Item Involving Charter School's Bonds Pushes Council Into Passionate Philosophical Debate

This was a good day -- such days do occur -- to study democracy in action at Dallas City Hall. The city council engaged in a smart debate on a proposal to help a charter school organization sell bonds to build more charter schools.

The mayor and council decided not to decide. If you listened to the whole thing, you had to agree with the final non-decision.

This was all about a group called Uplift Education asking the city to give a certain kind of legal imprimatur to Uplift's upcoming attempt to borrow a bunch of money to build new schools. If the city ever agrees, Uplift will be able to borrow the money at a lower interest rate.

According to the lawyers for Uplift and to city staff, the city will never be on the hook for anything even if Uplift gets in trouble making its payments.

Seems like one, two, three, right? The city creates this legal agreement to "sponsor" Uplift's borrowing. That way Uplift saves $300,000 on its mortgage. Uplift spends the three hundred grand on kids and classrooms instead. No skin off the city's nose.

The problem was that somebody tried to slide this whole thing under the council's nose. Whoever was running it, they stayed silent on the issue until the very last moment, beyond the time when the city council would be able to ask a lot of questions. Then they said they had a big deadline and everything had to be approved immediately. Then they slipped it into a part of the city council voting agenda that normally is reserved for small housekeeping items most council members don't even look at.

So what did all of that accomplish? It made the whole operation smell like a Nigerian banking scam. The situation wasn't helped by the fact that Uplift also is involved right now in an effort to build a school in the middle of a bar and entertainment district in what skeptics in that neighborhood are suggesting may be a shady real estate scam.

All of this comes right in the middle of an extremely contentious campaign by the Dallas school system that will shutter 11 schools in areas where the district says there aren't enough kids.

Council member Carolyn Davis said none of it adds up for people in her district, where a handful of the closed schools are. She asked why public schools should be closed and more charter school built, "when we have been told there are no kids in the district. It doesn't make any sense."

Council member Angela Hunt, speaking in support of a motion by member Vonciel Hill to delay a vote, said she felt blindsided:

"Frankly, I have never felt that I was elected to be an expert on our education system," Hunt said. "Having gotten his information on Friday afternoon, I found it very challenging to get through this set of issues in just a handful of days, and so I appreciate Ms. Hill's proposal that this be delayed so that we can have a more in-depth conversation and understand some of the complexities associated with this."

Only about a fourth of the conversation was about the immediate question before the council -- the thing about helping Uplift borrow money. Since the city wasn't going to have a dog in that hunt anyway, beyond the initial "sponsorship," there wasn't a lot to discuss. But a great deal was said about public school versus charters.

Would the city, by helping a charter school organization borrow money, effectively be endorsing charter schools over traditional public schools?

The big bell-ringer on that issue was Mayor Mike Rawlings. Speaking at the end of a two-hour debate, Rawlings insisted charter schools are a necessary factor in the education equation for big urban districts.

First, Rawlings declared his commitment to the Dallas Independent School District: "I love DISD," he said. "Both of my kids went to DISD. As you will see next week, I am going to take DISD on in a personal way as well.

"We will not be great city unless DISD becomes a great school district. The math can't work. These charter schools cannot make Dallas great. These are around-the-edge organizations. We've got to support and hold up and hold DISD accountable."

Rawlings said the problem, however, is failure: "Twelve percent of our students graduating from DISD schools are ready for college. It's only 12 percent. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem."

Rawlings told the council he has been "spending a lot of time" consulting with "minority mayors ... in some of the toughest, toughest areas." He named Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker.

"Every one of them says you've got to have a portfolio approach to education in a school system and charters play an important role in that."

So in the end the council didn't get mad and just kill the whole thing because somebody tried to slip them a Mickey. But they also did not snap their heels together, salute the flag and vote blind approval. Instead they voted to delay it two weeks, allowing for a full briefing on all of the issues next week.

If their questions are answered and they decide it's an OK deal, the council can approve it in time for Uplift's rush-rush borrowing schedule, which involves selling the bonds in March. And maybe next time around, somebody will know better than to try stuff like this on a Sneaky-Pete basis.

They all spoke, and they all listened. Everybody said stuff that made sense to everybody else. In the end they made the right decision, which was not to decide. Yet. So it was a good day to watch them make the sausage. I hope, in the interests of alternative journalism, this kind of thing won't happen too often.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze