Mata Montessori School

Maria Hasbany, the PTA president of J.L. Long Middle School, has been invested in the plan to transform the Eduardo Mata fourth- and fifth-grade school into a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade Montessori school for more than a year. She was among those who looked around and saw three neighborhood schools — Lakewood Elementary, Stonewall Jackson Elementary and J.L. Long — bursting at the seams, and another neighborhood school — Mata — mostly empty, and believed there could be a way to fix both problems.

The Montessori “school of choice” that is on tonight’s Dallas ISD board agenda has received stamps of approval across the school district “from the superintendent on down,” Hasbany says.

“Everybody’s excited about it because it’s a concept that could work district-wide,” she says. “So we think when we take it to the board, it will be a slam dunk.”

It’s been anything but, however, and the Dallas ISD board politics that are now threatening to dismiss months of hard work and collaboration on the part of district staff, parents and community members has Hasbany and others fired up.

“The district says we need more involvement from the community, we need creative ways to solve our problems, so all these people work on it and come up with this beautiful plan, and for it have to go through this kind of craziness is insanity,” Hasbany says.

The proposals to convert Mata into an opt-in Montessori school and allow Mount Auburn Elementary families, whose children move to Mata after third-grade, to attend a single school throughout elementary first appeared on the DISD board agenda in February. They were pulled by board president Eric Cowan, however, and Dallas ISD staff were given the green light to move forward.

“The board is split on whether these types of changes (grade configuration, Montessori programs) are within the superintendent’s authority,” Cowan says. “I and others feel these recommendations should come from the administration and be placed in the annual budget, which the board does approve. However, in our board operating procedures, three trustees can request an item be placed on the agenda and the board president has 90 days to comply with that request. So, here we are.”

The three trustees who requested that Mata and Mount Auburn be put on April’s agenda are Lew Blackburn, Elizabeth Jones and Bernadette Nutall. Neither Nutall nor Jones have responded to multiple inquiries about why they made the request, and Blackburn did not answer questions, instead suggesting that we “attend the meeting Thursday … to see and hear the discussion regarding Mata and Mt. Auburn.”

Nutall also is one of three trustees whose board districts encompass the proposed changes; Mata is in her district, while Mount Auburn resides in the district of Trustee Miguel Solis; Long and Woodrow, to which the two elementary schools feed, are in Trustee Mike Morath‘s district. Solis and Morath also see the changes to Mata and Mount Auburn as program changes that fall under district administration’s authority. Solis wants to give district administrators “a defined autonomy” that allows them “flexibility to innovate and lead our district into a new era of multiple school options.”

Solis, Morath and Cowan all have indicated that they support the Mata and Mount Auburn changes, but don’t know what the outcome of tonight’s vote will be.

“I’ve never heard a single one of them utter anything that sounds like a concern or complaint or objection to it, other than ‘Do we have the money to fund this? How expensive will it be to roll this out?’ ” Hasbany says. “There doesn’t seem to be any real legitimate reason for it. If there was an objection, we would have gone back to the drawing board and overcome the objection, but we haven’t been given one.”

Hasbany believes Nutall is the main reason for the drawn-out process, partly because in initial board documents, Mata and Mount Auburn were grouped with proposals to reopen Harllee and Frazier, two schools in Nutall’s district that were closed in 2012 when DISD closed 10 campuses. The board postponed those plans.

“I think the way it works down there is, you vote for my thing, I’ll vote for your thing,” Hasbany says. “She wants to use [Mata and Mount Auburn] as leverage to get her two schools open.”

Dallas City Councilman Philip Kingston is spending the day calling DISD trustees “until they answer my call” because the proposals affect residents and schools in his district, he says.

“Stonewall, Lakewood and [Robert E.] Lee [Elementary], which is on the upswing, are schools everyone is trying to get into,” Kingston says. “Nobody’s trying to get into Mata right now.”

But if Mata becomes a Montessori school on par with the likes of DISD’s George Bannerman Dealey Montessori Vanguard, which is extremely popular with families, that could change entirely, he says.

“The crowding at Stonewall and Lakewood is ultimately going to mean DISD will have to redraw feeder pattern lines, and if that is done in a way that seems to worsen educational opportunities for people in my neighborhood, they’re going to go ballistic,” Kingston says. “I’m not a trustee, but it won’t just be Ross Avenue where they have the pitchforks and torches — it’ll be City Hall.”

His conversations with trustees so far haven’t yielded any clear understanding of the reason why Mata and Mount Auburn are on tonight’s agenda, he says.

“I’d love to hear that explained in words,” Kingston says. “I’ve gotten the sense from people that it has to do with payback and politics.”

If politics do halt plans for Mata and Mount Auburn, Hasbany hopes it will be a temporary stay.

“I’m sure there will be round two, even if we have to hold it off for another year and rework it to please whatever objections I’ve yet to hear but perhaps they have,” she says.

Update at 9:56 p.m.: The board approved an amendment proposed by Trustee Mike Morath to give the administration authority to make grade configurations at both Mount Auburn and Mata. The votes were 6-3 and 6-2-1, respectively. Trustees Bernadette Nutall, Elizabeth Jones and Carla Ranger were the dissenting votes.

Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.