Dallas ISD’s mission to save the district – Part Two: The aftermath

Bernadette Nutall interview on TRE
Bernadette Nutall interview on TRE

The Dallas Examiner

Backlash aimed at three African American trustees revealed an unattractive side of local residents after the Aug. 18 Dallas ISD board meeting, when school trustees could not agree on which TRE option to place on an upcoming ballot and all options were voted down.

“Everybody wants to make it like the African American trustees voted against the TRE. We voted for two of the four options,” Trustee Bernadette Nutall insisted. “Trustee Flores voted for one of the four options. Who voted for the most? We voted for the tax swap, and then we voted for the 2 cent.”

She expressed that she and her fellow trustees Joyce Foreman and Dr. Lew Blackburn had been vilified through “fake news” in local mainstream publications for not voting for the more costly tax increases, saying that they are hurting African American children.

“We’ve gotten ugly emails. People have been flat out ugly,” she said. “It’s a vote. It doesn’t require you to be ugly. Jim Schultz, The Dallas Morning News, they’re just being real ugly about a vote when they’re not telling the whole truth.”

Blackburn, Nutall and Foreman felt it was laughable but insulting that they had been grouped together as a clique with Foreman as the group’s leader.

“I don’t think it’s any one of us leading the others,” Blackburn said. “It’s more of a collective thought. The three of us, and maybe some others, represent a large body of fairly poor people. Joyce represents the South East part of Oak Cliff. At one time that was considered to be somewhat of a middle-class area of town for African Americans, and in some pockets (it) still is, but in some pockets you have growing areas of that are not as well-to-do. And Bernadette represents South Dallas, where you still have a lot of poor people. I represent West Dallas and parts of Oakland going all the way down to Wilmer and Hutchins. We have a lot of poor people. So we start talking about raising taxes, our antenna goes up because we’re thinking about our poor kids whose parents are poor, whose neighborhoods are poor. And when you talk about food deserts and such in this part of town, how can you tax our poorest people and say it’s for the good of the kids? The three of us take that very seriously.”

A closer look at the vote

During separate interviews, the three trustees approached the subject of the TRE differently, yet still came to the same conclusion – similar to the meeting when the administration presented the 2 cent tax swap option to the board. Nutall, Foreman and Blackburn were the only supporters.

Foreman stated that she originally didn’t agree with any of the TRE options until Hinojosa approached her about the tax swap.

The tax swap would have taken a portion of the I&S and placed it in the M&O, and there would be zero tax added. The I&S tax rate is the “interest and sinking” that pays the district’s debt that finances its facilities. The M&O tax rate is the “maintenance and operations” that funds the every day operations of the district; such as payroll, supplies and materials. This would have provided the district with an additional $42 million for daily operations.

“Well, I thought if we’re able to pay our debt that’s not a bad deal,” Foreman recalled. “And we can move some additional dollars over to the M&O. And I kind of went along with that in hope that we could get the rest of the board to agree. But after that 2 cent tax swap failed, 13 cents failed and then 6 cents failed, well, then Trustee Blackburn made a motion for just a 2 cent TRE, which was not a tax swap.”

The trustees also expressed concern in regard to Robin Hood/Recapture – taxing citizens in which millions of those dollars would be returned back to the state. This would take place with the 13 cent and 6 cent options, which would raise property taxes, and millions of those dollars would be sent to Austin. The 2 cent tax increase would raise property taxes slightly, but not enough to obligate the city to pay the state.

“Nobody wants to speak about why would you raise people’s property taxes, get some money in the district but some will go back to the state. The state gets to do what they want with that money because we become a rich district,” Nutall explained.

Foreman said she just couldn’t see adding that burden onto citizens’ property taxes, especially as property taxes continue to rise.

“After we went through those three, I had a thought because someone said we don’t want to take money from the I&S,” Blackburn explained. “So my thinking was: Let’s do the 2 cent increase and they keep the 2 cent in the I&S just as it is, no swap. And my colleagues, Bernadette Nutall and Joyce Foreman, they looked at me like, that’s not what I want to do. But they said that would be the compromise to still get the money to go toward campuses and $12.2 million would go to paying salary increases for campus staff.

“We had already voted in our budget to give the teachers a little raise, but we need this $12 million from either one of the TREs to take care of our needs for the rest of the staff on the campus. But it failed because three people said no, and because of those three people, we don’t have any options right now to give our teachers a raise.”

