine."
Once she realized that the NEA affiliate wouldn't fight for her job, she found one at Smiley High School in the mostly black district of North Forest, farther up the Eastex Freeway. Still smarting from her treatment by the dominant teachers organization, she began organizing a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, and by her second year in 1981, she had recruited 175 members.
"I had just finished a master's degree in educational administration at Sam Houston State," Fallon says, "and I didn't want to be an administrator because I was so angry at the way teachers were treated. We had unseated two board members and we had beat the administration in court on repressive behavior. The administrators were starting to realize there were certain things they couldn't do any more."
The Houston Federation of Teachers had been founded by a group of HISD middle school teachers in May 1973 in reaction to the attempt by a Jackson Middle School principal to fire a popular special-education teacher. Several of the teachers had collected money to hire attorney Larry Watts to defend the teacher, who eventually won his grievance and was reinstated. (To this day Watts serves as one of the HFT's two primary attorneys.)
Membership in the union grew after a failed strike by the dominant teachers organization, the Houston Teachers Association, the local NEA affiliate, which in the early '70s represented 7,000 to 8,000 teachers. The district superintendent, George Garver, had come from a northern state with collective bargaining and had granted the association's leaders the right to bargain the teachers' contract. When negotiations broke down in the summer of 1973, the HTA called for a strike vote at a meeting at Delmar Stadium. Several thousand teachers at the meeting descended from the bleachers onto the field to indicate their commitment to strike. But the strike was poorly organized and led. Less than a third of the teachers actually stayed out, and no schools were forced to close. The strikers were docked for a day's pay and told to return to work or be fired. Support for the HTA crumbled.
The HFT attracted new members chiefly by fighting grievances and holding the district to the letter of its policies. The union won grievance after grievance, often turning them into local media events.
By the summer of 1981, the HFT had grown to 1,200 members and it needed help. When the union posted two staff jobs, Fallon immediately applied, and was hired to be the union's chief grievance officer. Union leader Richard Shaw wanted her because he thought she was competitive and would go for the throat.
"One of my first grievances was against a principal who was my best friend," says Fallon, "a guy I played the guitar with all the time. But he wouldn't stay off the intercom and he kept interrupting classes."
Fallon said she attended every grievance hearing she could, asking lawyers how to structure a case and ask questions. During the next year the union added 800 more members and the case load began to weigh heavily. Fallon was doing political organizing for HFT as well.
Union work can be all-consuming, and it was destroying the marriage of the president, John O'Sullivan, who resigned in midterm. In the fall of 1982, the executive council appointed Fallon as his replacement, and she has been in office ever since. The last person to run against her won 28 votes.
Once it was clear she would replace O'Sullivan, Fallon began planning a demonstration. O'Sullivan was leery of the idea. If teachers didn't show up, Fallon would look like a fool in her first leadership action. But Fallon knew the mood of her members, who felt they had been treated like second-class citizens by then-superintendent Billy Reagan. A thousand of them showed up at a school board meeting, packed the auditorium and demonstrated on the sidewalks, many of them with their checks pinned to their shirts. Fallon called it the "March for Dignity," and it was the first of many actions the union took to publicize its issues.
The union has been much less demonstrative in the past few years, Fallon says, and she thinks she may have to teach a new generation of teachers who didn't grow up in the confrontation politics of the late '60s and early '70s. But right now, she says, the HFT is preoccupied with fighting grievances, which she says have been increasing dramatically during the last two years. Grievances that used to be settled at lower levels are now being fought by the district, Fallon says, and she points to the growth of the district's legal bills and staff.
The district's in-house legal staff has increased from one lawyer to as many as four and five, and two outside firms have been added to handle litigation. Fallon notes that during the eight-year period from 1985 to 1992, the district's legal budget was $3.28 million, but in the last two years alone it has spent more than $2.4 million on legal work. (The district confirmed those figures. More than $680,000 of those fees went to the Haynes and Boone law firm to conduct an internal investigation of the district's alternative certification program.) Under the past two superintendents, Fallon says, the union never filed a lawsuit against the district. Now the HFT has several in the works, and she has had to add staff and part-time law students to handle the union's growing list of grievances and appeals. The union's legal fees have tripled in the past two years.
The HFT does not win friends among all teachers for its aggressive defense of its members, especially when those members are viewed as incompetent by their peers.
"Look," Fallon says, "teachers are often aware they're doing a bad job. We just don't want them blind-sided. More often they want out with some shred of human dignity."
Fallon says the union tries to settle such cases quietly, so that the teacher can quit without having been fired. But if the teacher insists on an aggressive defense, the union will provide it.
Board members have often complained that it's difficult to fire incompetent teachers, but Fallon scoffs at that notion. For one thing, teachers are on probation during their first three years of work, and can be fired at will. That probationary period can be extended a fourth year if the district is uncertain. She also says a skilled principal can fire any teacher in three to four steps. The principal writes down what the teacher is doing wrong and recommends a way to correct it. The principal must then document the teacher's failure to correct the problem and can move to terminate.
On a rainy Friday morning at the end of June, Fallon showed up at the union's office on Weslayan, around the corner from HISD's Richmond Avenue headquarters, wearing olive drab shorts and shirt, with her godson, Charles Vega. A precocious eight-year-old with a big voice, Charles has been hanging out with Fallon since she met him when her neighbor in Spring had him in foster care.
Fallon's small office is cluttered with plaques, photographs and newspaper clippings, including one in which the Pope declared to Polish workers the universal right of labor to organize. The numbers of a couple of television reporters are stuck on the bulletin board near her desk.
While Charles settles down to watch a videotape in the outer office and Fallon reminisces about the history of the union, a call comes in from her 24-year-old son, James Fallon III, better known as Jamie. A third-year law student at the University of Houston, Jamie Fallon has grown up in the union. Now he is helping his mother, whom he describes as his best friend, fight grievances. Fallon, who has been calm and cheerful, starts to heat up as she listens to what her son is telling her. The hearing officer, an HISD administrator, has refused to let the union present an expert witness, Gerald Treece, the dean of the South Texas College of Law. The union wanted to present Treece as an expert on due process, which the union contends the administration constantly violates in its investigations of employees for discipline and possible termination.
"Tell them we will turn around and grieve them for obstruction of the grievance procedure," Fallon tells her son. "This is a new low standard and we're not going to let them get away with it."
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.
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.