It was one of the more odd school board meetings I’ve covered, and I once watched a superintendent get fired over a $50,000 corrugated metal building, and sat through a back and forth about two percent versus whole milk that ended in tears.
But last Thursday’s regularly called Dallas ISD board of trustees meeting ranks right up there, to the point where I partly took the weekend to figure out how to cover it (I was also waiting for a trustee to return an email where I had requested comment, but that’s neither here nor there).
In the end, it was Facebook that gave me an idea of how to cover this. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
First, what happened. I think. I mean, I was covering it and live tweeting it, but I’m still a bit flummoxed.
The evening began with two students from Sunset High making impassioned — and eloquent — pleas for the board to address campus safety. Several more parents were on hand to advocate regarding Hogg and Ben Milam elementary schools, which are currently part of a very preliminary plan to possibly consolidate campuses, among other things.
The board pretty much ran through the rest of the agenda — including discussion about approving the purchase of school buses that can happen now that voters approved a proposition for that in the midterm elections.
Then came a usually fairly innocuous item, asking the board to approve the staffing formulas for 2019-2020. These models are generally based on what district staff feels the district can afford, and what will keep the district in compliance with various laws and best practices.
The staffing formulas are usually presented during the board briefing, and then are again presented (with any potential changes the board might have asked for, or any other revisions) to the regular board meeting a couple of weeks later, and voted on.
But District 7 trustee Audrey Pinkerton had opted to hold some public town halls between the board briefing and the board meeting, and had created an amendment after hearing concerns about the student to counselor ratios, as well as the safety monitor ratios.
But it was the timing of her amendment that seemed to tee off several of her fellow board members, and indeed, it seemed that many of them didn’t even have a copy of the amendment when it came up on the agenda — the board had to move on to several other items before coming back to it because staff needed time to make copies of it, and judging from several comments by trustees and staff, staff got the amendment sometime Wednesday afternoon or evening, and trustees got it Thursday morning.
Now, to be clear, nobody disputed Pinkerton’s worry that current formulas have a 1 counselor to 450 student ratio. The American School Counselor Association and the National Association for College Admission Counseling recommend a 1:250 ratio.
However (and I’m not saying this is right, by any shakes of the imagination), Dallas ISD is hardly an outlier when it comes to its outsized ratio — the trend from 2004-2015 indicates nationally that the ratio hovers around 450 to nearly 500 students per counselor.
Which is a damned shame and, it should be noted, not one trustee said 450:1 is great. And given that some schools have one counselor for 600 students, that’s also again, not great. And nobody said it was.
So back to the meeting. Pinkerton points out — and again, rightly so — that the counselor shortage needs to be addressed.
She said she was pleased to see that the formulas call for more teachers in the schools, and smaller class sizes, but that her meetings with parents and students have revealed that there was an “overwhelming call” for more counselors, she said, adding that with the district’s increased focus on college and career readiness, more counselors are needed, but that the counselors are also needed to help with the mental health needs of the student body, as well as to help lead the way in social and emotional learning.
“We ask a lot of our counselors, and we need more support in this area,” she said.
Pinkerton said that more safety monitors at high schools was also important, not only to provide better oversight of all entry points to each school but also to help combat truancy.
Her amendment, she said, called for better staffing for counselors and safety monitors.
“I’ve had a tough two weeks, I had a serious fight at one high school, and had another serious incident at my other comprehensive high school,” District 6 trustee Joyce Foreman said, adding that she was in support of the amendment, and that most counselors in her district were seeing 500 kids, and 450 kids in elementary schools.
“That’s a lot,” she said. “My heart tells me that I’m tired of spending money on administrative costs. I want to spend money on children.”
But other trustees were rankled at Pinkerton’s lack of notice, and what they felt was lack of preparation.
“This is a conversation that is worth having,” District 2 trustee Dustin Marshall said of the need to increase staffing for those two positions. But he also pointed out that the formulas were shared with the board two weeks ago, and there was no discussion about them then, from any trustee.
He then asked Chief of School Leadership Stephanie Elizalde about the potential costs of adding the positions in Pinkerton’s amendment. Elizalde said she doesn’t know what it would cost, mostly because staff had not had time to work up those numbers, since they didn’t get the proposed amendment until the day before.
Elizalde added that she had told Pinkerton that while she was willing to review the formulas regarding counselors, she was uncomfortable supporting the amendment without being able to present the costs to the board as well.
“I don’t think we can come up with a decision right now,” Marshall said.
Elizalde also took pains to point out that she was in favor of increasing the number of counselors, but that the specific measure involving the staffing formulas was more of a governance requirement so that the district could begin to craft the budget for that year.
District 3 trustee Dan Micciche said he was also not prepared to vote for the last-minute amendment, largely because he needed to see the economic impact the change would make first.
“How are we going to staff it? How are we going to pay for it?” he asked.
“This is not the way this should work as far as governance and administration,” District 9 trustee Justin Henry said of the amendment, echoing the sentiment of several of his fellow trustees. “This is not transparent.”
District 5 trustee Lew Blackburn asked, “How much will it cost?”
Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, visibly nonplussed at the discussion, said it would likely be in the millions of dollars. Elizalde said that ballpark, a conservative estimate would be in the $4 million range, but later District CFO Larry Throm added that didn’t take into account things like benefits and training costs.