Foreman said she agreed because it would be less of a tax burden. She said she knew there would people who would insist that the trustees let the voters decide if they wanted the 6 cent or 13 cent options but said she had concerns there would have been a strong campaign in its favor, saying that the Dallas Regional Chamber had already put in funds to support it. She also had concerns that many people did not fully understand the TRE.

The budget

The trustees also discussed a couple of high-priced items that Dallas ISD added to its budget, he first being the new $46.5 million building that the district purchased – located off of Highway 75 in North Dallas. The second item was the new Dallas ISD logo for $150,000, which would be added to all signage, stationary, etc. throughout the district. Though the items seem to be expensive, the board felt they were needed to update and keep up with the changing district.

Foreman explained that the district had a $1.4 billion budget and was not broke, though she said it could of course use more revenue. She explained that during the budget meetings, the superintendent had to make substantial cuts, and some of that was based on positions. But it also gave trustees a chance to look at how the campuses were being staffed.

“I think the administration is what needs to be cut, not the people who are in the schools on a daily basis working with our students. At the same time, we added a nurse to every school,” Foreman stated. “This year, what I’m hoping the district does is to begin noting how bloated they are and then cut some of those positions and leave the campus staffing alone.”

Foreman also said that she also didn’t believe Dallas ISD’s programs needed to be cut. However she felt that they should be evaluated more carefully to ensure that they’re working to the full benefit of the district’s students.

Alternative options

Nutall also felt that re-evaluating the current budget was a better alternative than raising property taxes.

“To me, raising property taxes is the lazy way of solving problems when we need to be more efficient about how we spend our $1.4 billion budget,” Nutall said.

“Poor kids come from poor families,” Nutall stated. “And if you look at how many … go check the record and see how many people are delinquent in their property taxes. We, the district, can collect $61 million from property taxes today. What have you done to recapture that money? There are other ways we can get money without just taxing the people for that.

“I had requested the administration to look at our (Average Daily Attendance),” Nutall explained. “We lost last year, in 2015, $119 million in ADA. So there was another option. If we just did 20 percent of that we could get 24 million and that would equal the 70 million that the six cents would’ve given us. So I was looking for other viable options within the district that we could use to generate – that we could get money – so we could be more efficient with our money and not have to raise property taxes.”

Nutall said that the board needed to start looking long and hard about how they can use the money that the district hasn’t trusted to them, suggesting that collecting owed property taxes and improving school attendance would be viable options to help fund the district’s programs.

“I pulled the data, we had attendance last year for ADA, we lost in revenue $119 million,” she said. “So we can capture those dollars. Figure out how we can get kids to school. If we could just recapture 20 percent of that $119 (million), we would bring in $24 million. That’s just 20 percent. Just imagine if we could be capture 50 percent of that. And we can start looking at where we spend our money and see if we can be more efficient with that.”

She also noted that the $1.6 billion bond that was voted on two years ago, in which trustees told the voters they would not raise taxes, did not provide funding to the neediest schools. She used South Oak Cliff High School as an example.

“Look who voted against SOC. Check the voting records and see who voted against Black kids. But yet now you’re voting for Black kids?” she questioned. “I want people to think. We have amnesia. $1.6 billion bond, SOC had to come down, walk-outs, newspaper articles, constantly, for them to get – not even a replacement school – but they get a gutted-out, remodeled school.”

She said that certain board members stated that if the schools that were in need were going to get money, they wanted the schools in their district to get money as well – such as W.T. White, Hillcrest and Lakewood, which she said were not needy schools.

Blackburn stated that it didn’t make sense to ask for a tax increase when the school had not yet re-evaluated its spending.

“I still think that this year we have that little bit more. We could cut some of the central office expenses. And some may say you can cut secretaries and clerks and people that make up the central office. But I don’t think that we’re going to get rid of positions that are needed. As a matter of fact, I think right now we have some positions that we probably don’t need. But I have to look into that in more detail. Because I do want to tell Dr. Hinojosa, ‘Here’s where you we could save another $60 million, at least $42 million. Since you guys blame us for not getting the TRE, let me show you where to get that $42 million.’”

Blackburn said that he is hoping to be able to find a way to save that $42 million this year.

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