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Dallas ISD home-rule commission votes against writing charter

Dallas Morning News
January 20, 2015

By Matthew Haag

The effort to overhaul the way Dallas ISD operates began with a bang a year ago but ended with a whimper Tuesday as a commission decided not to write a home-rule charter.

The 10-5 vote effectively ended a contentious proposal to transform Dallas ISD’s governance.

The home-rule initiative launched in March with a petition drive and support from influential politicians and wealthy backers. But the public’s enthusiasm never matched their fervor.

“There was an infusion of financial support to get the process started, but I never heard an outpouring of support for this,” commissioner D. Marcus Ranger said.

Bob Weiss, the 15-member commission’s chairman, said he opposed the effort because the 1995 state law that allows home rule “is a very bad piece of legislation.”

He said a home-rule district could undermine people’s democratic rights. Districts that want drastic changes should consider other measures before trying home rule, he said.

Despite its vote, the home-rule commission decided to continue meeting to write recommendations for the school board to consider. Unlike a charter, the recommendations would not be binding.

Several commissioners said that even though they oppose a home-rule charter, they aren’t satisfied with the state of affairs in the district.

“Sadly, there seems to be a split either for or against, and [a misperception that] if we are not in favor of a charter, that automatically means we aren’t reform minded. I would beg to differ,” said commissioner Stephanie Elizalde, a DISD administrator who voted against writing a home-rule charter. “For someone to misinterpret my vote and add something to it, I think, is a disservice to the entire commission.”

The home-rule process began when Support Our Public Schools became the first entity in the state to try to use the state law, which would have allowed DISD to be exempt from some state laws and free it to implement new governance.

Supporters noted several potential benefits, including the ability to change the school year’s start date from the state-mandated last Monday in August.

But opponents said the charter proposal could dismantle teachers’ rights and bring unanticipated consequences.

Support Our Public Schools needed to collect 25,000 signatures on a petition to compel the district’s trustees to appoint commissioners to write a proposed charter. It collected 48,000 signatures, leading trustees to appoint commissioners in June.

Commissioner Edwin Flores cited the large number of petition signatures as a reason the panel should continue working on a charter. The other commissioners who opposed the decision not to write a charter were Ricardo Mendez, Lew Blackburn Jr., Danae Gutierrez and Julie Sandel.

The home-rule effort in Dallas ISD faced tremendous hurdles. Eight of the nine trustees who appointed the commissioners opposed the idea.

In addition, the effort lost momentum when the commission said it wouldn’t rush to write a proposed charter and missed an August deadline to get it on the November ballot. State law gives the commission a year after its appointment to draft a charter.

Despite some commissioners’ opposition to home rule, the panel and its subcommittee met 27 times and spent months listening to community members, education leaders and organizations. In recent months, some commissioners discussed disbanding the panel.

If the commission had written a charter, it would not have been guaranteed to go into effect. The 1995 state law requires voter approval in an election in which 25 percent of Dallas ISD’s registered voters participate. In comparison, Dallas ISD trustee elections draw between 5 percent and 10 percent voter turnout.

After the home-rule commission started meeting, Support Our Public Schools took a less-active role but submitted a proposed charter in November.

The home-rule effort in DISD may not be dead. Some supporters have discussed lobbying state legislators to modify the law to make home rule easier to implement.