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What's Behind The Big Donations To Dallas School Board Candidates?

Bill Zeeble

School board elections rarely attract much attention. That means wealthy donors and political action committees - PACs - can sway outcomes. Here's how the three biggest contributors are  trying to do that in the May 11  DISD elections.

Three of nine Dallas school board seats are up for election, and all incumbents face challengers.  These races affect tens of thousands of students and families, but turnout is often below 5 percent. That bothers members of the Dallas Kids First PAC, including James Ray

“The amount of awareness that’s out there is pathetically low," Ray says. "If you just stand in, whatever,  a park, and ask who their school board members are, they would give you the weirdest faces ever. But it turns out they make really important decisions.”

Trustees help decide pre-K funding, school closures, teacher raises and the superintendent’s contract. So the 2-year-old Kids First PAC invited all seven candidates to question-and-answer sessions, graded them, and put the findings online.

“That’s what I think we bring to the table: the grassroots focus," Ray says. "We have legitimate resources, and everything is transparent. And you know that it wasn’t purchased. You can’t buy our endorsement. You have to come in here and say ‘You know what? I need to have experience, awareness, urgency and perspective. And if I don’t, I’m in trouble with this group and they may endorse my opponent.’”

Kids First describes itself as diverse and bipartisan. It almost never gives the endorsed candidate cash. Instead, it does its own mail-outs, funded from its till of $150,000.  Big funders include Ken Barth, who has given roughly $40,000 to the PAC he helped found.

The group’s volunteers will walk neighborhoods or knock on doors. This year, Kids First is backing all three incumbents. So did Educate Dallas, the more traditional Chamber of Commerce PAC. Donations from its $100,000 fund go directly to candidates, says attorney Mark Melton, who chairs Educate Dallas.

“This was not a race where newcomers had any chance of being prepared to do a great job in these particular seats," he says. “At the end of the day it’s 20,000 people working at DISD and in order to  impact 160,000 kids you need every one of them at the top of their game every day. And that starts at the top."

Both PACs say they’re about change, but want to keep current trustees this time. In the past,  both backed newcomers who beat incumbents. Melton says Educate Dallas closely watches board members.

“The status quo is what got us here and we’re just beginning now the progress of reform to try and move the needle in a better place," Melton says. "Just domestically, in the state of Texas, we’re ranking 46th and 49th in reading and math respectively."

The other big donor in DISD elections is attorney and former legislator Domingo Garcia. He gave $10,000 to challenger Jose Sierra in District 7. Four years ago, Garcia says be backed Eric Cowan, but the incumbent has disappointed him.

“I believe we have to improve our educational system in Dallas," Garcia says."And - especially in a district where 80 percent to 90 percent of students are Hispanic - he just seems out of touch.”

Garcia says he also gave $1,000 to Luis Hernandez, in District 4, where Nancy Bingham is the incumbent. He says he aims to give a fighting chance to Hernandez and Sierra.

Sierra, he says, “needs to be able to be competitive with an incumbent, who’s going to be backed by the business establishment, going to be backed by the powers that be, that are more interested in contracts and jobs than students.”

Garcia hopes his donations help, but acknowledges incumbents usually win.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.