A little after 2:30 the council got 'round to that Uplift briefing, which was supposed to be about the city's creating a nonprofit corporation to help the charter school sell tax-free bonds for its expansion into Deep Ellum and Fort Worth. Which, as the council's been reminded over and over, will not cost the city a cent.
But, of course, that's not what it was about -- at least, not when it got around to the council's questions about the deal. Because, once more, it became at times a rambling, unfocused and heated debate pitting charters in general and one provider in particular against the Dallas Independent School District. And more than a few council members tried to match the passion Mayor Mike Rawlings displayed during his wrap-up last week. It was quite the show.
We picked up today where we left off last week -- with Carolyn Davis trying to stick it to Uplift with random facts lifted from its website while grilling its CEO, Yasmin Bhatia, and interrupting her repeatedly when Bhatia tried to answer her questions. Davis read from Uplift's website, pointing in particular to the page showing that its students' TAKS scores are significantly higher than those in the Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington and Irving districts. At first it was unclear what she was trying to get it. But, in time, she got there: Davis kept insisting, over and over, that Uplift only takes "the best of the cream," unlike DISD, which takes everyone.
"DISD have kids in the system who go to truancy, and these are kids perhaps looking for a way out, but they are considered trouble kids, so you're only getting the best of the cream," she told Bhatia.
The Uplift CEO did herself no favors: Initially she told the council that Uplift doesn't take kids considered truants. Later she corrected herself. But the damage, for the time being, had been done.
"Those kids who are having problems in the system cannot go to your school, and yet you come down here and want millions of dollars not to even help kids in truancy," said Davis, who misspoke herself. Because, after all, Uplift is not asking the city for anything except a conduit through which it can sell tax-exempt bonds in the hopes of saving $300,000 annually it would then put back into the schools. (As Jerry Allen would later say: "If we do not do this, $300,000 a year will go to New York City or wherever ... but if we do do this, there's the potential for $300,000 to stay here and do some good.")
"You're only taking the best of the cream," Davis repeated. "I may not win this one .... but I feel good that I am supporting public school because it takes all kids."
Rawlings would eventually have to clarify this mess. And it was a mess.
Sheffie Kadane didn't have any interest in the back-and-forth over public education; that, after all, isn't the city's business -- not today, at least. He wanted from city chief financial officer Jeanne Chipperfield one simple answer to one simple question: "What's the cost to the city?" To which she said: "There's no cost to the city."
"What are they here for then?" Kadane asked. Chipperfield explained: They need the city to create the education finance corporation in order to take advantage of the tax break. Chipperfield said they guesstimate a $300,000 annual savings in debt service, "which goes back into the school and the kids." Which Kadane quite liked.
Also, he quite liked the fact "they do graduate every kid who goes through there, which is what this is about. I think they do DISD a service and help DISD by what they do, and more and more kids will be able to go through these schools as we get them. It's an asset to the city."
Tennell Atkins was up next, trying to keep pace with Davis and Rawlings by upping the volume. "Our schools is bad," he said. "We need more schools. We need competition. To be a great city we need great schools. ... We need to protect our children. They have a right to learn! I'll be durned if I sit here and they don't have no schools in the neighborhood and no choice, that's not a good city."
Dwaine Caraway agreed. Because, after all, "it is all about the kids."
Caraway then sang a familiar tune, about how folks are leaving Dallas not because of the city, but because of the school district -- scattering north and south to escape the DISD. "People chose to move away from Dallas because they did not want their kids enrolled into DISD," he said. "I am going to put the problem squarely out there. They moved to Cedar Hill because they wanted their kids go to Cedar Hill. They moved to DeSoto because they were disenchanted with DISD. They weren't disenchanted with the city of Dallas." But in the end, he too suggested he'd vote with the formation of the nonprofit, because it's open to other charters too. And "it's up to those schools to come in" and use it, he said.
At which point Vonciel Jones Hill noted that her kid graduated from Greenhill -- but she's so committed to DISD she's not going to support this particular proposal. "I lean towards what helps and affirms DISD, and I am not convinced this does that," she said. "I disagree respectfully with our mayor that this enhances rather than detracts from DISD."
Jerry Allen kinda scratched his head over how "we've morphed it into an issue with charter schools." So long as the city's not on the hook for this nonprofit and the sale of Uplift's bonds, he wondered, "what's the problem?"
And on and on the council went, arguing over the make-up of the proposed board for the corporation (Delia Jasso wants it to be more "diverse") and student-retention rates and past zoning issues involving other charter schools denied permits. But the mayor tried to cut through all that -- "without becoming verklempt," he said, apologizing for last week's outburst.
In an effort to clear up Davis's -- what, misstatement? misinformation? -- the mayor asked Bhatia to come back to the podium. He asked her, point-blank:
"Say I've got a third-grade kid, he's in the bottom of his class, he's shown up but he's just not putting forth the effort and I want to put him in your school. If there's a spot do you take him?"
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"We would happily accept him," she said.
"If there's one spot and my kid's there and Ms. Medrano's kid is the top of the top, how do you choose?"
"It's a blind lottery," she said. "We draw a name out of a hat." And she attempted to set the record straight: "As part of our lottery system, we accept any student who has a truancy record."
This comes up for a vote next week. Set your DVR for "rerun."