“I don’t think we’re trying to do two opposite things,” Elizalde said of the desire to increase staffing for counselors. She added that she knows she can’t fulfill every need that comes across her desk, but that she also did not get a copy of Pinkerton’s final proposed amendment until Wednesday night.
District 8 trustee Miguel Solis said that he was in favor of increasing the number of counselors, as well as librarians, adding that a case could be made that since librarians greatly assist with improving literacy outcomes in schools, particular attention should be given to that deficit as well.
Solis said it would be interesting to see what the numbers would look like. “What all does that take?” he asked. He also suggested that each trustee give up their $10,000 budget to fund two additional safety monitors at Sunset, pledging his immediately.
Hinojosa said that in 2008 when they had to lay off teachers, there were no staffing formulas, because he didn’t know he was overhiring. When he hired Larry Throm, he said, Throm agreed to come with some conditions — and one of them was that he would have a staffing formula to work with every year.
But then Hinojosa cut to the heart of the matter — “Where is this money going to come from without raiding the TRE?” he asked.
“What about next year’s $126 million?” Blackburn said.
Both Throm and Hinojosa explained that because of a resolution passed by the board last month promising voters that the Tax Ratification Election dollars would be used for the four initiatives outlined to voters in the sales pitch, that money was already spoken for.
“There is no new money that is unassigned,” Hinojosa said.
The resolution — which was initiated by Pinkerton, who ultimately voted against what the board eventually adopted — came up time and again in the lengthy discussion.
During the debate last month, Pinkerton said that her worries that the district could find itself dipping into that $126 million reserve if other needs arose prompted her to craft the resolution, which was to take the $126 million reserve from the first year and use that to fund the proposed strategic pay increases.
Pinkerton said she worried that wage inflation and recapture (or “Robin Hood”) could create a shortfall situation that would leave the district too tapped out to continue to fund the pay increases set out in the strategic pay initiative.
She railed against the compromise resolution, saying she felt it didn’t do enough to guarantee that the district would make sure the raises were funded over the next four years.
“You have nothing to reassure the public that you’re going to follow the plan that was presented to them,” she said at the time. “You have nothing to reassure the public that the money will be there in two years. The shortfall is coming.”
At Thursday’s meeting, Marshall made a point of saying that staffing counselors was not part of any of the four initiatives the board pledged the TRE would fund — and that Pinkerton was the one who led the charge to adopt a resolution to reassure voters. Solis also brought up the resolution, and how the board had made promises.
Pinkerton responded that perhaps Solis didn’t understand the resolution, and insisted it was for 2018-2019, and the staffing formulas under discussion were for 2019-2020.
Solis said he understood the resolution bound the board as long as all nine members were still on it.
Foreman disagreed, and said that at any rate, “Resolutions are not binding.”
Last month, during the discussion about the resolution (which passed 8-1, with Pinkerton the lone no vote), Foreman said that since this board can’t make promises for future boards, the resolution only really has teeth as long as the same trustees remain on the board. But she also said that she felt the resolution was a good way to send a signal to the public that the district will do what it said it would with the TRE funds.
“I can count to five,” she said Thursday night, referring to the fact that Pinkerton likely didn’t have the votes to get her amendment to pass. She asked Hinojosa to study a change in the staffing formula to include more counselors and safety monitors.
After some procedural back and forth, in the end, the board voted 8-1 to approve the staffing formulas without Pinkerton’s amendment.
So what does that mean? And who is right — does the resolution apply only to this year, or does it apply to the board in its current state?
What I do know is that apparently in both last month’s meeting and last week’s meeting, people came away with two completely different takes on the matter. One thinks the resolution is only good for this year, and the board only made promises regarding taxpayer money for one year. The other feels the board made promises for as long as the board is made up of those nine individuals.
And the same with last night. Some feel that six trustees and most of the district staff don’t care that there is a real need for more counselors, safety monitors, and librarians (for that matter). The others walked away feeling like they’ve been misunderstood, and that they do want more of all of those things, but that they need more information and more time to make sure it’s sustainable to add them.
And that couldn’t be more clear than when you read the comments on Audrey Pinkerton’s Facebook post, where even other trustees chimed in.
I say two things frequently, and anyone who knows me can attest to this. One, I always assume that someone runs for the school board because they care about kids, and they care about education. When you run that thought through your head before every meeting (and sometimes during), it makes it easier to not demonize, and instead, listen to what the other side is saying.
Two, in any debate, you’re instantly at a disadvantage if you assume the person taking the other side believes the EXACT opposite of you. So often, we walk away from discussions saying, “we couldn’t get on the same page” — which is completely intellectually lazy. The second you realize that the person doesn’t believe the exact opposite of you, the conversation has common ground — and you haven’t even said a word yet.
And when you zoom out a bit, you realize that the page was the size of a Post-It. And when you zoom out even further and get to the point of eschewing the notion that the other person believes the exact opposite of you, suddenly, that page has gotten bigger, and the conversations become productive.
But we’ve forgotten how to actually listen. We’ve forgotten that listening is half the conversation. Only when we commit to taking up that second part that so many ignore will we begin to have meaningful conversations, and productive movement on the things that divide us.
So what I really hope comes from these two meetings where people clearly weren’t on the same page, is that collaboration can begin to happen. I don’t think that anyone — any voter — wants to see several years of infighting when they could see several years of shoulder-to-shoulder working together.
I hope that can happen.