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The Future of School Finance is Starting in Dallas

Today, the Dallas Independent School District board of trustees got its first look at a staff proposal for a new school bond to potentially be voted on in 2020. Though there was not yet a final number attached, it promises to be the biggest package the school district has ever presented to voters. But what makes this proposal truly unique is not its size, but its approach.

The presentation given by district staff was entitled Equity in Bond Planning, but it’s subtitle is even more informative: “Place-Based Investments: Righting the Wrongs of the Past.” What followed was a discussion of the history of the city of Dallas, and how residential segregation and institutional racism continues to negatively impact the lifetime outcomes of too many Dallas ISD students.

“Specific neighborhoods have experienced decades of neglect,” said Pam Lear, with the district’s Office of Racial Equity. “These residents were denied access to mortgages and small business loans to build wealth and further develop their communities… Our purpose for doing this is genuinely to make a difference.”

These complex topics are not often undertaken when discussing school bonds. They are limited, legally, to capital improvements, meaning the money raised can only be spent on physical infrastructure such as school buildings. But as the presentation demonstrates, the physical resources available within neighborhoods served by Dallas ISD are inextricable from the larger challenges faced by each community.

That’s why the district, in collaboration with the Childhood Poverty Action Lab, has developed the Community Resource Index, or CRI, to pair with the already existing Facility Condition Index, a measure of the health of each district-owned structure. The CRI, by contrast, looks to quantify not just at the needs of buildings, but the needs of the neighborhoods those buildings are standing in, and the assets the district can provide to help meet them. These needs are measured across five large categories (Economics, Education, Family, Health, and Community) that consider specific indicators such as access to childcare providers, pharmacies, and grocery stores.

The presentation included a few examples for ways in which capital improvements could begin to meet these needs, including “dedicated space for attorneys to hold after-school office hours,” expanded hours at campus libraries, and satellite offices for Parkland officials to help residents enroll in health insurance. Each of these ideas represent a radical rethinking of the potential of school bonds, while also remaining well within the limits of statute.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said Dallas board trustee Maxie Johnson. “When we all come together and try to right our wrongs, we have to deal with ugly truths. But this is definitely what’s needed, because at the end of the day, our kids are going to be the ones who benefit.”

There is a great deal that remains to be determined about the details of this particular bond package, and it is our hope that those decisions will be made with robust community input. But we would like to take this opportunity to applaud district administrators for thinking strategically about how to most equitably deploy bond funds. And we encourage you to make your voice heard as they continue this process.

Explore the Community Resource Index below:

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