By David Wilfong, NDG Contributing Writer
On the eve of the primary election to decide legislative and judicial nominees for the upcoming general, attention turned to candidates lining up for May’s school board elections at Monday Night Politics presented by the Dallas Examiner at the African American Museum in Fair Park. The series has been ongoing since January.
On March 5, three of the four candidates hoping to gain or keep the District 9 seat on the Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD) Board of Trustees met in the auditorium of the museum to face an early audience in their 2018 run.
District 9 centers around the southern sector of Dallas. It includes under-performing schools, economically-disadvantaged, and a large minority population. It also exists within a school district that is facing economic hardship across the board, and a recent controversial decision regarding tax options for improvement.
Bernadette Nutall is the incumbent candidate in the race, first elected in 2009. She was joined onstage Monday night by two of her three challengers; Edward Turner and Justin Henry. Nutall says she runs first and foremost as a district mother, which is also her greatest commitment to the district. She is critical of school board members who choose private school for their children.
Nutall points to programs already in place in her district, such as early college programs, culinary arts programs and recent approvals for innovative STEAM campuses as examples of moving Dallas ISD forward. She also criticizes past school board decisions for leaving some of her schools “playing catch-up.”
“When we look at the last five years under the last administration we are reaping the bad things, of those bad decisions and those bad policies that happened within their board,” Nutall said. “The TEI (Teacher Excellence Initiative) is one of those policies that we are reaping now in District 9.”
Turner comes from a background in finance, and grew up in the district, graduating from Madison before leaving the area to pursue his career. He relocated back to Dallas in 2009 and said he took notice of educational shortfalls in his home district at that time. He takes exception to what he says are beneficial school programs that seem to be more plentiful in other parts of the city.
“There are pockets in our district where there is a lot of opportunity, then you have other places where there is a lack of opportunity, and that’s why I’m running,” Turner said. “I feel like these programs – like Montessori, like IB, like dual language immersion – all these things that parents are demanding to be in all our schools, including in the heart of sunny South Dallas.”
Henry comes to the table with a background in education, having taught in Los Angeles. He also has experience working in the political realm, on a senator’s staff and interning for the ACLU. He says he’s been advocating for educational equity in Dallas for the last eight years.
“When you look at a community like South Dallas and we have five low-performing schools, which is unheard of,” Henry said. “And we’re not looking at opportunities to bring in schools of choice; and bring in more schools specifically schools like H.S. Thompson, which rightfully so, closed because of the population.”
The three candidates onstage were well acquainted with each other. Nutall pointed to a five-year period of “mentorship” for Henry, which he acknowledged. Turner, as a community organizer in past years, has had difficulties with Nutall in her capacity as a board member, accusing her of “shutting down” potentially beneficial programs if she does not like the leadership.
District finances, and specifically the controversial decision of the school board recently not to move forward with a Tax Ratification Election (TRE), was one of the questions which came from the audience. Complicating that decision was the threat of putting the district into “recapture.” With a solid chunk of the voting public ready to vote on a tax increase, the failure to bring an option to a ballot is destined to be one of the issues in the next school board election across the district.
Turner said he would have supported the 13-cent tax option (one of three proposed at the time), though he concedes it would almost certainly have put the district into recapture, and thereby losing some funds to the state. He noted plainly that Dallas ISD was facing a $40 million shortfall at the time. Henry said the district is not going to “be saved” by action at the state or national level, and that Dallas residents are going to have to come up with some solution or another at the local level. Nutall did not choose to comment on that question.
The subject of charter schools and the perceived financial “penalty” paid by public schools when they move into a community is also one of the top items of concern among constituents. Nutall pointed out that there is one charter school located in District 9, so the issue is not as much of a hot topic as in other districts. However, on principle, all three candidates said they were guarded against the economic impact of charter schools, but supported parental choice and insisted on charter school be held to the same standard as public schools.