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?