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May 1st, 2013:

Water, water, not so fast

So much for that.

A major bill on the top of Gov. Rick Perry’s priority list that would authorize spending billions of dollars on state water projects faltered in the Texas House on Monday night after a contentious debate over where to pull the money from.

“My understanding is it’s doorknob dead,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, said after debate on the measure, which was backed by Speaker Joe Straus, was halted over a legislative technicality.


Ritter’s bill, House Bill 11, would have taken $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund — a multi-billion dollar reserve of mostly oil and gas taxes — and spent it on water-supply projects, in an effort to help the state withstand future droughts.

Another Ritter bill the House passed earlier this month, House Bill 4, would create a special fund to administer the money.

But HB 11’s backers faced an uphill battle to get enough votes, because drawing from the Rainy Day Fund requires a higher bar — 100 votes rather than the usual 76 votes — to pass.

Democrats’ objections were grounded in the argument that if the Rainy Day Fund gets used for water, it should also be raided for other purposes like public education. Some far-right conservatives, meanwhile, worried about drawing at all from the Rainy Day Fund, which they say should be reserved for emergencies.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, ultimately avoided a vote on HB 11 by raising a point of order, a legislative term for a procedural problem with the bill. Ritter said the bill in its current form is now dead; Perry has previously threatened to call a special session if lawmakers cannot find a way to fund water projects.

If lawmakers do not provide the funding, “I think we’re back in special session, but that’s above my paygrade,” Ritter said.

The Senate, meanwhile, has already passed a measure to move $5.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund into public education and water and transportation projects.

The House had previously passed a bill to create the fund, which the Senate has now also passed, but this was the bill to actually put money in the fund. The Senate also voted to tap the Rainy Day Fund for this and other purposes, but the House was the heavier lift. Bipartisan support was required, which meant as Burka noted that the House Democrats had leverage. He thinks they overplayed their hand, but the reason their support was so badly needed was because of ideological fractures on the GOP side.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank with close ties to several of the state’s political leaders including Perry, announced Sunday it was opposed to the bill.

“The 83rd Texas Legislature has on hand more than $8 billion in new general revenue to pay for increased spending in areas like Medicaid, roads, water and education,” foundation president Brooke Rollins said. “But instead of setting priorities to make the new spending fit within available revenue, the Legislature appears ready to spend far more than this.”

In an unusual disagreement with the group, Perry made the case for a big one-time withdrawal from the Rainy Day Fund for water projects in his op-ed. The governor, who considers himself a fiscal conservative, has made economic development his signature issue. And if water gets tight, he said businesses relocations to Texas would dry up.

“The good news is that current economic conditions and available balances in the Rainy Day Fund provide a unique opportunity for the state to partner with communities by offering financing to develop and implement new water supplies,” Perry wrote in support of a one-time transfer of $2 billion from the fund.

Asked about the split among conservatives, Rich Parsons, the governor’s spokesman, said: “We have infrastructure needs in the state that need to be met.” He added: “I think Texans recognize the need for action and expect state leaders to take action, and that’s precisely what the governor is doing.”

Hammond, of the Texas Association of Business, said Monday in support of HB 11: “I think the business community is pretty much united. … It’s necessary [because] unless we do something more than what we’re doing now, in 50 years demand will be up by about 22 percent and supply will be down by about 10 percent. That’s a disaster.”

“It’s already being used against us,” Hammond said, “that Texas is in a drought and they’re not doing anything about it.”

When Rick Perry and Bill Hammond are on the pragmatic, get-stuff-done side, you know how far off into the weeds the enforcers of “conservative” purity have gone. They opposed using the Rainy Day Fund because they oppose spending money – the purpose for the spending and the need it addresses don’t matter. Too many Republican legislators in the thrall of these hegemons, and this is the result.

So now what happens?

Even with the collapse of Ritter’s bill, there are other options. The Senate, which would rather put the politically difficult question before voters, has approved a resolution calling for constitutional amendments that would make available nearly $6 billion from the rainy day fund for transportation and water projects, as well as education.

