Dallas Public Schools: Now, About That 13 cents

Dallas ISD will likely ask voters to approve a 13-cent property tax increase in November, its first in almost a decade. (Photo by Flickr/Stuart Pilbrow

Dallas ISD will likely ask voters to approve a 13-cent property tax increase in November, its first in almost a decade. (Photo by Flickr/Stuart Pilbrow)

Hooboy. I’ve gotten some heated emails about the Dallas Independent School District’s announcement that it would be asking voters for a 13-cent increase in property taxes come November.

And I get it. But I also think that many of the folks that emailed me, or that I’ve seen railing against it on social media, have only read the headline. Why do I think this?

Because frankly, all they know is that it’s going up. They can’t tell you how much. They can’t tell me how the measure will be structured. They can’t even tell me if the current rate is too high, or too low.

So it’s clear we need to unpack this. If you want some excellent reasons and information, Eric Celeste and Corbett Smith have already outlined quite a bit. And let me say upfront that as a homeowner, I’m not too jazzed about my bill going up. But as I’ve said elsewhere while hiding in my car from my family while recording a podcast, education is infrastructure. And we have to start treating it like infrastructure.

I know we just passed a bond. But if you do or don’t recall, many felt that bond election should’ve included a small tax increase then, to expand pre-K. It didn’t, because people felt that if a tax was attached, people would vote no on the whole thing.

But if you read no other paragraph than this, read this one: You do not have to vote yes for the entire 13-cent increase. Yes, everyone that knows what’s going on in Dallas ISD would like and hope you do vote for it. But three proposals will go to the voters: a 5-cent increase to fund pre-K expansion, a 4-cent increase to increase the college prep program that will ensure that more district graduates graduate with two years of free college under their belts, and a 4-cent increase to fund teacher pay increases and incentives for some of the district’s best educators that agree to go some of the district’s lowest-performing schools.  Again, that totals 13 cents. But you don’t have to vote yes for all of it (but seriously, you should).

In the coming weeks, I’ll take a closer look at each proposal separately, to arm you with some more information so you can make your decision. But for now, I thought I would answer some of the common questions or, uh, rather, indignant responses I’ve gotten this week:

“My property taxes are already too high.” Your property taxes are probably higher than you’d like. But your property taxes are not wholly made up of Dallas ISD. When you get that bill, you’re paying for county services, city services, hospital districts, community college districts and various and assorted other entities that are allowed by the state to levy property taxes. Dallas ISD’s portion is actually much lower than most every other district in the area currently, with a combined rate of $1.28. The largest chunk of that tax has remained the same for a decade. We’d all do well not to become more educated about what makes up our total property tax bill, and become more informed consumers and investors in the entities we support with our tax money.

“I’m just going to move out of Dallas ISD to another area so I don’t get taxed to death.” Respectfully, good luck with that. Your local options are Azle, Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Godley and Highland Park ISD – the only districts with lower tax rates than Dallas ISD. In fact, in a recent op-ed in the Dallas Morning News, it was revealed that Dallas ISD has the fourth-lowest property tax rate in the 55 school districts found in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. If you want to check for yourself, here’s a pretty good rundown on the property tax rates in the area.

School districts all over Texas (including Frisco ISD, which is asking voters to approve a 13-cent tax hike this month) are already asking for or will ask their voters to help them out with tax increases. Twenty-eight local districts have already passed increases.

“We just passed a bond. The district just needs to do a better job with its money and use some of that.” OK, no, seriously. For one, you can’t use bond money for anything other than what you told the voters on the ballot you would use it for. So if you pass a bond for construction, you have to use it for construction. You can’t buy pencils or chalk or pay teachers out of that bond. It’s an entirely separate kitty. For two, as I’ve stated before, the district has been in great shape recently. But without looking seriously at shoring up new funding, we may not always be in great shape, and that has almost nothing to do with how it spends its money – it has to do with the crazypants ways our state underfunds and weirdly funds education. If you really want to do something about the state funding sources for Dallas ISD, contact your state legislators and give them an earful.

“I don’t want to be stuck with this bill, and 13 cents is too much.” Listen, I think the district hears you loud and clear. Honestly, in all my years of covering municipalities and school districts, this is some of the most transparent money-asking I’ve seen in some time. Voters get an ala carte menu to choose from and the tax increases won’t stick around past 2022 if the district doesn’t meet accountability thresholds in each category. That’s right – the tax goes away if this doesn’t work.

And if it does, we’re all paying for a better product. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we want? An educated local workforce and a district that is a point of pride for the city it serves, a reason people move here? There are 160,000 students who will eventually be adults here in Dallas. Some of us will be working with those students. Don’t you want to work with the best and the brightest? I know I do.

