Education

Tomorrow DISD Trustees Decide Their Legacy

Only 158,000 kids are depending on them.

The Verdict is one of my favorite movies. Everyone loves the final courtroom summation given by the beaten-but-not-broken lawyer played by Paul Newman. (“You know, so much of the time, we’re lost.”) It’s wonderful, but I’m partial to a speech he gives early in the film, when he’s trying to woo a woman in a bar, both of them a little drunk. He’s telling her why a jury doesn’t guarantee justice for the politically or culturally vulnerable — only a chance at justice. “Will they get it with your jury?” she asks him.

“They might,” Newman says. “Yes. That’s the point … is that they might … you see, the jury wants to believe. They’re all cynics, sure, because they want to believe. I have to go in there tomorrow to find 12 people to hear this case. I’m going to see a hundred people and pick 12. And every one of them, it’s written on their face, ‘This is a sham. There is no justice …’ but in their heart they’re saying, ‘Maybe, maybe.’”

Maybe what?

“Maybe I can do something right.”

Tomorrow, Dallas ISD trustees are going to take a vote. There are nine of them, not 12. This is not one person who needs help overcoming long odds; it’s 158,000 of them, all kids. The majority of them are brown, a lot of them are black, and almost all of them are poor. And tomorrow we find out if we chose a just jury to decide the fate of those children. Tomorrow, their legacy will be written. We will know if they want to do something right.

Here is what’s at stake:

Tomorrow’s board meeting is a “tax ratification election presentation overview.” The district will present to the board three plans to take to taxpayers, so that those taxpayers can vote on whether they want to continue funding plans that have so far helped DISD teachers and kids produce greatly improved results. The board will vote on either bringing a 13-cent or 6-cent tax increase, or a 2-cent tax swap (tax neutral) to the voters in the November joint election, for the purposes of increasing educational opportunities for students and teacher development and supports.

Recall that we were here just last year. In August 2016, the board was expected to take to voters a Tax Ratification Election, or a TRE, to raise property taxes 13 cents per $100 of valuation. More than 400 districts across Texas have approved a TRE, primarily because the Legislature has done a terrible job of funding schools. (Texas is 36th in the nation in per-pupil funding; the underlying numbers are even worse, especially when you consider that Dallas has the highest child poverty rate of any city with more than 1 million people.) State law says you need a supermajority to put a TRE on the ballot. In Dallas, that means six votes from the board. At the last minute, Lew Blackburn, who had publicly championed the TRE, joined the status quo and voted to not let DISD voters decide whether to fund the programs that are helping kids.

This can’t continue, especially not since DISD will, within a few years, likely meet the criteria of a Robin Hood school, meaning it will have to fork over more than $300 million of its revenue to poorer districts. (I know, I know. It’s absurd, given the crushingly high poverty of nearly 90 percent of Dallas’ student population. But here we are.) To fund the progressive programs, the board needs to ask voters for some sort of tax increase (or for that “tax swap,” which space prevents a full explanation of).

“With the state reducing its share of funding by almost $100 million this year, and with our schools dealing with some of the highest levels of child poverty in the nation, we have to give the citizens of Dallas the opportunity to decide whether they are willing to vote for a relatively small tax increase to fund these programs on a long-term basis,” DISD board president Dan Micciche told me recently. “They’re helping kids and changing lives. It is an investment in the future of Dallas.”

At the time, Micciche was pretty confident he could get the six votes needed — not to do a full 13-cent increase but a 6-cent increase. He cited polling numbers showing the appetite was there among Dallas-area voters to fund these proven programs. He pointed to the supporting facts: of 55 North Texas school districts, DISD has the third-lowest tax rate. With the 6-cent increase, it would have the fourth-lowest.

I’m not so sure now. Behind the scenes, there are all sorts of reasons being given as to why status-quo board members don’t want to let voters decide this issue. It takes every bit of restraint I have in my typing fingers not to chop down those arguments one by one.

But that’s not what I’m here to do today. I’m here to believe that every board member, in her or his heart, wants to do something right. And the district has formulated a plan that should be able to please progressives like me who want innovative programs that help kids continue to get better educations, as well as those concerned about equitable spending, who worry that the money will be properly apportioned.

Take a look at the chart at the top of this post (or see the plan online here). The plan includes a strategy labeled “Funds for Achievement and Racial Equity” (FARE) that would allocate funding to campuses based on need. With a 13-cent TRE, schools in District 5 (Lew Blackburn) get $15 million annually, $7.7 million for schools in District 9 (Bernadette Nutall), Joyce Foreman gets $5 million for District 6, and so on. These are our poorest districts, with the kids most in need. No amount of mental pretzel twisting can obscure the fact that voters must be able to decide whether they want to fund school programs for these kids.

Either tax raise plan (13 cents or 6 cents) would send funds to programs at 41 campuses across the district. And under all three plans (including the tax swap), the strategic priorities would be the same:

• Funds for Achievement and Racial Equity (FARE)
• Expansion of Public School Choice
• Making Middle Grades Work (Middle School Redesign)
• K-12 Literacy
• Gifted and Talented Teacher Development
• Expansion of Extracurricular Opportunities for Students
• Compensation for Staff
• Equity Audit Implementation
• Operations and Deferred Maintenance

Why does it matter which plan they choose, then? Because, obviously, the revenue generated is vastly different under each:

• 13-cent tax increase = $123.2 million
• 6-cent tax increase = $72.1 million
• 2-cent tax swap = $42.5 million

Here’s an example of what that means in the FARE program, the first strategic priority. The funds going to FARE would support supplementary curriculum and instructional programs, building enhancements, student uniforms, and technology upgrades. But the funding levels go from $1,526 per kid with the 13-cent tax raise (at 14 Improvement Required schools and 27 additional campuses) to $671 per kid with the 6-cent raise or the 2-cent swap. That’s a lot of money.

One of the biggest lies in the world of education policy is that money doesn’t matter. It does — especially in education justice, the business of addressing race and class inequities in our system. Nowhere does more money, more resources, more attention, more innovation matter than when educating our most vulnerable children.

There aren’t many moments that define us. We all get second and third chances. We can usually pass the blame to someone else. There’s always a rationalization for the mistakes we’ve made. The smarter we are, the better the rationalization, the easier we sleep.

But this is one of those moments where that won’t do. It’s time to stand up and be counted, trustees. In this world, I no longer believe that seemingly simple decisions about equity, justice, and fairness will be made by our leaders. That’s why I’m worried.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they can do something right.

Comments

  • Jim Schutze

    Great piece. Fingers crossed.

  • Eric Foster

    What are the odds leadership will triumph over political expediency in the current selfish climate?

    • EricCeleste

      Vegas is reporting dynamic movement in the odds. Game-time decision.

  • bbetzen

    Eric Celeste and Jim Schutze, we agree on this one. The only way DISD kids lose is if the transparency an election will require is not allowed to happen.

  • tested123

    The problem is probably not in the vote tonight. It’s in the vote in November. This district is a mess. People don’t like what’s been going on there for years. They don’t trust the leadership. It seems unlikely, to me, that the vote will succeed in November, regardless of whether it’s 6 or 12 cents. The 2 cent swap might work.

    • Rob Shearer

      Not according to more than 2000 surveys of voters across the city by the Strong Schools Strong Dallas Coalition, and independent polling the business community. Voters in Dallas seem to understand that an investment in education will provide Dallas with the highest ROI.