How the School Board Threw Away $50 Million Last Night

Wherein I try to say noting bad about trustees who made dumb decisions

I’m going to try to tell you what happened late last night/this morning at the Dallas ISD school board meeting without saying anything personal about individual school board members. That will be tough, because I was really bummed about how last night went down. But I’ve successfully been beaten down to the point where expressing my rage at what I consider stupid DISD trustee decisions seems like someone yelling in an empty room. So I’ll just try to stick to discussing what happened and why I think it was a bad decision for the district, parents, teachers, and kids.

[Give me a minute. This is new for me.]


This update from last night by Tawnell gives you the relevant facts. Actually, the entire post makes a nice recap:

Dallas ISD trustees voted against buying the Exxon Mobil tower on Stemmons Freeway to house administrative offices early Friday.

DISD administrators had recommended buying the building for $20 million. An additional $8 million would have been needed for first year renovations to occupy the first seven floors of the 15 story building.

Some trustees argued that fixing problems with school buildings should come first. There also was concern about the accuracy of possible savings in the deal, which would have included closing some DISD buildings and moving those employees to the tower.

Trustees ended an hours-long discussion on the matter at about 1 a.m. Friday. The measure failed in a 5-3-1 vote, with board President Miguel Solis and trustees Nancy Bingham and Mike Morath voting for it. Trustee Elizabeth Jones was present but did not vote.

Superintendent Mike Miles had implored trustees to approve the building purchase, but to no avail.

Why get upset over this, you ask? After all, this is not the first time (in fact, it’s the third time) the district has had its request for a new administration building denied. And despite my previous yelling-into-that-empty-room complaint about the logic of denying the administration a new building in which it can consolidate operations, the administration keeps coming back with better offers. So the next offer will be amazeballs, right?

I don’t think so. I think we, the taxpayers, have finally lost the chance to realize $50 million-plus in savings (which could have been diverted back into school facility maintenance, etc.). Also, we’ve lost the chance to get rid of a huge liability the district has when trying to attract and retain top talent: the horrific, spread out administration office footprint that currently exists.

So, let’s look at what I wrote the last time this happened, because it’s still relevant.

On the school board briefing agenda this week is yet another look at a building that DISD may purchase to consolidate many of its administrative offices — this time the former Belo Building. This follows a recent attempt to do so that got derailed because, hey, our schools need more money, why are we spending it on pretty office towers for Fat Cats!?

This is a colossally stupid way to evaluate such a move. The consolidation is being explored for sound financial and business reasons, all laid out in this report. The takeaway is pretty straightforward: DISD administrative buildings are in need of $221 million in immediate repairs. Given that buying a new building for (in this case) $25 million would not only partially solve that problem (you’d still need to put money in to sell the properties, I assume), AND it would help alleviate the wild-ass inefficiency caused by having 2,000 employees in 2.1 million square feet spread over 32 buildings, it’s a no-brainer.

Last night was same as it ever was. A deal was available for $20 million plus repairs. (Remember, $25 million for a new building purchase had already been approved by the board last school year to be in the year’s budget.) This new office was just off Stemmons, not in the CBD, so the complaints from last time — about parking, that this somehow benefitted Mike Rawlings’ cronies (seriously; that was one of the theories thrown out by the DISD black-copter crowd) — were not relevant. Even the one concern that I thought was legitimate — that it wasn’t near a DART rail station — I later found out was moot because DART had already agreed to run as many shuttle busses as necessary from the nearest rail station to the new DISD campus. The most important part of the equation: Over 20 years, this deal would save the district $50 million at a minimum. That is, using the most conservative estimates available, if evaluated only on a dollars-saved basis, this move puts tens of millions of dollars back into the district.

Now, there are other very obvious reasons to approve this deal. But let’s ignore those and just focus on that last part. This deal was a cut-and-dried slam-dunk on dollars saved alone, even if it did not help improve efficiency, the work environment, or help the district recruit or retain top talent. It is the no-brainer-iest of no-brainers.

After three hours of debate, though, the board vote to approve the purchase of the new admin building failed 3-5-1. I know why this happened. I know the financial/political/social/moral/spiritual/ecumenical reasoning of the board members that led to this vote. But I can’t keep my promise about not getting personal if I discuss why this vote went down the way it did. So just know that it happened.

[Collapses from blood rush to throbbing forehead; takes pill that softens the edges of life, makes it all better, continues typing.]

Now, the real question is, “Do the arguments against this deal hold water?”

Of course not. But before I point out why the arguments were full of holes, let me chide the administration. This was a pretty poor presentation to the board. The numbers presented tried to show how transparent CBRE (the real estate agents) and DISD were being by showing the full range of possibilities (renovations might cost this little but maybe THIS much; we might get this much by selling our current properties or THIS LITTLE), but it had the effect of looking like, “Welp, it’s really hard to say how much this will really cost or how much we’ll make back from our own properties. But trust us anyway!”

When dealing with a panel one-third packed with anti-administration status-quo defenders, this proved a losing strategy. Because all you needed was one sane person to do something nutty and … sorry. I can’t go down this road. I promised.

THAT said, it didn’t take a finance major to see that even the worst-case scenarios meant the district would save a minimum of $50 million over the life of this deal, once you figured on repair monies saved on current dilapidated properties and profits from sale of same. (Trustee Mike Morath, who does have a finance degree, went through these numbers to make sure the board realized it was essentially throwing that money away if it didn’t vote to approve, because this deal is now going to another bidder and will not be re-presented to DISD.)

The naysayers brought up several silly arguments I’ve addressed before. One was that we should be spending money on kids and schools instead. (We’ve spent nearly $1billion on that since the last bond.) Where, one trustee asked, is the research that shows the administration buildings are in worse shape than other school buildings. (It’s here.) What’s wrong with a spread out workforce? (Research and top businesses realize it hinders efficiency and collaboration.) Why not build our own? (Because we get at a minimum six more years of excessive upkeep, potential workplace liability, and inefficiencies … PLUS a new building is going to cost minimum $125 million all in.)

Most important to me, besides the cost savings, is how much this would have helped in the recruiting and retaining of top leadership talent. Look, the current administration buildings average 60 years old. Several are in pathetic condition. HR is split into two different sites, one of which used to be a grocery store. The IT department can’t compete with anyone for quality applicants or to keep its best people when they have to fix a water leak by drilling a hole in the floor to let the water seep out of their offices. (A story Morath mentioned last night.) It’s not at all uncommon for top applicants to Dallas ISD to never return for a second interview once they see where they’ll be housed.

The populist squealers and status-quo chanters won’t acknowledge this, but leadership matters in organizations. And telling leaders you don’t even value them enough to save $50 million to help release them from their workplace squalor sends a depressing, all-too-familiar message to the district. It is a dumb move by a board that acts as though it thinks its job is to go to war with DISD employees. Today I ask again: Given decisions like that, given the career-assassins that currently stock the board looking for administration victims, why would anyone come here and try to help turn this district around?




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