I knew 2020 would be a significant year: the decennial census, critical primaries, and a long-awaited presidential election. Here in Dallas, 2020 would bring the largest bond that a school district had ever put on the ballot in the state of Texas, totaling more than 3 billion dollars and promising to unequivocally change the role of a school building in many of our Dallas neighborhoods.
I did not know that COVID-19 would throw our nation off its axis. Should we focus on urgent, immediate needs, such as access to healthcare or food? Or similarly important questions with longer deadlines, specifically the implications of this enormous bond.
The bond lets the Dallas Independent School District (ISD) dream big. They have the opportunity to analyze our communities with a magnifying equity lens, determining the needs of each unique school. They have the opportunity to rebuild school buildings which desperately call for it.
And they have the opportunity to bring teachers, students, parents—those most proximate to the issue of educational equity—into the decision-making process.
When I was a 5th grade teacher, I didn’t know what the bond meant. I had no clue that it could fund an increase in technology in my classroom. Or purchase the air conditioning system that my students needed in the Texas heat.
Or that the school district should have sought my input regarding the allocation of resources.
Now in my work supporting community organizers in Dallas, I ask this question: “If you had a magic wand to solve one issue in your school, what would it be?”
Some teachers and students offer pointed anecdotes targeting specific policies and practices; the social and emotional wellness of students, supporting families where English is not the first language, or the need for increased racial equity in the district.
Others talk about broken toilets and HVAC systems, the lack of soap in student bathrooms.
While I’ve listed just a small sample of considerations which community members shared, these stories and ideas are vital. The people most proximate to the problems know which issues are most pressing to their experience in our schools.
We need their voices.
To their credit, the Dallas ISD announced ten meetings for community members to provide input regarding the Racial Equity Office and the 2020 Bond, prior to the presentation of the initial draft of the bond in May.
But now we are in the midst of a global pandemic.
We live in a new reality under shelter in place, and the aforementioned meetings are postponed indefinitely. Each of us has a new set of considerations; health, finances, additional caretaking.
Despite this time of uncertainty, one thing is clear: community members yearn to be heard.
If the current 2020 Bond timeline is to remain the same—1st draft presented in May, 2nd draft in June, final vote in August to place the bond on the ballot—then there must be alternative opportunities to involve community members in the decision-making process. Our school district has an obligation to make decisions with our community members, not for them.
Even though physical community meetings are out of the question, seeking community input is not. Our district leaders can use the same methods that effective community organizers are turning to in these confusing times- text messaging blasts, phone banks, surveys, increased digital presence, virtual meeting spaces. The district has the infrastructure to take advantage of many digital organizing practices. They can collect survey results via email, phone calls, and text messages. They can create virtual meeting spaces via Zoom, Facebook, Instagram.
The school district must innovate.
If the 2015 or 2008 bond program are future predictors, then the 2020 Dallas ISD bond program has a likelihood of passing. Given the current climate—rife with literal emergencies due to the public health crisis—the school district could bulldoze through their meetings, accepting the first and second bond drafts as-is in May and June.
To be sure, the district handled many difficult decisions in the past few weeks. Closing the second largest school district in Texas and one of the city’s largest employers is no enviable feat, but they have handled it, even passing a resolution ensuring that hourly employees are paid during these uncertain times.
In times of crisis, we want our leaders to act quickly and judiciously, making decisions that keep us healthy and protect our most vulnerable populations. When it comes to financial decision-making, especially the largest bond in Texas state history, the school district must slow down and innovate to ensure that these monumental decisions are made with community members, and not for them.
Sandra Godina is a leadership development coach who supports community organizers in Dallas. Her passion for organized people power is fueled by her experience as a 5th grade teacher and teacher coach.