Suggestions for Home Rule Commission No. 6 — Ballot Petitions

Why we should require more of our trustee candidates than just filling out a form.


Some people have asked me why I’m making these home rule charter suggestions, especially since the larger media companies in town have basically stopped covering the process. A lot of reasons, really. If I may get all serious on you for a moment … here’s one, written by someone who offered an excellent explanation for why discussing home rule is important:

It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.

Okay, he wasn’t talking about home rule, but it’s at least somewhat applicable. And that, my friends, was written by Alexander Hamilton, arguably the greatest American in history (so long as you don’t deduct points for affairs). This quote comes from the opening of The Federalist Papers, which argued the reasons we needed to adopt a new constitution for our country.

This is the relevant thing about home rule: It is our chance as a city to write a new constitution for Dallas ISD. Quoting a speaker from this weekend’s public home rule meeting, it’s the chance we have to tell the story of our public school system, and by doing so how we hope to achieve that system’s one overriding goal: improving educational outcomes for all DISD students. It’s the job of the home rule commissioners to draft this constitution, a charter document much like the city’s charter. But we will decide whether it seems likely to improve the education of our children.

Many think that home rule isn’t necessary. I heard several of them speak on Saturday. They say that any talk of governance reform is irrelevant to the task of educating our kids, since there will still be so many of the same challenges in our classrooms after any governance reform enacted by home rule occurs. These people are right to think that those challenges are critical, and that many will remain. They are wrong, though, in discounting the importance of our system of governance in its impact on children. Leadership structure matters. How do I know this? For one, there is extensive research on the subject that says it matters (much of which I cited in this post). But for another, there is the example of the U.S. Constitution.

Remember, the U.S. started under the Articles of Confederation. It was the first constitution of the country, and it didn’t really work. It had a bunch of rules in terms of how our representatives were chosen and what powers they had. It lacked the ability to elect a president. (Much like we lack the ability to elect a board president). It had lots of other problems, too. The Founding Fathers came together and decided they’d go all home rule on a national scale. Carrying this to its logical conclusion, I suppose we’ll have to start referring to our home rule commissioners as Founding Fathers. Shirley Ison-Newsome is sort of our wise Ben Franklin, the one who had seen it all by the time of the constitutional convention. Marcus Ranger is kinda our crazy Aaron Burr, who shot Hamilton. (I’ll work on a video short along these lines.)

On a local scale, this home rule process is designed to help us think in a similar way about how we want to govern our school systems.

Back to specific concerns/suggestions. One challenge I’ve heard is the following: How do we get the best and brightest people on the school board?

Some think we ought to pay trustees. Maybe this would help, but I’m not so sure. (I know, I’m the guy who advocated for $100,000 city council salaries. I’m working on a post about why the school board and city council are completely different and should be viewed as such.) There is research that suggests that a) public officials who are paid will be more active in writing policy and perhaps more meddlesome in operations (okay in City Hall, bad in a large urban school system), and b) higher pay for elected officials doesn’t have any impact on outcomes.

I’ve also heard that we should require a high school diploma or a college degree of candidates. I’m not sure how legal this is. Beyond the issues with Johnny Law, when I think of some of the extraordinarily brilliant, driven people that I’ve met who lack either a high school diploma or a college degree, and likewise some of the tremendous dolts I know who have college degrees (shout-out to my lawyer friends!), I wonder whether this would help.

I’ve also heard this (somewhat related) idea: We should only put former teachers on the board, otherwise our leadership has no idea how its policies might work in a classroom. On its face, it sounds reasonable. It’s certainly emotionally appealing. Research, and my own take on how employees often make the worst managers, doesn’t really support this approach. (I’m biased, because journalists usually have terrible ideas about how to improve journalism and are ignorant of the industry’s basic operations.) Portions of this report note problems with former teachers as board members:

Rather surprisingly, board members whose professional background is in public education (former teachers or other school-system employees) are less knowledgeable about district conditions than their counterparts who are not former educators. They are much more likely to say that school finances are a major barrier to academic achievement and that raising teacher pay is central to improving achievement in their district—regardless of the actual level of funding or relative generosity of teacher pay in their districts. In contrast, board members without an occupational background in K–12 education display more accurate knowledge of actual district conditions when it comes to finance, teacher pay, and other areas.

Not exactly a recipe for raising student outcomes in a belt-tightening environment. Again, though, who knows? Maybe it would work in the long run. The research doesn’t correlate to outcomes, just to policy positions. Although I’m not sure how legal it is to require a specific professional background for candidates seeking office.

Any other options? Glad you asked.

Idea No. 6: Require Signatures to Get on the Ballot

I say we take a page out of the City of Dallas Home Rule Charter. You can’t run for city council in Dallas unless you file a petition signed by at least 5 percent of the number of people who voted for Mayor in that district (with a minimum being 25). Basing the school district’s petition requirement solely on the votes for Dallas mayor would be a problem in places like Addison or Wilmer which are also included in Dallas ISD, so we would need to tweak it a bit. We could look at the requirements for pretty much every other type of elected official in the state. For independent candidates, it’s 5 percent of the turnout in the most recent gubernatorial election within that district, or a minimum of 500 voters. For candidates on a party’s ballot, they can simply pay a fee (starting around $750 and going up from there).

Think about that: To run for Dallas County Commissioner, you have to file a petition signed by 500 people. The county commissioners control a budget that is a bit under $500 million per year. Dallas ISD trustees control a budget that is almost $1.7 billion per year, and they sometimes get fewer than 500 votes in their campaign, much less require 500 signatures to obtain a spot on the ballot. To run for the school board, all you have to do is fill out a form. No petition. No fee. Put pen to paper and you’re ready to run.

Why is it a good idea to require prospective candidates to fill out a petition with some number of signatures to obtain a spot on the ballot? In the past three election cycles, we’ve had candidates run for office who think Sodomites are running the school system, who don’t know what pre-k is (can’t find a link, but it happened at SMU at a District 4 debate a few years ago), and who don’t know what a GPA is. None of those people won, thankfully. But there is a cost to spending so much of our time discussing crap like this rather than substantive reforms that help kids.

Nothing will eliminate all the nonsense. I get that. But it seem wise to require a candidate for the largest taxing entity in local government — with direct oversight over 160,000 children — to demonstrate that there is at least a few people who don’t think they are absolutely cray-cray. This is the case for every other elected office in the state of Texas, but not for our candidates for the Dallas ISD school board.

How many signatures should we require? If we required 5 percent of registered voters, that would be at least 1500 signatures. That seems way too high. If we required 5 percent of the most recent turnout of gubernatorial races, as is the case for other offices, that could be as low as 500 signatures.

Given Dallas ISD voting history, this still seems like a high bar. The city council requires 25 signatures. That seems too low, though – council districts have fewer people than trustee districts, the city’s taxing authority is far lower than the district’s, and the city has far fewer employees.

Let’s go with the Celeste compromise: A minimum of 100 signatures.

Getting 100 people to agree that you aren’t crazy, that you’re competent enough to seek office … at least that takes some work. If you pull that off, it says something about you. Not necessarily that you will be a competent elected official, or even a positive agent of change for our children. But at least it says you aren’t egregiously incompetent or demonstrably nuts. Which means we are less likely to have public debates about our school system turned into grandstanding theaters of the absurd. That would be good news for our kids.




Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.