“Staffordians Dared to Dream the Impossible Dream and Pursue It to Reality…” Mayor Leonard Scarcella, March 25, 2002
By all odds, the Stafford Municipal School District had little likelihood of ever becoming a reality. Nationwide, over 200 communities had attempted a “breakaway” school district. Stafford was the only one to gain an order of the federal courts to implement. How did we succeed when the others failed? The story is one of the most intriguing, and gratifying, in the annals of public education.
It started in the spring of 1976. The Fort Bend I.S.D., where most Stafford children attended school, announced the elimination of bus transportation to and from school for the large majority of these students. Parents and City officials pleaded with the FBISD Board to reinstate the policy of busing which had been available since 1931. The most severely affected of these students were very young, poor, minority, had no other means of getting to school and had to walk across busy highways, and even railroad tracks, to get to school. The Board members rejected the appeal, and in a most infamous statement, said, “If you don’t like what we’re doing, do it yourselves.”
With the town’s people infuriated and the spirit of the national bicentennial of ’76 in the air, Staffordians began their own revolution. That July, the Stafford City Council announced it would study the viability of a municipal school district, which would include the areas of the Houston I.S.D., as well as those in FBISD, that were within the City’s boundaries. Thus began one of the bitterest battles in Texas education history.
After a month of study and a brutal war of words, a committee of citizens and educational experts announced the proposal as feasible. A petition was presented to City Council to call an election. Following an unsuccessful FBISD challenge to the election, which saw busloads of citizens travel to the court hearing in Bay City, Staffordians overwhelmingly voted to create the new district on January 15, 1977. This was a most critical achievement, but it would be 5 years before the doors of the Stafford schools would open.
The governor, attorney general, some prominent state legislators and many in the educational community came out against SMSD. In spite of their distaste for the upstart district and to their dismay, the Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, noting a lack of racial motivation-a prominent element in virtually all other breakaway districts-gave SMSD his seal of approval.
A seven-member school board was appointed by City Council and elections to levy property taxes and to build the school were called for that August. The Board began having public meetings and even adopted a prayer they hoped would bring divine guidance.
The rhetoric, allegations and threats were hotter than the blistering summer days that preceded the vote. Claims were made by FBISD and their sympathizers that if the elections passed, Stafford children would not be allowed to attend FBISD in the fall, or participate in extra-curricular activities, or SMSD would have to pay tens of millions of dollars to FBISD, or all of the above. Proponents of SMSD countered that these were all bogus, which they turned out to be and asserted that election passage would call for: Staffordians to control selection of the entire board, to emphasize books not buildings and teachers not administrators, to have lower taxes and smaller class sizes, to have Stafford taxes educate Stafford children, to have all Stafford children attend one campus and to provide every Stafford student a bus ride to school.
Both elections passed by substantial margins. And FBISD headed straight for the federal courthouse in Houston. The federal district judge assigned the case stated openly that a breakaway district “turned his stomach” and immediately enjoined the new district and its board from proceeding pending trial. After a week long trial in early 1978, the judge issued a stinging opinion prohibiting the further pursuit of the SMSD.
The most natural reaction would have been for Staffordians to lick their wounds and walk off in disgrace. But this was a fight to the finish. No biased judge or high placed public officials would shatter this dream. In spite of cries from most corners for Stafford to concede, the City appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans.
The year that followed before the appeals court heard the case was especially testy. The calls for Staffordians to throw in the towel grew louder. The state legislature got involved, attempting to pass a law that prohibited the creation of a municipal school district. Not only was there concern in Austin about what Stafford was doing, but that the Mayor of Houston had called for exploring the feasibility of a Houston municipal school district. This sent shivers through the nearly two-dozen school districts lying totally or partially within the Houston city limits. The law eventually passed, but not until it was amended due to successful maneuvering by Stafford officials to exclude small districts like SMSD.
The day finally arrived for the oral arguments before the Fifth Circuit. A large group of Stafford citizens made the trip to New Orleans. It was one of the most crucial days in the short history of the fledgling district. William A. Olson, Sr., representing Stafford, gave a brilliant and compelling argument to the panel of judges.
This was indeed a breakaway school district, but unlike the others, it was in no way a white-flight district, and had every right to exist. As the judges left the courtroom, everybody knew that SMSD still had life. The judges’ opinion that followed a few months later confirmed the fact and sent the case back to the Houston federal judge for another hearing.
Nine months passed before the trial. To no one’s surprise, the judge ruled much as he had before and prohibited the creation and operation of SMSD so it was back to the appeals court in New Orleans.
The howling from FBISD sympathizers, including prominent public officials, escalated. Why continue when there was little chance that SMSD would ultimately prevail?
However, Staffordians endured their disparaging, derogatory and often fallacious remarks with a calm resolve. Finally, in early 1981, a new panel of appellate judges, including two who had heard many school cases growing out of the fabled 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, heard the legal arguments. Mr. Olson was again sterling and persuasive. The many Stafford supporters who had flown to New Orleans were so inspired by questions and comments of the jurists an airplane seemed unnecessary to fly home.
On July 30, 1981, the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion that not only ruled SMSD had the right to exist, the judges instructed the Houston federal judge to dissolve his prohibiting orders and allow its implementation. The local, state and national media trumpeted the achievement. Shock and disbelief prevailed at FBISD and in many political and educational quarters. There was much celebrating in Stafford.
Still the fight was not over. The main question: Would FBISD appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court? If not, where would Stafford children go to school until facilities could be built? How long did SMSD have before it must open the new school? Where would the new facilities be located? How would the costs be financed until school taxes could be levied and collected in Stafford? These were just a myriad of questions that swirled in the aftermath of this court decision many considered stunning.
After what seemed an eternity, FBISD announced it would not appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. They did, however, make numerous overbearing demands of SMSD for the transition. Extensive and sometimes acrimonious negotiations with FBISD and the TEA, here and in Austin, followed. One humorous, but productive moment saw the two sides, in an effort to avoid the curious media and public, resort to the discussions in the FBISD Board Room broom closet.
The SMSD Board, shelved for nearly four months by the court injunction, now had to hit the ground running at full speed. Selecting a superintendent, searching for teachers and implementing every aspect of a new school district was their task-all without a dime in the bank.
The City of Stafford, which had orchestrated and financed the entire creation of SMSD, bought an old homebuilder’s warehouse on Cash Road and converted it into an elementary school. The City also acquired a 100-acre tract on Staffordshire Road for a municipal school/complex for the permanent school buildings.
On the morning of August 26, 1982, several busloads of Stafford children rolled into the parking lot of the warehouse-turned-elementary school to the cheers, and tears, of Stafford parents and officials bursting with pride. After a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony, the new teachers escorted their new students into the renovated classrooms for the first day of school in SMSD.