Monday, February 6, 2012

This Time Let's Vote with a Purpose - Thiiis is NOT 'American Idol'!

There are issues and there are issues...

Take for instance the Dallas ISD Trustees decisions to close 11 schools in Dallas. That's an issue - a serious one. It is fraught with all kinds of implications.

What does it do to the psyche of the neighborhoods in which these schools are located. Virtually all are located in low income neighborhoods. They are all being closed because of declining student populations. In the best of times, school buildings which must be kept lighted, heated, cooled and cleaned are expensive propositions. In times of dwindling dollars, how do you justify keeping these buildings in operation when the number of students in them make that expensive proposition even more expensive?

But closing schools require other expensive propositions - in some cases the transportation of students, in all it means personnel. What do you do with the staff? Not just teachers. Administrators? Custodial staff? Lunch room staff? Support staff? Who becomes 'collateral damage' when you have to make such a decision?

But that's not the only area in which school closures are expensive. Nearly all of these schools are undergoing some level of redevelopment. Some neighborhoods more than others. But redevelopment cannot just be business, whatever kind. Redevelopment has to include housing and not just any kind of housing, it has to be housing for young families with children. That was a challenge with these schools anyway. You can't be fooled by the TEA designations of  'acceptable', 'recognized' or 'excellent'. You have to understand that either because these categories to tell the true story of what's happening inside the school or because of the reputation of the communities, these were not schools in which the district was investing the resources necessary to be attractive to young families in the first place. And redevelopment of low income communities has not focused on the type of housing that would attract these families either. Now compound all the challenges of redevelopment in these areas with the actual closing of the schools in these neighborhoods - you've just complicated neighborhood redevelopment in these communities.

Now certainly all of this tells us what needs to happen. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has publicly stated that he wants the city to figure out how to work with the school district to make education more effective. It's a challenge because the 'Independent' in Dallas Independent School District, means that city officials don't run the school district. However, City Hall's answer to its engagement with the district, can be most effective by prioritizing public investment to redevelop the surrounding communities. That means making them more economically viable and safer.

And, of course, the District needs to figure out what kind make the kind of investment in these schools that do more than help them become 'recognized', they need to be stellar.  But, among other things, that takes money. And that's another issue.

While I don't give DISD trustees a pass on this issues, they are dealing with forces beyond their control. Economic forces. At the state level.

DISD's trustees have to deal with the $5 billion the Texas Legislature cut from education in the 181st session last spring.This is a budget cut mandated by an increasingly conservative (if that can be imagine) legislature that sought to balance it's budget at the expense of its future. This in spite of the fact the number of children coming into our state school system are projected to increase.

This really isn't solely because of the Great Recession. It's because of tax laws enacted more than 5 years ago, projected to generate sufficient revenue - and which did not. It would have been nice if the Governor at that time (the one who just made a humiliating return to Austin after a less than auspicious foray into national politics) and the legislature had listened to the State Comptroller, who told them that this tinkering with the tax laws would result in a $23 billion shortfall. But, of course they didn't listen. For a hot minute, the deficit was masked with stimulus money (that dirty money that the Governor said he didn't want). But there came a time when there wasn't enough stimulus money to fill the hole our legislature dug for us.

There was also the 'Rainy Day' fund - the state's savings account, as it were. But the Legislature refused to use that money to fund the shortfall. So the cuts were enacted. And our education system is suffering.

Which brings us to another issue.

The people who made such an extremely short-sighted and fiscally careless decision, were voted into office in 2010. This is 2 years after Texas' primary was characterized by long lines and caucuses so crowded, it's amazing someone didn't call out the fire marshal! And the day of the Presidential election, we voted like it was American Idol. But 2010, most of that crowd stayed home.

The results?

Among other things, ridiculous voter ID laws and eleven closed schools.

When it comes to the closed schools, protests and demonstrations full of frustration and angst are going to have to yield to very creative solutions for the use of those buildings. The redevelopment of those areas are going to have to be equally as creative.

But the real answer to the question must be political engagement that begins at the ballot box. There really is no other sustainable answer. The challenges of the closing of these schools pales in comparison to the root cause of their closure - the $5 billion cuts enacted by a very conservative state legislature. This will rob future generations of our children - black, brown and white - of the education they need to meaningfully contribute in the 21st century. It will consign the poorest of them to low wage jobs and dead end futures. It will blunt the futures of some of our offspring whose giftedness may not be apparent from birth. We will lose professionals, politicians, businessmen and businesswomen, writers and teachers.

And it will all happen if we don't vote - in 2012 and the ensuing 2014 election.

We need to show up at the polls in November of this year with a clear understanding of our interests. But we've got to vote in November 2012 with November 2014 squarely in our view.

And we need to repeat to one another in those lines a paraphrase of Ryan Seacrest's iconic introduction, 'Thiiis is NOT American Idol!'

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