Tuesday was Election Day in Dallas, and one of the most contentious issues citywide involved an ostensibly boring topic: school bonds. Things got particularly heated in the wealthy enclave of Highland Park, where the vote over a $361 million bond has provoked a big debate over the future of Dallas. It wasn’t just about the enormous price tag on the bond package, which supporters said was necessary to raze and rebuild three of the 7,000-student district’s elementary schools, renovate a fourth, and buy land to add a fifth elementary school to the at-capacity district, as well as renovating the schools for the upper grades.
At the moment, Highland Park’s popular schools are perilously overcrowded, with many classes in the district exceeding the state limit for number of students per class. The new construction, in addition to adding more classrooms, would preserve much-needed green space and bring more parking to the landlocked schools, as well as update their technological infrastructure. (Two of the elementary schools were built in the 1920s, another in 1949. The fourth was built in 1914 and reopened in 1951. So—a long time ago.)
The bond passed by 10 points—55 to 45 percent, a difference of about 800 votes. But a dark specter loomed over the run-up to the vote, and what appeared to be these totally reasonable expansion proposals.
According to anonymous emails that circulated in advance of the election, if the bond passed and the schools increased in size, Section 8 housing could spring up in the sliver of Dallas that’s part of the Highland Park Independent School District. And if that happens (spoiler alert: it won’t), who even knows what type of riffraff will crawl into the high-performing, affluent, and overwhelmingly white, schools: “non-English-speaking” students from all over Latin America, Middle Eastern refugees, assorted other low-income scum. As one of the emails put it, “Diversity is an innocuous sounding method of diluting excellence.”
“What has captured people’s attention is that the Highland Park School District overlays Highland Park,” Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, told me, “but it extends just a little bit into Dallas, so the scare tactic is that in that little bit of Dallas, there will be low-income apartments with all kinds of people we don’t know, including potentially Syrian jihadis, people crawling out of Mexico across the border all the way to Dallas with their automatic weapons slung over their shoulders, going into those apartments and sending their kids into these schools. This is ludicrous on its face, but in a campaign it raises all sorts of concerns about the dilution of the Highland Park School District.”
To understand the context of this bond election requires some background on Highland Park and University Park (where SMU and the George W. Bush Library are located), the two adjacent minicities within Dallas that are collectively known as the Park Cities. The Park Cities are two things above all else: rich and white. Really, really white: As of the last census, Highland Park, the more exclusive of the Park Cities, was 94 percent white and .5 percent black. The city surrounding it, meanwhile, is 42 percent Hispanic and 25 percent black. As for Highland Park, well, it welcomed its first black homeowner in 2003. (It is worth clicking on this link just for the incredible lede from one local article marking the milestone: “Guess who’s coming to dinner … and staying for a while?”)
Illustrious residents of Highland Park, where the average home sale in 2013 was $1.65 million, include Ross Perot Jr., Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, real estate developer Harlan Crow (a prominent Marco Rubio supporter who owns two original paintings by Adolf Hitler and a signed copy of Mein Kampf), and Gold’s Gym and Omni Hotels founder Robert Rowling, another heavy-hitting Republican donor. These last two residents are not outliers in this extremely Republican area. From a Mother Jones piece on the inner-city garden suburb:
Among the two-dozen zip codes that donated the most money to candidates and political parties [in 2010], 75205 [Highland Park] gave the highest share—77 percent—to Republicans. … It also gave Republicans more hard cash, $2.4 million, than all but four other zips nationwide.
The Park Cities are superattractive to the super-rich because, while wealthy and elitist, they’re not suburbs in the traditional sense. They’re smack in the middle of the city, just three miles north of downtown Dallas (and for any non-Texans out there, that’s nothing), surrounded on all four sides by the big, dirty, diverse city.
“If you look at a map of Dallas, the Park Cities are cut right out of the middle,” Jillson, the SMU professor, told me. They were part of Dallas’ “first wave of suburbanization, a move out away from the center of the city with all of its diverse population, to provide a near-in exclusive bigger-lot kind of platting for the elite.”
