The city of Dallas is now tasked with cleaning up what City Council member Casey Thomas called "an absolute mess that we didn’t create": figuring out who will take over operations of the school crossing guard program that Dallas County Schools plans on abandoning at month’s end. And as the council discovered Wednesday, it won’t be easy picking up the pieces.
"We are grasping for solutions," Jon Fortune, the assistant city manager for public safety, told the council. "We don’t have a lot of answers."
Dallas doesn’t have the money to operate the program — $2 million just to get to the end of the school year, and $5 million every year going forward. The city also doesn’t have the personnel to either vet the 400 crossing guards employed by DCS or staff a new program.
Wednesday’s briefing came amid an ongoing legal battle between the city and DCS scheduled to resume in court next week. The city wants DCS to continue operating the crossing guard program until the end of the year. City attorneys are also demanding DCS hand over money sitting in an escrow account designated for the program.
Alan King, a former DISD chief of staff now heading DCS’s dissolution committee, told The News the agency has about $300,000 it will turn over when lawyers say it’s OK. But city officials say that amount is still "to be determined," and that they’re awaiting further responses from the bus agency.
"Look, this is an ugly situation we’re in," Mayor Mike Rawlings said Wednesday. "But in some ways I am very glad we’re starting to resolve this. There was terrible rot in this organization so I supported the dissolution of DCS."
DCS is being dissolved amid allegations of bribes and kickbacks. The committee tasked with DCS’s dissolution said last month it doesn’t have enough money to both keep the buses running through the end of the school year and oversee the crossing guard program.
That committee, which includes Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, wants Dallas to take over the crossing guard program, which the city ran until 2012. Six years ago, the city spent half of what DCS says it costs to run the program today.
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State law says cities with populations of more than 850,000 are responsible for providing school crossing guards. But that same chapter of the local government code says cities "may contract with one or more school districts to provide school crossing guards."
DISD officials have said they want to take control of DCS’s busing operations, but not its crossing guard program.
The biggest reason no one wants this particular hot potato is because there’s no money for it.
When this photo was taken in 2011, outside Hector P. Garcia Middle School in Dallas, then-83-year-old school crossing guard Oneal Davis was an employee of the city of Dallas. A year later, Dallas County Schools took over the program.
State law says counties may collect $1.50 from each county vehicle registration for what’s called a Child Safety Trust Fund, of which crossing guard programs are one component.
Harris and Bexar counties pocket that $1.50, but Dallas County doesn’t, which is one reason the city says it can’t afford the program. North Dallas council member Lee Kleinman said the council should tell the county commissioners to begin collecting that money immediately.
"There should be some way they contribute for the sake of the children," council member Tennell Atkins said. "They should do it."
But even if the county does reverse course, it likely wouldn’t happen until February 2019, said Kim Tolbert, chief of staff to city manager T.C. Broadnax.
"And even with that additional potential source," she told the council, "we’d be looking at a $2-million gap."
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins wasn’t immediately available for comment Wednesday.
Rawlings said state Sen. Royce West, whose law firm has made millions representing the DISD,is planning a sit-down with representatives from City Hall, the school district, the county and DSC to find a way forward.
Tolbert said city officials were looking at taking over the crossing guards for 90 days, maximum, so all parties could work on a "more feasible solution down the road." North Oak Cliff’s Scott Griggs said he would support that short-term solution.
In 2012, DCS and the city signed two interlocal agreements that, in part, used fines collected from the so-called stop-arm camera program to pay for crossing guards. That’s the same program that led to Dallas County Schools’ downfall amid an FBI investigation and, last week, a federal indictment.
The city, so far, has had no say in DCS’ dissolution, as no city representative sits on the committee that state comptroller Glenn Hegar assembled to wind down the bus agency. Rawlings said he has requested a meeting with Hegar to remedy what several council members deem an unfair and unfortunate situation given the demands now being placed upon the city.
Said White Rock Lake’s council member Mark Clayton, "We’re gonna get hosed on this deal."