One Dallas-area lawmaker calls Dallas County Schools “a ticking financial time bomb that’s going to go off.” Another says she’s “aghast at the mismanagement” in the problem-plagued bus bureaucracy. Both authored bills that are working their way through the Texas Legislature to abolish the agency.
But pressure from Dallas County’s school districts – especially DCS’s largest customer, Dallas Independent School District – could force the struggling agency to close regardless of what the legislature does. Other districts that subsidize but don’t use DCS bus service are also weighing in.
Dallas ISD recently renewed its bus service contract with DCS for one year while considering alternatives. DISD Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa told Texas House lawmakers in a public hearing that DCS isn’t fulfilling the terms of that contract, and as a result the district is withholding payments. DISD’s contract is worth about $50 million a year to DCS – an amount the agency would be hard-pressed to survive without.
As State Rep. Cindy Burkett (R–Sunnyvale) noted in that committee hearing last week, it’s cost-prohibitive for districts to search for alternatives, given that DCS is so heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Burkett also pointed out that school districts in Dallas County that provide their own transportation services are not only subsidizing other districts within the county, but also some outside the county:
“As a Dallas County taxpayer, I am aghast at the mismanagement. Equally as frustrating is the fact that all Dallas County property owners are taxed to fund DCS, but not all ISDs receive transportation services.”
Burkett’s House Bill 2329 eliminates DCS’s taxing authority and allows school districts to opt in to use DCS services. Dissolution is triggered if districts representing less than 75 percent of Dallas County students opt in. A five-member dissolution committee, including a representative from Dallas ISD, would operate the agency during the wind down and pay off its debt. DCS buses would then be divided proportionally among participating districts and real estate assets sold at fair market value, with proceeds going to pay off bond debt.
“I want to empower local districts to hold DCS accountable for the quality of service. Currently ISDs are beholden to DCS,” said Burkett.
DISD District 2 Trustee Dustin Marshall agrees that DCS isn’t effectively serving the interests of students, his district, or taxpayers:
“Dallas County Schools is using taxpayer money inefficiently and is behaving like a monopolist,” Marshall told Texas Scorecard. “They have an abysmal safety record and an on-time arrival rate at school of only 66 percent, which means that one out of every three kids is not arriving on time in the classroom ready to learn.
“They have also increased the price they are charging DISD per student transported per year from $810 in 2012 to $1,654 this year. It is time that DISD either open this contract up to competitive bid from private companies or operate our busses ourselves.”
Marshall, who’s currently running for re-election, is endorsed by Texans For Fiscal Responsibility.
Mesquite Independent School District is one of the Dallas County school districts whose residents pay taxes to DCS but don’t use its bus services. MISD Superintendent Dr. David Vroonland told Burkett in a letter that districts “have clearly lost all confidence” in DCS’s ability to “efficiently and effectively provide services.”
Sunnyvale Independent School District Superintendent Doug Williams also wrote Burkett supporting the shutdown of DCS:
“Community members of Sunnyvale ISD, located in Dallas County, are currently taxed by Dallas County School Equalization at a $0.25 tax rate per $100. The average homeowner currently contributes approximately $750 for limited benefit… the only remaining service that DCS provides to Sunnyvale ISD is the facilitation of a fuel purchasing cooperative, which could also be accomplished through a shared service agreement between local school districts.”
State Sen. Don Huffines (R–Dallas), whose bill to abolish DCS is headed to the Senate floor this week, told Lone Star Politics over the weekend that the agency is “a ticking financial time bomb that’s going to go off:”
“I’m shocked at the millions of dollars that they’re losing, and now they’re going to go back out on the market and borrow more money just to make payroll – millions of dollars,” Huffines said. “That’s why it’s so important for the legislature to step up and act, because if this thing implodes on itself while we’re not in session, how are the kids going to get to school?”
Huffines says his plan to shut down DCS, like Burkett’s, has support from stakeholders including Dallas ISD. Senate Bill 1122 provides a transition period of 18 months and appoints a five-member dissolution committee to wind down the agency, pay off its debt, and distribute its assets.
“This is an organization that gets an F in transparency, an F in accountability, and an F in honesty,” Huffines concluded. “It is past time we got rid of this organization. It’s not a question of if it’s going away, it’s a question of when and how.”
Whether by legislation, or by its own failure to perform for students, school districts, and taxpayers, Dallas County Schools looks likely to be going away.