Friday, November 14, 2008

The Meltdown of a Democratic Institution

I haven't written about the problems with the Dallas Independent School District a) because the presidential election has been so 'top-of-mind' and b) because it is such a soap opera that its a hard subject with which to keep up.

Let me see if I can give you a decent thumbnail (readers from Dallas can feel free to reply and fill in the blanks).

Back in May the school district had a bond election. Generally that's considered a great thing. Facilities, on the whole, get much needed improvements, new buildings, etc.

I voted against it.

I did so because the district, so fraught with examples of lax financial management which, to be fair, had been a part of past administrations and had only come to light during current superintendent Michael Hinojosa's term, had failed to have a timely audit. That's right: the school district was about to ask for more than a billion dollars without telling citizens the state of its fiscal affairs. They were saying in essence, "Let's get the bond package passed first then we'll get the audit completed."

The bond package did indeed pass. The audit was eventually completed, but the auditors found numerous examples of shoddy book keeping and accounting problems.

By September, DISD accountants discovered a $64 million shortfall! It appears that those in charge of the books were so focused on an overdue audit from 2005-2006, that they overlooked the lack of money to pay 750 new teachers. An earlier projected shortfall of about $50 million was covered by the districts reserves (leaving it short by half) and looked to cover it by a larger than expected state revenue. That didn't quite happen.

I am not making this stuff up, I promise!

Further projections were done and the district made an announcement, "When you play out our financial situation, its really not quite $64 million, its more like $84 million. Ahh, we're going to have to do better, but in the meantime there are going to have to be some cuts."

Now the 700 teachers were hired to address the recommendation of a group of citizens adjunct to the district called Dallas Achieves. To be honest their work has been pretty admirable, those who work on the various committees had some pretty good suggestions, including the one that you think would have been a no brainer for the administrators of the school district: more teachers will result in smaller class sizes which will facilitate a more effective learning experience. Dallas Achieves should be commended for telling the district what it should have known. Dallas Achieves should not be held responsible for telling district officials, before you hire more teachers you need to have money!

Hundreds of teachers were laid off. A number of support staff were either laid off or transferred.

And Michael Hinojosa remains safely ensconced in his position as superintendent.

Now a group of high powered, successful business leaders have been called together to untangle this mess and help DISD get its financial house in order. Mind you, all of this is happening while the underpinnings of the U.S. economy are crumbling right before our eyes!

One of the business leaders has said it is not the role of these leaders to assign blame. There assignment is to help fix the finances. And he's right - its not their job to assign blame, that's the job of citizens.

I'll write more about all of this later, but there are two very important things to point out: I am a proponent of public education. The concept as originally intended, is a tremendous contribution to democratic life. Pubic education is the equivalent of a 'farm team' for major league baseball. Through public education we grow and groom a new generation of politicians, scientists, engineers, clergy, business leaders, moms and dads. We create, new generations of employers and employees at this level. For a number of reasons, over the past 30-35 years, its stopped working as well as intended and certainly as well as it needs to. We have to address that. Educating children, however, starts with really competent committed parents and professional educators who love teaching children.

The second point aligns with the first: public schools and the systems in which they operate, are not corporations or private businesses, they are democratic institutions. They are ultimately accountable to the public and in which the public has a highly vested interest.

The business leader who is helping to untangle the knot in the districts finances is right - to a degree - their assigned role is not to place blame. That is our responsibility, and for far too long the public has abdicated its role in public education.

Michael Hinojosa is indeed responsible. He is ultimately to blame. But citizens, you and me, allow him and other officials to operate in a vacuum that makes such blunders possible. The question is what do we do, especially in Dallas, to make this democratic institution viable again?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"For a number of reasons, over the past 30-35 years, its stopped working as well as intended and certainly as well as it needs to. We have to address that. Educating children, however, starts with really competent committed parents and professional educators who love teaching children."

Gerald, why don't you list those reasons?

See how they square with the same erosion and failures in our federal government. In both cases, the individuals for whom the institution was put in place, kids and citizens, simply have failed their missions because they: (another chance to finish the sentence with the truly true.)