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September 12th, 2017:

What will this school year be like?

School has finally started for most of HISD and many surrounding districts, but with the devastation and disruption of Harvey, what can we expect from this academic year?

Many students in Houston ISD lost everything – their homes, their school supplies, their clothes, their toys.

Some are staying in the mega-shelters at the George R. Brown Convention Center and NRG Park. Others were flown by military helicopter to Dallas and San Antonio, where they have already started school. Still more are shaken after being plucked from their flooded homes by boats and Humvees.

With more than 600,000 Houston-area students set to return to the classroom Monday, teachers and school officials wonder how many will show up – and if they’ll be ready to learn.

And at some schools, business as usual will be a distant memory.

“It’s hard to focus on the lesson of the day when you’re worried about, ‘How is my home? How is my family?” said Ezemenari Obasi, associate dean for research in the University of Houston’s College of Education. “Those questions and worries become more salient than the lesson plan at school.”

[…]

While school can help provide some sense of normalcy, Obasi said paying attention to lessons and regurgitating a year’s worth of knowledge during hours-long standardized tests could prove much more difficult for flood-affected students.

He said the brain’s ability to focus can be severely hampered after experiencing significant anxiety, especially for children and teens’ whose brains are still developing.

“It’s really difficult to assess a person’s capacity when they’re not 100 percent available to focus and attempt the task,” Obasi said. “Many things we measure in schools involve students having to focus. They have to have good spatial processing or cognitive abilities, and if you can’t focus, it’s going to be extremely difficult to do anything, let alone ace an important standardized test.”

Obasi said stress can cause a host of physical and mental ailments, from sleeplessness and an inability to concentrate in the short-term to addiction and diabetes in the long-term.

Exhaustion is a real concern, Obasi said, as many have issues falling asleep and staying asleep during times of significant stress. On top of that, anxiety can hamper the brain’s ability each morning to release cortisol, a hormone that helps people get out of bed and going, making such tasks exponentially more tiresome for students.

Then there are the constant distractions – random triggers that will remind students of the worst days of their lives, questions about where their family will live, uncertainty about where their next meal will come from.

There are so many challenges facing HISD this year, from schools that aren’t ready to open and in some cases may never be to teachers who are still dealing with their own damaged houses and cars to students who have been displaced to points unknown. Indeed, quite a few of these students are now homeless, for who knows how long.

The Texas Homeless Education Office estimates that about 35,000 to 40,000 students have been affected by Hurricane Harvey. On top of that, more than 200 school districts and charter schools statewide canceled or delayed classes, some indefinitely.

Jeanne Stamp, the office’s director, said some families have relocated to Dallas and San Antonio but Houston is sure to see their already large number of homeless children balloon.

Federal protections require schools to immediately enroll children who have lost their regular homes, including those affected by a natural disaster.

That federal law allows homeless children to either stay in the school they were attending or enroll in the school in the neighborhood where they are currently staying, with transportation costs divided equally between the two districts if there’s a funding dispute.

The Texas “Third Choice” law goes even further, allowing homeless students the choice to enroll in any school district in the state, regardless of their school of origin or the location of the place where they are staying.

But the state law doesn’t require transportation to be provided, something Michael Santos, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, urged schools to offer in order to comply with the over-arching federal law.

“That falls under the obligation to remove barriers for the student attending school,” Santos said. “Transportation is controversial and it’s expensive.”

For Houston, the transportation issue could be even more heightened as many displaced families are likely to have to commute across the sprawling metro area, between where they want to go to school and where they’re stuck sleeping at night.

“Sometimes public bus passes help get kids to school. Sometimes parents have a vehicle but don’t have funds for gas,” Stamp said. “It is a very costly piece of the service but it’s a necessarily piece of the service.”

Hey, you know what one of the ancillary effects of HISD going into recapture was? They lost state funding for transportation. Hell of a time for that to happen, with all these students needing to travel farther to go to school, right? Layered on top of all that is the takeover threat from the TEA if certain campuses don’t show sufficient improvement on the STAAR test. I don’t know how the state can enforce that threat in good conscience this year given the extreme exogenous circumstances HISD must deal with, but as yet there’s been no discussion, let alone decisions, to that effect.

The point is that this was going to be a tough year for HISD no matter what, but before Harvey hit you could see a path to holding off the TEA from doing anything undesirable. It’s a lot harder to see such a path now. And as bad as HISD has it, some others have it worse. This is why some folks are petitioning for a halt to STAAR testing for the ISDs affected by Harvey. I don’t think that will get anywhere, and to be honest I’m not sure that it should. But I do know that the TEA and the Lege need to take a far more measured approach to accountability this year. No one – no student, no school, no district – should be penalized for having to go through all this.

