|illustration by Matt Vincent|
Why is D Magazine publishing an entire issue about Dallas public schools?
This project started more than a year ago, in September 2007, when ABC Channel 8 aired a “special investigation” into a group of 166 DISD employees who “jetted off to Canada,” where they gorged themselves on lobster and ogled belly dancers in a place called the Sultan’s Tent. The reporter asked, “What taxpayer wouldn’t surrender all fiscal sensibilities at the drop of a veil?”
Well, as it turned out, the entire five-day trip to the International Reading Conference was paid for with a federal grant, and the Sultan’s Tent is a very respectable restaurant that offers a four-course meal for a reasonable $40. Excluding some late-booking fees for airfare, the employees spent, on average, $300 per person per day—on food, transportation, hotel, everything. Though it was true that five teachers did exceed their meal allowance.
That’s what it boiled down to: the station had launched a special investigation into five teachers who went to a conference and spent too much on food.
In many cases, the Dallas Morning News hasn’t served the city any better with its coverage of the Dallas public schools. Earlier this year, the National School Board Association’s Council of Urban Boards of Education published a study titled “What We Think: Parental Perceptions of Urban School Climate.” One of its key findings: if parents rely on newspapers for information, their opinions about school safety, teacher quality, and academic success are less positive than those of parents who get their information from other sources. Why? One reason is that crime stories in the paper often link a victim or criminal to a nearby school, even if the crime did not occur on school grounds or those involved were no longer students.
Just weeks before that study came out, the Morning News ran this headline: “‘Cheese’ Likely Killed W.T. White Student.” But the deceased hadn’t been an active student at White for about 18 months. The paper ran a correction, but one can safely assume it did little to change the misperceptions reinforced by the erroneous headline.
So D Magazine published this special issue to engage some of those misperceptions, to give a complete picture of what exactly is going on in the district. There are huge problems. The question before us is how to fix them.
Speaking of problems, what about that $84 million the administration misplaced?
The administration did not misplace the money. The short answer is that in an effort to reduce class size, they hired too many teachers. The $84 million was a budget shortfall that resulted from poor management of the district’s payroll. The district has laid off more than 1,000 employees, including 375 teachers, in a effort to remedy the mistake.
How do you make such a gross mistake that it costs 1,000 people their jobs?
First you need to appreciate how large an operation DISD is. The district has an annual budget of about $1.3 billion, and it employs more than 20,000 people. Then you need to understand how antiquated its IT systems had become. For a time, the district was running its operations with an old computer system designed to be Y2K compliant. We all remember what a bogey that was. Then the district bought a massive Oracle Enterprise Resource Planning System—and programmed it to emulate the old Y2K system. There’s more. You can read about it on page 42.
That sounds like a total wreck. How can there be any good news to tell about DISD?
Because despite all the flaws in the administrative systems, the district managed last year to more than double its number of “exemplary” and “recognized” schools, as rated by the Texas Education Agency. Out of its 230 schools, 77 were rated “recognized,” and 26 were rated “exemplary.” You can see a map of them all on page 90.
And because Superintendent Michael Hinojosa and his staff, along with the School Board, are taking the necessary steps to turn the thing around. Just one small example: near this time last year, the district had 200 employees on paid administrative leave. For one reason or another—say, awaiting a disciplinary hearing—they were sitting at home, collecting a paycheck. And it was costing the district $2.5 million. As of September, there were only 38 people on paid administrative leave.
What about all the other wasteful spending I’ve heard about, like all the money they squandered from the last bond to build that huge high school with the steakhouse in it?
That would be Emmett J. Conrad High School, in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood, built in 2006 with money from the 2002 bond. In October, the Morning News published an op-ed piece about DISD’s spending habits written by a fellow named Talmadge Heflin, the director of the Center for Fiscal Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Heflin held up Conrad High as an example of the district’s “lavish” spending on “extravagant new projects.” “At a colossal 325,000 square feet,” Heflin wrote, “the massive new complex is home to 670 students who enjoy almost 500 square feet each. Even more impressive is the interior of the schoolhouse. Featuring a state-of-the art computer room for graphic design, a media center, a technology room, and an on-site steakhouse restaurant, the school boasts some of the best technology and amenities that taxpayer money can buy.”
There were a couple of problems with that. First, the school has about 1,300 students, nearly twice the number claimed by Heflin. Second, that “steakhouse restaurant” was an Outback Steakhouse, a learning laboratory installed as part of the Texas Restaurant Association’s Education Foundation Entrepreneur 101 program, which teaches kids how to cook, manage a food-service operation, and operate their own business. And, sadly, Outback pulled out of the school about a year before Helflin wrote his op-ed.
Overall, the 2002 bond program is on time and on budget. In fact, the district has spent the money so judiciously that it was able to build an additional school with the funds.
My kids are in college. Why should I care about DISD?
Just approach it in economic terms. Let’s say you live in Dallas in a home valued at $540,600 (the average for a D Magazine subscriber). At the current tax rate, that means you’re giving $6,482 per year to the district. You deserve to know how your money is being spent. And the costs of not educating these children are high. Companies base their decisions on whether to move to a city, in part, on the effectiveness of the school system. Those businesses need educated workers. Ask AT&T and Comerica Bank about how important DISD is to Dallas’ future prosperity.
The Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation recently tried to figure out what dropouts cost the state of Texas. The foundation looked at lost revenue from taxes and fees, increased Medicaid costs, and increased incarceration costs. By its estimate, the annual public cost of dropouts is $377 million or, over their expected lifetimes, $19 billion.
In short, you can’t afford not to care.