As children return to school in the midst of the ongoing public health crisis caused by Covid-19, the safety of our school buildings is more important than ever. I’m proud to have been appointed by Governor Greg Abbott to the Texas School Safety Center Board of Directors. In that capacity, as well as my role as a Dallas Independent School District Trustee, and a Ph.D. in molecular immunology, I spend a great deal of time considering the best way to keep our kids safe– from threats internal and external. To date, our students, educators and administrators have done a remarkable job of pivoting to pandemic protocols and implementing a hybrid model of learning that gives our families safe educational options.
However, despite all the progress in Dallas ISD and across the state toward school safety, a need remains for improvements to the many school buildings built in Dallas ISD during an era when no such threats existed. I am proud that the Dallas ISD police department continues to be funded at the highest levels, and the training and coordination of our police staff with the Dallas Police Department is better than ever. Despite all the progress, too many of our school buildings themselves remain vulnerable without the most recent safety equipment, secure vestibules, card-key controlled entrances, and modern camera systems. Many of our HVAC systems need updates to further reduce the risk of airborne transmission.
These are among the stakes of our upcoming bond election: Will Dallas ISD voters provide our students and teachers with a learning environment that is safe, healthy and secure? In addition to providing facilities for a modern education, a critical goal of DISD Propositions A-E is to provide these critical enhancements. One of those critical enhancements are the new Career Institutes, where students are able to attain certifications and training in the many trades that pay real wages in the areas of construction, health, cybersecurity, etc.
As a strict fiscal conservative, this was not an endorsement I came to lightly. My trustee district represents an oversized portion of the entire tax base. I would never support any measure that resulted in higher taxes for my constituents before exhausting all possible savings and cuts. We have made those tough choices and cuts, and the district is in the best fiscal position it has had in decades. However, the needs are just too great. This is why I urge you to vote “FOR” them at the bottom of your November ballot.
Importantly, you will find in the ballot language a statement, mandated by the legislature in Austin, that the bond includes a tax increase. In spite of the language mandated from Austin, our ballot initiative will not increase Dallas residents’ tax rate in any way. In fact, when interest rates are their lowest ever, asking for a multibillion dollar bond issuance is the fiscally conservative time to borrow money. In fact, in both the 2008 and 2015 bonds we promised to live within our means, as we not only delivered everything we promised, we over-delivered, with dozens of additional projects completed with the same budget. And, we also paid down the bonds early, saving our taxpayers millions of dollars.
As legendary Dallas developer Ray Washburne recently remarked to D Magazine, “the best time to build is in the worst time because you get the best pricing.” Right now, interest rates are historically low, creating ideal financing conditions for long term capital projects.
In addition, as D reports, property values, from which the school district raises its funds, have largely weathered the current economic conditions. Indeed, in many places (including our neighborhoods) they have continued to grow on pace from previous years. But here too, district leaders have made a conservative projection, assuming only 4% growth, rather than the nearly 10% rate of growth that has held the past few years.
While the $3.7 billion is the largest bond issuance in the state’s history, it still won’t be enough to cover the nearly $6 billion dollars of facilities needs identified in the district’s 2018 Long Range Facilities Master Plan. The fiscally conservative investment is to plan and perform maintenance when it is due, rather than deferring maintenance that only leads to greater costs to the taxpayer down the line.
Finally, we must keep in mind that if circumstances change for the worse, the school board trustees can always choose to halt building activity and associated borrowing to ensure that the current tax rate covers all obligations. Given Dallas ISD’s excellent track record of the last two bond issues, I have confidence in our ability to make the right choice– and in Dallas voters’ ability to hold us accountable.
Former president George W. Bush once said, “we’ll never be able to compete in the 21st century unless we have an education system that makes sure there’s excellence in every classroom.” With its pioneering Teacher Excellence Initiative, Dallas ISD is bringing excellent instruction into every classroom. Now it’s up to us to make sure the classrooms themselves are excellent, too.
Edwin Flores is a Trustee with the Dallas Independent School District.