Ending "Political Catfight," Council Votes to Help Uplift Sell Cheaper Bonds For Expansion

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The Dallas City Council council didn't waste much time getting 'round to the most eagerly awaited showdown of the day: Item No. 53 on its agenda, which creates that nonprofit that would allow Uplift Education to some $85 million in low-interest-rate bonds. As city Chief Financial Officer Jeanne Chipperfield told the council last week, the formation of the education finance corporation would save Uplift some $300,000 in interest payments. Maybe more.

And right off the bat, Uplift CEO Yasmin Bhatia told the council: "One-hundred percent" of that savings would go toward giving Uplift's teachers a pay raise for the coming school year. "We are asking you to allow us to recognize the hard work and dedication of the public school teachers in our network," she said, noting the charter's high test scores, college-ready rates and the fact that, look, its North Hills Prep in Irving did come in at No. 11 on The Washington Post's list of the best public high schools in the country just last year.

"Would you please allow us to say thank you to them?" Bhatia said, teeing up a long line of speakers that included Uplift students, parents, educators and supporters who reiterated her plea. "If the council votes against the creation of the EFC, Uplift will still go to the bond market," Bhatia said, and still open in Deep Ellum and still expand into Fort Worth to accommodate some of the 6,000 kids on its waiting list. And Uplift will still "proactively seek ways to collaborate with our large ISD peers," she said, acknowledging the spirited debate attempting to pit charters against the Dallas Independent School District.

"But," she said, "we will be limited in how much of a pay raise, if any, we can give our teachers in our next school year."

Which is how today's debate was framed by most of the public speakers, save for those who demanded to know how this wound up on the consent agenda in the first place: Uplift's expansion is a done deal that won't put the city on the hook for the sale of those bonds, but creating the EFC will put the money saved in the pockets of local educators. And who could be against that? Well ...

Carolyn Davis, for one -- but of course. As she's done throughout this debate in recent weeks, she began the council discussion by insisting she couldn't support Uplift or charters because to do so would somehow mean she's against the Dallas Independent School District. "We got 11 schools that are closing, and the question we need to be asking ourselves is what are we going to do to support our public schools we pay taxes to every year?" she said. "I now have a say-so in the district."

"We must support our public schools," Davis said. "I have nothing against Uplift. My problem is sometime[s] we take the brightest minds and we tend to put 'em in charter schools. The other thing, my other concern, is that because of what we're doing, mayor, we don't have a say-so."

But the longer she spoke, the more resigned she sounds to this being a done deal. She told Mayor Mike Rawlings that if this does go forward she wants the council to appoint the EFC's board, which, right now, is filled with Uplift-suggested appointees.

"I think we can co-exist," said Delia Jasso, a Skyline grad. But she too wants to overhaul the board with "all or some council-appointed members."

Next up: Angela Hunt, who said the only thing that ever concerned her was how this would impact the city's bond rating. But after chatting up some outside bond council, she said, "The city has no financial responsibility in this, none, and that's good." Because, look, she said: She wasn't elected to be an education expert. That's not her role, not the council's. "And we're not breaking new ground here," she said, noting that the city has created similar conduits for private and charter schools in the past.

"At the end of the day," she said, "the city's not going to have skin in the game." And that, right there, should be all the council's concerned with.

Jerry Allen made the same point today he made last week: The council can either let Uplift throw away $300,000 in interest payments annually to bondholders "in New York City," or let that money stay here and go toward students and teachers.

But Vonciel Jones Hill, like Davis, views this as nothing less than "an adverse incursion upon DISD" that allows "the brightest and best minds to be drained from the DISD. That, in my opinion, is not good for our city, our image." Allowing the city to help Uplift sell those bonds, she said, sends the message that City Hall does not "have its mind around DISD, and that is not a message I choose to send."

Ann Margolin said, look, that's not what this is about. "This is simply a funding mechanism available to charter schools" that lets them "borrow money at a much less expensive rate and lets them put that money back into educating children." Dwaine Caraway said, come on, this is all about the kids, the children. "We should be focused on the children's education. They can get it from home school, they can get it from charter school, they can get it from DISD, they can get it from church." Wherever. You get the point. "The challenge is to educate the children." And damned if he'll deprive a child from getting an education, especially when he's got godchildren in charters.

"No one supports the kids and children and Dallas public schools more than myself, I feel, because I support all kids," he said. "We need to fill the auditoriums at DISD. [But] you can't come to the Dallas City Council and expect us to solve the problems of 3700 Ross. ... That's not our responsibility. We're here in the capacity in which we serve, which gives all charter schools an equal opportunity to step up to the plate. As I understand it, even DISD can come before this council and apply for the same process Uplift is applying for."

The longer he spoke, the more fed-up with this whole "political catfight" Caraway appeared to become. At the end of it, matter of fact, he wanted to know why DISD didn't come to council first and ask for help selling tax-free bonds.

Which didn't sway Pauline Medrano, who has three Uplift campuses in her district -- and a fourth, once the Laureate Prep secondary school opens in the old Baylor building on Elm in Deep Ellum on August 2. Despite Uplift's successes, sorry, she's voting no.

Tennell Atkins said, you know what, Dallas has a "negative image" when it comes to education. And that needs to change. And folks need to go back to Austin and demand more money for public education. But till that happens, this is nothing more than a conduit to help a charter school. After this is done with, said Atkins, "We need to go to DISD, to their chambers, and say, 'How can we help you to better educate our children?'"

Linda Koop said all the previous arguments pitting DISD against Uplift against the council against the kids made her "sad," in that the council was talking at each other, not to each other. But "this is really a hopeful day," she said. "We're engaged in education now. We're engaged in kids. We may disagree on some issues, but today we understand more than we did last week and the week before about what the issues are with education."

Carolyn Davis wasn't done. She said she's voting no. In case you missed that. But, she told her colleagues, if y'all are so concerned about the children and the state of the DISD, then "each and every one of us will get involved in a PTA at our public schools. We must get involved in math contests. We must have our children sit around the horseshoe. We must become volunteers in the district. We must support by giving money."

Then it came time to vote -- on voting to split the creation of the EFC and the make-up of its board, which some on the council wants to control. Which failed.

And then, at 11 a.m, came the vote itself -- and the end, for now, of this discussion. And it passed, with only Davis, Alonzo, Medrano and Hill voting against the creation of the EFC.

Up now: The council is considering eliminating that 300-foot booze rule in Deep Ellum. Whew.

Update at 11:06 a.m.: That took all of one minute. Motion passed. No more 300-foot rule in Deep Ellum.

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