DISD Trustees Don't Want to Close Campuses. But They're Told: They Have No Other Choice.

Late Thursday afternoon, and only because interim super Alan King had a flight to catch, the Dallas Independent School District trustees finally got around to discussing the 2012-13 budget and consolidating -- which is to say, closing -- those 11 campuses in order to save a guesstimated $11.5 million next school year. But, of course, that's a fraction of what the district needs to cut, thanks to the state Legislature's decision last year to gut its financial commitment to public education.

"What we're talking about this year is a continuation of the same issue" the district faced last year, said Steve Korby, DISD's executive director for financial management. Before the current school year the district lost $77 million out of the budget -- "$65 million of which was payroll." Korby led the trustees through the PowerPoint we looked at Monday, which adds back seventh-grade athletics and $4.50 per student per campus and comes up $3.5 million short. Said Korby, if they don't bump up class sizes at the K-4 levels (which could see 300 teachers lose their jobs) or close those schools (an expected loss of 171 teachers), the district will cut up to 471 teachers at the secondary level.

It didn't take long for the trustees to ask about making more cuts at 3700 Ross; that, after all, is what those who don't work at 3700 Ross always demand first at times like these. At which point trustee Edwin Flores reminded the board about that horrific human resources briefing, which says the district has "half the staff" it needs to actually do its job. Said Flores, the board may "need to cut elsewhere to add back to HR. ... Before we say, 'central office, central office, central office,' there are some things needed there [that] more than pay for themselves" in the long term.

At which point it turned to school consolidations ...

Thursday was the first time the full board actually got around to discussing the sensitive subject, which involves shuttering one of the district's crown jewels: James Bonham Elementary, where, as you can see below in the presentation given to trustees, the district says it will save around $1,134,000 by closing its doors.

Korby said there will be public hearings, at least five, between January 17 through January 26; no time or place has been determined, and time's a-ticking. "I would recommend a full compliment," said trustee Mike Morath, meaning: one hearing at each campus being considered for closing. But Flores and Nancy Bingham suggested having the meetings at the schools they'll be transferring to -- "so they would feel at home," said interim chief of schools Shirley Ison-Newsome. (Update at 5 p.m.: The district just emailed that schedule of hearings, along, of course, with where they will take place; it's at the very bottom of this item.)

Korby was asked: How'd you pick these schools, anyhow? He said that, well, when it came to the nine elementary campuses -- Bonham, City Park, Frazier, Wheatley, Harllee, Arlington Park, Fannin, Roberts and H.S. Thompson, another exemplary school -- he went with those that have enrollments below 251 students. "That was the cutoff, realizing this is a difficult process," he said. "We cut it off at a level that was achievable -- or, at least, hopefully achievable. We looked at a number of others, but we ended up drawing the line at that point." Later, Carla Ranger would characterize that number as "arbitrary."

Again and again, Korby and King explained to the trustees they have no choice -- and that this probably won't be the last time they're faced with having to make this call. Said they, if and when the feds reauthorize No Child Left Behind -- which George W. Bush still stands behind -- rules concerning the allocation of Title 1 funds will further tighten, and money will be harder to come by.

"Comparability is a significant piece of it," said King. "That's the thing that's likely to impact us the greatest. It will make it impossible to provide a full range of [services] to small schools."

But whatever the outcome in D.C., there is still Austin to worry about. Because the district, like all ISDs statewide, is still struggling to get through the last year's decisions. Said King: God knows what the state Legislature will decide to do next year. "At best, we'll hold on to what we have," he said. "We got through the last year and we're trying to get through this budget cycle, but at some point in time the districts around here are going to increase teacher pay, and if we don't we're going to lose teachers."

Board president Lew Blackburn, who just this week discovered he lost out on his second bid to become another district's superintendent, piped up. "We may have to close more schools to increase salaries," he said. And what happens when the district comes back to voters with another bond package? At this rate, Blackburn fretted, "we may not be able to get that."

Ranger, who spent most of Thursday trying to put off the inevitable by delaying several items on the January 26 voting agenda, once again requested the trustees to put off voting on consolidation. But she wasn't asking for a mere month.

"I think we ought to take the opportunity to look at this for another year," she said. "There's a lot to be considered." Yes, she said, these campuses are small, "but there's a lot to be said for smaller schools. They have been and are being touted and promoted as being very successful schools, and many of these are high-performing schools. It was an arbitrary decision: 'Let's go below this number.' ... I am not ready or convinced this is what we ought to do."

Flores would insist that, yes, smaller schools are successful -- but those with 400, 600 students, not 250 and fewer. He said the research bears this out. And, yes, there are studies -- such as Smaller, Safer, Saner: Successful Schools from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities -- that put the number at around 400, give or take.

But it goes beyond that, he said, pointing to the fact that a lot of smaller elementary schools share a TAG teacher, who travels from campus to campus like an itinerant educator with "their feet in different places."

Trustees threw out every idea they had to spare the campuses: Eric Cowan asked if there was a way to reduce costs per student. King said, "When you staff it with personnel to keep the doors open and include utilities, no." Blackburn asked about changing attendance boundaries, which, he was told, would only shift the problems to other campuses. They asked about adding fourth and fifth grade to Bonham, and were told that wouldn't fix it. (I've been told repeatedly in recent weeks that the classrooms there are simply too small to accommodate two more grade levels.)

And there are still questions about what the district plans to do with the staffs of the schools that will be closed: Will they sent to the new schools or sent home? A policy under consideration, which was discussed earlier in the marathon meeting, reads: "In the event two or more schools are consolidated or any schools are closed, staff assigned to the closed schools shall be released into the excess pool." Ranger decried that, calling it "antagonistic to teachers."

But, the trustees were told the superintendent can still displace principals, suggesting that those leading exemplary and recognized campuses about to be shuttered may yet have a job awaiting them at one of the schools to which their students will be shuffled.

Bernadette Nutall said she's been meeting with Mayor Mike Rawlings, discussing ways to bring "affordable housing to South Dallas, because economics and education go hand in hand." She talked about trying to repurpose Pearl C. Anderson, and about having "meetings about ways to keep the schools open." Ranger, the naysayer, agreed here: She said the trustees must take it upon themselves to try to lower expenses at the campuses, "looking for ways to save money any way we can."

But King was not so optimistic: He's hoping that outsourcing that custodial contract may give some relief, but it's not sure thing -- far from. Maybe the state will remove homestead exemptions from property taxes? Doubtful. "Or we could go up a little more [in terms of class size] at the elementary [level], and I don't thnk we want to do that."

Cowan said: What happens if the trustees whiff on the consolidation proposal?

Mike Morath said: "It equates to 171 teachers. Doesn't need to get more sophsiticated than that."

[Update: The district has made the full consolidation discussion available via Vimeo. It's below.]
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School consolidation discussion-January 12, 2012 from Dallas Independent School Dist on Vimeo.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky