Dallas ISD’s mission to save the district – Part One: How the vote failed

Dallas ISD Board
Dallas ISD Board
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The Dallas Examiner

Possibly the most contentious issue the Dallas ISD Board of Trustees has had to deal with in the past two years has been the vote to approve the order of a Tax Ratification Election. Though the TRE proposal was previously presented to the public and local organizations as a simple tax increase with guaranteed benefits that the community couldn’t afford not to vote for, a recent school board meeting revealed that each part of the proposal was complicated and no part of the program was guaranteed.

On Aug. 18, the board discussed a revised TRE that was presented last year. As the meeting began, the motion to consider and take possible action to approve the resolution was made by Trustee Bernadette Nutall and seconded by Trustee Joyce Foreman.

TRE options included a 2 cent tax swap, a 6 cent tax increase and a 13 cent tax increase. If one option passed, it would be placed on the ballot for the community to make the final decision.

All of the trustees agreed that the TRE was needed and voted on at least one option. However, they could not all agree on which option would better serve the community. Most votes came down to concerns about raising taxes some homeowners couldn’t afford to pay versus having enough money to fully fund programs to help advance the academics and buildings of the district.

Dr. Michael Hinojosa, Dallas ISD superintendent, explained the district’s sense of urgency pertaining to the TRE as well as changes to the proposal.

Noting that some opponents to last year’s TRE proposal listed concerns about racial and economical equity, one of the most significant changes that he pointed to was the Funds for Achievement and Racial Equity. The funding would have supported schools identified as Improvement Required as well as academically fragile schools – meaning schools that had previously been on the IR list or were close to being placed on the list.

The FARE schools would receive support for three years. Moreover, he noted there were specific progress goals for African American students, pointing out that African American students make up 4,159 of the 8,114 students in IR schools.

But it may also be important to note that 7,474 of those 8,114 students are being raised in economically disadvantaged households.

With a 2 cent tax swap, FARE could receive $5.4 million for 14 IR schools. With the 6 cent TRE, it could receive $17.6 million for 41 IR and academically fragile schools and with the 13 cent to TRE for 41 IR and fragile schools, it could receive $40 million.

The funds would not be available until January, and the 14 or 41 schools would have a short window in which to spend the money on approved programs. All spending would have to be approved first. Any money that is not spent within the designated time frame would be sent back to the district.

“We have a few months to make a big impact,” Hinojosa stated. “But if we don’t spend all the money, we’re going to organize this through our accounting structure where these funds are only dedicated to the schools. And if the money’s not spent it goes to the fund balance. Later the board can either say we’re going to assign that fund balance for the schools for the next year so they can get started or we can put it in the general fund balance and make some other decisions about how we’re going to treat our fund balance.”

Other portions of the TRE would have gone to support additional education resources, as well as raises for educators, administrators and other staff.

In “Round Robin” method, trustees had an opportunity to ask questions and make statements regarding the proposal.

Foreman brought attention to Robin Hood/recapture in regard to the 6 cent and 13 cent proposals.

She also pointed out that the district had the money before it purchased a $47 million building “in cash” that did not benefit the children in any way. Those dollars could have gone into the classroom, she declared. She went on to state that $20 million was put into TEI, but last year, 40 percent of the teachers did not get a raise.

Trustee Dustin Marshall spoke in favor of the 13 cent tax proposal, listing the many organizations that also supported the TRE proposal. He spoke against the tax swap, mentioning that millions of dollars were needed for school buildings and stating that it was simply “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” He then declared that the swap would reduce the district’s ability to obtain a bond.

“This option is a cop out,” Marshall said “It’s a political opportunity for trustees to claim they’re supporting additional funding for the district when they’re really playing a shell game with our money.”

He further stated that the money received from the swap would not be enough to address the true needs of the district, especially those schools with “the highest opportunity gap.”

Dr. Lew Blackburn reminded the board they had agreed on a set of priorities for the district last year and then brought them before the public. They agreed to and are already funding the collegiate academies, ACE, programs to address schools that were chronically under-performing, early learning programs, TEI and public school choice. Furthermore, to stop funding those programs would contradict the board’s claims of concern for its students.