And here’s another thought: Several years ago I was covering a small town. And its tax base was small, too. But its bills were the typical bills you incur when running a town. So they applied for a lot of grants. But the time came when they had to raise property taxes, and the city administrator explained to the town council that one of the overwhelming things he heard as feedback from agencies and organizations that award grants is that they looked for municipalities that were already doing their dead-level best, and part of that was dead-level best included a look at the tax rate for the city or town, to see if they were already putting in their share towards the maintenance and upkeep of their town.

So really, have we been doing that with Dallas ISD? If our tax rate is the fourth-lowest in DFW, we aren’t. If the largest component of that tax rate hasn’t gone up in a decade, we aren’t. Dallas ISD spends about $11,766 per student (according to 2015-2016 figures), which is far better than the state average but still somewhat short of the national average of $12,061. For a snapshot of district figures, click here. If you want to really drill down and compare Dallas ISD spending to other districts across the country, check out this interactive map.

And as state funding sources dry up (or if Dallas is faced with a recapture scenario), that somewhat-better-than-the-state number could go down. The district could be forced to cut some of the programs that have been preliminarily doing the most good and providing the most gains – like college prep, ACE (which offers incentives for excellent teachers to move to low-performing schools) and pre-K, which are all the things this measure would make sure are funded.

A couple weeks ago I was talking with Abdulla Al Karam, a longtime educator who is currently the Director General of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority of the Government of Dubai (think something along the lines of our U.S. education secretary). He said something that stuck with me and made me slightly shift the way I think about education, where often the focus is on what is going on now, and not on the ripple now creates down the line.

“You know,” he said, “Sixty-five percent of children entering school today will be working in jobs that aren’t even invented yet, which is pretty astounding to think about.”

And it is. Even though the number is somewhat of a prognostication based on projections and history, it’s something to think about when you think about what you want your school district to look like, what you want your neighborhood school to look like.

And when you think about that, don’t you want those bright, shiny new pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners that will walk through double doors all over Dallas later this month to be ready for those jobs that aren’t even invented right now when they get their diplomas in 13 or 14 years?

I do.

 

17 Comment

  • People who don’t want to pay more for a service they don’t use because they don’t have kids or they already send their kids to private school need to ask themselves what kind of community they want. If you want middle class families with children to continue living in Dallas and to actually send their kids to public schools, then we have to be willing to pay for quality schools. All of us who choose to live inside Dallas would rather not have to move to the likes of Plano, Allen or Frisco for better public schools. And yet that’s what so many families do and have done. Guess which districts have ALREADY raised their tax rates recently? Plano, Allen, Wylie, and a dozen other districts surrounding us. Frisco and Irving are asking for increases in their next elections, and they already have tax rates higher than DISD. Of 55 districts in DFW, DISD has the 4th lowest tax rate. For people who think DISD should do more with what it has, they should know that DISD is actually losing state and federal funding when property valuations go up. DISD is also losing it to Robin Hood because, believe it or not, there are much poorer districts in Texas in even more dire need. You can’t expect a district to keep doing more with less. This proposed rate increase is designed, in part, to offset losses. If you think Dallas deserves better schools, then do the right thing and vote yes for ALL of the proposed increases.

    • mm

      Great points… so our values go up, we pay more in taxes and it goes to other districts in the state. Thank you texas Legislature. I no longer have children in the district, and we used private schools but I have grandchildren now, so I very much care. My only point of skepticism is that the tax would be retracted if not proven to be effective. I have never seen a tax withdrawn.

      • That’s why it is so innovative. By breaking out the tax to the three things it will fund, ala carte, and by inserting provisions to retract the tax if it’s effective, if voters approve it, that’s what has to happen. Much like a bond issue, they have to 1) use the money for what it says it is for on the ballot, and 2) abide by the provisions the voters approve as listed on the ballot.

        So literally, you know for certain this 5 cents for pre-K will be going to pre-K. It can go nowhere else. That 4 cents for college prep? No where else. 4 cents for ACE incentives? No where else. And if pre-K doesn’t pay off to the thresholds stated? Gone. If college prep doesn’t? Gone. If ACE doesn’t? Gone.

        But spoiler alert: Two of those are already showing tremendous signs of improving the lives of students. One (college prep) is a little too new to say for certain. I’ll be breaking down each component in the next week and discussing the specific program and what it’s expected to do, and what it’s doing already.

    • The average appraised home value in Dallas ISD is $157,000. Coppell and Frisco average home values are more than 2x greater at $312,000 and $345,000, respectively, and Highland Park is north of $1.2mm. Perceived school outcomes matter greatly in those numbers.