Another possibility may be House Bill 19 by Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo. The bill would draw $3.7 billion from the rainy day fund for water and transportation projects.

“This issue is too important to leave its fate uncertain,” Perry said after the demise of HB 11. “I will work with lawmakers to ensure we address this need in a fiscally responsible manner.”

A special session is a possibility, since Perry has identified the water infrastructure fund as one of his top priorities. Also possible is the for the House budget negotiators to rip up everything they’ve done so far and appropriate the money from general revenue, which is what the slash-and-burn crowd is advocating. That would of course means however much money would then need to be taken away from everything else in the budget, which I don’t think the Senate will go along with. Some other bill may come to the rescue – where there’s a sufficiently broad caption, there’s a way. I think this is more likely to be a temporary setback than a “doornail dead” situation, but we’ll see. PDiddie, EoW, the Observer, and the TSTA have more.

The emotional Dome decision

Nobody really wants to tear the Astrodome down. That in a nutshell is why the process to determine what to do with it has taken so long even though there aren’t any viable alternatives to demolition at this time.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

A failure to come up with a feasible plan with the financing to make it happen could force county officials to confront a decidedly less popular option: demolition. And that reality is emotional, rooted in the deep nostalgia for a structure hailed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” when it opened in 1965.

“If there were not the great sentimental attachment that we as a people have to this Dome, this discussion would have been over with years ago, period,” said Precinct 4 County Commissioner Jack Cagle. “The reason is why it’s still there is because of the love and the memories.”


Commissioner El Franco Lee, whose Precinct 1 is home to the Reliant, said in an interview last month he is “very” reluctant to tear down the 48-year-old stadium, which housed the Oilers and the Astros, as well as Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo events and Hurricane Katrina evacuees, before the city deemed it unfit for occupancy in 2009.

“I’m one of those hesitant ones,” Lee said. “The easiest thing to do is to tear it down.”

Lee disputes that it definitely would be the cheapest option, though, because of the debt still owed on the Dome. According to the county budget office, that amount is now less than $9 million; payments are made with hotel occupancy taxes rather than property tax revenues.

On Tuesday, Lee threw his support behind a group that said it is planning to raise as much as $500,000 to pressure wash the Dome in an effort to deter demolition.

“It’s less likely to happen if we spruce up the building,” Chris Alexander, project director of Astrodome Tomorrow, told Commissioners Court.

Here’s Astrodome Tomorrow, and here’s their master plan:

The ASTRODOME*TOMORROW Master Plan integrates an ambient, immersive orbital experience inside the Astrodome, solar panels on the roof, a surrounding 90-acre rooftop green park above parking, a new arena, and a monorail linking all the amenities to off-site parking.

We propose to create a beautiful, green, safe destination attraction and park where civic culture and enterprise will thrive. The dome we envision will offer a variety of tenant spaces, including museum, institute, office, studio, retail, restaurant, and entertainment opportunities.

Taken together, the redesign is intended to serve its surrounding neighborhood, the larger Houston area and tourists from around the world. It envisions collaborative contribution from segments of the entertainment industry, NASA and private space launch companies, the green/sustainable urban design community, and the urban garden movement. It is intended for night and day use, and it emphasizes fitness and active recreation.

I have no idea how feasible any of that is, but here’s their Facebook page if you like the sound of it. Personally, I’m a bit concerned about how much water would be needed to pressure wash the Dome, given that we’re still in drought conditions. But I suppose that if we are going to do something other than knock it down, sprucing up the look of the place is where to begin.

Back to the Chron:

County Judge Ed Emmett last week said other options need to be explored before resorting to demolition, noting that most people he asks want to find a way to save the aging facility. He said he hopes to have town hall meetings so the public can weigh in on the issue.

“It is an option, but at this point I think we need to explore what are the options for keeping it so that it’s usable,” Emmett said, noting that he thinks the public would support a good reuse proposal and would “like to keep the icon that is the Dome.”

