Dallas Public Schools: How Will I Vote on the Bond?

Photo courtesy DISD

Photo courtesy DISD

For $1.6 billion, Dallas ISD says it will build nine new and replacement schools, add almost 300 more classrooms, expand space for pre-K, as well as new science and technology labs. But before that can happen, the district has to sell everyone on a bond election to raise the money.

I’m not going to tell you how to vote, but I’ll tell you how I’m going to vote in the November 3 bond election for Dallas public schools. And furthermore, I’ll tell you why.

A few months ago, I literally drove from one end of the district to the other. I stopped at schools in every single feeder pattern and noticed a common thing – portable buildings. Have you ever been inside one? They’re often nearly windowless, they’re completely devoid of charm, and we also subject our elementary students to walking to them in all the elements.

Almost every single campus has ‘em. One campus has almost 20. And no, this bond election won’t end the scourge of portable buildings, but it will give some feeder patterns and schools some much-needed breathing room through re-opening and building new schools and renovating and adding on to existing schools. It will make sure that students have the opportunity to learn STEM skills in cutting-edge labs. It will make sure that we have enough space to address the ever-growing need for pre-K space.

And the latter, I promise, is something we need to invest in especially. Want to see test scores go up? Improve early education. You’ll have to pack your patience, but when the reading and knowledge gaps are addressed early and kids are reading at grade level by third grade, organically test scores can improve. It’s not rocket science, it’s simply putting the cart and the horse in the appropriate places.

This bond election won’t add one red cent to your tax bill. Not one. And it won’t take away any homestead exemptions. It is fiscally responsible, opting for 20-year financing instead of 30, saving the district half a billion dollars. The bonds will be sold in three installments. And if you want a real indicator of how fiscally conservative this bond package is, the original Parsons’ report on district facilities forecasted a need of $4 billion and change. But the district bean counters and trustees felt more comfortable that $1.6 billion could be repaid safely.

And it comes at a time when the Dallas public schools are in the absolute best financial shape that they’ve been in probably forever. Maybe forever and a day. The district just won the highest distinction a district can earn from the Texas Comptroller Leadership Circle. That Platinum level honor (along with several other nods and accolades the district has gotten regarding its financial state, including an AA+ bond rating from Fitch), should ease folks minds. Also, at the end of last year, the district closed the school year with a $330 million reserve fund balance, which is actually more than the state recommends – another sign that the folks on Ross Avenue are carefully watching expenditures.

So yes, I’m voting for the bond package. I’m voting for giving Dallas students (which, yes, will include my son) the best opportunities for success. I’m voting for something that has been transparently laid out by the district so that anyone and everyone can do their homework (in fact, if you want more homework, you can even go to any one of these forums). I’m voting for a bond package that is a good step in the right direction – maybe not the most adventurous step, maybe not the step everyone loves every part of, but a step that does a good deal to address vital needs for the district.

7 Comment

  • Also, for those who feel like their taxes in Dallas are too high (perhaps moreso than surrounding areas), please don’t penalize Dallas students for the sins of the city and county leadership and their higher tax rates. Disd gets a much smaller percentage of the tax base than most surrounding districts, and a large percentage of the feeding properties are economic disadvantaged (less revenue). It’s important to link educational sucesses in these areas (which will require funding) to economic and tax base growth over time in large swaths of Dallas.

  • I don’t understand:
    – How will this not cost taxpayers? Who is footing the bill?
    – DISD gets 50% more than the national average per student – was none of this money set aside over the years to keep up with school maintenance?
    – I have read elsewhere that DISD is among the very top schools districts in the state, in terms of debt – this would push us to the #1 slot – how is that a good thing?
    – DISD got similar bond funds in 2002 and 2008, and the improvements never quite made it to the North Dallas schools. Will this be different?

    I vote no…

    • – How will this not cost taxpayers? Who is footing the bill?

      It is not free, but it almost certainly will not result in a rate increase. In short, we are paying our current debt ahead, so we are financially able to add to the debt without increasing the tax rate. There is the caveat that this assume very modest home appreciation over the next 20 years (less than an average of 2% a year).

      – DISD gets 50% more than the national average per student – was none of this money set aside over the years to keep up with school maintenance?

      This is simply FALSE. The national average spent per student in public schools is more than $11,000 per student. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=66 The DISD spends about $1,000 LESS per student, at $10,099. http://www.dallasisd.org/cms/lib/TX01001475/Centricity/Domain/48/district_facts.pdf

      – I have read elsewhere that DISD is among the very top schools districts in the state, in terms of debt – this would push us to the #1 slot – how is that a good thing?

      As a practical matter, the DISD is going to be number one or two no matter what because it is the second largest school district in Texas. Houston will likely leapfrog DISD at its next bond. They approved a $1.89 billion bond three years ago, and will likely pass another bond 3-4 years from now. No one suggests being in debt is a good thing, but the alternative of simply not funding our schools is a worse option. We simply have stripped school budgets of the money to maintain or build new facilities without debt.

      – DISD got similar bond funds in 2002 and 2008, and the improvements never quite made it to the North Dallas schools. Will this be different?