      Said differently, if strategic investment of ~$200 per year in additional taxes for an average Dallas ISD homeowner could close the gap with Coppell/Frisco average home values by just 10% to 20% due to growth in student achievement and desirability of its schools, it could help create $15,000 to $30,000 in underlying appraised value per home, a substantial return on each taxpayer’s investment.

  • Dallas ISD wastes enormous amount of money and expects the taxpayers to pay for anything and everything they can possibly think of.
    Much of the money spent is needlessly spent and in the manner of ‘somebody else’s money, not mine’ mentality from the top down.
    Yes, it is a tired scene we have put up with.

    • • Per the most recent comparative data available, in the 2013-14 school year Dallas ISD received similar to less revenue per student from all sources (local and federal dollars for both operating and debt service) than several area suburban districts perceived to have higher educational outcomes (as well as two urban districts in Houston and Austin ISD) despite having a higher percentage of poverty and English language learners within the district:

      The following chart lists the local school district, the % of its students that are economically disadvantaged, the % of its students that are English Language Learners and the total amount of revenue per student each district received in 2013-14 from all sources (local, state and federal) for both operations and debt service:

      Highland Park ISD 0% 1% $10,706

      Carroll ISD 2% 1% $12,144

      Frisco ISD 11% 4% $10,416

      Allen ISD 16% 6% $10,436

      Plano ISD 28% 13% $10,876

      McKinney ISD 30% 10% $10,615

      Austin ISD 61% 27% $11,074

      Houston ISD 81% 30% $10,748

      Dallas ISD 89% 40% $10,659

      Avg. Excluding DISD 28% 12% $10,878

      Dallas ISD’s smaller per student budget is further constrained given it has undertaken a number of initiatives (due to the challenges of its students) that many surrounding districts have not yet implemented. For example, Dallas ISD provides full day Pre-K to roughly 10,000 four-year old students, even though it only receives half day funding from the state, thus requiring the district to take $35 million annually from other initiatives to provide this support. Additional college access support (~$2 million annually), providing in-school SAT testing to increase participation rates, and rapid expansion of early college programs represent several other programs that DISD offers despite a smaller per student budget and more student challenges.

      Dallas ISD can and should always be looking for additional ways to be an efficient steward of taxpayer dollars. It is worth noting, however, that Dallas ISD’s budgeted operating expenditure per student of $9,586 in 2016-17 (excludes debt service) represents just a 2.1% annual compound growth rate in operational spending over the last six years. Equally important, the district was able to make tough budget choices this year as its expenditure/student declined 1% due to $19 million in required budget costs.

      • Why would higher spending per student be considered “good”? DISD is ten or more times the size of many of the suburban districts. It SHOULD be spending much less per pupil as it takes advantage of the efficiencies of scale. Wanting DISD to spend as much per student as Carroll or Highland Park is crazy. That’s why you need to be comparing DISF to similarly sized districts, and when you do that, the numbers don’t look so good.

  • Cynthia, I would love for you to come visit a school or two that utilizes these programs the taxes will fund. I often find people who insist there is waste haven’t been on a campus in quite some time. Come visit with me!

    And later this year, let’s go hit a budget meeting together. They’re pretty illuminating.

  • Bethany,

    Can you address the fact that, of the 130 largest districts in the country, DISD spend the second-lowest fraction of expenditures in the classroom? The only worse district is Philly. If DISD got classroom sending percentage up to 80 or 90% of total expenditures like some districts, we’d never need another tax hike, and if we did, no one would complain. By objective measures, DISD has plenty of revenue. Solve the spending problem and the money problem will solve itself.

    Sincerely,
    A proud DISD parent

    • Bob,
      Without knowing your sourcing for your math, I’m unsure of how to go about answering this to your satisfaction. But here goes, based on what I think you’re looking at. I did several boolean searches to find your figures, and have come up a little empty. I consulted with some other ed writers, and they weren’t sure either, but a couple of us put our heads together and this is what we found.

      This is the National Center for Education Statistics’ most recent fact sheet on DISD. It’s a bit behind, because I pointed out in my story, the 2015-2016 per pupil spending was around $11,700.

      But let’s just take this snapshot, because it’s not going to have changed that much.

      Total revenue per student: $10,648
      Total expenditures per student: $12,061

      Now, that per student spending is broken down to this:
      Instructional expenditures (which I’m guessing is what you’re looking at): $5,027 (59 percent)
      Student and Staff Support (counselors, aides, etc): $937 (11 percent)
      Administration: $929 (11 percent)
      Operations, food service, etc. : $1,673 (20 percent)
      Now, those are your current expenses related to the day-to-day work of teaching students.

      Then there are also things like debt service, assorted expenses that don’t fall under ed (which totaled $64 in this snapshot) and the interest on the debt.

