Decision to Pause '08 Bond-Funded Redos At Some DISD Schools Was Anything But Quiet

Front page of the morning's paper has a pay-walled story about the Dallas Independent School District's decision to "quietly" halt construction on a handful of schools due to receive '08-bond money redos -- quietly, as in, "During budget talks this spring, school leaders quietly decided to halt renovations and repairs at eight schools, most of which are far from full." Not sure how quiet it was: If memory serves, and it does, at the May 12 board of trustees briefing, there erupted quite the back-and-forth between trustees Carla Ranger and Bernadette Nutall over the decision to hit "pause" on the projects, with then-Superintendent Michael Hinojosa having to break it up.

Colin Graidage, chairman of the Bond Advisory Committee, had just finished giving the Annual Report of the 2008 Bond Program. Mike Morath, who'd just been elected to the board, asked something about projects being broken out by individual trustees' districts; Nancy Bingham had to 'splain a few things. And then Carla Ranger piped up:

"A few weeks ago, we received notice that construction on maybe about four schools was being halted, and that these are not new schools. These are renovations to schools," she said in an even tone of voice. "How does the bond committee fit into that? I thought I read where trustees and members of the Citizens Budget Review Committee made the request, so there are probably two or three questions: What's the connection which the bond committee and that action, which trustees made the request to halt construction, which members of the Citizens Budget Review Committee made that request?"

Bernadette Nutall jumped right in: "I can answer for it, because it's a majority of my district. I requested H.S. Thompson ... We have a South Dallas committee that we formed. H.S. Thompson is underpopulated. So that's one of the schools. Frazier Elementary is underpopulated. That's another school. What's the third? I don't have my list with me ..."

At which point, Hinojosa's mustache began to move: "Was the third one, but it was so far under construction ..."

Nutall remembered: "Paul Dunbar."

"Yeah, but it was so far under ..." Nutall wouldn't let Hinojosa finish.

"In our committee meeting, Dunbar, we put them back on the list, 'cause its 69 percent capacity," she said. " But H.S. Thompson is 39 percent capacity, Frazier is about 50 percent capacity. And then Billy Earl Dade, we're building the new Billy Earl Dade, so we put that on hold. Five of the schools that are being requested are in my elected district. I requested ... We have formed a committee -- Dr. Juanita Wallace is chair of that committee -- to look at the future of the South Dallas schools. So I'm the trustee that requested putting that on hold right now."

Hinojosa then spoke again: "Ms. Nutall, thanks for owning that, but if I could have a broader context to that. Before this crisis escalated from the statewide level, like it did in January, we were proceeding as planned,. But a lot of questions startled being raised about what is the future of these small enrollment schools. So that's when the commission started talking about it, Ms. Nutall brought up the point, and Mr. [Phil] Jimerson [he's the district's deputy chief of staff for construction services] and his team through Alan King talked to me about it. So it was a collaborative discussion amongst all three of those parties that said, 'Why don't we take a pause on those and not spend any more money until we see what the future's going to be?'

"I keep reminding people: There's been no decision to close any of those schools. But I did say that we weren't going to close any of those schools in the spring, but we were going to have a substantive discussion about that in the fall because they're significantly low enrolled. But that's the genesis where the whole context of it arose, but thanks, Ms. Nutall, for owning up to that."

Ranger said all of this was news to her.

"As we've talked about all of the schools being all of our schools, the bond program is a  program of Dallas ISD, and the trustees, the board as a whole, would be in charge of that," she said. "For individual trustees to say, 'This should be done with this project or this school,' as it related to the bond [program], that has to come before the board of trustees."

Far as Ranger was concerned, the board and only the board should have made that call -- after it had received reports explaining the rationale behind the break in the construction action.

"I don't see that individual trustees nor the individuals of the Citizens Review Commission nor the bond construction people, that any one of them would have the authority to make that decision without that coming before the board," she said. "If that's the case, then any one of us at any time could look at any one of the schools and, I would think, have the right to come and say, 'Stop this, do that, continue that.' ... It is inappropriate for us to receive information about an action like that, which is very important and significant and has to do with our total bond program, to receive this information after the fact, after a decision has been made, when the board has the authority to make that decision and no one else."

"I had my committee meeting and my meeting with the community, and the community questioned us on construction on schools that are underpopulated after we talked about the future of South Dallas schools," Nutall said, "And that's one of the things ... they questioned. I brought that forth to Dr. Hinojosa." At which point, Nutall said, a "a committee of community people from District 9" was formed, and at a meeting in early May they decided "it was appropriate we put it on hold for six months."

"Certainly requests can be made," Ranger said, addressing Hinojosa, but halting construction, far as she was concerned, is "not an individual trustee's decision." She reiterated: "Any decision that affects halting construction should come before the board."

To which Hinojosa responded: "Ms. Ranger you bring up some good points. The only clarification: This was not a cancellation but a postponement. But I understand what you're saying, and I don't disagree with you."

Then Morath spoke up, wanting to address the "philosophy" of the board -- which, far as he's concerned, exists to "set policy, approve the budget [and] hire senior management." Maybe, he suggested, things like pausing school construction didn't need to come before the board, lest the board risk getting "bogged down very quickly in making these kinds of decisions."

That said, he acknowledged, putting a hold on bond construction could be classified as one of those "fairly important decisions that need to rise to public discussion. But I do not expect notification on all these issues."

"It's a matter of decisions," Ranger said. "We are a corporate body, and when decisions are made we act as a board, so that would be my expectation."

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