Despite a major economic meltdown and rampant unemployment, Dallas ISD appears poised to ask voters to sign off on the largest bond request in Texas history.
The district’s jaw-dropping bond package totals approximately $3.7 billion, proposing to fund improvements at most of the district’s facilities and campuses and replacements at two dozen schools.
Community members have raised concerns, particularly relating to the pandemic’s effect on enrollment and financial projections. Administrators are trying to ease those concerns by reassuring voters that this is a great opportunity. Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said, “We are in a time of uncertainty, but what we know is that we need these schools to be modernized.”
But are new schools and external aesthetics worth $3.7 billion in new debt? Between all the uncertainties right now and issues that Dallas ISD has been facing for years, the answer is “no.”
For five straight years, Dallas ISD’s overall enrollment has declined with the loss of approximately 5,000 students. The district’s budget proposal estimates a loss of nearly 1,400 additional students in the upcoming school year. One reason for this is competition with charter schools, which account for nearly 35,000 kids within the district’s boundaries.
After struggling with years of declining enrollment, the district seriously considered mass school closures in 2018. Although the district backed away from this idea, consolidation might have been a wise choice. With a number of DISD campuses struggling to maintain a 50% capacity, combining schools would mean fuller classrooms and redistribution of operational funds from closed schools.
Administrators suggest that modernization and renovations will help draw more students to the district. However, the numbers don’t support that expectation.
Voters approved a $1.6 billion bond package in 2015 to fund new schools and improvements. Despite the district’s intentions, enrollment numbers have continued to drop. One issue that accompanies big bond packages is the discrepancy between what is promised vs. delivered.
The 2020 bond package depicts one bond proposal allocating $3.2 billion for school “construction, acquisition and equipment of school buildings … and the purchase of new school buses” and four bond proposals specifically allocating the remaining $422 million to new technology, a stadium, a natatorium, and a performing arts facility. While renovations of some aging equipment and new technology may be reasonable proposals, funding for a new stadium or swimming pool in light of the current crisis goes beyond the bounds of reason.
Given the unknown status of schools this fall, the size and timing of this bond as well as particular project priorities are causing concern across the community.
This is evident by the 14,000 citizens who participated in three community meetings related to the bond proposal. Unfortunately, less than half an hour was allocated to questions from the community and many people were left feeling as if they didn’t get their questions answered. Even in such a short amount of time, some community members were able to voice key concerns regarding the district’s financial outlook, the current economic crisis, and what schools will look like in the fall.
The pandemic has caused families serious hardships and forced them to trim their budgets. The district should do the same. Every student deserves access to the best education possible, but spending billions on the external beautification of schools is a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Given the uncertainties about school and budget, the district’s proposal to borrow $3.7 billion is looking like more of a bust than a success.