Bob Ray Sanders

May 27, 2014

Home-rule venture for DISD will divide Big D again

Proposal comes at a time when the school district is making strides.

In an move disguised as trying to save public schools, a new group in Dallas has embarked on a path that will undoubtedly lead to more divisiveness in a city that has had far too much of it over the years.

Support Our Public Schools wants to turn the Dallas school system into a home-rule charter district, which is allowed under a 1995 state law provided certain criteria are met. As a charter, the district could disregard certain state regulations and set up its own governing body and rules.

The first step in the process — getting 5 percent of registered voters to sign a petition — has been completed, and the school board has verified that the organizers got more than the 24,650 qualified signatures needed.

The board has 30 days to appoint a 15-member commission, which will have up to a year to draw up the charter that will be presented to the voters. The law specifies that 11 of the commissioners are to be appointed by the board of trustees, and four are to be teachers selected by a district committee.

The commission also must represent the district’s diversity (economically, racially and geographically), and a majority of members must be parents of Dallas school district students.

For the election to be valid, at least 25 percent of registered voters must participate. That may be one reason SOPS wants to fast-track the process and get the proposition on the ballot in November, when tvoter turnout is likely to be greater.

The Dallas initiative is the first home-rule attempt by any Texas district, and no doubt others will be watching to see how this one goes.

It’s only natural that some folks see this latest action as an attempt by a small group to “privatize” or take over the large urban school district, which has 230 schools, more than 157,000 students and a $1.2 billion budget. That would be a pretty big prize if they they could pull it off.

Almost from the time it was announced, with Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings offering his support for the idea, opposition began building. Eight of the nine school board members are against it.

Dallas once again is becoming divided over its school system.

For decades, school integration and busing were at the center of the turmoil that once defined Dallas. It was only in 2003 that federal Judge Barefoot Sanders finally declared Dallas schools desegregated and removed the district from court oversight.

And just when it seemed the district was beginning to make significant strides, it encounters this major distraction.

The largest opposition group, Our Community Our Schools, is a coalition of 23 organizations that have decided that the best way to fight the home-rule movement is to dispel the notion that Dallas is a failing school district.

Hector Flores, executive director of the Association of Hispanic School Administrators, has urged others to tell the district’s success stories, placing particular emphasis on the four-year graduation rate, which he says is up 30 percent since 2007, and the dropout rate, which is down for all groups from 25.8 percent to 10.8 percent.

“Remember, Our Community Our Schools, is a community-based organization/coalition of stakeholders, not ‘outsiders’ attempting to privatize public education in the name of reform,” Flores wrote to members of three large Hispanic organizations.

In addition to the obvious distraction, this home-rule adventure is likely to cost the district around $1 million, according to a report by The Dallas Morning News. It will take about $600,000 to pay for the election, and the district will need to provide staff and attorneys for the commission.

As this venture plays out, I wonder how much thought will be given to the most important people in the district — those 157,000 students.

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