Martha Deller Special to the Business Press
Fort Worth school Superintendent Walter Dansby took the soft sell approach, captivating several hundred business leaders with glowing descriptions of dozens of new programs sparking student achievement and sprinkling in pressing physical needs to continue those improvements. Dansby left it to Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce officials and Mayor Betsy Price to make the hard-sell pitch for more money to help get out the vote beginning Oct. 21, for the school district’s three-proposition $489.9 million bond issue. Early voting continues through Nov. 1, and ends with the Nov. 5 general election.
Chamber board chair Susan Halsey thanked chamber members during the Oct. 17 annual State of Education report for donating about $60,000 so far to Citizens Supporting Classroom Excellence, the chamber’s Political Action Committee, to support the school bond issue. “But we need more,” said Halsey, noting that the chamber spent more than $100,000 to help the district pass a $593 million bond issue with 71 percent of the vote in 2007.
“We have in this room the capacity to raise $50,000 or $60,000 more by next Tuesday,” she said. “I’m asking you to take these envelopes back to your office and send them back with cash – from $100 for individuals to $10,000 or $15,000 for large corporations. “Every dollar raised will go toward something of value.” Price was even blunter when she stepped in to deliver a message from the absent Chamber President Bill Thornton. “Bill told me to tell ‘all you knuckleheads’ to fill up those envelopes,” she said. “The backbone of this community is quality education. I’m a product of Fort Worth ISD. My children are products of Fort worth ISD. If we want to continue this rich tradition, you need to help the chamber with this bond issue.” Dansby, a Dunbar High School graduate who has been a teacher-coach, principal and administrator during his 39-year Fort Worth career, proudly reported on his district’s progress since he made his last State of Education address a year ago. Not only did all Fort Worth schools meet or exceed the state standards on the new accountability system, Dansby said; 42 campuses fell into the distinguished category on at least one of the four indicators – student achievement, student progress, closing performance gaps and postsecondary readiness.
To address the achievement gap between demographic groups that exists in most large urban districts including Fort Worth, Dansby said officials did a curriculum audit to address gaps in student progress at all grade levels as well as programs for English language learners and special education. And the district involved 181 students, parents, teachers, representatives of business, churches, higher education, government and other community members in creating a five-year strategic plan for the district, he said. But Dansby was most enthusiastic about the district’s two-year-old Gold Seal Schools of Choice and Programs of Choice. Last year, the district opened up the Young Men’s Leadership Academy. Its success is already showing, he said. “You can feel it when you walk in the door and the boys look you in the eye and shake your hand,” Dansby said. The district has recently purchased a building in the downtown area, which will be renovated for the Young Women’s Leadership Academy with savings from the 2007 bond issue, he said.
Dansby also praised the Early College High School programs at the Texas Academy of Biomedical Sciences and Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School, where students are able to earn up to two years of college credit for free tuition. Students will have new Gold Seal programs next year at Handley Middle School, which will offer environmental science and technology; the World Languages Institute, the first secondary school for Spanish immersion and dual language enrichment; and Dunbar High School, an urban development program in conjunction with the University of Texas at Arlington. With all the new programs for older children, however, Dansby said offering quality education for the youngest children is critical to closing the demographic performance gaps and improving academic achievement for all students.
That’s why building 82 new prekindergarten classrooms to serve children throughout the district is included in the $386.55 million Proposition 1, along with two new elementary schools, a high school in conversion in Benbrook and other school renovations. “The strongest part is prekindergarten district wide,” Dansby said. “The last five years, the district has had about 7,000 children in need of prekindergarten and we’ve only had 4,000 spots for them. That means 3,000 children have been unserved. “We need to look at the needs of every child is we’re going to address the achievement gap.” Equally important, he said, are the technology upgrades in Proposition 1, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Academy and Performing and Fine Arts Academy in the $73.3 million Proposition 2 and the $30 million for buses and other equipment in Proposition 3. Chamber officials say they are pushing passage of all three propositions because they believe that the district has chosen the most critical needs and that the small tax increase to homeowners is worth the benefits to the community. Halsey noted that the owner of a $115,000 home – the district average – would pay only $30 more per year in taxes to cover the cost of the new bond payments.
“If we want to continue to be a magnet for excellence when we’re recruiting new companies, we want to keep producing skilled and talented workers,” she said. Chamber treasurer Mark Nurdin, who also is treasurer of the Chamber PAC, said he understands concerns expressed by bond opponents about higher debt, especially in light of the recent federal debt controversy. “I can understand the sensitivity to the added debt,” Nurdin said. “But you have to ask how to use money wisely. I can’t see a better way to invest in the community. It’s the right thing to do.”