The Dallas Morning News

DISD officials: Shut down Dallas County Schools

District urges lawmakers to scrap embattled agency, give schools a year to transition

- By EVA-MARIE AYALA Staff Writer Twitter: @EvaMarieAy­ala

AUSTIN — Even as administra­tors from embattled Dallas County Schools tried to save their agency, Dallas ISD officials urged lawmakers to shut it down.

Lawmakers discussed a bill Tuesday that would scrap the countywide agency — which provides busing, technology and other services — and give dependent districts a year to transition to other providers.

The bill’s author, Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, said he began looking into DCS initially thinking it was a duplicate layer of bureaucrac­y. He said he was disturbed to find questionab­le business deals across Texas, seemingly mismanaged finances and reports of bus drivers running red lights.

Many DCS officials have stepped down or were fired in recent months, including former Superinten­dent Rick Sorrells, who abruptly retired.

Dallas ISD Superinten­dent Michael Hinojosa told the Senate education committee that his district has had to pick up a lot of slack because of DCS’ shortcomin­gs. DISD officials have said they pay more than they should for transporta­tion services and scramble to help students whose buses are late or missing.

“The one and only reason I’m here is to protect the interest of the Dallas Independen­t School district,” Hinojosa said. “I have enough work to do. I’m not looking for any extra work.”

Dallas ISD trustee Edwin Flores told lawmakers that about a third of the district’s 29,000 students who rely on busing are late to school because of the county agency’s poor performanc­e. That means elementary students, many of whom rely on free breakfasts at school, aren’t getting fed, he said.

Flores noted that DISD spends about $1,654 per student for transporta­tion compared with Fort Worth, which spends about $285 per student.

“This is about unaccounta­ble bureaucrac­y gone wild. It’s that simple,” Flores said.

Hinojosa said Dallas ISD would help other area districts transition away from DCS if needed, such as providing transporta­tion services, but only for a year or so. DISD would not be a long-term provider, he stressed.

Leatha Mullins, who became DCS acting superinten­dent last month, issued a statement Tuesday night saying it was surprising to hear of Dallas ISD’s “secret takeover plan.” During the hearing, officials discussed how DCS’ assets could possibly be split up among the districts it serves, including a significan­t portion to Dallas ISD.

“They want the buses, the technologi­es and today we found out they also want our building,” she said in the statement. “I will be interested in how the smaller Dallas County districts we serve will respond to that idea.”

Mullins denied rumors of a criminal investigat­ion into DCS’s dealings, saying she hasn’t been contacted by any law enforcemen­t agencies.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, challenged Mullins to detail exactly what DCS is doing to change:

“Give us one good reason why we should allow this agency to continue to operate?”

Mullins countered that DCS has overhauled its operationa­l and financial procedures and replaced many key staffers, including Sorrells. The agency announced recently that it would discontinu­e one of its most criticized efforts: stop-arm cameras on buses that allowed cities to fine drivers who went around them.

“We have been addressing the issues that have been brought to our attention,” Mullins said. “Now I believe with the team that we have, they are the best in their field and we can get this done.”

DCS administra­tors and consultant­s tried to convince lawmakers that troubled staff was replaced and that the agency was financiall­y solvent despite a shortfall of more than $40 million. They said districts would be on the hook for even more money if they had to provide the services DCS does.

West expressed frustratio­n with Huffines for not talking to smaller districts in the area — such as Lancaster or Cedar Hill — about how shutting down DCS would affect them. Huffines countered that he had sent letters to all area districts asking for input.

Cedar Hill Superinten­dent Orlando Riddick, who was not at the hearing, said he’s nervous about the future of DCS and frustrated with the “herky-jerky” relationsh­ip that’s left him fuming many times. Cedar Hill had to adjust its school start times to make up for the constantly late buses and recently scrambled to find another technology provider when DCS decided to scale back on those services. Riddick said he’s routinely struggled to arrange meetings with the county agency to address problems.

“I am tired of Dallas County [Schools]. They are inefficien­t,” he said.

But even as Cedar Hill recently opened bids to look for transporta­tion options, he’s unsure any other provider can come in close to the $2 million a year the district spends with the county. “That’s a player when you’re looking at a tight budget,” Riddick said.

Lawmakers made no decision on the bill Tuesday.

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