Monday, October 23, 2017

Hold Your Nose and Vote YES for DCS

This November's election might seem to be a snooze, with only a few things on the ballot, none of them named Donald J. Trump. But there are some heavy hitters trying to ensure one of the ballot items is voted down. That's Proposition A, which will determine whether Dallas County Schools (DCS) is abolished. DCS is the organization that provides school buses for Dallas ISD and seven suburban school districts in Dallas County, including the Richardson ISD.

In one of the oddities of this election, a "no" vote, which in most elections means a vote for the status quo, is actually a vote for change. The "yes" vote means keep the status quo. The change, namely abolishing the agency that provided schools with bus transportation, needs a "no" vote on the status quo to happen. Confused? Maybe the confusion is deliberate. Read on.

Texas state senator Don Huffines, who seeks to undermine public education every chance he gets, has been crying for DCS to be abolished for months. He called DCS a "rogue and unnecessary bureaucracy." Damning words, but tell me any government agency that Don Huffines doesn't consider to be a "rogue and unnecessary bureaucracy." Huffines just sees DCS as an easy target in his quest to dissolve government, period.

The Dallas Morning News has been fueling the fire for weeks, running headlines focusing on alleged corruption ("DCS official got over $200K from firm linked to bus camera vendor"), financial mismanagement ("Bus agency raised Dallas ISD’s costs by $2 million to pay down debt on land deal"), and safety ("Dallas County Schools bus catches fire, no injuries reported").

And some new political action committee that calls itself "Protect Dallas Kids" is sending out mailers to Dallas county voters urging a vote to dissolve DCS. The fact that the mailer puts "schools" in scare quotes and BUREAUCRACY in capital letters suggests to me that the money behind "Protect Dallas Kids" probably doesn't have kids' welfare as their top concern. Given that mailers are a fairly large expense in local elections, I'm guessing some big money is behind the PAC. Given that public education isn't cash rich, I doubt the big money is coming from interests that put public schools first.

Here's where you might expect me to say all the complaints about DCS are fake news. But you know what, it's mostly correct. DCS has been a cesspool of alleged corruption, financial mismanagement, and unsafe operations.

Why haven't school districts abandoned DCS on their own? They are free to do so, but not even Dallas ISD, some of whose trustees appear to be the most vocal about wanting to kill DCS, has done so.

Could it be that DCS is slowly getting its house in order, including a change in leadership? A DCS trustee says, "Traffic citations have decreased from 149 in 2016 to 20 in 2017. Roadway accidents are down 24 percent in the 2016-17 school year compared with the prior year. The on-time rate for Dallas ISD was 98.5 percent for August to September 2017 and 95 percent system-wide."

Could it be that DCS saves school districts money? The same DCS trustee says "The market value of transportation, as bid by private vendors, is more than 50 percent higher than the DCS bid, as evidenced by actual bids this year to school districts in Dallas County."

Say DCS is dissolved. What then?

Dallas ISD will use the money they've been spending with DCS to buy up DCS assets, maybe on the cheap, but maybe not if an open bidding process is observed. Dallas school kids will get to school on the very same buses, driven mostly by the same drivers. Because of losing the economies of scale that the suburban school districts bring to keep costs down, DISD taxpayers will end up paying more. And DISD will go forward with the excellent financial and operational management from DISD that we've come to trust and expect. Just kidding on that last one.

The suburban school districts will be on their own. Maybe they'll get some of those DCS school buses, too, and maybe some of the drivers will hire on. Maybe they'll find a way to join with other suburban school districts to create a new, smaller joint bus service, keeping total costs from jumping too much. Or maybe they'll pay DISD for bus service, although why RISD would want to trade a dependence on DCS for a dependence on DISD is hard to explain. In any case, expect costs to go up. RISD will have to shift money from classroom instruction to indirect expenditures like bus transportation. And that will give politicians like Don Huffines even more ammunition to use against public schools (and that could be what's really behind this whole power move).

I'm now farther into tin-foil hat conspiracy land than I usually care to go, so let me wrap up. Until someone can explain how making DISD even bigger and more powerful is better for Dallas County taxpayers and schoolchildren in general and for Richardson ISD in particular, put me down as a "Yes" vote to keep DCS. If there's a problem, fix it, don't just sweep it to a different agency.

Early voting is from October 23 - November 3. Election Day is November 7, 2017.


Mark Steger said...

According to the transportation report presented to the RISD school board October 23, "Richardson ISD currently has an active RFP seeking a vendor who will provide student transportation services to the district. It is clear from the responses received that any vendor, except DCS, will cost the district more per year for this service."

Judging by how many expensive mailers I've received urging a "No" vote on DCS, someone really wants that RISD money in their own pockets. I'm voting "Yes" to keep DCS and to keep RISD transportations costs down.

Lynn Davenport said...

I agree with you on this one. I'm voting YES on Prop A to keeping DCS alive. I've never heard KK have such a strong opinion about anything. When she got so passionate about DCS during the school board meeting, I knew my instincts were right to be on the opposite side of her argument. RISD has used DCS since 2002 and has had a decade of good service at a better rate than private transportation services. The last 5 years have been rocky with the failed ventures of those who are no longer there with DCS. Increased traffic and construction, along with the shortage of drivers and crosswalks also contributed to the level of service. It's unfortunate that politicians and political PACs are having such an influence on voters who might not have the whole story. Reformers will stop at nothing with their attempts to privatize public education. They want access to every penny. Thanks for writing about this issue that will affect so many children in RISD, DISD and surrounding districts.

bryan holland said...

I disagree with you on this one. I'm voting NO on Prop A to end DCS. To give DCS a free pass, based on increased traffic and construction, along with the shortage of drivers and crosswalks is folly. Agency Moody's has downgraded DCS' credit rating, again, now to very low junk bond status. The rating is so low they are rated to debts held by Puerto Rico -- a bankrupt government. DCS has more than $130 million in outstanding debt and has lost millions of dollars on a school bus camera venture the agency launched using public money.

the financially troubled school bus agency, sold its school bus lots to get $25 million in quick cash, Since DCS needed bus lots, the agency leased them back from the new owner. That leaseback will cost taxpayers $47 million over 20 years — $47 million in expenses on land that Dallas County taxpayers used to own free and clear.

In the words of a true American, John McCain, We must fight propaganda and crackpot conspiracy theories. This is not a by product of "Reformers attempts to privatize public education." This is a by product of corruption and incompetence. As I like to say, if you want to know the truth, then "follow the money." :)

Mark Steger said...

Voters elected Tuesday by a 58-42 margin to eliminate Dallas County Schools, the bus service used by RISD. This keeps my long streak of losing endorsements at the county and state level alive. ;-)

Sassy Texan said...

It will be interesting to see how Bryan Holland "follows the money" now. Or anyone for that matter. What slight of hand debt swap will there be???? CDH