The Dallas Independent School District (DISD) recently held a heated debate over trying to schedule a Tax Ratification Election (TRE). Following the narrow vote not to pursue, the school board went on to change presidents.
At the heart of the effort was the desire to expand special programs which have seen success already, but are not available widely across the district. Absent the consent of the Dallas tax payer, options are very limited, and with the deadline to submit a further negotiated proposal to voters in this year’s November election past, the district is struggling with options for the future.
The needs identified fall into three major categories. The first was expanding Pre-K programs which educators say shows a significant increase in later preparedness for college. Current plans would call for an additional $6 million in costs. The second is an early college program. DISD currently has a program in eight schools where students can obtain 60 hours of college credit in conjunction with the Dallas County Community College District, and administrators want to add another 11 high schools to the program. Finally, the district met the challenge of seven under-performing schools with an “ACE program” whereby enhanced compensation was paid for top-notch teachers to enter the schools. Of the seven, six campuses left the “improvement required” category and the district saw a 20-point gain in those schools. DISD hoped to add seven more schools.
“The TRE represented an increase in funding of over $100 million that would have specifically helped students in the chronically failing schools,students who are starting behind from a young age, and students who wanted to graduate high school with the potential for two years of free college education,” said board member Edwin Flores. Noting a division on the DISD board, he added, ”the trustees from north, east, and central Dallas and Balch Springs/Seagoville were supportive.”
“Our hope is to do our best with the money that we have to expand all three of those programs, but that’s a challenge given that there was $105 million on the table with the TRE that we won’t have access to this year,” said board member Dustin Miller. “We’ll be looking for possible cuts in other areas in order to free up money to fund those programs.”
Tightening the belt of a large school district to secure funds for programs that have proven viable is an obvious choice on the surface, but the district still has the responsibility to maintain its standard existing services to students as well. The initial enrollment numbers suggest the DISD may also lose state money, so finding those cuts may be even more difficult.
“There’s only so much you can cut before those cuts become Draconian cuts, and 80 percent of our budget are people,” board member Miguel Solis said. “You can only cut so much before you get to the point where you have to cut people. I’m not suggesting that that’s what we plan to do anytime soon, but that’s the reality of the situation. That was the reality of the situation a few weeks ago when we were talking about going after the TRE.”
There is always the option of pursuing a later vote on TRE, but timing can mean a lot in TRE elections. The Frisco ISD recently called a similar referendum on a nonelection date and the measure failed, due in part to having a low voter turnout. The DISD administration fears it might face the same obstacle.
“We think it’s going to be 70 percent (voter turnout in November),” Hinojosa said. “The difference between that and next November? The last two times there was an election without a governor and without a president on the ballot, the turnout was 6 percent. So the difference between 70 percent and 6 percent is huge, and like in Frisco with a special one, you run a big risk of not getting enough people out who have an interest in this topic.”
Dan Micciche, who was named president of the school board following the debate over the TRE, said the district will make do with what it has for now, but cited a gap in how far current resources can go to meet the needs of the future.
“Dallas has the highest child poverty rate in the nation,” Micciche said. “Dallas ISD has one of the very lowest tax rates in the North Texas region. DISD can pursue the initiatives on much more limited basis without a tax increase. While every government and business entity can certainly improve its efficiency to some extent, the district’s resources are limited, and the needs of the students are greater than in most other districts.”
Hinojosa said the DISD will be OK financially for the upcoming school year, but needs to find $30 million somewhere in the budget to continue improvement on the three key areas in question. “These three things are very important to us, and we’ve got to fund them in the future,” Hinojosa said. “These three are strategic initiatives that are high priority. So we’re going to have to balance all of our other needs.”