Dallas Independent School District board trustee Ron Price

DISD's Shell Game

Kent Fischer has a very important story in today’s Dallas Morning News -- shoulda been on Page One -- revealing that the center has been blown out of the Dallas Independent School District’s whole strategy for recovering from its financial crisis. The state basically is telling DISD, “No, we cannot give you permission to violate federal law by using grant money to pad your budget.”

This is all about a point we didn’t make and maybe should have made in this week’s Dallas Observer cover story. We did tell the story of the effort at Woodrow Wilson High School where a principal and a bunch of smart parents came up with a way to fix the crisis without firing teachers, only to be get shot down by the superintendent and school board. Superintendent Michael Hinojosa told the Woodrow parents to take their solution and “keep it in your pocket.” He said the district was going to solve its money woes by canning teachers, no matter what.

There was a certain logic behind Hinojosa’s my-way-or-the-hallway insistence on firing teachers. We didn’t get into it in our piece because it was really bad logic, and explaining why it was so bad would have required almost another separate story. But now it has been explained by real life.

Our brilliant school board was persuaded by its new chief operating officer, Steve Korby, that it could save 300 teacher jobs by simply getting the federal government to pay the teacher’s salaries under so-called Title I grants. Never mind that federal law states clearly it is illegal to use the Title I money to pad a budget deficit. Title I must be used for extra personnel devoted to enrichment -- people you wouldn’t otherwise have on the payroll.

The whole teacher-firing scheme at DISD is about reducing all of the schools to a bare-bones uniform staffing ratio, so that the district could then tell the feds, “Now 300 of the teachers we are thinking about canning are actually extra personnel. See, we fired a bunch of people. Now we hardly have enough teachers. So now these 300 over here are sorta extra. Now. Get it? So it’s legal for us to pay them with $15 million in Title I money.”

To me, I don’t know, I just don’t even get how people in positions of so much responsibility can possibly even have that kind of tin foil in their heads. It’s like, “O.K., federal government, you see that we have placed the $15 million pea under this walnut shell over here on the right. Now watch the shells ... and for $15 million, which shell the pea is under now?”

You know, if I were the feds, I would say, “PUT THE SHELLS DOWN NOW. Step away from the table and place your hands on your heads.”

Which is more or less what they have been told. The Texas Education Agency, according to Fischer’s story, has warned DISD that, while an ultimate decision is up to the feds, this effort almost certainly is not going to come to a happy ending.

And it’s not like they weren’t warned.

In another story by Fischer on September 25, TEA spokesperson Debbie Graves Ratcliffe warned them bluntly, I thought, that this was not going to fly. This was before last week’s vote by the school board to solve things by firing people. Ratcliffe more or less thanked DISD for telegraphing its punches and said TEA almost certainly would not agree to play the pea under the shell game.

The night before last week’s board vote, I heard Dallas school board member Ron Price tell a town hall meeting at Woodrow Wilson High School that the Title I scheme wasn’t going to work because “it’s illegal.” He put the blame for coming up with such a screwball idea on Korby, the district’s top financial person.

“The one danger in bringing folks in from the corporate community to run a public school system,” Price said, “is that our finances are totally different. Most people from the corporate world think one plus one makes two and that’s how you get the dollars. They don’t understand the federal requirements.

“I told the administration, I said, ‘That’s a great idea, but it’s against the law.’ Unfortunately we have new people [referring to Korby] who just started a couple months ago. He’s not familiar with federal and state law.”

“Why is he still here?” a parent in the audience asked.

“That’s a good question,” Price said. “A great question.”

Korby is the guy who said last April that the district’s finances were “solid.” I believe that remark now ranks right up there with John McCain’s faith in the “fundamentals” of the national economy. By the way, if anybody has any doubts about these quotes, I’d be happy to play them my tape.

I finally spoke with Price yesterday, and he cleared up another gray area in our cover story: the matter of why he abstained from voting on the reduction in force. Price said his understanding of Robert’s Rules of Order was that a person who had voted against the measure could not bring it up again later or reconsideration but a person who had abstained could.

“I’m holding that over their heads,” he said. “I may bring it back.”

I told him he and Neil Emmons on the Dallas Plan Commission should form a Henry Martyn Robert Society for the study and appreciation of parliamentary subtlety. He laughed.

Another thing: There’s a memo from Dallas Alliance AFT president Aimee Bolender to Price floating around, a scribbled note she sent in to him during the layoff board meeting last week. The interpretation of those doing the floating is that Bolender had cut a secret deal with the school administration and was pulling the rug out from under Price in his opposition to the layoffs. I have parsed this thing about 10 different ways, talking with all the principals, and it’s a red herring.

Price misunderstood the memo. Bolender and the AFT were always against the layoffs. But they were also alarmed by early indications that the administration was going to use them as an excuse for a vindictive blood-letting in the schools.

Bolender negotiated with Hinojosa to get him to promise to follow district policy in choosing people to can. He so agreed. That’s what she was signaling Price -- not that she was O.K. with the layoffs but that Hinojosa had already agreed to carry them out according to fair policies and rules. Price just took it the wrong way.

There’s a lot going on out there. None of it good. --Jim Schutze

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