A bill that would shut down Dallas County Schools passed the Texas Senate after a very unusual exchange Thursday in Austin.
The financially strapped school bus agency has been restructuring debt amid questions into a $42 million budget gap and runaway spending on a school bus stop-arm camera program that cost the agency millions of dollars.
State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) authored the bill, and earlier this week he agreed to add an amendment from State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) who believes shutting down the agency should be left up to Dallas County voters.
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The two agreed to put the shutdown question on the ballot, and they sat side-by-side for an interview Tuesday on NBC 5.
But when the bill came up for debate Thursday on the Senate floor, Huffines was no longer going to accept the amendment.
"There are a lot of complications that arise when you were changing a bill that we worked on for over a year. There are unintended consequences to the timing of the legislation and the amendment, so we decided it would be best to not except the amendment," Huffines said.
West said he found out just 30 minutes before, and there was heated debate on the floor. After about 10 minutes, the men went up to the front, and the bill was tabled.
Four hours later, they returned to the floor, and Huffines apologized. West accepted the apology, and they added the amendment. The bill then passed.
"I wanted the bill, after further reflection, to leave the body with the unanimous vote, and that's what we got," Huffines said.
"Have there been issues with the Dallas County public school system? Yes. Are some of the things that Huffines is talking about true? Yes. Some of the things he represented weren't true, also. But the fact of the matter is that if we're going to continue or abolish the Dallas County school system, then I think it should be done by a vote of the people in Dallas County," West said.
Both men said there are no hard feelings.
"I'm passionate about it. I'm passionate of protecting our students. I'm passionate of what's best for the school districts in Dallas County. And I'm really passionate about protecting the taxpayers. So maybe the passion came through a little too strong, and Sen. West had his position and he was passionate about that also,” added Huffines.
"Sometimes people get on, how should I say, on the edge, and the cool-off period is necessary in order for cooler minds to prevail to address significant public policy issues. And this is a significant public policy issue," West said.
He added, "It's just like playing in football or basketball. You're going to the next deal. Huffines and I are going to have to worry about a whole host of issues. We're going to be working on the (Dallas Police and Fire) pension issue now, because that pension bill is coming over to the Senate."
NBC 5 reached out to Dallas County Schools about this vote. Leatha Mullins, the agency's interim superintendent, released a statement, saying, "We are not surprised by this vote, but it's only half the battle. House members are beginning to learn the truth about these issues and (the Dallas Independent School District's) plan to literally throw DCS under the bus. The district wants to grab millions of dollars in equipment, buildings and buses that now belong to all citizens of Dallas County, and since the district has its own financial issues and investigations, DISD wants all of this free and clear."
And in a statement Thursday evening, Dallas ISD said:
"Dallas ISD has no objection to the Senate Bill unanimously voted on to let voters decide whether to abolish Dallas County Schools. We thank our two Senators for working together on this amendment and thank the Senate for their vote. The district is looking forward to learning the outcome of this proposed legislation."