      Most funds from the previous two bonds went south, but there are two very good reasons for this. First, there are far more students there (e.g. District 9 has twice as many students as District 2). Second, because Dallas’s terrible history of racism, we largely ignored school infrastructure for 50 years in the south. That is a hole that it takes some time to dig out of. This bond program is fairly well balanced, and is benefits several northern schools. E.g. Woodrow Wilson, Hillcrest, Bryan Adams are all getting significant additions. http://www.dallasisd.org/site/handlers/filedownload.ashx?moduleinstanceid=51490&dataid=61475&FileName=FFTFNewSchoolsAdditions092515byHSFeeder.pdf

  • After reading both comments, I see problems that all DISD students face, regardless of any bond program.
    You say they are getting less tax money from the city than surrounding towns – that clearly says our city manager and council don’t seem to care about Dallas’ schools. BIG problem! And, building new buildings won’t make that go away.
    Then I read that DALLAS schools (students) perform less well than most of TEXAS???? Whoa! Seems we need cleaning out at the top, fewer top ‘jobs,’ perhaps even breaking up the DISD into 3-4 smaller districts. I’ve heard about the extreme corruption within the DiSD — and not being able to break it up was a major factor in Miles decision to leave.
    Seems to me, all of this needs intense scrutiny with solutions before we hand over more money for them to mismanage.

    • [After reading both comments, I see problems that all DISD students face, regardless of any bond program.
      You say they are getting less tax money from the city than surrounding towns – that clearly says our city manager and council don’t seem to care about Dallas’ schools. BIG problem! And, building new buildings won’t make that go away.]

      The city has no say in DISD taxes, nor does the DISD have any say in Dallas City taxes. Simply put, the DISD has a lower tax rate than any district other than Highland Park because middle and upper class Dallas residents care far less about public education because of our rush to private schools after desegregation. I am quite confident that if the majority of upper class parents living in the DISD’s boundaries had students in the DISD, the tax rate would be higher. But we don’t for the most part, so we give the DISD less to work with. Ignoring the education of other people’s children is easy to justify, but also terribly short sighted.

      [Then I read that DALLAS schools (students) perform less well than most of TEXAS???? Whoa! Seems we need cleaning out at the top, fewer top ‘jobs,’ perhaps even breaking up the DISD into 3-4 smaller districts. I’ve heard about the extreme corruption within the DiSD — and not being able to break it up was a major factor in Miles decision to leave.]

      The DISD does fine when you account for where the kids start. Middle class kids do as well or outperform the middle class kids from other districts. Poor kids do as well or outperform the poor kids from other districts. But when 95% of the kids are poor, start out without knowing their letters and numbers, many not living in a home where English is spoken, the “average” is going to be skewed. You measure performance based on the difference between inputs and outputs, not from the outputs alone.

      Breaking up the DISD is not an option for a host of reasons.

      And there is no evidence of “extreme corruption” within the DISD. That’s just conventional wisdom among the private school class to justify their decision to cut the DISD from funding, fueled by a media that makes its money selling scandal rather than facts, and a tiny group of anti-reform teachers who seem willing to burn down the entire DISD before they allow certain reforms proposed by Miles.

      [Seems to me, all of this needs intense scrutiny with solutions before we hand over more money for them to mismanage.]

      There is a terrible irony in your approach, one that is well illustrated by this bond. The view is that the DISD needs to show that it can perform as well as a suburban school district before we give it the same type of support as a suburban school district. We’ve neglected the DISD for 50 years. That’s on us, not the district. And then we give it something, e.g. the 2002 and 2008 bonds, and seem surprised that it was not enough even though any reasonable analysis would have told you it wasn’t enough when they passed.

      This bond is a great example of our outsized expectations and our cheapness disguised as generosity. The DISD needs more than $4 billion over the next 10 years just to get its current buildings into “good” shape. That doesn’t account for any population growth. This bond is for $1.6 billion, and must last for at least 6 years before another bond. But if this passes, there will be people like you saying “WHOA! We just gave you $1.6 billion and the schools aren’t in good shape. What did you do, waste the money?” We already know that $1.6 billion isn’t enough to get the schools into good shape. If your measurement of the DISD’s performance is going to be whether the schools are all in good shape at the end of the bond, you need to let them pass a $4 billion bond. But we all know actually increasing taxes is not even remotely an option. So we demand to have our cake and eat it too.

  • mm

    Sorry, Jay and Carolyn. I’m going to need you to show your work. “I read somewhere” is not showing your work.

    IF you can show me facts from a source that doesn’t pretty much just hate DISD, I’ll consider talking.

  • Proclaiming that the district has “issues” (corruption/mismanagement/too large, etc) as a reason to not pass the current bond issue is nonsensical. It’s the same as saying, our family is in debt so we just won’t buy groceries until we pay everything off. Just as you have to take care of the basic necessity of feeding your family while you fix the problem of your debt, so to does the district have to take care of the basic necessity of housing children in safe and suitable buildings (did you see that S Oak Cliff High School had a roof leak yesterday during the rain storm; the roof is an item listed in the bond packaged to be replaced) while it also addresses any “issues/problems” it might have. If we wait until the district is perfect…well, I just don’t see that happening. Let’s do the best with what we have now.