First thing you probably will have to do, if you even hope to understand what’s going on these days in the Dallas public school district, is turn most of your assumptions upside down.
On Aug. 17, the three African-American members on the Dallas school board voted to kill two tax proposals that could have shipped tens of millions of dollars into their own neediest schools. Their constituents would have paid the least and gained the most. Affluent white taxpayers in the city’s northern sector would have paid the biggest bills. And yet the greatest push and the leadership behind the tax hike proposals came from the north.
So wait. Let’s make sure we have this down first before we even try to go on. Black board members from poor districts — their kids are way poorer and have a reading competence rate at half the rate of better-off white kids. Here’s a proposal to pump tens of millions, maybe more than $100 million, into poor minority schools to get those basic competence levels up out of the ditch.
By law, the proposals needed six votes of the nine-member board to pass. One white member who opposed the proposals, Audrey Pinkerton, stayed away from the board meeting. That meant passing either of the two proposals would have required the votes of the other two white members, all three Hispanic members and at least one African-American member.
But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, all three black members — Lew Blackburn, Joyce Foreman and Bernadette Nutall — voted against the proposals. That killed the deal.
Why? If you boil off some of the fat from what they had to say about it, it came down to one bone. They saw the tax hike proposals as a white and Hispanic deal, even though their kids would have been the biggest beneficiaries.
The proposals weren’t something they had demanded. The tax hike revenues were offered free from people outside their racial realm. So they killed them. They would rather have no deal at all, no benefit at all to their kids, than have to accept any kind of benefit from white people and Hispanics.
Did they say that? Of course not. But it’s there in what they did say. Although the white and Hispanic sponsors of the tax proposals had vowed publicly that most of the money would go to the neediest schools — meaning the poorest ones in the southern sector — the black board members said again and again that they couldn’t trust those promises. They said they couldn’t even trust the superintendent of schools to be honest about it.
That means something worse than an absence of trust. It means trust is the enemy. It means white people and Hispanic people cannot possibly mean well for black kids and cannot be trusted to honor their public vows.
Since that vote a month ago, the black board members must have come in for a good deal of trouble from their constituents. This week, all three of them put their names on an op-ed piece published in The Dallas Morning News offering explanations for their vote.
If their constituents are mad at them, there should be no great surprise in that. Polling before the vote showed that 60 percent of residents in the three black trustee districts supported the biggest property tax hike under consideration — an increase of 13 cents over the current rate, which is $1.28 per $100 of value.
Voters in every district in the city, including those north, likely favored the higher proposed hike. Citywide, 58 percent of voters favored the higher hike and 60 percent the lower.
The people who would have been hardest hit by the higher hike were property owners in trustee Dustin Marshall’s District 2, whose bills would have gone up by $373 a year. Marshall was one of the biggest advocates for the hike.
Taxpayers in the district of trustee Lew Blackburn, who voted against the biggest hike, would have paid only $31 more a year for it. So the bills of Marshall’s voters would have gone up 12 times the amount of the increase for Blackburn’s voters. But Blackburn voted to kill it.
Two proposals, one for a 13-cent hike, another for a 6-cent hike, would have gone to the voters in a ratification election before taking force. The board’s vote was whether to let the voters decide. The board voted not to let the voters decide.
The bigger hike would have netted the district $123 million in new funds, the smaller one $72 million. The revenue from both hikes was already line-item dedicated to specific programs. One, called FARE, provides extra funding to schools that the state has deemed to be failing or that could be close to that designation.
In the 41 schools in that category, the higher hike would have provided $1,526 more per year per student, and the lower hike would have provided $671 more per student. The vast majority of those schools are in the districts of the three black trustees.
In Blackburn’s district alone, 16 schools would have received a total of $15.5 million under the 13-cent increase, $7 million with the 6-cent hike. The new money would also have been used to fund early education and college preparedness programs.
Now let’s look at the reasons the three trustees offered in their op-ed piece this week for voting to kill the two tax ratification programs: “Under state law,” they said in the News, “those funding levels would have resulted in lower state funding for the district or even a requirement to share around $13 million to $39 million of the local tax money with the state.”
That’s just hogwash and double-talk. Of course the state is subject to the so-called Robin Hood laws, which require some districts to pay into a statewide equalization fund used to subsidize property-poor districts. And Dallas, which hasn’t had to pay in the past, is teetering on the verge of having to pay.
But the tax rate is only one of several triggers in a complicated formula, and the other triggers are about to get us anyway. The one that’s closer to putting us into Robin Hood is the number of kids ditching out of the district, resulting in diminished enrollment. Smaller enrollment makes it look like we have more property value per kid in the tax base. Go figure. But that’s how the law works.
One of the biggest drivers of diminished enrollment is failing schools. Parents pull their kids out, put them in charters, move to the suburbs, do whatever they can to get their children out of the worst schools, for which they should be commended. By improving those schools and drawing in more enrollment, the tax hike proposals could have helped us put off our Robin Hood moment a little longer.
In their op-ed piece, the three black trustees said, “We also ask readers to reflect on the 2015 bond election in which the board promised that DISD would not raise taxes to cover the bond.”
Right. They didn’t. Nobody raised taxes to pay for that bond program. The tax ratification proposals here had nothing to do with that. Bringing it up was what mystery writers call a red herring, a trick of misdirection, and a clumsy one at that.
The three trustees said, “The district paid $47 million cash for a building to house administrators that had a taxable value of less than half that amount.”
First of all, the three trustees are comparing what the district paid for its new headquarters building on the market with the taxable value assigned by the county appraisal district. Well, those two things have almost nothing to do with each other. Especially in this market, you can’t buy anything for the official appraised taxable value. Try it someday.
The district paid $110 per square foot for a building that needs work. If the three trustees are right about the cost of rehab, that would put the full cost up to about $146 per square foot. But that’s less than half the cost of building something new and a third cheaper than what it costs to build new schools.
The school district has staff and administrators scattered all over town in raggedy old buildings that all face major deferred maintenance costs. When the administration did the math, it figured buying and fixing a big enough building was way cheaper than what it had been doing before.
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And you know what? If you really believe the district goes around paying twice the value for things and then selling what it has for half the value (another accusation from the three), then you need to call the FBI. People who handle a $1.618 billion annual budget that way need to be put in orange jumpsuits as soon as possible.
These aren’t even good lies. The three black trustees voted against the tax ratification proposals because they were acting out of way-back Dallas politics from an era when the only answer to white people was "no." There was such a time. There were good reasons for it.
But the three (with Pinkerton thrown in for bad measure) have badly misjudged these times. They are operating in the wrong century. New, younger leaders of all ethnic stripes in the city recognize the life-and-death importance of intervention into the lives of the city’s poorest children.
That intervention can only happen in a context of broad social trust. If the three black members of the Dallas school board are constitutionally incapable of that trust or any approach to it, then they make of themselves the very worst enemies that poor black kids have in this city.