State Rep. Jason Villalba Threatens to Split DISD if it Doesn't Move Faster on Reform

Redrawing school district lines is a controversial issue that has been getting plenty of attention this year from Baton Rouge to Salt Lake City. Now state Representative Jason Villalba says he might propose splitting Dallas ISD into separate districts during the next legislative session if smaller reforms fail to pass.

Earlier this year, Villalba backed a home-rule charter initiative that would have allowed more local and less state-level control of DISD. Although a petition drive to place the charter idea on the ballot was successful, DISD is still drawing up something to put before voters, who probably won't get a look at it until the November 2016 elections.

Villalba is annoyed, and says that's too long to wait for reform. Instead, he's proposing to bring district issues to the state level in the next session of the Legislature. He will push for legislation to hasten home-rule commissions in the future, including tighter deadlines, halting trustee appointment of commissioners -- and, if necessary, partitioning DISD.

"What I've promised to do is go to Austin next session to find ways to be much more efficient for reform," says Villalba. "If that process results in true reform, then there's no need for a division of DISD. But if we don't get there, you can guarantee we're going to find a way to implement the kind of reforms that are necessary for DISD."

But the possibility of dividing DISD into several distinct districts has an uncomfortable air about it, and one that's having Dallasites squirming nervously in their chairs today. Maybe that's because we fear repeating the story we've already seen happen in Dallas.

The Highland Park ISD "bubble" is good example of a smaller district-within-a-district: 98 percent white, median housing income in the six figures and one of the highest rated districts in the state. Wilmer-Hutchins ISD is another example: 80 percent African-American, 20 percent Hispanic, perpetually underfunded. Now it's part of DISD.

That's not to say a divided DISD would necessarily be split between haves and have-nots. Last year, former Representative Allen Vaught proposed splitting off an area of the Lake Highlands neighborhood into White Rock ISD. The idea has flopped for now, but a WRISD district conceivably could have been created with demographics similar to DISD.

Dicing up DISD has been proposed on the state level before, too, in 2009 by state Representative Yvonne Davis. Board of trustees member Mike Morath says he's heard division ideas floated throughout his tenure with the board. "I think we have to explore ways to improve the system that governs DISD," says Morath, echoing Villalba's frustration with the speed of change at DISD.

For now, Villalba seems to be dismissing worries that dividing DISD could also further divide the city by race and class. "I don't see South Dallas or East Dallas or West Dallas as any different. I'm color blind. What I want is what works best for all our kids," says Villalba. "Of course we are concerned about racial and economic makeup. But my motivating concern is what is best for the kids, and how can we provide the best opportunities for the kids."

Morath is more hesitant to jump on the bandwagon.

"Part of me is worried it will increase inequality, although part of me does think it will increase local control. I've heard for years that we should split up the district, but I'm not sure it would benefit all the kids in DISD," says Morath. "Do I think splitting up the districts could lead to increased inequality? Yeah, I think that's possible. That's why I've never advocated this."

If the state forces their hand, Morath and fellow board members will need to be eyeing maps like these, if they are to avoid segregated classrooms:

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Emily Mathis