“Highland Park is kind of like a castle with a moat,” said Michael Phillips, the author of White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841–2001. “The Park Cities were where the wealthiest of Dallas retreated in the beginning of the 20th century, when you saw the first actual immigration in Dallas. It wasn’t at all comparable to what you have in the Northeast, but for the first time you begin to have a noticeable Jewish population, Italian residents, Eastern Europeans. This was 20 years before the Ku Klux Klan took over the city, and all that nativist anxiety was just beginning to brew when Highland Park was founded” in 1907.
Another big attraction of the Park Cities has always been its separate-but-superior school district, which is 85 percent white, 6 percent Asian, 4 percent Hispanic, 2 percent multirace, and 3 percent other and consists of four (possibly soon-to-be five) elementary schools, one intermediate school, one middle school, and one high school. Highland Park High School has an estimable 99 percent graduation rate. And, not coincidentally, while 130,780 out of the 159,487 students in Dallas Independent School District qualified as economically disadvantaged in the 2013–14 school year, zero of the 7,012 students in HPISD did.
But, as Countess LuAnn de Lesseps is fond of singing, “Money Can’t Buy You Class.”
In 2005, Highland Park High School was written up the Dallas Morning News for a storied dress-up tradition known as “Thug Day”:
Students … dressed as gang members, rap stars, maids and yard workers this month during homecoming week—a tradition one Dallas civil-rights leader says is racially insensitive.
On senior Thug Day, students wore Afro wigs, fake gold teeth and baggy jeans. On Fiesta Day, which was to honor Hispanic heritage, one student brought a leaf blower to school.
Highland Park students are still making headlines for racist antics; the lead singer in the shocking University of Oklahoma fraternity chant that provoked worldwide outrage earlier this year was a graduate of Highland Park High School.
But if Highland Park largely remains, according to White Metropolis, "a refuge from an increasingly diverse city," the Dallas that surrounds the Park Cities on all four sides is changing at a dizzying pace. The Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. Between 2000 and 2010, the Asian population of the metroplex and near-in suburbs more than doubled; it’s no accident of history that Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for his clock-bomb in Irving, about a 20-minute drive from central Dallas.
All these demographic drifts came to the forefront of the vote over school-improvement costs.
The anti-bond emails did a fine job of ratcheting up fears of the certain apocalypse that would follow the bond’s passage: “Most people think the bond is just about building new schools but there is MUCH more to it, including section 8 housing” [emphasis theirs]. What follows is a complicated scheme in which the already overcrowded schools of HPISD become bigger, poorer, and—scariest of all—darker. And you’ll never guess who is ultimately engineering this takeover: Barack Obama himself! “The Obama administration is determined to move low-income families into affluent cities and suburbs at virtually any cost,” reads one email.
Foundations for the Future, the pro-bond political action committee—yes, a PAC for a school-bond election—debunked these claims not with ridicule but with the logic of the market.
Affordable housing is typically built where land costs between $10-20 per square foot. In HPISD, land costs more than $100 per square foot. No government subsidies can make it profitable to pay the high land costs notable in HPISD, construct housing, and then rent to low-income tenants. There are no Section 8 apartments in Texas on land that costs even a quarter of what the North Park Gardens is worth.
So don’t fear jihadis taking over our elementary schools; it’s economic forces that will keep our kids safe!
Despite the scare tactics, the bond was always likely to pass because, as Phillips put it, “The people in Highland Park tend to be very pragmatic, and they want the best schools for their kids. The behavior of their kids in these schools may show a lack of sophistication in some ways, but everyone there is very commercially oriented, very bottom line-oriented.”
Jillson at SMU agreed. Texas historically underfunds its public schools—“they were 49th in the nation in per-capita student funding in 2012, and while it’s kicked up a little bit to 38th, that’s sort of its natural position,” just a hair above the Deep South—and the parents of HPISD knew that the district needed the money: “The wealthier the district, the more likely you are to be sure your schools have everything, and a bond is an opportunity to do that without having your excess funds creamed off for other districts.”