You and I will be asked to vote Nov. 7 on killing the Dallas County school district, or Dallas County Schools, as it calls itself. The proposition is to let DCS “continue,” or stay alive. To kill it, you have to vote against.
In the drumbeat of bad stories over the last year about DCS, I bet the toughest thing for most of us to figure out has been what it is. What does “Dallas County school district” mean?”
Is it a school district? No, not really. It doesn’t have schools. It provides bus service to real school districts. So is it a bus company? No, not really. It’s a school district that doesn’t have schools, and it’s a bus company that isn’t a company. So, what about it? Why kill it? What does it do that’s so bad?
It provides horrible bus service. Its buses get in wrecks all the time. It overcharges, probably by about double. And it’s totally corrupt. Other than that, it’s fine.
Wait. What is it again?
About 100 years ago, there were county school districts all over Texas to take in kids from the boondocks. Gradually, as every city, town and boondocks formed an independent school district, most of the counties in Texas killed off their county school districts. Somehow the Dallas County school district slipped by under the radar.
Why? Why does it still exist? Oh, you know, this is Dallas, so there’s probably some completely weird, horrible reason going way back in the day, having to do with evading the law on racial integration, horse theft and safety standards or something, but I have never heard anybody explain succinctly why this particular creature is still alive. It exists for some reason, and at some point in the past it turned itself into a school bus service in order to have something to do.
The bottom line is that DCS is the school bus service from hell. Its biggest client is the Dallas Independent School District. Briefings to the DISD board in the last year have shown that DCS averages 419 school bus wrecks a year.
DISD trustees' staff told them that none of the other five bus service providers the staff looked at for comparison had more than 50 accidents a year, including the biggest school bus provider in the country. So if we take those five as the norm, DCS is more than eight times worse than the norm in terms of school bus wrecks.
Wait. You may be thinking, “Well, I don’t see a lot of school bus wrecks on the news in Dallas. If one school bus goes off the road in rural Lampasas, it’s news. If DCS has that many wrecks, how come they’re never on TV?”
Answer: because DCS school bus wrecks aren’t news any more. That would be like doing a story on the fact that the sun comes up every morning. In Lampasas, a school bus wreck is a big deal. Here it’s business as usual.
The DCS record amounts to one wreck for every 69 kids who ride its buses. I tried and failed to compare that record with overall motor vehicle accident rates, which usually are computed according to vehicle miles traveled. But I think one accident per 69 kids is very bad.
And then forget about accidents. What happens when they don’t have accidents? DISD trustees' staff told them this year that DCS buses were running at an on-time rate of two-thirds — or, expressed another way, one third of the time, the DCS buses don’t get where they are going on time.
If your kid is in the band and needs to be on the field and ready to march at a given hour, you have a two out of three chance the kid will make it. Dallas Kids First, an education advocacy group, put out a mailer last week including this quote from a DISD teacher, taken from an email the teacher had sent to the DISD board of trustees:
“In the past year alone I can think of several instances where my students were denied the opportunity to compete in sporting events and other extracurricular activities because DCS couldn't be bothered to provide reliable service.
“I've waited at stadiums and ball fields for countless hours, only to find out that the bus never showed up at the school to pick up the kids. Our baseball team has had to forfeit JV games so Varsity had enough time to play on at least two occasions.
“Our entire swim team missed a meet last month because of DCS error. Our soccer team had buses break down and students had to walk the remaining mile to a district game or forfeit. My kids don't deserve that.”
That is one angry teacher.
Three important pieces of background may help you put all of this into a proper frame of reference. The first piece is this: The number of children carried on DCS buses has dwindled to about half what it was five years ago. Makes sense. Your kid may have a better chance of winding up in a bus wreck than getting to school on time, so obviously school districts and families have been looking for alternatives.
The DCS homepage says DCS serves 12 districts, but lower on the same page where it lists the districts it serves by name, only nine appear. So I guess that means “like 12 or something.” That may help explain the approach to on-time arrivals.
But if the total number of kids served has dwindled to 56 percent of what it was five years ago, then DCS must have suffered a terrible contraction of its budget. Oh, no, not at all. That brings us to the second bit of information I wanted to provide to you for perspective.
With its total passenger load cut in half, DCS has been able to keep its revenues healthy by doubling what it charges to carry each kid. In fiscal year 2011-12, DCS charged $810 per kid. In FY 2015-16, it charged $1,654.
See. Do an appallingly crappy job. Lose half your customers. Double your rates. Easy.
That’s why I said it’s not a bus company. There would be no bus company. The bus company would no longer be with us. The bus company would have passed on to its everlasting reward years ago.
But, speaking of bus companies, you know they exist. If a school district doesn’t want to operate buses itself, it can put out a request for proposals, and lots of bus companies will show up eager to take the business. It’s not like if DCS goes away, there will never be another school bus.
DCS is only able to continue to exist because it is a government agency. We vote for it. You may not know that, but it’s hidden down there in the fine print at the bottom of every joint election ballot. It even taxes us.
DCS collects $20 million a year in property taxes, which, to DCS, is peanuts. According to its 2016-17 budget, tax revenues amount to barely 11 percent of the DCS overall budget.
It collects another $81 million from the school districts to which it provides bus service, but that still only brings us up to 56 percent of all the money DCS rakes in. Money from the state and various other payments will make its current budget this year top out at $181 million.
DCS says it spends half of that money on bus service — $92.2 million. So where does the other $90 million or so get to? Oh, it gets around, let me tell you. Way around.
Over the last year, KXAS-TV (NBC 5) in Dallas has carried out a startling and utterly devastating series of investigative reports on DCS, which is 90 percent of why you will find a proposition to kill DCS on the Nov. 7 ballot. The worst of the revelations have dealt with vast sums of money DCS has lost on a partnership with a private bus safety equipment provider — quite an irony, given the DCS record on wrecks.
The losses have been so great that DCS, which by its own measure takes in twice the money it needs to get the kids to school, has been on the verge of financial ruin for a year. For an agency with income twice what it spends on service provision, that’s a lot of money out the door.
That brings us to the last item I wanted to give you in order to put all of this into perspective as you head toward the polls.
Two weeks ago, NBC 5 revealed that Rick Sorrells, the recently ousted executive director of DCS, has been maintaining a large weekend getaway apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans adjoining an apartment rented by a man named Ronald Leonard. Leonard is CEO of the bus safety equipment manufacturer to which DCS has given more than $70 million in orders, all paid for with public money, much of it for equipment never installed at a great loss to DCS.
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Between the two of them, Sorrells and Leonard have occupied an entire floor of a building. NBC 5 reported that on occasions when Sorrells is entertaining guests, he uses both apartments. Lots of guests, great times, no doubt.
So that’s it. Terrible record on wrecks. Awful record on on-time arrivals. Its customer base dwindles to half, so its rates double. Courting financial ruin in spite of having an income twice what it needs to the job. Adjoining weekend getaway apartments in the French Quarter.
Back to my original question: What is it? I don’t know. It’s some kind of government agency that doesn’t govern. It’s a business that can’t do business. And it maintains adjoining weekend getaway apartments in the French Quarter. Do I need to tell you even one more syllable about this before you vote?
A vote for lets it continue. A vote against kills it.