D-11: Where from here? 

Talking with the District 11 school board candidates for the Nov. 6 election has been unusual, to say the least.

They all care. Nobody's running just for the heck of it. Nothing vindictive going on. No personal vendettas. They have a variety of ideas for how to make D-11 better, stronger, more efficient.

They also, for the most part, have become very good at acting nice. It's as if everyone had to take a sensitivity class as a prerequisite to running.

The reason is simple, of course. District 11 including board and administrators to teachers, staff and, in some cases, even students is recovering from a difficult few years, but especially the past 12 months or so. The psychological wounds have been deep and slow-healing.

The board infighting, the verbal attacks, the erosion of trust all combined to damage the district's image and credibility. Hiring a superintendent (Sharon Thomas) and then firing her in less than a year was just the start. Subsequently suffering through an ugly recall process, which brought down two board members last December and led to another resigning, undermined D-11 even more.

As if that weren't enough, the "new" board this year encountered the worst kind of divisive issue, leading to the vote to close East Middle School. Despite East's many troubles and poor performance in recent years, that decision produced an emotional firestorm. At the bleakest moment, TV newscasts made a big deal of East students and teachers crying in anguish; one child went so far as to implore school-board members, "Why don't you love us?"

Now the time has come for another election, and four D-11 positions are open. There are four incumbents, but only one Willie Breazell Sr. has served a full four-year term. The other three Jan Tanner, Charlie Bobbitt and Tom Strand haven't even been around for one full year, which means the district's voters don't have many headlines on which to judge them, except East.

Then again, those incumbents are hoping the outside world has noticed something else: D-11's volatility has calmed. It's not a love-in, and the board members still disagree strongly on some questions. But they aren't throwing grenades at each other anymore. And they're generally satisfied not thrilled, but satisfied with current superintendent Terry Bishop.

Their challengers Chyrese Exline, Bob Null and Delia Armstrong-Busby aren't allied, and nobody is tied to any deep-pocketed backers, as in the past. Yet, even now that mail ballots have been sent, the candidates have not created a high interest level except among the small percentage who always will be engaged. Perhaps the mail-only ballot will increase turnout, but possibly not.

It seems the less-experienced "incumbents" hope voters will feel they deserve more of a chance to prove themselves, and that simply being a more harmonious, diplomatic group will count for something. Their hearts are in the right place, and they hope that's enough.

But this isn't about group therapy, or just getting along and cutting down on wasting money. District 11 needs a board willing to take chances, to push the administration and explore what's working and what has already failed to help comparable, older metro districts in other mid-sized cities.

If you're a D-11 voter, you should care because this election involves four of the seven members enough to carry or swing any single decision. Choosing the four best candidates is important for the district's future during a time of declining enrollment, deteriorating facilities, ever-changing demographics and standardized tests.

If you have any reason to feel ownership of D-11, you should check out the Independent's endorsements and straight coverage. We talked to the candidates about everything from money to magnet schools and site-based management. You might not agree with some positions, or all of our suggestions, but hopefully you'll come away with a clearer picture.

It's still painfully clear that D-11 is facing more trying years ahead. There will be many more difficult choices for the board to make and live with thereafter.

But the first tough choice is yours.



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