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By Sean Pendergast
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It took Houston school district trustee and educational consultant Don McAdams less than six weeks to decide that he and Texas Southern University were not exactly a match made in heaven. If TSU administrators had just taken a gander at McAdams's self-serving treatise for the Brookings Institute titled "Lessons from Houston," they might have figured out a lot sooner that the Bellaire resident wasn't an ideal choice as chief operations officer at the troubled, predominantly black university.
The report is extracted from McAdams's larger opus in progress on his years in the HISD trenches. In an "I, Don" narrative, he explains how a daring group of reformers -- most of them white except Rod Paige, former TSU School of Education dean and HISD trustee -- went to war against the forces of mediocrity and self-interest to save the nation's seventh-largest school district from perdition.
McAdams viewed the opposition as minority board members intent on playing racial politics with kids' lives. Of course, there were small impediments along the way for the reform crusaders, including the state open meetings law and democratic process, but, hey, no sweat. Where there's a will there's a way.
Take for example the elevation of Paige to superintendent in 1994. "The superintendency was offered to Paige in a closed session of the board," wrote McAdams. "Those of us who had conceived the idea had kept our opinions to ourselves. The public was stunned."
That closed-door approach on key decisions by the HISD majority shouldn't have surprised readers of the report, since McAdams opined early on that "urban school reform is almost impossible because urban schools are under direct democratic control." McAdams suggests in his conclusion that perhaps public school districts should be insulated from direct public control, just like the military, the federal reserve board and the federal judiciary. Perhaps federal reserve chairman Alan Greenspan might be interested in the HISD superintendency when Paige moves on.
Paige, a black Republican, was the ideal frontman for the mostly white reform leadership of the board, observed McAdams. "Without Rod Paige, the board's voice would have been muted. Only Paige could have gotten minority leaders in Houston to sign on to such programs as school choice, charter schools, contract placement of students in private schools and numerous terminations and transfers of nonperforming minority administrators." In short, if mostly white trustees backed by the downtown business community want to salvage a mostly minority school district, they better find a compliant minority educator to front the effort in the communities whose children are actually being served.
Had McAdams's opponents on the board pushed one of their own into the $196,000-a-year HISD superintendency in a closed-door session, one wonders how he would have characterized the maneuver. The answer may be his description of the motivations of minority board members. "Trustees have a political incentive to champion ethnic interests and avoid conflict with ethnic or racial extremists," wrote McAdams. "They have a strong incentive to provide jobs and contracts for political friends to build support for re-election or election to higher office."
And if that wasn't bad enough, opines the author, minorities are also easily duped by union forces. "Since organized labor can deliver a significant number of volunteers and votes in the predominantly African-American and Hispanic districts, minority trustees take very seriously the demands of the Houston Federation of Teachers, which delivers the support of the AFL-CIO to candidates it supports."
By contrast, McAdams describes white HISD board members as free from such power-grubbing tendencies. "The four white trustees continued to generate ideas for reform and were generally enthusiastic for Paige's suggestions," observed McAdams, while "the five minority trustees, with increased frequency, challenged Paige at the board table and rejected key recommendations."
And when the white trustees and selected minority candidates receive financial backing from big-business interests, explains McAdams, that's a good thing. "Houston has a large cadre of powerful, active business leaders who have been tireless advocates for school reform. And on a host of important policy issues, they have kept HISD's feet to the fire."
After reading McAdams's treatise, one could conclude his ideal governance system for HISD would be a board whose members are appointed by the Greater Houston Partnership to life terms. They would conduct all business in secret, just like the United States Supreme Court, and would communicate to the public via fiats issued by their $100,000 mouthpiece, Terry Abbott. Members could take turns serving two-year terms as superintendent, and self-interest, politics and cronyism need never show their unscrubbed little faces in the schoolhouse again. Of course, everybody would live happily ever after.
-- Tim Fleck