The Trustee seat for District 2 of the Dallas ISD was an open seat in both 2016 and 2017, or so we thought. The seat was vacated early in 2016 and a special election was held that year to fill it, and by a 42 vote margin Dustin Marshall won in a run-off. Less than a year later, in 2017, the regular election was held. I contested Dustin Marshall in that election; and as I tallied my campaign finance reports I became curious as to how much money my opponent, who ended up winning our run-off election, had raised.
Who is electing DISD Trustees and what are their motivations?
What I discovered is staggering and I think begs these questions. From January 2016 to July 2017, Dustin Marshall received financial contributions totaling an unprecedented $512,085.20. Keep in mind, this is a local school board race and this District 2 seat in both 2011 and 2014 was uncontested. In fact, in 2011 the entire school board election was cancelled by the district, for all three board seats, because no one filed to run against the incumbents. In 2009, the campaign contributions for the winning candidate in District 9 totaled $2,718 and in 2010 for District 4 the winner raised $18,950. In 2013, KERA asked the question, “What’s behind the big donations to Dallas school board candidates?” The reporter went on to say, “School board elections rarely attract much attention. That means wealthy donors and political action committees (PACs) can sway outcomes.” (See the 2013 article here).
Nineteen donors plus Dallas Kids First (DKF) gave Dustin Marshall $163,107.18 Why are these folks giving so substantially to influence the DISD Board of Trustees election outcomes? What do they hope to gain?. DKF is a political action committee founded in part by Ken Barth and Daniel Muzquiz and the PAC was the largest single contributor to Mr. Marshall in 2017 at $57,307.18. The same 19 donors plus one gave DKF $411,092.01 in this 18 month period. Only one of these donors has sent their children to a DISD public school that we know of. The DKF website notes the organization is dedicated to finding, supporting and electing school board members. A review of DKF’s filings with the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) can be reviewed on the TEC website. DKF has clearly tapped into the corporate education privatization (aka monetization) movement, including associations with Texas Aspires, the Charter Growth Fund, multiple private and charter school supporters and investors. Eight of these donors do not live in the DISD district and of the six who live in District 2 and have children none appear to have sent them to DISD schools. It’s worth noting, Stacy Schusterman lives in Oklahoma, is the Co-Chair of the Charter Growth Fund and contributed a total of $45,000. Many voters do not even realize that DKF is a PAC with political intentions, and the fact that their website is a .org is likely misleading voters. Each district is supposed to be electing a trustee representative of its community, in other words there are no at-large seats. As big money finds its way into the public education pie, it becomes increasingly difficult for the average community member to participate in local government, to step up and serve for the best interests of their community.
You might remember from my campaign that Texas Aspires is an organization which lobbies for increased public funding for charter schools, is a staunch defender of STAAR testing and advocates for anti-teacher policies in Austin. Donors associated with Texas Aspires’ Advocacy Board are highlighted in yellow on the donor links. Texas Aspires Advocacy Board members donated $93,700 in individual contributions to Mr. Marshall. Of the 56 listed Advocacy Board members for Texas Aspires who reside in Dallas, 32 of them gave to Dustin Marshall, including Mayor Rawlings – not surprising given how TEA Commissioner Morath (then DISD D2 Trustee) and he wanted to turn DISD into one big charter school with the Home Rule Charter Initiative of 2014. Texas Aspires was formerly Texans for Education Reform until August 2016 when they filed a name change. Dustin Marshall’s name was also, at one time, listed on the Texas Aspires website as being a member of their Advocacy Board.
EducateDallas, the Dallas Regional Chamber’s (DRC) PAC, 11 donors and two additional PACs gave Dustin Marshall $64,400. These same donors and the DRC gave EducateDallas $64,138 during this 2016-2017 time period. Though smaller dollar amounts, EducateDallas and DKF PACs appear to have the same agenda and the same model of funneling sizeable donations from a limited number of people through different channels. EducateDallas is described on its website as a community PAC for Dallas ISD Trustee races. The board includes Terry Conner, Mark Melton, Dale Petrosky (University Park resident), Charles Glover and Jack Lowe. What are the ethical considerations regarding Mr. Lowe in that he is not only Mr. Marshall’s campaign treasurer but the current chair of the DISD 2015 Bond Advisory Committee? Both Mr. Conner and Melton are on the Advocacy Board of Texas Aspires as are four of Educate Dallas’ top 11 donors: Don Glendenning, Ray Hunt, Clint McDonnough and Erle Nye. Of the 11 donors, four currently live in District 2 and none with children in Dallas ISD.
Here are key contribution totals by associations, click each to view the lists:
Texas Aspires 93,700.00
At the August special session for DISD Trustees, Mr. Marshall voted for a Tax Ratification Election to allow voters to decide whether to raise property taxes for what he said were much needed funds for Dallas ISD. He said the money was necessary to support the very schools that have been drained by the charter schools he helped to create. Mr. Marshall is a private school graduate and sends his own children to private school. His experience in education is as a prior board member of Uplift Charter School and Texas Aspires Advocacy, and a past elite donor to Dallas Kids First (view here). In fact, Marshall was on the Uplift Board of Directors when they voted to build Uplift schools in the Dallas ISD boundaries, which have contributed to the enrollment decline and subsequent financial burden on Dallas ISD. How independent and objective can he be for the parents and students of Dallas ISD based on all of these relationships? (More on Marshall's TRE vote here.)
Understanding who is giving money to DISD’s trustees is important because, after the election is over, we need to know who will have access and influence with our trustees over the coming years. Are these individuals and groups concerned about the students of Dallas ISD or is there another agenda at play here? Once you answer that question for yourself, the next question is, is it time for a cap on financial contributions to Dallas ISD school board campaigns?
High-stakes test-based corporate education reform is a small world after all.