City Hall

What's the Hurry? Why Does Council Have to Vote on Helping Uplift Sell Bonds This Week?

You know the cell phones must have been burning all weekend when the first city council committee briefing of the week at City Hall on Monday morning starts off with a rebuttal. Wait, rebuttal already? While those of us out here in the peanut gallery are still wiping the weekend from our eyes, could you give us a hint what you're rebutting about?

Actually, I knew. I got some of those cell calls over the weekend.

Last week a few alert council members (cough, cough) noticed (ahem) somebody had slipped something into their "consent agenda" about authorizing the city to create something called an "Education Finance Corporation."

Wow. The city has never been in the education business before. The school district has always been in charge of the education business.

This is big.

But somebody stuck this big ditty into the consent agenda, which is a long laundry list of hum-drum housekeeping items not worth the council's full attention. Normally the council says OK to the whole consent agenda at once and about three dozen little things on the list get voted into law in one fell stroke.

But the council members have to watch out. Sometimes those slick tricky city manager people try to slip items in there. In this case, somebody wanted the council to vote for an item without really paying any attention to it that would involve the city in borrowing money for the biggest charter school operation in Dallas, an organization called Uplift Charter Schools.

Tennell Atkins, a southern Dallas council member who is chairman of the council's Economic Development Committee, is pushing the Uplift deal. He opened the committee's briefing session this morning with an attempt to shoot down the worry-warts before everybody even knew what they were worried about.

Atkins called on Joe Eckert, a bond lawyer with McCall Parkhurst & Horton, who was representing Uplift in the deal, and asked him if the city could ever incur any liability whatsoever for money borrowed by Uplift. Eckert said no. He said the entity the council was being asked to create would serve merely as a "conduit" or "shell" for money borrowed by Uplift.

The education finance corporation created by the city would merely "sponsor" the bond sales by Uplift in a way that would enable Uplift to qualify for lower interest rates. Eckert told the committee that the city's sponsorship of borrowings by Uplift would never mean that taxpayers would be on the hook for a default.

But he also said it has to be done right now, chop chop, no time to waste, in order to meet Uplift's construction schedule. Can't even talk about it for an extra week.

This is in part for a school Uplift wants to build in the middle the bar district in Deep Ellum, to the dismay of some business and property owners. They're worried that the zoning attached to a school will push them off the block because of distance requirements.

And it seems odd, doesn't it? This is for a charter high school. Will it be called Night Life High? Will it have a curriculum devoted to proper pub crawling?

Out in the hallway today after the meeting, Rena Honea, president of the Alliance-AFT teachers association, suggested to reporters that Uplift's plans for a bar district high school could be little more than a land play:

"Is it really for the good of the students or is it a land thing, where they're trying to get hold of a good piece of property at a low interest rate, so if the school does not produce what it's expected to produce, they're just going to have a nice piece of property that they can make a huge profit from."

Southern Dallas Council member Carolyn Davis said later she didn't get the rush-rush part of the deal. She said she assumed if Uplift is a well-run organization that it should have been aware of all the borrowing requirements for this project months ago.

Even if the city won't incur a financial risk by helping Uplift borrow money, it will be a signal, she said, that the city is endorsing charter schools.

Davis said she doesn't automatically agree or disagree with such a move. She just thinks the council should think about it for more than two minutes.

"I think we have to slow down and say wait a minute," Davis said. "Are we supporting public schools? Are we shifting to private and charter schools? What are we doing?"

The committee voted unanimously this morning to recommend that the full council vote on the proposal Wednesday.

Two days for the city council to decide if it favors charter schools over open enrollment public schools? Well, that's better than two minutes.

I wanted to ask Eckert and Bill Mays, Uplift's CFO, why this thing wound up being such a rush situation, but they said they were in a rush to get out of City Hall after the meeting. Man. The need for Night Life High must be pretty urgent. I guess the city council really just needs to get the hell out of the way.

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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