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"On The Record" Analyzes Dallas School Bond Proposal

By KERA staff

Dallas, TX – Dallas Independent School District [DISD] teacher: When I read in the newspaper the thought of portables no longer being in existence, it was very thrilling - you know, that we could all have children in the building where we wouldn't have to worry about the weather and, you know, varmints and things like that.

Sam Baker, Host, KERA's On The Record: One out of every four students in the Dallas school district attends classes in portable buildings, many of which are old and rundown. It's a situation made worse as the student population continues to grow. So it's difficult even for the harshest of critics to argue against a bond package that calls for new schools, plus massive renovations and additions to existing buildings. Hi, I'm Sam Baker. In a few moments, we will focus on the Dallas school district's record-breaking $1.37-billion bond program that goes before voters next month. ?

Baker: First, the Dallas school district's bond package. Recently I sat down with superintendent Mike Moses to talk about a range of issues regarding the bond program.

Mike Moses, Superintendent, Dallas Independent School District: Facilities do make a difference in the learning process. They are not the key factor - the teacher is the key factor. But it is true that the surroundings, the environment, the climate that our children receive instruction in does make a difference.

Baker: The district, I think, identified close to $1.8 billion in needed improvements. Why are you asking for about $500 million less?

Moses: The $500 million did not go away. We simply looked at what we thought we could ask the voters to support at this particular time. One thing we found out from the construction industry is that they told us they could churn out about $200 million to $250 million worth of construction per year. If you look at a five- or six-year program, that's about a billion 300 million dollars. Why is that important? I think it's important because this district needs to get on a schedule of having bond issues every five years rather than every ten years. If we had gone for a $1.8 billion program, we would have been looking at an eight- or nine-year program. I don't think that really makes sense for us. Those needs don't go away. $1.3 billion is probably the most we could have really expended in the next five or six years. In all likelihood, if that goes successfully - and I believe it will - this district will be back to the voters in five years or so, talking about that other $500 million, plus whatever other needs come up between now and then.

Baker: While there is no organized opposition to this bond package, there are parents and leaders who have reservations. They are concerned. They say their communities have been burned before. As Sujata Dand reports, that underlying uneasiness stems from a historic lack of trust.

DISD principal: Portable city.

Sujata Dand, KERA reporter: 40,000 Dallas students are in portables.

DISD Student: When it's raining like really, really hard, we still have to come outside.

Dand: The constant roar of planes overhead is a daily disruption.

DISD assistant principal: That's a bullet hole.

Dand: The security risk's a constant concern. Educators say what is falling apart on the outside affects what happens on the inside.

DISD teacher: This is one of the areas that the mice were entering.

Dand: And everyone agrees something must be done, but a $1.37 billion bond is too much for some to calculate.

John Trujillo, Co-Chair, Dallas School District's Latino Advisory Committee: We are in support of a bond, but not in support of this particular bond, not at this magnitude. It's too large.

Dand: John Trujillo co-chairs the Dallas School District's Latino Advisory Committee, which reports directly to the Superintendent. Trujillo says 75% of the active Hispanic committee members agree with him, that this bond package is too ambitious. They don't have faith in the school board.

Trujillo: Our concerns are basically how those funds are going to be utilized. Why is it a concern? Because we have a board who is dysfunctional, and they have proven to be such, you know, when they failed to give us fair representation, when they failed to give us equal representation on the Board.

Dand: Redistricting is just one point of contention. Trujillo says Hispanics and African-Americans are fighting a legacy of being left behind. They just don't trust the system.

Trujillo: I don't think that the integrity is quite there.

Carol Reed, Head, Bond Election Committee: But one of the things as a campaign committee that we are asking everyone to do is put all of your other agendas aside for these children because that's where the needs are.

Dand: Carol Reed is the political consultant.

DISD rally: Let's get ready to rumble!

Dand: She was hired by the business community to lead the charge to promote the bond election.

Mike Moses: We already had a victory today.

Reed: I think that Superintendent Moses has every intention of making sure that this bond proposal, when it comes to spending of the money, is done efficiently over a very quick period, five or six years. Dr. Moses has said that he plans to put an oversight committee together, just as they did a facilities committee, and that that committee will have oversight over it.

Ruth Houston, Member, Bond Election Committee: I feel good about it.

Dand: Ruth Houston sits on Reed's bond election committee, but joining the bond cheerleading team took some time.

Houston: You hate to bring up the past, but Yvonne Gonzalez - I mean, it was just one of those things where a friend of a friend and monies were spent for things that it wasn't supposed to be spent for.

Yvonne Gonzalez, former DISD Superintendent: Their acceptance of my resignation...

Houston: You know, the good old boy system.

Bill Rojas, former DISD Superintendent: If it doesn't work, fire me.

Dand: And that's exactly what happened to Bill Rojas, the superintendent who followed Yvonne Gonzalez. With Moses at the helm, Houston believes children are finally the number-one priority for the Dallas school district. Carol Reed says students aren't the only beneficiaries.

