School System Should Not Hasten Its Own Demise by Aiding Gentrification

The back of the business section of the daily newspaper Monday listed more than 30 surplus properties the school district is trying to sell, including its headquarters campus at 3700 Ross Ave. We may be witnessing a suicide by real estate.

At a special called meeting Nov. 3, the school board hammered superintendent Michael Hinojosa to get out there and sell all that property to the highest bidders for the highest dollars. Never mind that this very kind of thinking is what’s killing the district.

News bulletin: millenials in apartments don’t have kids, if they’re careful. They have dogs. Yes, they do send their dogs to school. But they haven’t tried to send the dogs to human schools. Yet.

So what happens as more and more of the inner city gentrifies? Public schools shrivel. Look at elementary schools in trustee District 8, which meanders from northwest Dallas to Old East Dallas in the area right around the district’s headquarters building on Ross.

I compared student population at those schools in 2012 with their enrollments in 2016. In a four-year period, enrollment in the 12 elementary schools in that district decreased by 14 percent.

Doesn’t seem like much? Well, remember, this general trend, when it persists over several years, leads to school closures, as it did in southern Dallas in 2012 when almost a dozen schools were shuttered for under-utilization. When the enrollment of a school reaches a low enough percentage of the building’s capacity, continuing to maintain and operate the building ceases to make sense.

John F Kennedy Learning Center has an official enrollment now of 413 students, measured against an enrollment four years ago of 772 and a building capacity of 966. It’s already down to 43 percent of capacity, raising the question why it’s even still open.

I noticed there was some kind of a brouhaha going on about the sale of the headquarters building among the board members at their Nov. 3 special called meeting to consider the superintendent’s contract. Generally they talk about real estate matters behind closed doors so as not to have their conversations overheard by reporters for the Dallas Observer, which I think we can all understand, but a little of this business bubbled out anyway.

So I called trustee Miguel Solis, who represents District 8 and has a number of schools whose attendance zones are directly affected by the rapid gentrification of Ross Avenue. It turns out that Solis has been pressing his colleagues on the board to at least consider another way of looking at real estate.

Instead of fueling the same fires of gentrification that are driving poor families out of the schools, Solis wonders if the district would not be more pound wise, less penny foolish, to use its heft in the market to stave off gentrification by promoting affordable housing.

We’ve been talking about this a lot recently in relation to the story of threatened mass evictions of low-income renters in West Dallas. In that ugly picture, we have seen that nobody at City Hall has to actively plot or plan the mass eviction or displacement of poor people produced by gentrification. It’s enough to simply set the real estate machinery in motion. The machinery will do the nasty part itself.
But from the perspective of a school district, whose product is educated children, Solis is asking why the school system should aid and abet a process that is slowly working the district’s doom. Instead, Solis argues the school system should be working to “ensure that we are thoughtful when it comes to the type of city we want to be in the future, from a living standpoint and from a housing standpoint.”

He’s talking about the district trying to do some kind of deal on Ross Avenue that would include an element of affordable housing. And right here — right here, right now, at this particular point in the conversation — we need to take a very deep breath and maybe even pop a couple Valium and agree on what we’re talking about.

Is it straight-up communism? Is it cannibalism? Are we talking about setting the whole country on fire? If the school district were to add affordable housing to one of the list of goals it hopes to achieve in managing its real estate portfolio, would little green buds fail to come to the branches of trees in the spring and stars no longer twinkle in the night sky?

Oh, my God, this is something that cities all over the country are able to do successfully without causing a single nose to fall off a face or head of hair to burst into flame. Patrick Williams wrote last week  about the peculiar resistance of Dallas leaders to any kind of compromise on affordable housing. The fact is that people in other cities have proven that market-rate high-dollar housing can co-exist in the same development with rent-subsidized housing; nobody dies; developers make lots of money; and the world still turns.

The idea that working class families have to be ethnically cleansed from an area before young college graduates can move in is phobic, compulsive, superstitious and destructive of the larger social fabric. It’s a good thing for young people with advanced degrees in financial manipulation to see a guy with a lunch pail waiting for the bus once in a while or a mother walking her kid to school. It’s a form of social sanity.

No one is suggesting turning the land now occupied by school district headquarters into an internment camp for the criminally insane. American. Families. Who Work. They don’t eat people. They work.

Last April when the school board voted to spend $46 million on a new headquarters building on Central Expressway,  it made a promise to voters that the district would seek to make back as much of that money as possible by selling off surplus property. Solis says that deal still stands and he takes it seriously.

But his idea is not to give the headquarters property away. It’s not to take a low-ball price for it. It is to add an affordable housing element to the criteria that the district would seek in a deal. At least ask. See what happens.

If the verdict is that no one in the world will pay a decent price if they have to include a single affordable unit, then we will know. But I don’t think that will be the verdict. I bet we will some creative ideas for how to do both — make money and not drive off working class and poor people.

If that happens, then the school district will have played the part of a true social leader in the community. This is a chance for the schools to show the rest of the city the way forward on a very important issue.

Keeping working class families and kids in the city is also good for the public school system itself, Solis points out. “If we are thoughtful in what we do ourselves as a school system, we already know we will do ourselves good from having mixed-income schools.

“We know that’s probably the best proven strategy for reforming our schools outside of making sure every student has a high quality teacher.”

I asked him if there wasn’t another way to look at it. More than two-thirds of the cost per-pupil of running the district comes from local taxpayers. If the city can manage to bulldoze all of its poor and working class citizens out of the city limits and shut down the public school system entirely in the process, won’t taxpayers save a lot of money?

“If we are looking through the lens of social Darwinism alone, then, yes, you are absolutely right,” he said. “But I think there’s an empathy role involved that we can add to this.”

Empathy. Don’t some of the older real big religions go for that?

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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