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Troubled Dallas County Schools Says It's Changed, But Voters Have The Final Word

Bill Zeeble

Barry Jacobs has spent the past couple of months collecting complaints from parents at Solar Preparatory School for Girls in Dallas.

Their complaints are about the bus system, Dallas County Schools. It provides transportation for nine North Texas school districts, including the Dallas Independent School District. 

He and other parents say the buses are routinely late and unreliable.

“These buses are so late so often that I have serious doubts about whether they’re going to meet the state minimum standards for classroom instruction,” Jacobs said. “For the first six weeks of school, the typical complaints that I was hearing, six, seven complaints a day, and these are complaints the bus didn’t show up at all — completely skipped a route.”

Tardy bus service isn't the only problem facing Dallas County Schools. There have been reports of financial mismanagement and drivers running red lights.

The fate of Dallas County Schools is now in voters' hands. On Nov. 7, voters will decide whether to vote for Proposition A, which would keep the agency intact. Voting against it would dissolve Dallas County Schools, which serves more than 75,000 students.

Officials from Dallas County Schools say the agency has changed and that many of its problems are in the past. There are new board members. Employees involved in scandals are gone. New policies have been adopted.

Kyle Renard is a Dallas County Schools trustee.

“The incredible changes that we’ve made, we really do consider this, not only under new management, but it has a more service-oriented philosophy now," she said. "We are not tolerating things the way they’ve always been."

Questionable deals

Some of the agency’s problems were exposed after a series of stories by KXAS-TV (NBC 5).

The station found Dallas County Schools spent more than $17 million in bond money to install cameras inside and outside of the buses. Questions were also raised about former Dallas County Schools President Larry Duncan, who received campaign contributions from people affiliated with the company that makes the cameras.

And there’s a controversial $25 million land deal. Dallas County Schools sold its bus lots to get quick cash and then leased it back, ultimately costing taxpayers, KXAS reported.

Changes after criticism

One of the biggest critics of Dallas County Schools: State Sen. Don Huffines.

In February, the Dallas Republican filed legislation to eliminate Dallas County Schools. Instead, state lawmakers passed a bill to let voters decide.

Huffines and other critics of the agency formed a political action committee called Protect Dallas Kids. Last week, he spoke to reporters. Huffines cited the number of traffic citations issued to bus drivers and the number of bus crashes during the past couple of years.

"It’s kind of like something out of an old mafia movie,” Huffines said. “Questionable land deals, failed camera projects, $50 million in lost business ventures and a relationship between the camera company and the board members and the superintendent.”

Renard, the DCS trustee, said when the board learned about the agency’s financial problems earlier this year, it curtailed spending, reduced staff and put financial controls in place.

“We passed some policies that would ensure greater oversight for the board, so we passed that all contracts over $50,000 have to go before board review and approval,” Renard said.

She said the agency is more transparent now. All of its meetings are recorded and online, and its campaign finance reports are posted online, too.

There are also new faces. Former Superintendent Rick Sorrells and former board president Larry Duncan have resigned.

“We cleaned house internally,” Renard said. “All of the employees who were involved in any of the scandals were terminated. It’s allowed us to move forward ... and just have a different vision for the agency.”

'Far from perfect'

Still, some parents aren’t convinced.

Howie Li has three children, two of whom attend William B. Travis on McKinney Avenue in Dallas. The family lives in Addison and he says the bus from their home to school takes 40 minutes if they’re lucky and the bus shows up.

“I have a third child ... in pre-K. We have not decided to put him on a bus yet. He’s a little too young for that,” Li said. “We are hearing horror stories...from parents that [have] a pre-K [child]. He was on the bus two hours from school to home. That’s horrible.”

Gary Lindsey, interim superintendent, says the organization is trying to be more available to parents and respond to problems as they arise.

“We’re far from perfect. We’re a large organization that’s really in transition, and I think we’re making a lot of progress,” he said. “We’re going to have to go into the neighborhood and have the town hall meetings and let them know who we are.”

If voters decide to get rid of Dallas County Schools, the state comptroller would set up a dissolution committee later this month.

Meanwhile, school districts that use the bus service are mulling their options. A couple have already stopped using DCS. 

Others, like Richardson ISD, are thinking about doing the same -- either hiring another provider or running their own buses. 

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.