IN THE DALLAS Independent School District bond election February 12, the ballot will present the usual legalese. But voting booth semantics about “authorization to issue general obligation bonds” shouldn’t obscure what this election really is all about: a chance to save the Dallas public schools.
This is a bricks-and-mortar election, with almost $200 million earmarked for renovation and new construction. By no means are these “country club” improvements; most of the money will be used to relieve overcrowding, replace leaky roofs and buckling floors, add smoke alarms and remove asbestos.
Upkeep of the DISD properties, say bond proponents, is merely a matter of common sense. The 213 school facilities have a book value of approximately $328 million (exclusive of land value) and have an estimated replacement cost of $1.2 billion.
Voters will be participating in what amounts to a referendum on the DISD and, more specifically, on Supt. Linus Wright’s performance.
Since succeeding the controversial Nolan Estes in 1978, Wright has worked to restore public faith in DISD by making schooling more intellectually rigorous. Notable policies include elimination of social promotion, stricter attendance requirements, increased instruction time, extra instruction for substandard students, improved reports to parents and innovative teaching approaches to meet diverse curricular requirements and student needs.
Individually, none of these reforms seems particularly earth-shaking, but as a whole they constitute a commitment to education that’s rare today in American cities.
The tragic pattern of urban public school systems has been one of increasing white flight, shrinking tax bases and slackening public support for quality schooling. The results are miserable standardized test scores by a generation of students who have only a tenuous grasp of the most basic skills.
The beginning of the 1984-85 school year saw an important milestone for the DISD: For the second year, attendance actually increased, and did so even in some mostly Anglo neighborhoods. This faith in the Dallas schools was a long-awaited sign that DISD reforms had captured parents’ attention.
Supt. Wright says “half of the growth in enrollment has come in the northern part of the district.” He adds that “this is creating good feelings in North Dallas” about the schools. This new enrollment pattern, Wright says, “is a signal to North Dallas families that the DISD is interested in meeting their educational needs.”
Enrollment trends have important political ramifications. In any Dallas election, the heaviest voter turnout is in the northern precincts. If parents in these predominantly upper-income Anglo areas keep their children out of the DISD, they are unlikely to throw their tax dollars behind a new bond program. But if these parents (many of whom could afford to send their children to private schools) renew their trust in public education, they can be expected to accompany their commitment with much-needed votes.
SCHOOL SYSTEMS-how they are run, how they educate-are unfailingly controversial, and opposition to the DISD bond is certain to arise. A principal base of discontent can be found in Dallas’ black community. Some black leaders (most notably businessman Pettis Norman) have been waging a vitriolic war against the DISD board and Supt. Wright. Norman and his colleagues argue that black children are being shortchanged because they receive inferior teaching in inferior schools. Norman claims the encouraging DISD test score reports are phony and black children have made little progress.
Winning the black vote will be a major challenge to the pro-bond forces. Some black leaders support the effort (as evidenced by the naming of former State Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson as a co-chairman), but campaign strategists cannot afford to rely solely on endorsements that might emerge from the often rancorous power struggles among black politicians. The real keys to the black vote are black parents who know that regardless of the election results, their children will be going to DISD schools.
These parents usually don’t have the option of withdrawing students from DISD and sending them to private schools. If campaigners can reach such parents with arguments about how bond-funded improvements will affect their children’s lives, politics might take a back seat to self-interest.
Wright says the DISD campaign should win black support because “this bond proposition signals a commitment by the community to black children’s education and a commitment to bridge any gaps in education” other groups might be receiving. Defending the DISD’s record, Wright says, “black children in Dallas are achieving as well as in any community I’m aware of.”
More opposition to the bond package will come from the hard-core anti-tax faction that is present in every local election. Anti-tax leaders are likely to find support among voters who have no direct interest in the DISD and thus are least likely to impose more taxes to fund the bond program.
Another opposition force will likely be the voters who believe that promises made during the last DISD bond campaign in 1976 weren’t kept. These people argue that the deterioration of schools wouldn’t have reached its current state if the 1976 money had been used properly and that taxpayers shouldn’t assume additional indebtedness. In response, current DISD supporters say the 1976 campaign was part of another era. The Wright administration, they argue, delivers its promises.
