Dallas ISD’s Cavalry Isn’t Coming – And Neither is a Vote for a TRE

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The cavalry, as one Dallas ISD trustee said, isn’t coming for Texas public schools. And after last Friday, the voters won’t have a chance to, either.

Friday night’s school board meeting was contentious, and the proposals for a possible Tax Ratification Election were numerous. A tax swap was on the table. But at the end of the night, no one plan received a six-vote super-majority.

Trustee Edwin Flores attended the meeting remotely while on vacation, thanks to Skype, and was able to vote on each proposal.

Trustee Audrey Pinkerton was not in attendance because she was also on a family vacation, Trustee Joyce Foreman said. She indicated earlier on Facebook that she was against all the proposals except the 2-cent tax swap, but Facebook posts are not legally binding votes in a school board meeting. 

A message to Pinkerton asking for comment on her absence was not answered by press time.

The district’s tax rate will remain at $1.28 per $100 valuation for the forseeable future.

During the public speaking portion of the meeting, those advocating for a TRE far outnumbered those who testified against it. But that didn’t sway any of the trustees that were against increasing the tax rate at all.

Three plans were proposed from the onset – a 13-cent TRE, a 6-cent TRE, and a 2-cent tax swap. The district provided details to trustees and the public regarding what each option would provide.

The FARE plan (Funds for Achievement and Racial Equity) would put the most money – $55 million – into schools that needed the extra funds the most.

The 13-cent TRE would have provided something like $123 million to the district yearly. More than 80 percent of the funds from the TRE would have been paid by trustees who voted for it, and more than 70 percent of the funds would go to schools in the districts of trustees who voted against it.

CandysDirt.com discussed what a 6-cent TRE would do earlier this month. Board president Dan Micciche said he was comfortable with the proposal because it was “right in the middle.”

“Compromise means that not everyone gets exactly what we want,” said Micciche.

“The middle of the road for me wasn’t six cents,” Foreman said. “It was zero.”

The method for increasing funds that was preferred by the voting block of Blackburn, Foreman and Bernadette Nutall was the 2-cent tax swap.

Opponents pointed out the travails of districts like Midland ISD, whose tax swap is causing them to now revisit the idea of increasing their tax rate after it was found their I&S fund (which is like a savings account for school districts) was on pace to dip below prescribed thresholds.

The swap, which would’ve gained the district $42 million, would reduce variable interest debt payments. In non-wonk talk, that would be like regularly making extra payments toward the principal on your mortgage for years, then deciding to go back to the minimum and declaring that you gave yourself a raise.

Micciche pointed out that the proposal was politically expedient, but didn’t address the underfunding issues the district faces.

Solis agreed, adding that since the state legislature failed to equitably fund schools again this session, “It’s not everything we could have done, at a time we know the cavalry isn’t coming.”

Trustee Lew Blackburn also proposed a 2-cent TRE, which was voted down as well.

“Voters are not going to vote multiple times to raise their taxes in a year,” Solis said, pointing out that a 2-cent TRE would only address the pledge for raises made earlier in the year, not the needs in the classrooms of the poorest schools.

“We would rather walk away with nothing. And that troubles me. Our children are watching.” Foreman said, decrying the refusal to pass either the tax swap or the 2-cent TRE.

Blackburn insisted that the district administration could work harder to do what they wanted to do with the current tax rate in place.

“We are not broke,” he said.

The reaction was immediate, and often filled with frustration.

“As a parent, it’s very disappointing,” parent Johnny Oppenhammer told WFAA. “It’s ridiculous.  It’s just that simple the more funding you get, the better the education.”

“I cannot even begin to express my disappointment in the Dallas ISD board’s vote last night — voting down putting a TRE on the ballot,” said Dallas ISD parent and one-time Marshall opponent Mita Havlick, who pointed out that all people wanted was the chance to vote “yes” or “no.”

“The trustees who voted ‘No’ chose to ignore an entire city,” she said.

Strong School Strong Dallas, who ran a massive information campaign prior to the meeting, released a statement.

“The decision of Trustees Blackburn, Nutall, Foreman, and Flores to not support bringing a 13-cent Tax Ratification Election to the voters represents a complete lack of leadership to govern the district on behalf of the students, parents, teachers, and staff who count on you every day,” the organization said. “Because of your failed leadership, support staff will go without any pay increase, students will go without needed reading resources and enrichment activities, and schools most in need will lose out on additional resources desperately needed to help students succeed.”

