DISD update: Are things as bad as they seem?

I spent my Friday afternoon at DISD’s special board meeting to discuss the $64 million (or more) budgeting shortfall. There are plenty of places to obtain the short-hand version of what happened at the meeting (the place was crawling with TV people; outside the admin building on Ross looked like the White House lawn with the cameras and talking heads spread all over the grounds), but if you want an accurate blow-by-blow of the meeting with minimal accompanying editorial commentary, check out Allen Gwinn’s blog post here. Allen presents a running summary of the information as it happened, and other than a few comments along the way, what he reports is essentially accurate from my perspective at the meeting. He also has a link on his site to a post called "Time for Hinojosa to go?"  Sometimes, Gwinn seems a little over-the-top with his posts, but this one is a thoughtful commentary discussing the DISD superintendent’s job qualifications and accomplishments and whether Hinojosa’s empathy as a parent/educator outweigh some of the problems that have occurred on his watch.
Be forewarned, though: You’re probably looking at about 30 minutes of reading to take in everything Gwinn’s presenting.

Here’s a more interpretive and somewhat shorter version, based on what I saw today.

First, the board acted reasonably and professionally, and that’s a pleasant surprise. There are still those of us who remember the televised "armed conflict" of board meetings during the New Black Panther phase of DISD. The current board members didn’t point fingers, didn’t do too much grandstanding and seemed motivated to move forward and find the least painful solutions rather than grind around and rehash the mistakes while posturing for the cameras. The board members were clear about wanting to solve the problems so they don’t happen again, but the task at hand is addressing the shortfall, and that’s what they focused on.

In one particularly shrewd but controversial move, the board voted to keep the meeting in a small boardroom (capacity of about 60) rather than its auditorium-sized boardroom — I’m sure the rationale was to keep the crowd size manageable and keep the crowd quiet. It may not have been the most democratic way to proceed, but it definitely kept the TV people from being able to show pictures of people yelling at the board and calling them incompetent, and that’s exactly what would have happened. There was enough murmuring in the small room to get a sense for the circus that was avoided by the board’s decision to take the crowd out of the meeting. Some of you will no doubt be offended by this deliberate move to be exclusionary, but the alternative was to have a televised riot during the board meeting, which would not have contributed to the solution and would have made parents and taxpayers feel even less secure about the district’s prospects.

There have been lots of public, blog-fueled calls for Hinojosa’s firing, and a fair number of people have also called on some or all of the board members to resign. Without commenting further on Hinojosa’s status (I think he should stay, at this point, based on what I’ve heard so far), I think it’s a horrible idea to pin the blame for this on the board of trustees.

It was clear from just this one meeting that the bureaucracy at DISD is massive, and it’s unreasonable to expect a volunteer board to provide hands-on micro-management. It’s clear that a few members of the board are probably overmatched somewhat with the challenges, but most of them — particularly Lew Blackburn and Jerome Garza — asked informed and pointed questions, and when the answer was incomplete, they said so and demanded more. I expect the board members, as a whole, will be more involved going forward — they clearly recognize their role in this mess, and they want to clear ther names. I don’t think there’s anything they could have done to prevent the current problem. Talking about getting rid of them now is ludicrous.

Lots of cost-cutting ideas were discussed, and some have merit. Unfortunately, with the exception of reducing the amount of money spent annually on the district’s specialized learning centers (estimated savings of about $17 million annually), most of the ideas will save mere pennies on the dollar that must be slashed from the budget.

After standing through the entire three-hour meeting, one thing is crystal-clear to me: There will be teachers layoffs, the number of teachers laid off will be significant, and there is no amount of creativity that will prevent that. Period. You can plead all you want with individual board members to save a teacher at this school or that school, but from what I can tell, it’s not going to make a difference — teachers will be eliminated based on board-approved student-teacher-class ratios at each school.

Some of the reports I’ve read indicate that thanks to the board’s insistence today on protecting teachers at all costs, no teachers were fired today (Friday). That is incorrect. It was clearly stated during the meeting that no teachers were going to be officially RIFed (Reduction in Force, or fired) until around Sept. 29. The plan was, and still is, for each school principal to compile a list of affected teachers, have the list vetted by DISD administrators to make sure everything is being done legally and by the book, and then consolidate the list and move forward. Even though the board didn’t vote to fire anyone today, it is just a matter of time before they do. In the meantime, DISD is spending approximately $1 million more than it’s taking in each week no significant reductions are made.

Back to the Learning Centers — they’ve long been a bone of contention in Dallas, because the district spends more to each educate each Learning Center student than it does to educate each student at standard schools (about $17 million more per year, district administrators said during the meeting). The Learning Centers were court-ordered back in the day that everything at DISD was court-supervised in an effort to provide better learning environments for particularly disadvantaged students; that supervision is gone now, and the Learning Centers could well be stripped of their cash advantages shortly, too. As I recall from past meetings, the extra money spent on Learning Center students doesn’t translate to correspondingly higher student achievement. Eliminating the funding disparity could reduce by 25-30 percent the number of teachers who are ultimately let go.

For what it’s worth, I stood next to Jim Schutze with the Dallas Observer for an hour or so, and I was near Brett Shipp (Channel 8 investigative reporter) for most of the afternoon. I saw Shipp’s report on the 6 p.m. news, and Shipp acted like the board had said Hinojosa’s job was safe FOR NOW. Honestly, no board member said anything bad about Hinojosa in the public meeting — nothing — nor did any board members say or imply that Hinojosa’s job is on the line. I don’t know what they said in the closed-door meeting afterwards (nor does Shipp), but I didn’t get the sense Hinojosa is a goner unless some other horrible thing happens soon. Shipp’s reporting was technically correct, but his inflection and wording — while adding some nice drama to his news segment — seemed to imply a sense of discord and head-hunting that wasn’t evident to me. That type of reporting is part of the reason so many parents and taxpayers are particularly inflamed about this mess.

So if you want to save teachers from being fired from your neighborhood school, take my advice and save your breath. If the school, relative to enrollment, has a higher teacher-to-student ratio than the board of trustees has approved — and it sounds like most schools are in this position — teachers are going to be laid off, period. No amount of public appeals or reasoning or pulling in chips from buddies on the board will make any difference — it looks as if the solution will be applied equally and across most schools.

Having spent the afternoon thinking, talking and writing about all of this, I have to tell you that as a parent with two sons attending a DISD school, I am not more concerned in any way about the future of our sons’ education. The teachers will keep coming to work and doing their best until told otherwise, and like most businesses these days, restructuring due to economic woes is the rule rather than the exception.

There are those of you out there who no doubt are wringing your hands and worrying about your children; I can understand your concern. But for the past few years, I’ve seen definite and measurable improvements in the schools and learning environment at DISD, and I believe the board will do
its best to solve this problem and the administration will do its best to implement that solution. I believes our kids are in good hands, and for those of you shaking your heads in disagreement right now, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

The next DISD board meeting to discuss the problem is Thursday, Sept. 25, at 3 p.m. at DISD headquarters, 3700 Ross. If you have the time, attend the meeting. If you don’t, we’ll do our best to keep you informed, too.


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