Edgardo Colon, chairman of the Sports Corporation board of directors, said the board would recommend demolition only if “the alternative we propose is turned down or if we don’t find any alternative at all.”


Precinct 3 County Commissioner Steve Radack, who said he sees the fate of the Dome as a financial rather than emotional issue, has asked the county’s Public Infrastructure Department to look into the feasibility of creating a lake, or large detention pond, if the dome is demolished. Radack said it could solve flooding problems in the area, including the Medical Center, and eliminate the county’s obligation to pay the city of Houston’s drainage fees, as well as, perhaps, provide an incentive for the city to pitch in on demolition costs.

“It could serve as an oasis in the middle of a massive concrete asphalt area,” Radack said. The idea would be “an important thing to study if the Dome goes down.”

This is not the first time Commissioner Radack has proposed building a lake, though this is a more urban location than before. As we know, the HCSCC has approved a resolution calling for Commissioners Court to approve a demolition plan if they can’t come up with something else. Clearly, there’s no shortage of ideas for what to do, it’s just a matter of coming up with a way to pay for them, preferably with private dollars. The question is what will evoke the stronger feelings – tearing it down, or finding public money to do something else with it if no private plan is deemed viable.

North Forest still fighting as the deadlines approach

Never give up, never surrender.

North Forest ISD has spent more than $595,000 appealing the state’s order to shut down, newly obtained records show, and the school district is continuing the court fight as its July closure date nears.

Despite the district’s ongoing appeal before an Austin court, the Texas Education Agency has ordered North Forest officials to start making serious plans to close – including taking action by May 1 to terminate the contracts of all employees for next school year.

The TEA’s appointee to oversee the closure, Doris Delaney, wrote a letter to North Forest ISD leaders this month ordering them to turn over personnel records to HISD – though they can withhold teachers’ job evaluations. She also instructed Superintendent Edna Forte to back up the district’s electronic files and took away the school board’s authority over spending.

“Effective immediately,” Delaney wrote in the April 13 letter, “the Board of Trustees and the superintendent are directed to obtain the consent of the conservator before making or approving any agreement, contract, purchase or payment.”

Delaney, given authority by TEA Commissioner Michael Williams, also told North Forest to grant HISD officials access to inspect the district’s campuses and buses.

[Superintendent Terry] Grier and several dozen HISD employees walked through the nine North Forest schools two weekends ago. He said the newer schools were in good shape but several need maintenance work. He’s particularly worried about the condition of one school, indicating that students may have to move campuses next year, but declined to specify.

Chris Tritico, the attorney hired by the North Forest school board, is holding out hope that the courts will side with him and allow the 7,000-student North Forest district to continue to exist.


HISD officials said they soon expect to get the North Forest personnel files. They also are seeking student records, but North Forest has raised questions about the release, arguing it may violate the federal educational privacy law.

“We don’t know exactly what we’re going to get,” HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said. “That information’s pretty critical as we try to figure out summer school and what kind of services students are going to need.”

In addition to the continued appeals and likely legal action to follow, the North Forest ISD Board of Trustees has dug in its heels, too.

The North Forest school board on Monday defied a state order to fire all its teachers for the next school year, leaving Texas Education Agency officials pondering their next move as the district is supposed to be taken over by Houston ISD come July 1.

Doris Delaney, a TEA appointee at the school board meeting, told the trustees that they had to take action to fire the teachers under state law, but the board refused, voting against the agenda items or simply not seconding the motions.

Trustees explained that they considered the state’s order “awful” and “immoral,” and community members at the packed meeting agreed, calling out, “Don’t do it. Stand up to them,” said Sue Davis, a spokeswoman for the North Forest Independent School District.

State law requires teachers in any district to be notified before the school year ends if their contracts will not renewed the following school year.

What a mess. HISD is not required to hire any of the North Forest teachers, and Superintendent Grier has said that he can’t guarantee jobs for them or any of the 900 existing North Forest employees. I have no idea what effect the board’s intransigence will mean – the TEA said it was “researching” its options.

