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Home-rule advocates offer draft charter for Dallas schools

Dallas Morning News
November 18, 2014

By Matthew Haag

The group that launched the home-rule charter effort in Dallas ISD unveiled a draft constitution this week that would overhaul how the district operates and is governed.

The draft charter by Support Our Public Schools would exempt DISD from state laws that restrict the length of the school day and how early in the year school can start. It would also bring large changes to the board of trustees, whose members would have longer terms but face limits for the length they could serve.

“This gives you an opportunity to be creative,” Jeronimo Valdez, a member of Support Our Public Schools, told the home-rule commission Monday night. “We can come up with something that can be a true game changer in the city.”

Support Our Public Schools launched the home-rule initiative in March with a drive to collect signatures on a petition in support of the effort. The group received over 48,000 signatures — more than enough under state law to compel DISD trustees to appoint a home-rule commission.

The 15-member commission, which includes parents, teachers and community members, has met 25 times since August to hear community concerns, discuss possible changes under home rule and talk to groups opposing and supporting it. The commission is tasked with drafting a proposed charter for voter approval and has until June to write one.

Support Our Public Schools advocated home rule but went silent after the home-rule commission began to meet. Valdez addressed that Monday, saying that the group wanted to start a conversation without trying to influence the outcome.

“Our job at the very inception wasn’t to provide you suggestions. Our job was to create the conversation,” he said.

Support Our Public Schools addressed the commission at the invitation of commission chairman Bob Weiss.

The executive summary of the 22-page proposed charter highlights four changes to academics and 14 related to governance. Valdez led the commission members through the changes, which include:

Students in fifth and eighth grades who fail state standardized tests would not be required to pass additional exams to be promoted to the next grade.

The school day could be shorter than seven hours, the current minimum in state law.

DISD could start the school year before the state-mandated last Monday in August.

Students could earn course credit if they have passing grades but have missed between 10 percent and 25 percent of their classes.

The charter would expire after 10 years if voters fail to reaffirm it in an election.

A recent Dallas ISD audit raised questions about the district’s graduation rate because of poor record keeping for students who miss 75 percent to 90 percent of their classes. If they are in that category and have a passing grade, the district can provide a “principal plan” that outlines what a student must do to make up missed work and receive credit.

The Dallas ISD audit found that some high schools allowed students to receive course credit and graduate despite having no “principal plans” or having no records that students completed them.

The draft proposes several changes to the district’s system of governing. But it doesn’t endorse some hot-button issues, such as eliminating single-member districts. The proposed changes include:

The nine trustees would serve four-year terms, up from three-year terms. Trustees could serve no more than 12 years.

Trustees could face a recall in an election if 15 percent of registered voters in their district sign a petition supporting it.

A super majority of at least six trustees would be required to fire the superintendent, remove a board member or rescind the charter.

A 1995 Texas law allows districts to transform into home-rule districts, which are exempt from some state laws and can implement a new system of governing. The law has never been used, and no home-rule initiative elsewhere in Texas has reached this point.

It was proposed in Dallas ISD as a way to gain independence from the state and allow the district to make the necessary changes to improve. But the effort failed to gain unanimous support, and some opposition groups came out against it.

After Valdez addressed the home-rule commission, opposition group Our Community, Our Schools gave its reasons against home rule. David Lee said Support Our Public Schools represents a “takeover attempt” of the district with “no guarantees of success.”

“The proponents of home-rule district schools have failed to provide a research-based plan to improve student achievement,” he said. “The HRC [home-rule charter] initiative was conceived in secrecy by a small group of wealthy backers and continues to be shrouded in mystery.”