“Your decision reflects your complete refusal to listen to your constituents, who clearly and loudly voiced wanting better for all Dallas children,” the statement continued. “Of the more than 2,000 families we polled in all districts, there was overwhelming support for a tax increase to help our underfunded school system (60 percent were in favor without accountability measures in place and 74 percent were in favor with accountability measures in place.)”

The full statement is available here.

Several trustees took to social media in the days after the meeting as well.

A long night of advocating for additional resources for our students is finally over. No luck,” Trustee Jaime Resendez wrote. “Disappointed is an understatement.”

“For the second time in a year, the DISD Board has failed to put a Tax Ratification Election in front of voters,” Marshall wrote. “We needed six trustees to put a TRE on the ballot in order to give voters their own right to decide whether or not they want to invest their tax dollars in improving educational outcomes for kids.”

“Five of us agreed that Trustees should not be gatekeepers,” he added. “Trustees Blackburn, Foreman, and Nutall decided that voters should not get the opportunity to vote on 13 or 6 cents.”

“I am committed to fully funding our schools one way or the other,” Solis said on Twitter. “It starts with adults.”

Solis then pledged to return the $10,000 provided to each trustee’s budget for district-related use.

“That’s why I will be sending my Trustee budget back to the administration for general fund use,” he said. “We must practice what we preach.”

“At a time where austerity is preached, we must lead by example,” he continued, and then gently and subtly nudged his fellow trustees to do the same, pointing out that $90,000 could pay for two of the raises they talked about during the meeting.

Marshall indicated he was in favor of doing the same.

We again start the school year with the highest child poverty rate in North Texas and the third lowest tax rate out of 56 North Texas Districts,” Micciche wrote. “And the state legislature continues to reduce its share of funding of public schools.”

“For the upcoming year, Dallas ISD is projecting an $87 million increase in property tax receipts due to increases in appraisals, but a $97 million decrease in state funding under the state’s school finance system.”

I also had a chance to gain some commentary from past board president Eric Cowan, who attended Friday’s meeting.

“First, as messy as the meeting was, that was pretty standard when the board faces big decisions like that. I attended assuming that’s how it would end,” he said, adding that he thought the 6-cent TRE might have had a chance to pass.

“The tax swap had no chance of passing but it was important to place it on the agenda for the trustees who were against the 13 cents,” he added. “Gave them an opportunity to argue for an alternative. A tax swap is a bad idea when you have as many facility needs as the district does.”

Cowan also agreed that voting against the 2-cent TRE was a wise choice because it hamstrings the district’s ability to come back and ask for a larger increase later.

“Lew, Joyce and Bernadette brought up raises promised to staff,” he said. “I don’t think the public would support a TRE for raises.”

Cowan added that he doesn’t think we’ll see talk of another TRE unless the makeup of the board changes.

“I don’t see any way, unless big, catastrophic events occur, that the administration will consider bringing this back with this current board,” he said. “Third time will not be a charm. (Superintendent Michael) Hinojosa won’t put this out there again unless it is locked down.”

“This is the first time I have seen the three trustees who voted no do something counter to what they have done in the past,” he said. “It’s like an episode of the Twilight Zone.”

“The trustees who are occasionally accused of not listening to the public speakers vote the way the public speakers wanted. The trustees who claim to listen and fight for their communities vote against their own interests. It really is bizarre.”

Cowan also pointed out a common refrain from Nutall and Foreman during Friday’s meeting – that they couldn’t trust the administration to do what FARE promised.

“The trust issue is huge. Trustees say they don’t think the administration will do what they promise,” he said. “Holding the administration accountable is part of the role.”

“I’ve heard it said over and over again from the trustees who voted no – ‘We’re going to hold you and/or your staff accountable,’ ‘Trust and verify,” he said.

“By voting no, they’ve admitted they either can’t or don’t know how.”

And as for those schools in districts who have now lost out on the hope of more funding to address needs in the immediate future, Cowan said there’s only one way they’re going to get them.

“If those districts want a TRE, they will have to replace their trustee.”

More reaction follows:

TRE fails. Very disappointing. Nutall, Foreman, Blackburn block voters ability to choose for themselves to fund schools. Elections matter.

— Dustin Marshall DISD (@MarshallforDISD)

August 19, 2017

How can you solve 30% literacy rates for poor kids with 2% increase in resources? Promises to adults cited; how about our promise to kids?

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson lives in a 1961 Fox and Jacobs home with her husband, a second-grader, and Conrad Bain the dog. If she won the lottery, she'd by an E. Faye Jones home. She's taken home a few awards for her writing, including a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Online News Association, the Education Writers Association, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, and the Society of Professional Journalists. She doesn't like lima beans or the word moist.

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