We are entering the one-week run-up to the Highland Park ISD Board of Trustees election, and with early voting already underway, the hot topic of the day is…bathrooms.
The one-man PAC “We the People of HPISD” sent out an email newsletter Wednesday expressing concerns over the bathroom designs for the new fifth elementary school, and the federal funding believed to be at the root of the problem.
The letter, which was written by John Guittard and circulated by Dan Newell, creator of “We the People,” gives a detailed vision of what the PAC has termed “joined-gender” bathrooms would mean for students.
“It [HPISD’s proposed design] gives them [students] no adequate protection or privacy; it’s unsafe; and it’s stupid,” the letter argues. “So a boy (or a man?) washing his hands at a sink might be just around the open corner from a girl in a stall just a few feet away.”
Or, in the slightly saltier expression of Newell’s wife, Judy, who was in the car with him on the way to the Arboretum when we spoke: “If you’re a fourth- or fifth-grade girl and you go in and take a dump, it’s bad enough doing that in a public bathroom when you’re just around other girls, but with guys? Come on. Where’s the common sense in this?”
(“You can quote that,” Newell said when he had taken the phone back.)
In response to these concerns, HPISD Director of Communications Jon Dahlander said on the phone that the bathrooms are still in the design process. “We’ll be working with parents and teachers in determining the best layout for bathrooms,” he said. “Any school we design will ensure privacy.”
HPISD also released a statement following our discussion with them, and reiterated these key points: “The district is always sensitive to the thoughts and concerns of our parents. If parents and staff are not comfortable with the proposed plans, changes can be made.
“We will continue to consider input as we finalize interior design. Any plans for restrooms in the new school will be designed to ensure student safety and individual privacy.”
The district’s statement also addressed the specter of the man-in-girl-bathroom scenario: “The initial design for the restrooms at the new school has separate areas for boys and girls, with doors in their respective toilet areas. There will be no sightlines into individual stalls for anyone standing outside the immediate area.”
The bathroom issue might seem like an eccentricity – but it’s important for several reasons.
One is that it is couched in the unnamed fear of the “transgender” bathroom; which makes it not a question of building design, and the safety of students in the building, but of values, and the protection of children from certain ideas.
Related to this is the concern over federal funding, which has become a key point raised by anti-bond voices in the community since the $361.4 million bond’s proposal.
When pressed on why he is so against Highland Park’s acceptance of federal funding, Newell expressed concerns that the federal government would interfere with the school curriculum.
This is something that comes up in board meetings, too. At the April 12 meeting, for instance, Russell Fish accused the board of using Common Core, a good demon to raise, since it is a largely unpopular federally funded program. (HPISD does not use Common Core, nor does Texas opt into this voluntary federal program. The Texas House forbade it with the passage of H.B. 462 in 2013.)
The “transgender bathrooms” issue operates in the same way, by conflating government funding with government string-pulling. And it’s something Newell has mentioned in conversation, before the recent email.
He believes that since the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights enforces Title IX in institutions that receive federal funds from the department, it follows that the non-gendered bathroom plans in the new school are a manifestation of Title IX enforcement.
“I’m not hiring law firms to investigate it,” Newell said. “This is just a layman’s interpretation. But that’s how it seems to me.”
But while HPISD does accept federal funding, the money is solely allocated to special education programs under grant IDEA part B.
(And while HPISD complies with Title IX, bathroom design is not an element of their nondiscrimination policy.)
The money, which is used to hire aides for special needs students, and teacher aides in the classroom, has no outside influence, and “nothing to do with the curriculum whatsoever,” according to Dahlander.
(The U.S. Department of Education released a detailed guidance report on how IDEA-B funds may be used.)
“To enter that [federal funding] into the discussion would be incorrect,” Dahlander said. “It’s not a factor in what’s going into the design of the interior of the schools.”
Although HP has taken federal funding for years, and no additional federal funds were entered into the bond, the two issues of federal money and bond money have somehow gotten linked. And they are emblematic of what some see as an erosion of the Park Cities tradition of fiscal independence.
“The tradition of the Park Cities is that the moms and dads worked in the cafeterias so we didn’t have to accept federal funds,” Newell said. “It was a point of pride for a lot of people.”
Traci Schuh, who is assisting Newell, added to this: “If people knew they were going to be forced to take federal money, they would have contributed more to Mad For Plaid.”
Charity and community activism are vital to HP’s schools, but to believe that they can free HPISD from the teeth of the federal government is to fundamentally misunderstand how the funding is used. (It also ignores the issue of Texas’ inadequate state funding for public education, which is more relevant.)
At its core, the bathroom controversy speaks to the rift within the community that has become apparent since the bond, which was passed in November at 55-45 percent.
One faction of Caruth Hills neighbors on their website Build It Great have stated: “The bond passed, and we will welcome HPISD elementary school #5 to the neighborhood. However, we want it to be as great as it can with thoughtful planning.”
This is why that group is involved in ongoing negotiations with the board as planning for the school progresses. According to member Daniel Kearns, members also meet weekly with Margot Murphy, the Dallas City Plan Commission representative working with the board on the building of the fifth school.
But other voices are still expressing resentment over the bond, and remain deeply mistrustful of the board.
We the People believes the passing of the bond was unfairly influenced by incorrect enrollment numbers projected by PASA, the demographics company the board hired. This was another issue raised at the April board meeting — by UP resident Beth Blankenship – and another reason the bond still looms over the election.
PASA’s projections put total enrollment for 2015 at 7,321 and for 2016 at 7,438. (The real number for 2015, as registered at the October 2015 board meeting, was 7,061. For 2016, the most recent number, registered last month, was 7,047). The discrepancies, for some, have been a cause to doubt future projections (2017’s total enrollment is projected at 7,563).
But the board defends the numbers. Tim Turner, Assistant Superintendent for Business Services, said that there have been several years of slow growth, but these alternate with years of greater growth; so although the numbers might look wrong after slow-growth years, when averaging over a longer time period (PASA’s projections extend to year 2023) the numbers will work out.
On this point, Dahlander said, “We believe the numbers projected by the demographers are accurate. There’s nothing to suggest that they aren’t. You need to look at the longterm.”
Still, despite HPISD’s constant documentation (check their website), voices are saying there’s a lack of transparency.
We the People’s yard signs and flyers tout its candidates Bonnie Lammers, Gerry Hudnall, and Anthony Scalia, as the voices to “restore trust, transparency, and leadership,” which they believe lacking in current board membership.
Putting Our Kids First, the PAC formed by candidates Kelly Walker, Paul Rowsey, and Edward Herring, for their part, state in their position paper that “the opposition is attempting to deceive the community with inaccurate information and unsupportable innuendo.”
This election is significant because it is the first time incumbents are running opposed in five years – which also makes it complicated.
Putting Our Kids First wrote in an email newsletter Friday that when the board’s decisions are called into question, “given that we are in the middle of an election, our district administration is unable to respond with facts, as it may be perceived to be partisan.”
They’re right: We the People sees some statements from the board as biased acts of support by the establishment toward its incumbents. For example: Newell received an email today from a resident with an update flyer from HPISD. The resident (it was forwarded anonymously) saw the flyer as “spin” for the elementary school rebuild and new school project.
“Who would realize that the school board election is just one week away,” Newell wrote when he forwarded the correspondence to us.
The election Saturday might serve to bring the community to a reconciliation, but if the votes are as close as 55-45, the entrenchment may continue.
Newell himself said of the letter by Guittard that he circulated, “It was an important issue for my constituency. I, frankly, am embarrassed to write about bathroom issues. If this is all we have to write about, this is kind of too bad.”
Info on voting can be found here.