Several months ago, former State Rep. Allen Vaught floated the idea of public schools in East Dallas seceding from the Dallas Independent School District. Color me intrigued. East Dallas has a disproportionate share of top-flight public schools. Kids are engaged, parents are actively involved, rigorous class courses are offered, and the principals and teachers are outstanding. So I was looking forward to a discussion about breaking apart from the behemoth that is DISD and creating our own little education utopia here in East Dallas. (I was also excited about the possibility of having a “Secede!” bumper sticker on my car. Finally.)
But the conversation surrounding the idea seemed to die down, and I haven’t heard much since.
Then, last month, a new group popped up — seemingly out of nowhere — to propose its own bold vision for DISD: Support Our Public Schools wants to hold an election to make DISD a “home rule” school district, which would allow the district to seek exemptions from a variety of state mandates and adopt a new governance structure. For the idea to get off the ground, SOPS has to collect roughly 25,000 signatures from registered voters. If successful, the DISD Board of Trustees would be required to name a 15-member commission responsible for drafting a “charter” or constitution for the school district, which would then be presented to voters.
Right now, DISD is governed by nine locally elected trustees. Among other things, the new charter could do away with trustees altogether, call for some or all of them to be appointed (by the mayor? By the city council?), or something else entirely.
With such dramatic changes being proposed for the school district, my first thought was, how will this affect the children of DISD and their educational opportunities? My second thought was, what would this mean for a White Rock ISD?
I posed this question to DISD Trustee Mike Morath in early March. Morath is an avid supporter of the “home rule” idea. To say he is well versed on the subject of public education is an understatement, and his passion for creating a child-centered education system in Dallas is inspiring.
According to Morath, East Dallas can’t actually secede from DISD. The secession process is not only extremely difficult, but DISD’s bond covenants could be endangered, resulting in legal roadblocks. Future property tax revenue already has been committed to secure the district’s debt, so a huge swath of East Dallas homes and businesses couldn’t be lopped off without losing a big chunk of the already-pledged revenue. Likewise, because a White Rock ISD would be whiter than the district’s overall demographics, re-segregation issues could cause additional legal hurdles. So, a White Rock ISD isn’t likely to happen.
But there are other options. DISD home rule could give East Dallas schools greater autonomy without their wholly seceding from the larger district. A governance change could allow for the creation of semi-autonomous local school boards within the larger DISD. Says Morath: “Beyond the overall board for the district, we could develop a system that created boards governing individual campuses or whole feeder patterns. Subject to achieving certain outcomes for students, and while being funded equitably from the district, these boards could operate their campuses with high levels of autonomy from the overall district, potentially increasing neighborhood cohesion and raising student outcomes, which could accommodate the needs of those promoting White Rock ISD while keeping the tax base together.”
So East Dallas could get more local control while still enjoying the benefits of being part of DISD (namely, the opportunity to send our kids to nationally ranked magnet schools and talented and gifted programs).
I’m not saying I’m sold on the home rule idea. I’ve got reservations. The devil is in the details, along with the governance structure that is ultimately proposed. But with the dismal outcomes at DISD and the potential upside to East Dallas, it’s a conversation worth having.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.