Reed: This will be a real boon to the economy. Along with fixing schools and helping our kids, we will also be creating jobs.

Dand: The spin only fuels Trujillo's doubts.

Trujillo: Is it, basically, for some type of educational profiteering?

Dand: But he's resigned to the fact that the bond package will probably pass. He just hopes the district spends the money wisely and earns the trust of the minority community.

Sam Baker: There has been a long history of distrust in the district by African-Americans and Hispanics. How are you going to address that?

Mike Moses: I understand the concern. I knew that going in when I took the job. I knew that lingered from years gone by. But what we tried to do for the past 12 months is systematically go after each of the hurdles that we needed to clear to demonstrate to this community responsibility and stewardship.

Baker: There are Hispanic leaders, though, who are saying, given what's happened with the Board regarding redistricting, "If we can't trust the Board to do the right thing, to give us that third district as we feel we deserve, how can we trust them to handle this bond issue?" And, "Given everything that's gone on with the Board in the past regarding finances, how can we trust them to handle something this large?"

Moses: A couple of responses. The first would be that this Board has worked, I think, very constructively and unselfishly for the past 12 months. There has been almost unanimity on every recommendation that I have made. There's been one issue: the redistricting issue. Is that an educational issue or is that a political issue? I contend that it's a political issue. And on the educational front, this Board has been very consistent, very supportive, and very together.

Baker: As we've already mentioned, the bond package is huge - the largest in Texas public school history. Recently we talked with a man well-versed in the intricacies of school bond packages. He offered a few pieces of advice for the Dallas school district.

Robert L. Bland, Ph.D., Chair and Professor of Public Administration, University of North Texas: I would say it's quite ambitious. By any measure, it's a very large capital project. Yeah, it raises a red flag in terms of the amount of debt that the District is wanting to issue and just the logistics of administering all of that debt: going to market, issuing bonds, going out for competitive bid for various projects. All of that is going to take a lot of administrative oversight. So that would be the first word of advice I guess I would give - administration is key.

Moses: We are prepared to go into the market into a responsible way. We are prepared to have the best project managers and get the best project managers to oversee the work and also then subject ourselves to review of our own constituents and citizens to make sure that we are doing things in a responsible way. So, I think that will help give a degree of accountability to the public that perhaps will be a little different from 1992.

Bland: The second piece of advice that I would offer would be that frugality be the watchword with DISD. Given this amount of capital, $1.37 billion, and a large number of projects that they are proposing to undertake, there's a great deal of potential for inefficient and poor use of funds, careless use of funds.

Moses: I think there is always a potential for misuse of funds. That?s why we have been, I think, very vigilant in Dallas this past year again with regard to trying to bring closure to the FBI investigation, the audits, the Comptroller's report. We intend to apply that same vigilance to this proposal if it is successful. If the voters see fit to pass it, then obviously it is important to again be frugal, show stewardship. It's important, I think, to have the kind of project managers that we have talked about to ensure that you have the kind of expertise - not waste, not mismanagement - but professional expertise from people who are also going to be accountable for the utilization of the dollars.

Bland: Well, of course, if voters approve this bond referendum, they are authorizing the school board to raise their property tax rate to service that debt. So there will be upwards of a 3.5-fold increase in that portion of the tax rate. Currently that rate is about six cents per $100. It's projected to go up to 21 cents by 2007. So the voters need to know that that's part of the game plan here.

Moses: There is no hide-the-ball here. There is a tax increase, but relative to where we are in terms of debt per student, interest in sinking rate debt, we are a very low debt rate district. I think the fact that we have not had a bond rate proposal for 10 years - and it's been difficult for the Board to have a bond proposal brought forward to the community for the past several years because of some of the turmoil in the district. But, it has hurt the district. And I think it's crippled the district because our debt rate is so low. As I mentioned earlier, of the 15 largest school districts in Texas, we are 14th. Of the 34 school districts in Dallas, Denton, Tarrant County, we have like the 32nd-lowest debt rate. So we certainly have not done some things that we need to do in this area. And we don't want to over-tax anyone. But I think also we want our schools to be able to compete. We want our kids to be able to compete with the students in suburban school districts, with other urban school districts.

Baker: So many people seem to place faith in this bond issue because they have placed faith in you. Are you going to be here long enough to see this bond issue through?

Moses: Well, I'm certainly going to try. I'm closing out my first year here, and so I feel pretty good of getting by that first-year hurdle because that seems to have been a jinx with some of the other administrators and the superintendents in Dallas. But it's certainly going to be my effort to try to remain here. Of course, our working relationship between the Board and the Superintendent is key. That's been very good. I hope it continues. If that continues, then I see no reason why I would not want to be here.

Baker: Voters say yes or no to the bond package on Saturday, January 19th - the same day they pick a new mayor for the city.