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Facing Challenges

As is the case with the majority of school districts, money for capital improvements, facility repairs, and building maintenance and operations is tight. While the list of potential projects is endless, the money available is not.

The Dallas Independent School District is no different. The district has been fortunate enough to build 16 new schools in two years without a tax increase. But, with more than 158,000 students, construction, renovation and repair of its infrastructure must continue.

"Fifty percent of our more than 200 schools are 40 years old or older," says James H. Hughey, superintendent. "We need to retrofit and renovate these older buildings."

A successful strategy With more than 2 million people in the city, getting a bond issue passed could be a nightmare. Yet, Dallas seems to have perfected a formula for success-a bond issue has never been defeated.

"The key is the people," says Miguel Ramos, assistant superintendent. "The community has always supported the kids. Everybody wants to make our schools better. To bring the cutting edge to the students, we have to continue to put money into the schools."

The last bond-issue request was in 1992 for $275 million. The district currently is preparing to present another bond issue to the community.

"We are going to ask the community to give us the opportunity to build new schools and renovate existing campuses," says Hughey. "The bond issue is going to be considerably more than the one in 1992. We generate the needs assessment district-wide that says this is what the facilities needs look like. We have a task force that has been working about 18 months. The community has to understand the need, they are the ones actually paying the bill. So, we make sure we provide them with good, factual information to make a decision, and that takes time."

"We have been successful with all of them [bond issues] partly because we do a lot of campaigning and stress what the needs are," says Michael Brown, executive director, facilities planning department.

Renovation is a key word in any Dallas administrator's vocabulary. With more than 200 buildings, there is always a list of projects to be completed. Add to that the fact that more than 50 percent of those buildings are 40 years old or older and one begins to see the need.

"Our oldest school is 82 years old," says W. T. Shaw, executive director of maintenance. "We have $16 million worth of repairs identified right now. We never have enough money. We did a 12 percent budget cut. The board will give us some money back in other areas, such as deferred maintenance, but we probably need $30 million."

Road to repairs With the list of repairs growing and new schools being constructed, it is pretty common to see public-school vehicles on the roads throughout the day. Shaw's department employees more than 600 people and the district has more than 630 vehicles.

"We try to keep vehicles for 150,000 miles," says Shaw. "I have a preventive-maintenance schedule so that we visit all schools within one year."

Yet, with a district so large, a lot of time is spent driving. "One of the big problems is that we are working out of one centralized area and an employee can drive forever to get to a school with an open work order," says Ramos. "And, then they find out they have to send another work order to get somebody else out there to do the work."

A solution is cross training. "This would help so that one person could do two or three things while they were at a school," he says. Uniforms also are being purchased for employees. "Right now, all we have is a badge. Our employees are all over these schools and nobody knows who they are," continues Ramos.

"Uniforms will do a lot for self esteem and for pride. The only time we get noticed is when something is not working. Uniforms should help change that. "We are service oriented. We will take our lumps, but we are going to keep smiling and do the job we need to do for the kids. This district has the best bunch of people you will ever meet and they have a real good attitude about their work."

While attitude is a plus, dollars can make a difference. With decreasing budgets comes lower salaries. The district is finding that outside industries often pay a lot more than it does, making it hard to keep employees.

"We work hard at keeping our licensed people," says Ramos. "We went to the board and asked for additional monies to keep up with industries, and they gave us the monies. Not as much as we wanted, but at least we can compete."

The district currently is working on a program to recruit employees. While it does have an apprenticeship program, by expanding it the district would pay for the [employees] college education as long as that person agrees to work for the district for a set number of years.

Making it easier Keeping track of such a sizable number of schools and their associated work orders can be cumbersome. Currently, Shaw's department has a computerized maintenance-management program that generates work orders and assigns them to employees by craft. The goal is to expand on that program and allow individual schools to input work orders and check their status.

Another step to make maintenance easier is standardization. For example, lights are standardized. When a new school is built or an older one is renovated, lights get replaced with standard-issued bulbs.

The district also maintains its own vehicles, which means auto parts can become a headache. "You wouldn't think that in a city like Dallas that you would have downtime because of parts, but you do," says Ramos. Talks are underway to outsource the parts. "There are some companies that will come in and stock a full supply of auto parts for you and you pay them on consignment."

Meeting diverse needs Dallas has a faculty of between 9,000 and 10,000 for its more than 158,000 students. In less than two years, 50 percent of that faculty will be eligible for retirement. "It doesn't mean they will retire, but they will be eligible," says Hughey. "It shows that people have worked here a long time."

Those numbers bring some problems, however, to the district. "Of our student population, 60,000 students are Spanish speaking. About 30,000 of those students go home each evening to a family that speaks nothing but Spanish. That affects how one is going to teach reading. We have teachers in place who have taught for many years and know how to effectively deal with those situations. Our key is staff development," says Hughey. "The most important people in our district, our most major resource, is our staff. We have to provide them the kind of support they need."

To keep up with this need and to continually assess what needs to be done, the district is divided into eight geographic areas-sub-districts-each with its own district superintendent.

"Each district has a challenge to put together a plan to show where they want to be at the end of the year. This includes the entire program from discipline management, scheduling, extracurricular activities to how they will support what they are doing academically," says Hughey.

Test scores are taken and broken down into geographic area, school and, in some cases, even the classroom and teacher. These are used as a backbone when making many decisions. "This approach depends on involvement. It is going to take some time to make it all work, but we are getting there," says Hughey.

Considering safety "In the first two weeks of school, we had more than 500 windows broken and graffiti all over the place," says Ramos. "Kids establish their territory and they will mark this one and that one, and then vandalize another area to get back at each other."

Most high schools and many middle schools have metal detectors. "We keep them monitored all day long," says Brown. "The campus is closed at lunch. If they left, we would never get them back. We do have security problems. Some schools have Dallas police officers in them."

In some schools, hand-held wands are used to detect weapons. Doors are locked from the outside so that entry is only through one entrance.

The majority of the schools often are used by the community. The facility supervisor is on-hand when the facility is being used by an outside group and most areas of the school are locked down.

Alternative thinking The need for new facilities often requires alternative thinking. When overcrowding became an issue in an area with very little available land, the district became creative.

"There was no money in the bond program for a new school," says Brown. "The money was virtually borrowed from the general operating fund and is being reimbursed when the next bond program is passed. The school was designed by our internal staff and the maintenance staff. And, along with some general contractors, the school was built."

The result was Vickery Meadows Elementary School: a modular school consisting of two main buildings-one housing administrative offices, the media center and some classrooms; and the other housing common/public function areas-and several individual classroom buildings. All other classrooms are individual modular buildings, each equipped with a telephone and bathroom.

Another unique school-Skyline-features an aircraft hangar. "They teach students how to be mechanics on airplanes," says Brown. "They teach architecture there, as well as building construction and air-conditioner repair. That school has the potential for 5,000 students; it is at 4,000 right now."

A high drop-out rate is another concern for Dallas. "We are introducing a new program, designing space for students to bring them back to school," says Brown. "The basis is going to try to let students attend school anytime between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. to finish high school and receive a diploma. Hopefully, if we can provide a flexible schedule, they will stay in school."

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