NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
DALLAS — News 8 has learned that a group of Dallas Independent School District parents and taxpayers is accusing the district of engaging in a massive financial shell game and misusing federal dollars.
The money in question is dedicated for disadvantaged students. Dallas ISD is accused of funneling it to magnet schools, pet projects, and the buildup of reserves.
A formal complaint will be filed with the U.S. Department of Education, perhaps as soon as Wednesday.
Those filing the complaint say they've uncovered an illegal, reverse-Robin Hood scheme that lets the district skim up to $70 million per year from underprivileged students and their schools.
DISD officials call the accusations "hogwash."
In a statement released by the district, superintendent Mike Miles called the claims "baseless and meritless," saying the allegations were based on "an improper analysis of limited information."
The statement said Miles believes the claim came with intentions to create a divide in the school system and in the community.
An example being used by those making the allegations is Stevens Park Elementary in West Dallas.
Like many DISD schools, it consists of mostly economically-disadvantaged students — 94 percent, in fact. As a result, Stevens Park is allocated about $1,000 per student in federal Title I dollars.
That federal money helps supplement the $2,854 spent per student, per year in state and local taxes, called "regular" classroom instruction funds.
But when a group of DISD parents and taxpayers started reviewing state records campus-by-campus, a disturbing picture began to emerge.
They compared Stevens Park with Lakewood Elementary, where only 14 percent of the students are disadvantaged. Where Stevens Park is budgeted at $2,854 per student, Lakewood Elementary is budgeted at $4,758 per student.
At Russell Elementary in southern Dallas — where 97 percent of students are considered to be economically disadvantaged — each student is budgeted to receive $2,365 per year in "regular" classroom instruction funds.
DISD watchdog Bill Betzen is among a handful of concerned citizens who has been studying the numbers and who will sign off on the official complaint being filed with the U.S. Department of Education.
"They have misallocated funds that should have gone for the children of poverty in Dallas, who need the funds, and they have used it for pet projects elsewhere," Betzen said.
He said it appears Dallas ISD administrators are using "regular" classroom instruction dollars to fund other projects and making up the difference with federal Title I funds, an alleged violation of federal law.
"The federal funds that were provided were supposed to be on top of the normal, equal allocation, to supplement those dollars," Betzen said. "They are not supplementing — they are replacing, and that's wrong."
A detailed online search of the Texas Education Agency's campus-by-campus PEIMS report of all campus finances shows not only a funding disparity between many DISD at-risk schools and most magnet schools, but also between Dallas ISD and some other school districts.
Case in point: Sunset High School. According to state records, students at Sunset were budgeted less than $3,000 per student in "regular" education dollars last year. Yet just a few miles away at Irving High School in the Irving ISD — a school with a similar size student body and demographic makeup as Sunset — the per-pupil expenditure is more than $3,800.
That's a difference of nearly $1,000 per student.
At Dallas Skyline High School, records show students are getting even less than at Sunset — $2,659 per student, per year. Students attending the School for the Talented and Gifted at Townview Center are being budgeted at $4,576 per student annually.
"What qualifies them to get more money than Skyline?" asked Ola Allen, vice president of the PTA at Skyline. She said she's disgusted at DISD administrators allegedly diverting money away from disadvantaged students.
"I'm about the whole child, but I'm also about fairness," Allen said. "It doesn't matter what zip code my child lives in... it doesn't matter the complexion of my child's skin... fair is fair."
DISD is also accused of misusing money budgeted for athletics.
For example, Townview Magnet Center was budgeted to receive more than $2 million last year for athletics. The problem is, according to critics, they don't have an athletic program at Townview.
Dallas ISD spokesman Jon Dahlander said any insinuation that there is a deliberate attempt to segregate populations is wrong.
"I would call that poppycock," Dahlander said. "I would say that is hogwash. It's absolutely not true."
DISD administrators say it's difficult to respond to a complaint that has not been filed and that they have not yet seen.
DISD Grants Manager Sequetta Marks said the district stands behind its classroom funding formula, and auditors certify each year that they are following the law.
"We could get into a lot of trouble and be forced to pay a lot of money back and be hurting a lot of students," Marks said.
But the complainants say the proof of harm is a rise in the number of low-performing schools (or Public Education Grant schools) at DISD last year, which went from 45 to 73.
Critics say the district should either put the money back where it belongs or face a lawsuit... or even federal charges of discrimination and fraud.
Curious about how much your school spends per student? Click this link to go to the Texas Education Agency's Public Education Information Management System financial reports, which are snapshots of local, state and federal money flowing to campuses at school districts across Texas.
First, scroll the list to select a school district (or charter school); click Submit, and then select a campus from the next list that appears and press Submit again.
We've highlighted where to find the base amount of classroom instruction money that the district allots to each school. The line is labeled as "Regular" on the row under the green "Program expenditures by Program" header. This section also highlights other money spent in addition to a district's "regular" share per student.