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Dallas ISD home-rule commission to decide next month whether to create a charter

Dallas Morning News
December 16, 2014

By Tawnell D. Hobbs

The Dallas ISD home-rule commission will decide next month whether to create a charter for the district that could determine how it is operated and governed. Voters would need to approve the charter in an election with at least a 25 percent turnout.

Commissioners discussed what should be next steps in the home-rule process at a meeting Monday as they are at the half-way point in their one-year appointment. They have spent months gathering information, which included listening to community members, education leaders, DISD trustees, Superintendent Mike Miles and various organizations.

Some commissioners say they’ve gathered enough information to make a decision on whether a charter is needed. Some others said they wanted to continue the discussion to find ways to improve DISD but didn’t say they would support creating a charter. Others mentioned making recommendations to the school board instead of doing a charter.

Commission Chair Bob Weiss said the commission will vote on Jan. 5 or Jan. 20 on whether to create a charter or not.

“At the end of the day, we have to decide if we’re going to do a charter or some recommendations,” Weiss said.

Commissioner D. Marcus Ranger has proposed a resolution that the commission not adopt a charter and suspend its activities until its term expires in June. He provided his proposal to commissioners at Monday’s meeting. A majority of commission members did not outright support the proposal, but they didn’t reject it either.

Ranger said that an overwhelming number of community members that have addressed the commission are against creating a home-rule charter.

“We’ve heard democracy speak to us,” Ranger said. “I would suggest that we at least at this point ought to confront the issue and address it and vote on it.”

Commissioner Jerome Garza, a former DISD trustee, supported Ranger’s proposal with some additions. He asked that the resolution include having universal pre-K for all families despite income level and to reduce testing in DISD.

Some commissioners believe that information the group has received has sparked needed discussion about the district. Commissioner Ron Oliver, who is also a DISD teacher, said people are feeling like they have a say.

“I think we’ve given people a belief that everyone’s voice matters,” Oliver said. “I think we’ve opened some doors and opened some eyes to things that weren’t possible before we formed.”

Commissioner Jeff Veazey said he thinks the district is too big to be run by one person. He believes the superintendent position should be eliminated and decisions should be made by an executive committee with members at the top of their field. Those executives would be hired by the best professionals in the community in conjunction with the school board.

Veazey believes such a system would be less authoritarian and would get away from just one person making the big decisions.

Commissioner Shirley Ison-Newsome, a retired DISD administrator, wants each trustee district to have a mini advisory committee formed of teachers, parents and students to allow the community to be heard. She said there also needs to be focus on quality pre-K and fewer tests.

“We are testing instead of teaching,” Ison-Newsome said. “You don’t develop kids by overly testing them. One size does not fit all. It never has, and it never will.”

Commissioner Edwin Flores, a former DISD trustee, said that reform is needed in DISD to ready students for the future. “Whether we write a home-rule charter or not, I think the discussion has been healthy,” he said.

Commissioner and DISD teacher Isaac Freeman listed concerns in the classroom at the meeting Monday. He said it should not be so hard to make sure schools have the necessary resources for teachers to teach and for teachers to collaborate with each other. He said teachers also should be able to be both creative and effective at the same time.

Freeman believes that the commission should do something, whether by charter or recommendations to trustees.

“I don’t think we should walk away with nothing,” he said. “If we do that, I feel that this is an exercise in futility. There are things that are not happening that it shouldn’t be that hard to make them happen.”

Commissioner Bonita Reece, who is also a DISD teacher, agreed that something should be done.

“We shouldn’t just walk away, because some action needs to come into play,” she said. “Teachers are becoming more open, because initially there were fears. There needs to be more teaching and not so much testing. Stopping is not the answer.”

A couple of commissioners mentioned the possibility that some bills could be brought forward in the upcoming legislative session to make the home-rule process easier, namely lessening the 25-percent voter turnout requirement.

Commissioner Lew Blackburn Jr. said that the commission could put in the charter that it is void if the 25 percent turnout requirement is changed. Blackburn didn’t say whether he is for or against a charter, but he did say that if they put one out there, the public would have to pay attention. He also said he’d like to hear from more teachers.

The 15-member commission was formed about six months ago to create a home-rule charter. The group Support Our Public Schools initiated the process and obtained enough signatures to require trustees to appoint the commission.

The Dallas effort is the first use of a 1995 state law that allows a voter-approved charter for a school district.

Support Our Public Schools had initially hoped to have a proposed home-rule charter for DISD on last November’s ballot, when turnout was expected to be high because of the gubernatorial race. But to have met that timeline, the school district would have had to call for the election by last Aug. 18.