All these opposition blocs are unlikely to unify, but their separate efforts could defeat the DISD in a low-turnout election. Supporters, anticipating this opposition, are running a full-scale political operation that takes nothing for granted.
Chairing the campaign is longtime civic leader Rodger Meier. On Meier’s team are political sage Enid Gray and other bond-election veterans. Former Dallas Chamber of Commerce staff member Scherry Johnson directs day-to-day operations. Betty Von-dracek coordinates campaign efforts of Positive Parents, a DISD boosters’ organization that is providing a cadre of volunteers.
Even the shaping of the bond package itself showed political acumen. In February 1983, the DISD board appointed a Task Force on Facilities, chaired by Woodbine Development Corp. president John Scovell, to determine the refurbishment and construction needs. Added to this task was the politically sensitive job of assigning priorities: determining which schools would be the beneficiaries of a bond election.
After extensive research and on-site studies, the Task Force held 20 open hearings that drew about 4,000 people. Questionnaires collected at the meetings were incorporated in the Task Force’s deliberations. The process was long and complicated, but Scovell and his colleagues knew it was essential to the legitimacy of their report. A closed-door determination of needs would have been expedient but politically disastrous. From the hearings and other Task Force work, a list of priorities and funding needs emerged: 1. “critical need schools” that require immediate replacement ($19.2 million); 2. health and safety ($19.6 million); 3. deferred repair and maintenance ($35.6 million); 4. major renovations ($26.3 million); 5. new buildings ($44.2 million); 6. secondary building additions ($10.3 million); 7. elementary building additions ($27.1 million); and 8. South and West Dallas building renovations in preparation for return to neighborhood schools ($13.2 million). After receiving final school board approval, this list became the request for bond funding.
Looking back on the Task Force’s process, Scovell says: “The community provided us a sounding board and feedback. The public knows their schools, they gave us direction and let us know their priorities. We educated them and they educated us. The meetings enabled us to let the public know how the budget works and specifically what we can and cannot do with bond money and other funds.”
Since so many potential voters are not DISD parents and “non-users” of the school improvements, the campaign theme had to appeal to voters in terms encompassing more than direct self-interest. Thus, the argument in favor of the bond proposal has evolved to one in support of the entire community. The principal thesis is that a city cannot survive without a strong public school system; if the schools deteriorate, so will the city.
This is not a groundless emotional appeal. A problem endemic to urban America is the flight from city to suburb by the affluent. As they leave-taking their tax-paying ability with them-a city must try to maintain services with a shrunken tax base. Of course, this doesn’t work.
A major reason for city flight is parents’ lack of confidence in urban public schools. Buffeted by court orders, busing, and fiscal crises, many city school systems can’t deliver schooling comparable to that offered in less-distracted suburbs. As attendance figures indicate, the DISD might be reversing this trend. The bond program’s supporters argue that the system’s economic health and that of the community depend on the DISD proposition passing. A yes vote, so the argument goes, will help keep current DISD students in the system and, just as important, will convince prodigals to return. In the long run, keeping present and future homeowners in the DISD is essential.
Despite the carefully planned and well-funded campaign, the DISD bond money remains at the mercy of uncontrollable forces. For instance, public resentment about judicial interference with administration of the schools works against a yes vote. This resentment is more than a deep-rooted dislike of busing and the resulting demise of neighborhood schools. It also arises from a bitter sense of betrayal, a belief that judges have usurped roles traditionally played by parents and educators in shaping children’s schooling.
If parents believe desegration lawsuits and judges will continue to use the schools as laboratories for social and political experimentation, this bond program (and the school system in general) will be in jeopardy. A ray of hope is that a few judges, notably federal District Judge Barefoot Sanders, know that political realism must be a part of the administration of justice.
Although some Dallas activists seem unhappy unless they are in the midst of perpetual litigation, the courts are backing away from the notion that busing is a panacea. Judges also are recognizing that parents want their children to go to school in their own neighborhoods.
If no new court-related controversy erupts, voters may give Dallas schools a new lease on life. The public mood about Dallas generally is bullish. The DISD bond campaign is based on the notion that the fates of the community and its schools are inseparable. If voters accept that, February 12 should prove to be a good day for the DISD.