What next for struggling Dallas schools after trustees reject tax revenue plans?

What next for struggling Dallas schools after trustees reject tax revenue plans?

At the end of a fractious board meeting, where Dallas ISD trustees couldn’t agree on any of three tax measures that could have provided the district with millions more in funding, board president Dan Micciche waxed philosophical.

He said the school district would have to do exactly what students are told at graduation ceremonies: Be resilient. “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move forward,” Micciche said.

The state’s second-largest school district does just that on Monday, opening its doors for the 2017-18 school year.

Yet, the district’s tax rate is the same as a year ago. In fact, the rate hasn’t risen since 2011. Dallas ISD has the third-lowest tax rate among districts in North Texas.

The most recent Texas Legislature made no progress in fixing the state’s funding system for schools. And DISD also has the highest childhood poverty rate for any urban district in Texas.

So where does the district — and the city — go from here?

It depends on who you ask.

Tanya Hernandez, left, rallied for a tax ratification election with her daughter, Stephanie Hernandez, center, before a recent public hearing and board meeting of the Dallas Independent School District trustees. (Andy Jacobsohn/Staff Photographer)

One initial thought, expressed by those who opposed a 6-cent or 13-cent tax increase — Lew Blackburn, Joyce Foreman, Bernadette Nutall and Audrey Pinkerton — is that the district can find more cuts in its $1.419 billion operating budget.

In the spending plans that DISD administration drew up for the three failed tax measures, the district had allocated anywhere from $42 million to $123 million to nine programs, addressing items ranging from extracurricular activities to compensation.

Some of those items can still be funded, if matching cuts can be made.

Such expectations don’t come without precedent.

When a 13-cent tax hike failed to get board approval in August 2016, DISD made close to $60 million in cuts to fund three key initiatives: early college high schools, early childhood learning and merit pay for teachers. The cuts weren’t painless, as DISD shuttered a division at Central Office, tinkered with class sizes, and eliminated librarian and nurse positions.

Pump the brakes, said DISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

Before any moves are made to finesse the budget, the district needs to have a more concrete understanding of how much money it’s getting, he said.

Hinojosa says he plans to stick it out as superintendent for a few more years despite the board’s failure to get behind a tax plan. He says he’s now focused on next week’s enrollment numbers, since DISD’s funding is dependent on the size of its student body.

“By next Friday, we’re going to have a pretty good idea if we are going to get to 156,400 students or not,” Hinojosa said. “If we’ll hit our enrollment target, at least we won’t be having to cut current expenditures.”

Last year, the district commissioned an up-to-date demographics study, and Hinojosa is confident in the district’s projected enrollment figures.

But just to make sure those projections held up, the district held, for the first time, a district-wide door-knocking campaign, with teachers and administrators canvassing their attendance zones on Aug. 21 to remind students that school starts Monday.

Even so, Hinojosa admitted he’s still worried, in part due to anecdotes about charter school growth in neighborhoods with struggling DISD campuses.

“What’s helped me survive in 23 years as a superintendent: you prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” he said.

If enrollment comes in as projected, then DISD can start the discussion about looking for hard cuts to afford the new initiatives.

Most pressing, Hinojosa said, is the need to address the district’s outdated dyslexia program and jump-start a new district-wide reading initiative.

DISD had planned to spend from $10.3 million to $13 million on those programs if more money came in, spurred by deficiencies that new chief academic officer Ivonne Durant had identified.

“By the time she got here, we were so far done with the budget that we couldn’t do anything with it,” Hinojosa said. “That’s my biggest worry. Next year, it’ll be in the base budget, but that’s another year away.”

Hinojosa said the district will also try to come up with more funds for its 14 “Improvement Required” campuses, particularly four schools threatened for closure by the state if assessment scores don’t rise.

Pinkerton said Thursday that she hoped that the district could find a way to provide the two-percent raise to non-teachers that was contingent on the tax vote, a measure that would have cost $12.2 million.

“Perhaps we can we carve something out of our administrative budget,” she said.

According to her analysis, non-campus spending in DISD rose to 31 percent in 2016-17, up 11 percentage points over the past five years. Even with the $60 million in cuts, DISD’s current budget has 27 percent in non-campus spending, she said, while fellow districts across North Texas hover near 20 percent.

“We used to do it on 20 cents on the dollar, but we aren’t doing that anymore,” Pinkerton said.

While the district will take a wait-and-see approach until the attendance numbers are in, external forces interested in Dallas’ educational ecosystem are making plans.

One of the key players in pushing for a tax increase, the Strong Schools Strong Dallas coalition, met Thursday. Its members — which range from teachers organizations to the NAACP — convened to set out some long-term strategies, even with the next hope for a tax ratification election far on the horizon.

“Everyone is 100 percent in favor of continuing this fight,” said coalition member Rob Shearer, the director of communications and marketing at education non-profit Commit.

Shearer said that the coalition will continue hosting community meetings, engaging with trustees and advocating on “the behalf of racial equity in the district.”

“We absolutely think that getting parents and students involved in the conversation is critical,” he added, stating that often there’s a disconnect between what goes on at the boardroom and what happens at campuses.

The coalition also might try to quantify the needs of 41 campuses that the district has identified as fragile, and “be part of a larger community effort to help raise some gap funds,” Shearer said.

And while the coalition hasn’t decided whether it will make political endorsements under its umbrella — several of its member organizations already do — Shearer said that the group would like to see a much larger turnout for the next round of trustee elections.

“We would love to see a whole lot more people educated on the issues and come out and vote,” he said.

Meanwhile, there are already efforts to change the makeup of the board itself.

Bernadette Nutall is up for re-election next year along with two other Dallas ISD trustees.

Three trustees — Micciche, Nutall and Edwin Flores — will come up for re-election in May 2018, and Nutall, who voted against the 6-cent and 13-cent tax measures last week, already has a challenger.

Attorney and education advocate Justin Henry launched his campaign at an event on Saturday.

Henry, 35, has worked with Nutall and DISD for the past eight years in several roles, serving on several commissions and committees as her appointee.

Nutall hasn’t publicly announced her intentions to run for a fourth term; she began her stint on the board by winning a runoff for Ron Price’s seat in 2009, and most recently beat Damarcus Offord in 2015 by 290 votes, winning nearly 54 percent of the vote in District 9.

Henry said he was supportive of the tax increase, with the district’s plans to include funding targeted toward racial equity “a very important step.”

“I think we’re all disappointed that they weren’t able to come together to secure funds that are sorely needed,” Henry said.

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