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Editorial: Don’t let Dallas’ home-rule debate die

Dallas Morning News
December 19, 2014

Remember a few months back when there was lots of excitement, pro and con, over a plan to reform Dallas public schools?

Maybe we could make the school year a little longer. Maybe we could improve accountability measures.

Maybe, just maybe, we could figure out a way to bleed some of the poisonous politics out of the school board.

What was that movement called again? Oh, right. Home rule.

The idea to draft new rules to govern DISD shot out of the political pipe like a rocket ... and then deflated like a balloon. All we hear now is that pphhth sound of escaping air.

What a shame. The need for good ideas to help DISD better serve students hasn’t gone away.

For six months, a commission appointed by the school board has been discussing ways to recast DISD as a home-rule charter district. The idea, pressed on a reluctant school board by a successful petition drive earlier this year, is to give the district greater flexibility to innovate. We worry that any momentum for reform may fizzle by the time the commission is supposed to vote next month whether to create a charter to recommend to voters.

Now’s the time for commission members to reignite community discussion about how to help make DISD the best it can be. The payoff could mean better schools and a better city.

Commissioners should start with the draft charter proposed by the petition group, Support Our Public Schools, and crib its best thoughts.

Political reforms that could help the district become more responsive to residents should be at the top of the list. Start with elections.

School board elections for DISD are held in May of even-numbered years. There’s good reason to believe this diminishes voter interest and turnout. The current president of the DISD board, Miguel Solis, was elected in 2014 with 515 votes, according to the Dallas County Elections department. About 756 votes were cast in the race.

Moving elections to November would help ensure higher turnout and weaken the hold of special interest groups, according to a 2011 Stanford University study of school elections across Texas.

School board trustees also need term limits. The SOPS proposal recommends a maximum of three four-year terms. That’s 12 years, plenty of time to leave a mark on the school system.

Giving the board the power to remove a trustee and voters the power to recall a trustee, within certain parameters, are also ideas worth recommending.

Important, too, is the creation of an independent redistricting commission that could help create some distance between politics and fair representation in DISD.

The mistake will be to let special interest groups and those who support the status quo quietly snuff the air out of the debate over reform.

That would be a serious loss for Dallas and for the future of our students.

If DISD had home rule

Ideas for Dallas home-rule charter from Support Our Public Schools

• Retain single-member trustee districts.

• Move school board elections to November in 2018.

• Require a petition signed by 150 voters in school board district to get a place on the ballot.

• Set up an independent redistricting commission in early 2017.

• Allow the board to remove a trustee with a two-thirds vote.

• Set term limits of three four-year terms.