Meanwhile, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the most prominent backer of NFISD, continues to rally support for the charter school proposal that would keep North Forest alive. The latest administrative appeal for NFISD will be decided by May 29, but given the things that are supposed to happen or begin happening by today to get the merger into HISD started, it’s hard to imagine a different outcome. Given that one reason for NFISD’s problems historically has been low or negative cash balances, the amount they’ve spent on the appeals probably isn’t helping with that. The strongest argument for NFISD is that they’re as good as neighboring schools in other districts; against that, you have the longstanding mismanagement by the NFISD Board of Trustees. I don’t see how NFISD can prevail at this point, but deadlines or no deadlines I don’t think this will be settled anytime soon.

On a related note, Jay Aiyer takes to the op-ed pages to encourage HISD to think outside the box when it takes over North Forest.

HISD should consider an approach that brings the community directly into the educational policy process through a new kind of charter school model.


A new approach, developed by the Austin Independent School District and known as the community driven “in-district” charter model changes this. It brings teachers, parents and community leaders together to lead the conversion of several campuses in the Austin school district to create in-district community charter schools. This approach takes the success of charters and places it in the traditional “ISD” context. In sharp contrast to traditional charter conversions – existing teachers, campus union leaders, parents, school staff, community members and principals all share responsibility for the development and execution of each school’s instructional programs. While traditional models of reform impose change from the top down, this approach seeks immediate community buy-in on the front end, and allows them to direct reform.

At the core of this approach is the concept of self-directed schools – schools that are run by teachers, parents, principals and community leaders. What differentiates this from other charter concepts is the combination of substantial community and parental involvement with the great professional teacher autonomy and leadership opportunities that exist in traditional charters. The in-district community charter school concept combines the independence of the best charter schools and embeds it in the public school context.

Houston Independent School District has been at the forefront of many innovative approaches to school reform – Apollo20, magnet school choice, Early Colleges/HILZ, etc. While each has been successful in its own way, all of them have been top-down reform initiatives. The community-charter approach would allow the community to choose any of these or other reforms it wants to turn around community schools. They could even choose to partner with KIPP, YES Prep or other traditional charters.

There is certainly evidence that the community wants to maintain some form of self-governance, and that they support the charter schools’ proposal. It would be worthwhile to explore this option and see how well it fits. The more the community is engaged, the better off everyone is likely to be.

More test tweaking

Seems reasonable.

Students in elementary and middle school would get a little testing relief under a House bill that passed overwhelmingly on a preliminary vote Monday.

Amid a backlash against state-mandated testing, the legislation eliminates writing exams in fourth and seventh grades.

It also aims to alleviate some of the stress- inducing elements of the remaining exams by trimming the length of the tests to a keep them within two hours in the earliest grades and three hours for sixth-grade and up.

“We’ve taken the time pressure off so your third grader is not going to be spending four hours on the test. And if they are a struggling learner, we don’t have the time pressure of the countdown clock making them even higher stress tests,” said state Rep. Bennett Ratliff, R-Coppell, who authored House Bill 2836.


The only state test not required by federal law will be in 8th-grade social studies, which covers early U.S. history.

For the remaining exams, the legislation aims to limit the subject matter that can be tested for high-stakes purposes so that teachers can go “more in depth rather than having to teach a mile wide and an inch deep,” Ratliff said.

That should help reduce the number of preparation tests that schools use, said state Rep. Marsha Farney, R-Georgetown, who worked closely with Ratliff on the legislation. Indeed, schools are limited to two benchmark tests under the legislation.

My third-grader just finished taking the STAAR exams, and she was pretty stressed about the whole thing. I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear there will be one less test next year. The House had previously passed a bill limiting the number of end of course exams in high school, reducing it from 15 to 5. I think this makes sense, but I strongly suspect we’re nowhere close to being done with this subject. I fully expect the number, content, and other aspects of standardized tests in Texas schools will be debated for many sessions to come. The Trib has more.