Voters to decide fate of Dallas school board’s District 9 seat in runoff vote

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Justin Henry (at left) is looking to unseat school board Trustee Bernadette Nutall (right) in a runoff vote on June 16. The two candidates survived the first round of a four-way competition in the school board election held on May 5. (Photos: David Wilfong / NDG)

By David Wilfong, NDG Contributing Writer

Early voting is already underway for the highly-contested District 9 seat on the Dallas Independent School District’s (DISD) of Trustees. The race features incumbent Bernadette Nutall trying to hold off challenger Justin Henry in a rematch of what was a four-way competition in the first round of voting.

District 9 covers a broad swath of South Dallas, beginning in the downtown area. It has five under-performing schools, includes economically-disadvantaged communities, and has a large minority population.

The challenger took the lead in the election held on May 5, garnering 47 percent of the vote, but it was short of the majority needed to clinch the election. Nutall claimed 32 percent in the first round of voting.

As she faces the uphill struggle to reverse the momentum from the earlier vote, Nutall said she is facing a well-funded machine looking to “buy” the District 9 seat. With the race going to a runoff, she says the attacks from the other side have gone south of scrupulous.

“Truth, integrity, and character have been thrown out the window,” Nutall reported to her supporters on Facebook Sunday night. “The opposition, through its access to large amounts of cash, has sent out another mailer smearing me. (They) don’t twist the truth, they outright lie. This time they said that I support a $10 million renovation of a campus then give it to a charter school.

“The truth is that DISD administration brought this to the table for discussion and when the financial details were disclosed, I promptly said that such a move didn’t make sense. Check the tape.”

Similar salvos have come from the pages of Henry’s Facebook feed. He contends South Dallas students have suffered under decisions Nutall has made in the past.

“Charter schools (like St. Anthony’s) are not the same as DISD public schools of choice,” Henry wrote on May 11, commenting on a news article regarding a proposed partnership between the school district and a charter school. “DISD already has its own successful public schools of choice. The incumbent has consistently advocated against DISD’s public schools of choice and districts of innovation. I believe in supporting and creating policies that place programs in DISD schools that increase achievement and opportunities while also attracting more students to our schools.”

Nutall is looking to extend her time on the board, having won her first three-year term in 2009. She held off repeated challenges from Damarcus Offord in 2012 and 2015. Her work with the district as a community liaison goes back to 1995; and in 1999, she co-founded Circle of Support, Inc., a comprehensive academic and enrichment summer learning program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Henry has a background in education, having started as a middle school teacher in Los Angeles. He worked on school-to-prison research as an intern for the ACLU-Texas. He currently works as a local attorney but has continued to be involved in education through several volunteer opportunities and boards. He has served on the Dallas ISD District 9 Task Force, the DISD Racial Equity Task Force, and the DISD Citizen Budget Review Commission. He is currently on the Southwest Region Advisory Committee for the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

Recent controversial decisions regarding tax options for improvements are a big part of the conflict for the District 9 seat. Nutall opposed a potential voter-implemented tax hike. The proposed increase would have risked putting the district into “recapture,” where local funds generated would have been claimed by the state. She says over the next five years the district would lose more than $1 billion to the state under that proposal. She did support lesser “tax swaps” as an alternative measure to gain much-needed funds.

Henry has stated support for putting the Tax Ratification Election (TRE) before the voters. He acknowledges the recapture issue but says it is a necessary part of the public education process to carry out a TRE election successfully. Henry believes Dallas voters must understand the state is not going to come in and financially rescue the district, and there is no guarantee the ability to opt into a TRE election will continue.

The Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI) is another point of contention between the two candidates. In an earlier forum, Nutall said it is one of the negative impacts the district is now reaping because of past administrations. For his part, Henry is confident on the overall effect of the program.

The two candidates also split over whether or not the 2015 bond was a good deal for the district. Henry acknowledges it was less than what the district needed, but supported the move. Nutall said she opposed it, and added the district did not keep its word with voters regarding plans to spend the monies. She felt the budget featured the “pet projects” for specific trustee’s districts.

In a contentious and hard-fought race, the decision ultimately made by District 9 voters who take the time to show up for the second round of voting could ultimately have long-lasting effects on the Dallas ISD.

Early voting for the runoff began on Monday and continues through June 12. Election Day is on June 16.