“Do not think that we’re broke with a $1.4 million budget,” he stated.

He also pointed out that they had agreed not to raise taxes, reminding them that, “in 2015, the voters agreed to approve a bond election if there was no tax increase.”

Nutall clarified the Robin Hood/recapture, stating that with the 6 cent TRE, Dallas ISD would receive $72 million, but pay $13 million back to the state. Based on the increased property taxes, the state would give Dallas ISD less money each year.

At 13 cents, the district would receive $123 million and pay $37 million back to the state. Again, the state would give the district less money based on the increased property taxes.

However, with the 2 cent swap, Dallas ISD would not send any money back to the state because there would be no tax increase. Moreover, the district would receive $42.5 million from the state based on current property taxes.

A few trustees also seem to be concerned that the tax swap would not allow the district to repay its debts as quickly as it had been doing. However, attendees were assured that the district would definitely pay its debts. Foreman also wanted to make it clear that the district was not “strapped for cash.” Officials in that department confirmed her statement.

As the meeting progressed, Foreman expressed her concern about a survey released by Strong Schools Strong Dallas after the group reportedly spoke to members of the community in every school district. According to the coalition, the survey indicated that an overwhelming majority of residents would support a tax increase. Foreman however stated she had concerns because the group would not release anything in writing about the survey.

“If it’s a true survey you don’t mind giving it to me,” she insisted. “I wanted to know how many individuals did you talk to in District 6 and what their response was. (I) couldn’t get a answer to that. But I can tell you everywhere I go in my community, people are saying, ‘Do not raise my taxes.’ And it’s not just the homeowners, it’s the apartment dwellers also – it’s the renters – because guess what, those landlords pass that onto those people. That is my position. I want to work with the administration, but not at the expense of the taxpayers.”

She went on to state that no other entity was discussing raising taxes and the largest tax burden for residents comes from the school district.

The vote

During the vote for the swap, Blackburn, Foreman and Nutall voted in favor of, while Trustees Marshall, Jaime Resendez, Edwin Flores, Dan Micciche and Miguel Solis voted against, leading to a failed vote.

Next was the 13 cent option. Split down the middle, Resendez, Micciche, Solis and Marshall voted in favor of it, while Flores, Blackburn, Foreman and Nutall voted opposed it. The vote failed again.

The 6 cent option was planned for the final vote. While some in favor preferred it, others considered it to be a compromise. Marshall, Resendez, Flores, Micciche and Solis voted in favor of it, while Blackburn, Foreman and Nutall voted against it. This vote also failed.

In a last-ditch attempt, a motion was made to reconsider the tax swap. The motion failed again, with Resendez, Blackburn, Foreman Micciche and Nutall voting in favor, and Flores, Solis and Marshall voting against.

Resendez motioned to bring back the 6 cent vote, but could not due to rules. However, Blackburn motioned to approve a 2 cent tax increase without a tax swap. This option would garner the same funds as the 2 cent swap; however, it would come directly from increasing property taxes.

As the last round of comments and questions took place, the tension – which was already high – began to rise, and heckling could be heard from the audience as trustees expressed their concerns.

“I can not believe that we have trustees here where our employees are depending on us for a raise, and we’d rather walk away with nothing,” Foreman admonished. “Are you really for the people? Are you really for the children?”

Nutall took a similar stance.

Marshall and Solis expressed concern about difficulty bringing the 13 cent proposal back to the table next year if the 2 cent option is passed this year.

The vote failed, as Blackburn, Foreman, Nutall, Resendez and Micciche voted in favor, while Flores, Solis and Marshall voted against.

In the aftermath of the meeting, some media outlets and community members took direct shots at a few trustees. With the message that the story was not told truthfully, some of the trustees took part in an interview to discuss the TRE and the truth behind their passionate stance.

Next week, part two will reveal what the trustees said when they opened up in one-on-one interviews.

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