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Dallas School Board Seeks Answers About Home-Rule Charter

Bill Zeeble
The Dallas school board met for more than two hours, including time in closed session, asking attorneys about rules and laws about home-rule charter.

An upstart move is underway to change the way Dallas schools and its board operate. Dallas school trustees met Monday night to get more information on the proposal that’s never been tried before in Texas. Board members learned, in part, that if the effort succeeds, they could all be out of a job.

The Texas legislature approved home-rule charter districts 19 years ago. But no Texas district has ever passed it, maybe because it takes a lot of signatures -- 5 percent of registered voters -- to get it on the ballot. After that, a quarter of registered voters must turn out when it’s on the ballot.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings says that improving Dallas schools are so important, now’s the time to get this done.  

“We’re in a hole,” Rawlings said. “The house is on fire. Trustees are working hard but they can only use certain tools. I would like to have all the tools charter schools have in our arsenal.”

Those tools could include longer and more school days each year, said trustee Mike Morath, who backs this effort. That’s because a charter district could get around some state mandated rules, like calendar requirements.

“Low income kids especially fall off a cliff academically in summer and we’ve got to address that if we want to improve outcomes for kids,” Morath said. “And now the legislature prevents us from starting school before the fourth week of August. The flexibility this would provide us to improve our ability to serve kids is worth exploring.”

But other trustees question those behind the effort. The push comes from a group called Support Our Public Schools, which says it wants to work with the board to improve education. Some members live in Dallas. But a billionaire and former hedge fund manager from Houston also supports the group.

Trustee Carla Ranger says despite what the organization says about cooperation, it’s moving ahead to collect petition signatures Tuesday at the voting polls, and never talked with the board. 

“If people wanted to work with us to talk with us about this it would have happened long before Friday night when we got a letter after 9 or 10 o’clock,” Ranger said. “This group appears to be going on with whatever they want to do.”

Rena Honea, who leads the largest teachers' group in the Dallas district, says this isn’t about improving education. It’s about a power and money grab.

She imagines the charter group a few years from now explaining how it tried, but failed, to improve schools.

“'So our plan didn’t work, so let’s just sell off and try something else.’ So that puts money in their pockets," Honea said. "Why would you bring in an outside hedge fund person who doesn’t live here and has no interest in Dallas ISD whatsoever?”

Some other trustees expressed additional concerns. But if enough signatures – about 25,000 - are collected, the board can’t stop the plan. Trustees would then appoint a 15-member charter commission who’d write up a governance plan over which trustees would have no power or control.

The home-rule board could even be chosen, not elected, as is the case with many charter schools in Texas.

If it gets that far, the plan would then go before the voters in November, for an up-or-down vote. 

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