Controversy over closing troubled school bus agency Dallas County Schools expanded to Dallas City Hall Wednesday with two state senators entering the fray over crossing guards.
DCS is dissolving under the terms of a November voter referendum that was prescribed by Texas lawmakers after a year of NBC 5 Investigates reports on DCS finance and management problems.
State law says crossing guards are a city responsibility, but Dallas transferred the duty to DCS in a 2012 agreement in return for city support of the DCS stop-arm camera citation program.
Now the DCS dissolution committee says the school bus agency can't afford to pay crossing guards after Jan. 31.
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"This is a mess," said City Councilman Casey Thomas. "This is an absolute mess that we didn't create."
In a briefing Wednesday, the Dallas City Council was told it could cost $1.9 million to continue the crossing guard program through this school year and another $4.4 million to pay for it next school year.
The 2012 deal with DCS was extended in 2015 by the Dallas City Council through 2040.
"We, as a city, those of us who voted for it, really should have been asking these questions about, if this program and this DCS didn't exist, what would happen?" said Councilwoman Jennifer Gates.
The city of Dallas has no money in the current budget for crossing guards. It expected to receive revenue from the scandal ridden cross-arm program that was a big money loser for DCS.
Councilman Dwaine Caraway was a strong supporter of the stop-arm camera citation program that was expected to save the city the cost of crossing guards and generate revenue.
"We can't tell where a bad apple is," Caraway said, looking back. "We got into it on a good deal, and somehow things went awry."
Council members complained that the DCS dissolution committee appointed by the Texas comptroller includes no representative from the city of Dallas.
Mayor Mike Rawlings said he would ask the comptroller to add city representation to the committee.
Rawlings, a former corporate CEO, said the DCS dissolution is like a bankruptcy where debtors get into fights.
"This is an ugly situation that we're in, but in some ways I'm glad we're starting to resolve this," Rawlings said. "There was terrible rot in this organization, OK, and so I supported the dissolution of DCS. I think it was the right thing to do, and I think we're seeing why it was the right thing to do right now."
The Dallas Independent School District is setting up its own school bus service to replace DCS in the next school year. Several council members want Dallas ISD to also accept responsibility for crossing guards.
"These people need to interface with children, and I don't think the city is set up to do that, because we're not in the business of teaching and interfacing with school age children," Councilman Rickey Callahan said.
The city of Dallas sued the DCS dissolution committee last month, seeking to avoid the cost of crossing guards.
Republican State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) ssued a statement Wednesday attacking the city for the lawsuit.
"At minimum, the city is guilty of making a bad deal, and they are arguably complicit in a corrupt bureaucracy's scheme against taxpayers and students," the statement said. "The Dallas lawsuit interferes with a smooth transition away from DCS and potentially risks interruptions to student transportation."
Democratic State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) offered to broker a solution with a special meeting this week to include city, school and state officials. West said the crossing guard money was never on the radar of state lawmakers when they crafted the plan to close DCS.
"This is not a 'D' or 'R' issue. This is about our children, and I'm pretty certain that neither he [Huffines] nor I anticipated that the school crossing guard dollars would not be there in order to fund the program," West said. "I think that if we shed our responsibility in funding a potentially $4.4 million shortfall, that we would throw our children literally under the bus."
Several council members Wednesday also inquired about a $1.50 fee available in state law that counties can charge on vehicle registration to support school crossing guards.
"I want to turn over every rock before we decide that we're going to take this on. We have enough on our plate," said Councilman Kevin Felder. "I think this is a political issue, and we need to put the pressure back on those elected officials."
The fee is not charged in Dallas County, and County Judge Clay Jenkins issued a statement in response to that that topic Wednesday night.
"DCS provides bus service to nine districts and provides crossing guards to DISD and Richardson ISD only. DCS does not provide crossing guards to any other school district," Jenkins said. "There is not support on the Commissioners Court at this time to impose a new fee on car registrations. The county remains committed to continuing to work with the DCS dissolution committee, the cities, and all our partners to ensure an effective transition from DCS to new service providers."
Assistant Dallas City Manager Jon Fortune said he is hopeful the meeting that West plans this week will result in some other solutions for City Council approval next week, to put in place before DCS crossing guard funding ends.
"We'll be going and sharpening our pencils and coming back with some proposal on how we can provide some interim stop gap for the next 90 days," Fortune said.
Councilman Lee Kleinman said he does not want to cut other city programs but also refuses to eliminate crossing guards.
"The priority is public safety, and the priority is the safety of those kids, and we will make sure that those crossings are covered," Kleinman said.
The City of Dallas had a staff of 350 crossing guards when it provided the service under supervision of the Dallas Police Department prior to 2012. Police officers would occassionally fill in for absent crossing guards.
Several City Council Members Wednesday said they do not want the city's shrinking staff of police officers to be used as crossing guards and would prefer supervision by a different city department in the future.
DCS increased crossing guard pay and benefits and increased the staff to 400 since taking over the program.