By Joe Farkus, Dallas Black Press Coalition
The Nov. 7 Constitutional Amendment and Bond Election will give voters the opportunity to save the embattled and often misunderstood Dallas County Schools (DCS). Despite its name, DCS is not a school district; but rather, the organization that provides transportation in the form of school buses for more than 450,000 Dallas County students in Dallas ISD, Richardson ISD, Irving ISD, Highland Park ISD, Lancaster ISD, Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD, Cedar Hill ISD, and DeSoto ISD. DCS largely funds it services through a property tax on Dallas County homes.
While the wording of proposition related to DCS – Proposition A – may be difficult to understand for some voters, the meaning is clear: voting FOR Proposition A would save the organization from being totally dissolved. If the proposition fails, the process to end DCS would begin promptly. The process would involve a transitionary period guided by a committee created by the school districts that currently utilize the organization’s services. As DCS would be allowed to continue operating for the rest of the current school year, each district would come up with their own plans for how to handle student transportation for the 2018-19 school year moving forward.
Dallas County Schools is certainly not without its detractors with Republican State Sen. Don Huffines (District 16) and Dallas ISD Trustees Edwin Flores and Dustin Marshall serving as some of the most vocal.
“On the Nov. 7 ballot, voters in Dallas County will have the opportunity to improve the safety and reliability of hundreds of school buses in North Texas while returning some money to their own pockets,” Dallas ISD Trustee Dustin Marshall wrote in an Oct. 12 op-ed. “It’s a win-win situation that voters should seize.”
Reports of the FBI and the Texas Rangers launching investigations into the previous DCS leadership’s financial dealings surfaced this summer. In addition to charges of corruption and financial mismanagement, DCS buses have a well-documented history of reckless road behavior in previous years as well as failing to deliver students to school on time 33 percent of the time.
Supporters of the proposition, however, point to the reshuffle that occurred at the top of the organization in the last year or so, with DCS acquiring a new president in addition to new trustees. Already, DCS is reporting significant decreases in roadway incidents and traffic citations for buses as well as a 95 percent on-time rate for Dallas County students.
“Unfortunately, proposition A is an all-or-nothing measure,” said Randy Schackmann, who sits on the Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD Trustee Board. “Attempting to fix DCS problems by disbanding them at the expense of we taxpayers and our school districts, is throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
Fellow Trustee Candace Valenzuela told the North Dallas Gazette that she supports Schackmann’s statement, calling for reform of DCS rather than sudden death and pointing to their CFO’s prediction that it would cost Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD roughly $2.5 million just to reinstitute transportation services if DCS if abolished on Nov. 7.
When compared to potential private vendor alternatives, DCS saved Dallas County taxpayers more than $42 million during the 2016-17 school year on student transportation costs according to an October press release. If Proposition A fails, each district would have to find additional funds to cover the increased costs in transportation through an increase in taxes or a shift in money currently going to student programs to cover new-found transportation responsibilities. The tax currently levied to support DCS will remain in place, forcing taxpayers to pay it without receiving the benefit of service in return.
In addition, many are concerned about the impact the abolition of the agency would have on the many employees who currently work for DCS.
“Our employees, including the part-time bus drivers and monitors, receive a livable wage, TRS, health insurance, paid sick days, holiday pay, and attendance bonuses,” Dallas County Schools board member Dr. Kyle Renard, who considers the effort to end DCS a “hostile takeover”, told the North Dallas Gazette. “Private companies and other school districts do not offer all of this, and we are very concerned [about what] our employees stand to lose if the vote goes against DCS.”
Dallas ISD intends to reserve comments on the proposal and let voters make up their own minds on whether to save DCS, a spokesperson for the district told the North Dallas Gazette. If Dallas County residents vote against proposition, the district has already developed a contingency plan for finding alternative means for transporting students. What exactly that contingency plan entails remains unclear.
It’s that level of uncertainty – combined with concerns regarding the possible privatization of the county’s school transportation services – that has so many fighting to save this agency on Nov. 7.