Every day, approximately 70,000 students get to class on buses provided by Dallas County Schools (DCS).
The partially tax-funded transportation provider has partnered with Dallas ISD since the 1920s. Now, a string of safety incidents, budget shortfalls, and questionable campaign contributions, have some asking whether it’s time to reconsider the arrangement.
The “classification of service” section of DISD’s transportation procurement rules
begins with the words, “Dallas County School System or other transportation provider,” thus giving DCS a preferred vendor status. During the December school board meeting, District 2 trustee Dustin Marshall attempted to replace that language with the phrase, “appropriate transportation vendor(s) as approved by the board of trustees.”
His motion failed by one vote. However, trustees opposed to the measure still vowed
to consider other vendors at a future date.
“There are currently no other vendors mentioned by name,” Marshall said. “My belief is that we should open DISD busing up to bids to ensure high-quality safety and service at a competitive price.”
In 1839, President Mirabeau B. Lamar convinced the Republic of Texas Congress to allocate three leagues of land in each county for public schools. This created a
county-based education system that grew in the early days of statehood. By the turn of the century, new laws enacted by the state legislature ushered in the era of independent school districts. Local municipalities began taking control of their schools, eliminating the need for countywide districts.
But a peculiar thing happened in North Texas. The Dallas County School system never died. Instead, it lived on as a service provider, partially subsidized by taxes while simultaneously operating as a for-profit business.
In addition to busing, DCS provides some technological and psychological services to DISD and 10 other districts in Dallas County.
“We’re here to serve the kids and save the district money,” DCS Board of Trustees chairman Larry Duncan said. “It’s about economies of scale. We buy so many buses that we get a huge fleet discount.”
Marshall disputes that contention.
“While I agree on economies of scale, it does not apply in this case. There are several private providers we could go with where the scale would be actually larger,” he said. “It’s also pretty clear that they [DCS officials] don’t have the ability to leverage economies of scale.”
Indeed, DCS is facing a $42 million budget shortfall. Almost half of that amount is blamed on a stop-arm camera program that was designed to catch drivers running bus
stop signs. DCS purchased cameras for districts outside of Dallas County. Under those agreements, the districts get free cameras in exchange for splitting the costs of fines collected with DCS. So far, the revenue generated has failed to meet expectations. On Jan. 31, DCS announced that it was restructuring its contract with Force Multiplier Solutions (FXS), the company that provides the cameras. DCS also plans to cut back on other initiatives outside of the county under its “Dallas County First” initiative.
“Times change,” Duncan said. “It was a good decision five years ago but now it’s time to refocus.”
Duncan said people no longer with DCS contributed to the problems.
“The executive director of transportation and finance are no longer with us,” Duncan said. “They should have been enforcing on the drivers, and the drivers should have reimbursed us those payments.”
Duncan himself has recently come under fire for receiving more than $245,000 in campaign contributions from FXS. According to the numbers reported by the Dallas Morning News and KXAS Channel 5, all of his other campaign contributions combined totaled less than $9,000.
“Every contribution is legal, honest, open, and ethical. The state legislators set
up this system so that ordinary citizens could hold office and run for office, and the system is working,” Duncan said. “I followed the rules of the state of Texas for every penny of every political contribution and every penny of every expenditure.”
In response to the revelation, DCS Superintendent Rick Sorrells directed staff to
create a policy that will require trustees to recuse themselves from voting on any item where they have received campaign or office-holder contributions exceeding $500 in that calendar year.
DCS has also been criticized for its poor safety record. It reportedly paid $2.3 million to settle various claims between 2013 and 2016. Records uncovered in 2016 also showed that DCS repeatedly covered traffic tickets incurred by bus drivers.
“That was totally unacceptable,” Duncan said. “We acted as soon as we learned, acted decisively, terminated 13 drivers, and suspended 229.”
He added that DSC has since enacted a tougher policy where drivers will be suspended on their first offense, and terminated if they get a third.
Despite the recent string of bad news, Duncan contends DCS is a “model” for others to follow.
“We offer a unique expertise that provides Dallas school districts benefits both in services and cost savings.”
Marshall isn’t convinced, pointing out that DCS’s cost per student has nearly doubled in the past five years while on-time bus rates have declined, causing many students to miss breakfast and class time.
“They have a lot of work to do to get their house in order. Right now they are failing to do that.”