Rick Wamre and I had talked for a while about point/counterpoint posts on what we need to do to get DISD on the right track. I guess with this posting of his on October 19, the "point" has been made, so now it's my turn. My thoughts differ from those of Mr. Wamre and Mr. Blow.
Subdividing the DISD is the last thing we should think about doing. That's just a variation on the NIMBY (Not in my back yard) mindset. Under a plan to subdivide the district, we all get to focus on our local schools and not have to worry about the others. While subdividing the District might allow some of the new smaller districts to more closely mimic the ostensibly more successful suburban districts, it also runs the risk that some of them would instead go down the road of Wilmer-Hutchins. Subdividing the District is tantamount to abandoning the children in the other districts in favor of those in your own new district. I, for one, am not prepared to do that, especially if the starting point is a larger school district that isn't getting the job done. That the District is too big to manage doesn't really stand up to close scrutiny anyway when you consider that there are lots of organization and governmental bodies larger than DISD that do not share the District's problems. Breaking up the DISD is bad for the children and it's bad for Dallas.
Providing good schools is the most powerful tool we have to improve quality of life in Dallas. How many people do you know personally who selected a house, neighborhood or city primarily on the perceived quality of the schools? I know lots and count myself as one of those. How often do we hear of corporations wishing to locate to a new city and making the quality of local education a priority in their deliberations? All of them, I think. Good schools help provide opportunity for the employees they bring with them and help create a skilled work force for the future. Out of good schools come opportunities of every kind; jobs, higher education, work skills and cultural enrichment. Everything. If a new, smaller school district struggles or fails, then the opposite is true and it's a loss for us all, whether we are in that district or not. Under the subdivided district idea, not only are we all hurt by the failing district, those in the other districts are in no position to do anything about it, which I think is at the heart of the District's current problems anyway.
Nobody at DISD is accountable to everybody.
The single member School Board district system now in place has its advantages, which is one of the reasons that the City of Dallas went to an almost all single member district system 20 years ago. It provides the most direct representation available and avoids the problems of the at-large system which can be co-opted by smaller, non-representative, special interests groups. That concern is what drove the City of Dallas to go to their current 14-1 arrangement.
However, single member districts are susceptible to grid lock; an inability to come to a consensus to solve problems. Trustees need only focus on "their" schools and their individual constituencies.That's what I see at DISD now. I first became involved with the DISD back in 1988 as both a parent and a consultant to the 1985 bond program. Dr. Marvin Edwards was the Superintendent. What I found was disturbing; Board Trustee bickering and distrust, administrative inefficiencies, an inability to make decisions and then to stick to them and other problems. The Superintendent was constantly criticized and badgered. Eventually, he was fired.
Twenty years later, we have been through multiple superintendents and complete turnover at the Board of Trustees, but the same problems remain. This suggest to me that the Superintendent cannot make the changes needed and the Board of Trustees simply won't. I have posted before that changes are needed at the administrative level and that it's really the Trustees that need to drive this change. For whatever reason, this has been beyond the abilities of every Superintendent for the past 20 years.
Instead of breaking up the DISD, we should rethink the single member district system of electing the School Board. There has been a great deal of discussion about accountability, but it's mostly directed at teachers and staff, those in the school district farthest removed from the power of the voters at the polls. Sometimes it's directed at the Superintendent, a School Board hire. If you wish to hold the Board accountable, you can do something about one member only and nothing about the gridlock. And, like in my own case, the member whose district includes your school may not be the member you get to vote for. I'm involved at Woodrow Wilson High School and have been for many years. I live so close to Woodrow that I can hear the band practice in the morning. Woodrow is in Trustee district 9, served by Ron Price. Ron holds town hall meetings at the school and talks regularly with the PTA and the SBDM representatives. At the polls, however, I vote for the candidate in Trustee district 2, Jack Lowe. As an active community member at Woodrow, I get along fine with Ron Price, but if I didn't, I couldn't even vote for his opponent, much less run against him.
In most other systems that include single member districts, there are checks and balances to overcome these dangers. At the Federal level, we have single member House of Representative districts, but we all vote for the Senators and for the President. At the state level, the Senate seats span multiple House Districts, and we all vote for the Governor. Even at the City of Dallas we all vote for the Mayor. None of the above at DISD. The School Board, all single member district representatives, even picks its own President from among its ranks.
The current problems outweigh the safeguards of the current single member district arrangment. I would like to see us be able to select the Board President and two at-large representatives to the Board of Trustees in addition to our own single member. That would give every citizen a vote in 4 Trustee races and three Trustees would have to be accountable to the entire city. Maybe then accountability would start to mean something at the Board level. That would be a start.
PS: Just in case you wanted to know:
The few local suburban districts I checked on used an all at-large system of electing School Board members. Austin ISD uses both at-large and single member districts, Ft. Worth elects the School Board President at-large and the the rest from single member districts, Houston and San Antonio are all single member districts like Dallas.
See a map of the DISD Trustee districts here.
See the DISD Trustee page here.
Upon further consideration, it's probably appropriate for me to state that the opinions expressed are strictly my own. No one else was consulted in formulating these opinions and they do not represent the position of anyone else or any organization with which I may be associated. No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog post.