Analysis: Why did the self-proclaimed ‘education mayor’ go rogue?

It looks like Tom Leppert’s big plan to take over DISD will die a relatively quiet death: No one seems inclined to sponsor state legislation allowing Leppert to take over, the city council members who commented didn’t exactly endorse the idea, and there hasn’t been a groundswell of public support, either.

So why would Leppert consider such a move in the first place? And who in Dallas politics will be hurt by the "stealth mode" Leppert used while plotting his course?

Reading the various blogs and comments about Leppert’s plan, there was one common theme among those who supported the idea: DISD is broken, and maybe this will work. There’s a certain appeal to that thought, since DISD clearly has issues. And the oft-expressed idea that an outside leader could cut through DISD’s dense bureaucracy is attractive, too.

But why would Leppert be the answer to those problems? This is a guy who doesn’t appear to have taken any personal interest in public education prior to running for mayor. And as DISD’s last chief financial officer found out, there’s a big difference between corporate finance and school finance; in this case, for DISD, the difference was about $64 million, leading to last fall’s well-publicized "budget crisis".

If he had succeeded in being appointed DISD overlord, Leppert would have been at the beginning of the learning curve and, given his pretty clear intentions to find some higher office to run for, it’s unlikely he’d have hung around long enough to learn the ropes well enough to actually make a difference at DISD. Just like the revolving door of superintendents prior to Michael Hinojosa, DISD’s bureaucracy has flourished by waiting out superintendents, knowing they’ve all been short-timers.

So while I understand the hope that Leppert somehow is packing the silver bullet needed to solve DISD’s problems, they guy’s just not packin’.

Now, the bigger question: Dallas’ political power kids all play in the same relatively small sandbox. When an ambitious and opportunistic child appears to go rogue and starts sneaking around behind the other kids’ backs, what are we to make of it?

One, I find it hard to believe Leppert was on a solo mission. Much like the Trinity project and the convention center hotel were the two top items on the to-do list of Leppert’s financial backers, "improving DISD" had to be right up there, too. Bad schools are bad for business, and that’s what this coup was all about: taking charge of biggest reason Dallas loses corporate relocations.

After polishing off the first two goals quickly and efficiently, Leppert appears to have targeted DISD, figuring his buddies would have his back when the time came. Well, no Dallas wheels have been rushing to Leppert’s aid on this one, but none of them have been trashing the idea, either. That ought to tell us something.

Two, why would Leppert knowingly undercut a couple of "friends": DISD board president Jack Lowe and Hinojosa. They’ve all been in the sandbox together for a few years, and during his mayoral campaign, Leppert made a big production out of working with them to improve public education. Somewhere along the line, Leppert and the other kids decided Lowe and Hinojosa weren’t up to the task. No one told Lowe or Hinojosa their services were no longer sufficient to maintain Dallas corporate support; Leppert just set about undermining them and plotting his coup, giving Lowe and Hinojosa the appearance of dead men walking, in terms of their political futures here in Dallas.

So much for working together. Leppert has just made Lowe’s and Hinojosa’s already difficult jobs that much harder, and so far, he hasn’t seen fit to explain himself or his actions, either.

What to make of the whole thing?

Well, Leppert’s coup plans are dead, and assuming DISD doesn’t screw up big-time again soon, the mayor probably won’t be handing sheepskins to DISD high school graduates in May. And the absolute shock registered on the faces of DISD’s trustees says all we need to know about their future dealings with Leppert: He’d better watch his back the next time they’re all together in the sandbox.

So what has been accomplished here? Leppert undercut the trustees and Hinojosa, at a time when they’re still on thin ice with Dallas taxpayers and parents, and without offering any better ideas or solutions to DISD’s problems. And he reignited the never-ending debate about how bad DISD is, making it difficult for the district to gain ground in the public eye even as clear academic improvements are being made across the district.

Thanks for the help, "education mayor" Leppert.

Instead of becoming part of the solution, Leppert showed himself to be part of the problem. And as we all know, DISD has enough of those already. Come to think of it, isn’t Mr. Leppert’s current employer — the city of Dallas — in that boat, too?


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