Larry Shaw knows how to stir things up.
At Tuesday's Fort Worth school board meeting, the United Educators Association executive director offered several plausible reasons why delaying the search for a new superintendent made sense -- then he threw his bomb.
"I've heard that this city and this district is not ready for a minority superintendent or minority mayor," he said. "We are ready. ... And it is time for Walter Dansby."
Was he implying that those who support a national search, instead of Dansby's quick anointment as Superintendent Melody Johnson's successor, are bigots intent on perpetuating an old world order?
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Without any hostile words actually spoken, it seemed the line was drawn and an ugly fight promised.
Dansby, deputy superintendent over the district's capital improvement program, is a 37-year veteran of the system and its highest-ranking African-American. After Johnson announced she would resign in September, four trustees quickly requested a special meeting Friday, and the board is expected to name Dansby interim superintendent.
But what about making the selection of a new schools chief about the kids? About listening to community needs? About confronting the terribly hard and unrelenting challenges of preparing thousands of students in a diverse city to be productive responsible adults? About acting in fiscally prudent ways, especially with inadequate funding from a stingy state government?
A number of speakers Tuesday, including parents and leaders of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, asked board members to conduct a national search, even if they believe the best candidate already is in-house.
Other speakers, including one of Dansby's former basketball players and a parent I know and respect, praised his leadership abilities.
It was trustee T.A. Sims, one of two African-Americans on the board, who in 1994 was quoted as saying Fort Worth was "not ready for a minority to lead this district." Sims had objected when the board hired Tom Tocco over an African-American woman from Pennsylvania.
The year before, the district's highest-ranking African-American administrator, Morris Holmes, left for New Orleans when the board wouldn't guarantee he'd succeed then-Superintendent Don Roberts. (Last week, Holmes was named superintendent in Little Rock.)
Fort Worth was ready for a minority superintendent then and is now. But that's answering the wrong question.
What Fort Worth needs is another highly qualified superintendent, someone who can continue the progress that has been made and bring proven skills to tackling the problems that persist. Race, ethnicity or gender should not matter.
But here are a couple of reasons why they do:
Educational achievement gaps have closed significantly in recent years, but some key groups still lag in certain subjects, and that must improve. Johnson built broad support. In fact, longtime volunteer Eddie Griffin, who is African-American, said he would retire from involvement in the schools when she leaves.
But there's mistrust in segments of the community about whether the needs of Hispanic and African-American students are being met and whether discipline is fairly administered. Some of these concerns have roots that are decades old; others are of newer vintage. An effective leader will have to address those issues thoughtfully.
Racial and ethnic minorities in Fort Worth have long felt neglected by the decision-making powers that be. In a school district with a student population that's almost 60 percent Hispanic, 25 percent African-American and 13 percent white, diverse leaders and role models are crucial.
An African-American superintendent could open the door for a Hispanic chief executive. A key reason the board voted to convert the at-large presidency to a ninth single-member district was to enable minority trustees to serve as president without having to run citywide. There's almost certain to be a racial/ethnic undercurrent to the 2012 board elections.
Shaw was right when he said Dansby knows the district "like the back of his hand." But he doesn't have a superintendent certification, according to state records, though the district could seek a waiver.
Cecelia Speer, chief of district operations, who's retiring, said in a phone interview that Dansby is loyal and devoted to the district but has a bullying management style that drove some staffers out.
Right now, the board needs to tone down the turmoil, not fan it. But I'm not trusting them much to do what's best for kids.
Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer. 817-390-7867