Story of the School Year: Does the Tax Man Cometh For DISD?

How are we going to pay for these Destination 2020 reforms?

Prepping for the school board briefing today — always a last-minute studier — and I came across something that made me say whoa, Neo-style.

It wasn’t that the agenda now has suggested time-limits for discussion topics. That’s nice, but that’s not big news. It’s not that someone is going to present ERG data on the district’s surprising 2013-14 improvement in student outcomes (when you normalize for poverty). That will be instructive, but it’s not news (as, you see from the previous link, I already wrote about it). No, what made me go all Keanu was a chart in the “Programs and Facilities” PDF for Destination 2020.

Open that up, the one that says “Programs and Facilities,” and you’ll see that it talks about three key elements of Mike Miles’ updated Destination 2020 plan: early childhood education (huge, important, game-changing); school choice (which Miles talks about with me in-depth here); and teacher/principal retention and recruitment (the next important phase, after TEI, the teacher merit pay system, of his quality staffing plans). This is not surprising, and we’ll be talking a lot about each one of these during the school year.

But then I came to page 20. Therein lies the whoa:

MoneyMoney

That’s the estimated cost for these new key programs for the five years beginning in 2015-16: $20-plus million, $43-plus million, $50 million … these are not tiny numbers. Then, add to those costs the numbers on the lower portion of the chart, which show how much the district needs for future facilities and maintenance under the Destination 2020 plan. It’s REALLY not a small number. We need nearly $60 million in 2014-15, more than $205 million in 2015-16, $50 million-plus the two years after that, and more than $1.2 billion the two years after that. Oh, that doesn’t count the long-term maintenance, so just add another $100 million to 2016-20. (For context, remember that DISD’s annual budget with special revenue funds included is $1.7 billion and change.)

Dumb question time: Where is all that new money coming from?

The state is awash in money, sure. We may get another infusion of cash from Austin like we got a few years ago. Let’s say that’s $30 million. Hell, let’s say that’s $40 million. That doesn’t come close to paying these bills.

That leaves us with what?

I don’t know, but I like to gamble, and I have a bet as to where that leaves us: with another acronym. I think we’re about to get ourselves a TRE. A Tax Ratification Election. We vote for a higher tax rate to pay for these programs, is where this leaves us.

I could be wrong. I’m just piecing this together, I’ve only had one cup of coffee, and I’m not very bright. But if I’m right — hoo, boy. We’ve got a real grown-up, put-the-kids-to-bed discussion we’re about to have as a city.

We SAY we want DISD to improve. We SAY we want reform. But are we willing to tote the note? I think that’s the question we’re about to face this year.

Maybe I’m off-base. Maybe Mike Miles and his CFO, Jim Terry, have already stashed the cash under a mattress that I don’t know about. Maybe there’s an empty gymnasium on some campus filled with Coinstar machines, and they’ve been dumping pennies in them like crazy for years. Maybe Miles will do a magician’s-style fancy hands, then, poof, there’s a winning Mega Millions ticket. Or maybe we’re about to see if we’re willing to put our money where our children’s mouths are.

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