      But then we can look a little further. According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, the average instructional spending across the education industry is about 60 percent, which puts DISD just shy of that national average for this snapshot we looked at.

      But then there is this, an entire table of school districts and their instructional spending, broken down two ways. As you scroll through, you will see that Dallas ISD falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, hovering around 62 percent if you exclude certain extraneous costs, and 53 percent if you leave those costs in. There several districts that are far worse than DISD. And yes, there are some that are better.

      • Bethany, here is the data I’m looking at. It’s easily dumped into a spreadsheet for sorting: https://ballotpedia.org/Analysis_of_spending_in_America%27s_largest_school_districts

        I only looked at other large districts because those seem the best comparison. But even according to your stats, DISD is below average. That’s the best we can say, and that is VERY BAD. It doesn’t just mean there are some districts that are better, it means that MOST districts are better.

        Those folks responsible for spending money outside of the classroom shouldn’t be complaining that they need more money to spend in the classrooms. And if they were honest about it, they’d say they’re asking for a $.13 tax hike, $.08 of which will make it to classrooms (using your numbers).

        Maybe we could get rid of the superintendent’s personal driver and replace him with another teacher. That would improve these numbers.

        • I’m trying to figure out how you get that only 8 cents will go to classrooms. Pre-K expansion will add classes and teachers. College prep? Classrooms. ACE incentives? Go to teachers and principals. That’s all instruction.

          Here’s my issue with one source of data, even if it’s a data dump: I showed three different excellent sources that show what the average is. Your source clearly is using a different metric to calculate, because by the tables and information I’ve found, every single school way below what your table shows.

          What I’m saying is this: I’m not saying my data is better, but I am saying that clearly there are different ways to arrive at this number, and since there is, we can’t blanket say, “DISD is doing horribly.”

          • “I’m trying to figure out how you get that only 8 cents will go to classrooms.”

            According to your numbers, DISD spend less than 60% of total expenditures in the classroom. So for every $.13 DISD spends, less than 8 cents goes to the classrooms.

            The data I relied on puts DISD’s classroom spending around 71%. Below almost every other district of comparable size. Since I’m mostly concerned with relative numbers, the precise formula is not as important as that all the districts are counted the same way. Your averages are nationwide, which is not a good comparison (and still makes DISD look bad). For example, you’d expect tiny districts to spend higher proportions outside of the classroom because you’ve got a certain minimum overhead and structure.

        • Per TEA data for 2013-14, 63% of DISD spending went toward instruction.

          Looking at the same number for Southlake Carroll, a fabulous school district, the number was 64%

          For Highland Park, the number was 70%. However, worth noting that DISD spends 3% of its budget on transportation. For Highland Park, that number is 0.

          Per DISD’s own number, all five cents for Early Childhood will go toward educating all eligible 3 and 4 year olds in the district full day, hiring instructional coaches to improve PK thru 2nd grade quality, and family engagement strategies to help parents become their child’s first teacher and prepared when they arrive at DISD. If a child is Kindergarten ready in DISD, data shows that they will be 3x more likely to be on grade level in 3rd grade four years later at a reading proficiency that significantly exceeds the district and approaches the proficiency of Coppell ISD…a district that has one-tenth the poverty of Dallas ISD.

          I personally believe these investments could be transformational for the district if invested well…and the district and the board will have $105 million worth of incentive to make sure they are, else the money stops.

  • DISD needs to go lobby for a bigger piece of the pie that’s already there. My daughter will be attending DISD but I will be voting NO. Our property tax has increased far more than our income. I essentially taught my daughter pre-k at home. Rather than build/expand schools for pre-k I suggest creating a cheaper outreach program to teach parents to get their kids ready for kindergarten and include free materials, training, etc.

    • With all due respect, I would like to tell you that this is rather elitist. There are parents in South Dallas and other areas that are working more than one job. We’re talking multi-generational poverty, multi-generational dropouts in many cases. It’s not as simple as giving them a free kit. Their child care often is comprised of family members and is patchwork. I’ll be going into this more as I discuss why Pre-K is important and what it’s already done for the district, but if you really think this is a good suggestion, I challenge you to go volunteer at Dunbar or Rhoads, as a tutor, and then get back to me.

      • Really, I’m an elitist? That’s a brash comment considering you’ve never even met me. For your information I have a M.Ed. degree and work in education. My expertise is in alternative forms of education. So perhaps you are the one who needs to get out of your ivory tower of traditional education and consider new ways to reach children in need of learning mechanisms. And I stand by my comment that our school districts need work harder with their state legislatures for the funding that’s been cut. The foundational issue for this problem is our state government. Tax breaks for corporations who bring families here and don’t contribute to the new infrastructure that is needed is the root of the problem.