Charter school wins exemption for Deep Ellum campus




Posted on February 22, 2012 at 6:15 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 22 at 7:18 PM

DALLAS — Two hurdles were cleared Wednesday that were causing controversy regarding Uplift Education's effort to open a charter school in the entertainment area of Deep Ellum and to expand elsewhere in Dallas.

The Dallas City Council voted to lift the ordinance that keeps bars and schools 300 feet apart — much to the relief of bars and restaurants in Deep Ellum.

The council also approved a plan for Uplift to sell low-interest, tax-exempt bonds to help with construction costs.

But what was intended to be a simple vote turned into a broad debate on charter schools, and whether they hurt public schools.

Uplift already runs 13 charter schools in Dallas financed by state and private money. It plans to expand and finance some of its growth with $15 million in federal stimulus bonds, saving $300,000 a year in interest. Uplift said the savings would help pay the 350 teachers.

"Uplift intends to use 100 percent of the savings from these lower interest rate bonds to give our teachers a pay raise for the 2012-13 school year," Uplift CEO Yasmin Bhatia promised the Council.

The city bears no financial risk or cost in granting permission; the City Council must simply approve.

But some Council members, like Carolyn Davis, viewed the vote as undermining general attendance schools in the Dallas ISD.

"What are we going to do to support our public schools that I pay every year? I pay taxes to my public schools," she said.

Whereas public schools must accept all students, charter schools can be selective. Uplift relies on a lottery and has a waiting list of 6,000 applicants.

Council member Vonciel Jones Hill also opposed the Uplift request, saying it "allows the brightest and best minds to be drained from DISD."

But other Council members, including Ann Margolin, said the city doesn't need to wade into a philosophical debate about education.

"I do not believe that this is a statement about DISD," she said. "This is simply a funding mechanism that is available to charter schools."

Council member Dwaine Caraway said the city should at least help make available other educational opportunities. "The weight of the city should go behind the children and educating our future," he said.

In the end, the Council approved Uplift's bond status, 11-4. But the friction between backers of public schools and charters will go on.