In a little less than a week, Texas voters will head to the polls to cast their off-year ballots, filled with important if uninspiring items like bond elections and amendments to the state constitution. For Dallas County voters, perhaps the most contentious item on offer asks whether Dallas County Schools should be kept around or stripped for parts.
Opponents of the school district — which doesn't operate any schools but provides bus transportation for students in nine Dallas County independent school districts — point to discontent among the organization's member districts, its history of financial mismanagement and safety issues as proof that the agency is a bloated bureaucracy that should be shut down. (If you want to read more from one of the more strident critics, the Observer's Jim Schutze, you can do that here.)
The counterargument, Dallas County Schools interim Superintendent Gary Lindsey said in an interview with the Dallas Observer last month, is fairly simple. Lindsey says the organization can give districts the best deals on bus service and save them from the expense of finding a new transportation provider. Any districts that don't want help from DCS, Lindsey said, can opt out of their contract with the bus provider, a choice they already had.
Lindsey's organization is funded in large part by property taxes — DCS gets 1 cent for every $100 at which a given home in Dallas County is valued. If DCS is dissolved, the tax will still be collected, for a period, to pay off the district's creditors. Soon, however, that money won't be available to districts, according to the bill that called for next week's election.
"They can't use the tax over here that Dallas County Schools collected under that statute because it is to pay off that debt that Dallas County has," Lindsey said. "Then, once that's paid off, that tax is gone."
Without the property taxes that DCS rakes in, districts will be forced to either provide fewer transportation services to kids who need them or to draw up and pass an unpopular tax increase with voters.
"If you've got increased costs, that money has to come from somewhere," Lindsey said, "so I think the response is going to be you either reduce service or you increase taxes. There's no other way to get money."
While DCS can't ask for any more in taxes than it already receives, districts that elect to use private companies or run their own buses can do so, Lindsey said.
As the Texas Senate debated DCS in April, Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa told a senate committee in Austin that he believes Dallas ISD pays too much — $1,654 per child — for not enough service.
"The one and only reason I'm here is to protect the interest of the Dallas Independent School District,” Hinojosa said. “I have enough work to do. I'm not looking for any extra work."
If Dallas ISD wanted to get out of its agreement with DCS, it could do so in 30 days, but DCS officials believe that the district wants to hang around so that it can get its piece of DCS resources if the agency shuts down.
Leatha Mullins, Lindsey's predecessor at DCS, accused Dallas ISD of having a "secret takeover plan" for DCS after the hearing, during which officials discussed how the district's resources could be reallocated.
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"They want the buses, the technologies, and today we found out they also want our building," she said in a statement. "I will be interested in how the smaller Dallas County districts we serve will respond to that idea."
If voters decide to keep DCS around, Lindsey said the district won't hold any ill will toward Dallas ISD. The job, he says, will be the same as always: getting kids to school in the safest way possible. To that end, Lindsey said, DCS is looking at ways that the district can cut down on the number of wrecks its buses get into each year.
"We continue to look at those accidents, at what's going on, what's the cause of them, what can we do," Lindsey says.
Perhaps the most difficult thing, Lindsey said, will be for districts to make the transition away from a service on which they've relied for so long. He said getting rid of DCS would "reduce those economies of scale that districts have because they're sharing resources. The districts themselves are going to have that additional cost and that additional responsibility of hiring staff, maintaining bus drivers and taking care of their fleets."