Dallas ISD now has a little more wiggle room from state requirements. As a result, an earlier start to the school year could be on the horizon. Fewer career and technical classes could be without teachers, too.
During its board meeting Thursday, Dallas’ board of trustees approved a plan giving itself some autonomy from state rules and regulations.
DISD joined a growing list of over 400 Texas school districts that have taken advantage of the “District of Innovation” concept, which gives school districts similar flexibility that charter schools possess. Drawn up by each individual district, District of Innovation plans can sidestep state laws on a wide range of topics, from purchasing contracts to class sizes.
Those types of sweeping changes aren’t in the works in Dallas, however.
Facing skepticism about the broadness of the law, with some trustees drawing parallels between it and the failed ‘Home Rule’ effort from two years ago, DISD went small.
Trustees limited the scope of DISD’s plan to just two items: changing the start date for the school year, and relaxing teacher certification requirements in hard-to-fill positions.
Starting school earlier in August would better mirror start dates for charters and other area districts, district administration said. It would also allow for a more balanced school calendar.
More flexibility in hiring would make it easier for DISD to bring adjunct professors to teach in its early college high schools and skilled professionals into its career and technical classrooms.
“All we are doing here is giving ourselves an option,” trustee Dustin Marshall said prior to the vote. “We don’t have to move the start date; we don’t have to hire teachers without certification. But wouldn’t it be great if we wanted to hire a master electrician or a community college professor, and we could? When you look at options in economics, there’s a value to the option. We have an opportunity here to give ourselves an option. When you get a free option, take it.”
Despite the plan’s limited scope, there were doubts whether it would pass, given that it needed approval from a super-majority of the board: six or more votes.
When initially presented with the ‘District of Innovation’ concept in September 2016, the board balked at investigating it any further. It took an renewed push by board president Dan Micciche, and five months of work from a district-appointed committee, to build consensus.
“What-ifs and conspiracy theories are not reasons to vote no,” committee chair Mita Havlick said.
During the meeting, trustees Bernadette Nutall, Joyce Foreman and Audrey Pinkerton voiced uncertainty about the necessity and wisdom of the plan. All three voted against the measure.
Nutall and Foreman pressed deputy superintendent Israel Cordero – one of the architects behind DISD’s early college efforts – on how the district is currently filling spots in dual-credit and technical courses. Why couldn’t those efforts continue without these exceptions, they asked.
“It provides some flexibility – as needed,” Cordero said. “If American Airlines calls us and says, ‘We have two software programmers who are interested in working with Dallas ISD. Can you on-board them?’ it would be great to have the flexibility.”
In a board briefing two weeks ago, Cordero said the plan would be especially useful in career and technical courses, where industry professionals often balk at the cost and time commitment for certification programs.
As an example, Cordero pointed to a vacancy in a Diesel Mechanics class at Skyline High School that took nearly three years to fill.
Pinkerton expressed her reservations about the lack of minimum standards for teachers under the proposed plan, saying the district could conceivably hire someone without any qualifications to teach a specialty class.
She also didn’t see an existential threat to the early college program if more hiring flexibility wasn’t granted. Another provision in the state’s education code could be used, Pinkerton argued, allowing for the board to approve non-certified teachers.
Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said it was possible for the district to use that other method, but hiring timelines would be prolonged, taking weeks for a board vote and another month to get approval from the state.
“If we had this other tool in our tool kit,” Hinojosa said of the innovation plan, “we could hire that person and they could start teaching, instead of us waiting two or three months to hear if that person could work.”
Staffing DISD’s rapidly growing early college program – which has grown from five to 23 campuses in three years – would eventually require some urgency, Hinojosa added.
“We can be short-sighted, and talk about this, that or the other,” he said. “But this demand is going to grow. And if we don’t have all the tools available to us, and utilize those, we don’t know what it’s going to look like in 2020. But I can predict that this is going to be a much higher need for us.”
During the public forum, backers of the innovation plan came out in force. Speakers in support of the effort included students, DISD’s early-college business partners such as Microsoft and Southwest Airlines, the Dallas Regional Chamber, and Thom Chesney, the president of DCCCD’s Brookhaven College and a member of a DISD committee that drafted the innovation plan.
“We made a promise to our students,” said Leadership ISD member J.J. Ponce. “We’ve committed to them that they can take these classes, enroll in these programs so that they can earn college credit. The thought of students sitting in an empty classroom, while there are professionals out there who are qualified – college professionals, business professionals, industry experts – ready and willing to teach them, is inexcusable.”
Renewed push for tax hike
Prior to the board meeting, around 100 protesters rallied in front of Dallas ISD’s administration building, asking trustees to reconsider putting a 13-cent tax hike before voters.
At the rally, the Strong Schools Strong Dallas coalition announced results from a survey of 1,500 community members. It showed 58 percent of respondents would support the tax increase, which would provide DISD an additional $122 million. If performance metrics were put in place with the tax hike — an idea DISD pushed last fall — 67 percent of respondents were in favor.
Gerald Britt, from advocacy group CitySquare, said that since the Texas Legislature had failed to provide adequate funding, “we are willing to support an increase in our local taxes to get the job done.”
“We need courage in this moment. The future of our children is literally at stake.”
In August 2016, trustees failed to reach the six votes needed to bring the tax increase before voters. Earlier this month, Hinojosa advocated a different tack: a 2-cent tax swap, shifting money from the district’s debt service on its construction bonds to its operations budget. Such an effort wouldn’t increase the tax burden for those in the district, but would provide $42 million in additional funding for teachers and programs.
“We call that robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Barbara LaToison, a pastor at St. Mark AME Zion Church.