Dallas County

State Senator Wants to Kill a Dallas School District. Might Be Good Practice.

Another possible use for "Dallas County Schools?" That's the name of a school district, by the way.
Another possible use for "Dallas County Schools?" That's the name of a school district, by the way. Wikipedia
State Senator Don Huffines, Republican of Dallas County, wants to obliterate an entire school district —blow it to smithereens, erase it, make it go away forever, get rid of it lock, stock and barrel. Terrible, right?

No. We should all grab boxes of trash bags and go help him.

Don’t worry. In the permanent devastation and erasure of the district called “Dallas County Schools,” no teachers or children will be harmed — not a hair on their heads — nor will any school, desk or blackboard be damaged. Dallas County Schools doesn’t have students, teachers or schools.

Dallas County Schools is a ... well, Dallas County Schools should be thought of as a … the thing is, Dallas County Schools falls under what’s called a … what in the hell is Dallas County Schools, anyway? It’s this countywide “school district” that is not a school district. Soooo … maybe I’ll let Huffines explain it:

“They do not educate any students,” he told me. “They do not hire any teachers. They have done a good job of justifying their existence over the decades without doing anything they should be doing. They are unsafe, unreliable and completely reckless. It’s a rogue bureaucracy out of control that needs to go away completely, and that’s my goal.”

OK. But, uh … what is it?

By now Huffines probably knows more about that particular question than anybody at Dallas County Schools, so I asked him to fill me in. He explained that a century ago most Texas counties had countywide school districts.

Over the decades, those county school systems were replaced one by one by independent school districts. The underlying body of law by which county school districts were established in the 19th century has since been stricken from the books, erased and replaced by new laws governing the modern ISDs.

All Texas counties but Dallas and Harris folded their county districts when the ISDs came along to replace them. For some reason, the Dallas and Harris county districts were grandfathered and allowed to continue.

But none of the body of law or state agency oversight created to regulate the ISDs applies to these two antique agencies, so they’re just sort of out there on the land like their own little independent fiefdoms, fiefing away.

A public agency nobody even knows about that has the power to tax, the power to issue bond debt and the right to enter into big contracts with vendors: What could possibly go wrong?

Over the last two years, NBC5 in Dallas has carried out a stunning investigative series revealing how DCS, this little antique tin-hat agency that nobody even knows exists, has run up over $80 million in bond debt, for which you and I are responsible as county residents, in addition to getting into a wildly speculative business deal with a company that puts traffic cameras on school buses.

School buses are what Dallas County Schools does — just buses, not schools, not students, not teachers, just buses. DCS contracts with most but not all of the ISDs in the county to provide bus service for students. The ISDs sign over their state-funded transportation grants to DCS. So they’re a bus company only they’re not a company, like nobody could ever find a private company willing to supply bus service.

Everybody in Dallas County pays taxes to DCS, and DCS tends to take a nice little new hunk out of us every little chance it gets. This year it will collect property taxes in the amount of $20,326,715 on already existing property — a boost of 7.3 percent over what it got last year not counting additional revenues it will collect on new development.

That’s peanuts, however, in a total DCS annual revenue of $180.7 million from various government and private sources — enough to keep a staff of 2,500 employed doing something other than teaching.

In a Dallas Morning News op-ed last August, Huffines pointed out that 40 percent of Dallas County residents pay DCS for services it does not provide them.

“DCS only provides busing services to less than two thirds of Dallas County students. Garland ISD, the second largest school district in Dallas County, owns its own bus fleet and does not use DCS’ services. But its residents and businesses still pay the DCS tax. Mesquite ISD, Grand Prairie ISD, Duncanville ISD and Sunnyvale ISD don’t use DCS busing services, either.”

The traffic cameras that DCS installs on buses are a metastasizing legal and fiscal catastrophe. The idea was that the cameras would catch motorists driving around stopped school buses — illegal in Texas when the bus’ safety arm is down — and DCS would derive a fat income from the fines. But like other attempts at robot justice, this one hasn’t worked worth squat because the tickets are too easy to beat.

Scott Friedman did a piece for NBC5 last October reporting that attorneys for defendants had put together a class action suit challenging all of the tickets and all of the fines paid by 100,000 drivers since the cameras were first installed in 2012 — a potential $30 million liability. Even if that goes nowhere, Huffines says information derived from Senate hearings past year shows the camera program operating at a $5 million annual loss.

Larry Duncan, DCS board of trustees president - MARK GRAHAM
Larry Duncan, DCS board of trustees president
Mark Graham
After loudly insisting it was fiscally healthy, DCS at the end of January revealed it’s facing a $42 million annual budget shortfall and will immediately cut 100 jobs.

This story has been unraveling, obviously, for a long while, but an event this week sent up a big red flag — well, a bigger redder flag — for people who know the local schools scene. This week Alan King resigned as chief financial officer of DCS after only months on the job.

When he was chief financial officer of the Dallas Independent School District and later the acting DISD superintendent for a while, King enjoyed a reputation for solid integrity. He was hired at DCS to clean up the stop-arm mess as well as look into reports that DCS was spending large sums to defend moving violation tickets against its own drivers. But this week King walked out of DCS abruptly and without public comment.

And look, there’s another really bad piece here. Running for president of the board of DCS, a countywide election, would be about six steps down from running for dog catcher except that you can’t run for dog catcher in Dallas County. It should cost you about six cents to run for the DCS board unless you have a Tea Party challenger, in which case it might cost you 12 cents.

Two weeks ago Friedman at Channel 5 reported that, since the camera contract went into effect in 2012, DCS board President Larry Duncan has received $245,000 in campaign contributions from the CEO of the company that sells DCS the cameras, also from the CEO’s family and employees of the firm. Duncan has taken a stiff line on that story, basically saying that no one dare question his integrity.

Yes, Larry. Dare. Everyone.

The allegation is that the place is an out-of-control junk pile. Everyone’s strong and obvious suspicion must be that the 245 grand in campaign contributions from the camera guy’s kids may have impinged on Duncan’s better judgment.

Alan King goes in there and then pops out like a cork. That cannot be good.

I tried to reach both Duncan and DCS Superintendent Rick Sorrells. I received a call back from Lisa LeMaster, a public relations consultant who specializes in crisis management. LeMaster said she would get back to me on my question — basically, “$245,000? Really?!!” — but I had not heard back from her by my deadline for this piece.

Huffines told me he will seek an audit of DCS but is also pursuing the possibility of criminal charges. That, obviously, would be a whole other matter.

In the meantime, this much is simple: Shut it down. Tell everybody to do what Garland does — get your own buses. An arcane century-old bureaucratic entity that has outlived even its own legal authorization just cannot be the most efficient way anybody can think of to run a railroad.
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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