More post-Harvey ideas

From the Chron, which likens this moment to what Galveston faced after the great hurricane of 1900:

1. Establish a regional flood control authority

Floodwaters ignore city-limit signs and county-line markers. We can’t adequately address drainage issues with a mélange of municipal efforts and flood control districts split between local jurisdictions. Instead of dividing these disaster-prevention efforts into provincial fiefdoms, we need a single authority with the power to levy taxes that will take charge of all of our area’s drainage issues. Gov. Abbott should call a special session of the Legislature and set up such an authority.

Although we are skeptical about whether lawmakers obsessed with divisive social issues can turn their attention to urgent needs, establishing this authority requires action from Austin. Our governor and our Legislature need to get this done immediately.

2. Build a third reservoir

Addicks and Barker dams, reservoirs and spillways, constructed more than 60 years ago, are dangerously inadequate. The U.S. Corps of Engineers rated both as “extremely high-risk” infrastructure years before Harvey. Houston environmental attorney Jim Blackburn maintains that at least one new reservoir should be constructed in northwest Harris County that can help flooding along Cypress Creek, Bear Creek and Buffalo Bayou. He urges the construction of additional upstream locations on virtually every stream in our region.

Harvey shoved us uncomfortably close to catastrophe. We need a third reservoir, and probably more, to avoid unimaginable consequences the next time. Some experts estimate this could be a half-billion-dollar infrastructure project. It is a small price to pay to avoid catastrophe and should be part of any federal relief plan.

[…]

5. Approve new funding streams

We need money. A lot of it. Current local budgets are inadequate to cover the costs of the massive infrastructure investment we’ll need to keep this region safe from floods. The Harris County Flood Control District has a capital improvement budget of $60 million per year. Mike Talbott, the district’s former executive director, estimated that we need about $26 billion for necessary infrastructure updates.

That third one is the key, of course. A lot of what the Chron suggests requires at least some input from the Legislature. Given everything we know about this Lege and this Governor and the recent anti-local control obsession, what do you think are the odds of that?

By the way, the Chron also mentions ReBuild Houston and its associated drainage fee. It sure would make some sense to have a dedicated fund like that for all of Harris County, and perhaps for Fort Bend and Brazoria and Galveston too. I’m going to ask again – what exactly is the argument for continuing the lawsuit over the 2010 referendum, and what would be the argument against re-approving this fund if it has to be voted on again?

From The Conversation:

Proactive maintenance first. In 2017, U.S. infrastructure was given a D+ by the American Society for Civil Engineering Infrastructure Report Card. The bill to repair all those deteriorating roads, bridges and dams would tally $210 billion by 2020, and $520 billion in 2040. For example, the US Army Corps of Engineers estimates there are 15,460 dams in the U.S. with “high” hazard ratings.

Yet, when our cities and states spend on infrastructure, it is too often on new infrastructure projects. And new infrastructure tend to emulate the models, designs and standards that we’ve used for decades – for instance, more highway capacity or new pipelines.

Meanwhile, resources for long-term maintenance are often lacking, resulting in a race to scrape together funding to keep systems running. If we want to get serious about avoiding disasters in a rapidly changing world, we must get serious about the maintenance of existing infrastructure.

Invest in and redesign institutions, not just infrastructure. When analyzing breakdowns in infrastructure, it is tempting to blame the technical design. Yet design parameters are set by institutions and shaped by politics, financing and policy goals.

So failures in infrastructure are not just technical failures; they are institutional ones as well. They are failures in “knowledge systems,” or the ability to generate, communicate and utilize knowledge within and across institutions.

For example, the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina are often interpreted as technical failures. They were, but we also knew the levees would fail in a storm as powerful as Katrina. And so the levee failureswere also failures in institutional design – the information about the weakness of the levees was not utilized in part because the Hurricane Protection System was poorly funded and lacked the necessary institutional and political power to force action.

In the wake of Harvey, basic design and floodplain development parameters, like the 100-year flood, are being acknowledged as fundamentally flawed. Our ability to design more resilient infrastructure will depend on our ability to design more effective institutions to manage these complex problems, learn from failures and adapt.

On that first point, the Addicks and Barker dams both need some fixing up. Let’s not forget that sort of thing.

Finally, from Mimi Swartz, in Texas Monthly:

Yet if dirty air and dirty water and flooded, congested streets all sound a little familiar, there’s a reason. As Ginny Goldman, a longtime organizer who is currently chairing the Harvey Community Relief Fund, said to me, “There are often these problems in a city of any size, but here, where we haven’t done enough to deal with affordable housing and transportation access and income inequality, and where the state has blocked public disclosure of hazardous chemicals in neighborhoods, then a natural disaster hits and we pull the curtain back and it’s all on full display.”

Just after Harvey started pounding Houston with what looked to be never-ending rainfall, I got an email from an old friend who was lucky enough to be out of town for the main event. Sanford Criner is an inordinately successful member of Houston’s developer class, a vice chairman of CBRE Group, the largest commercial real estate and investment firm in the world. He is also a native Houstonian, and like so many of us here, he was already thinking about what was coming next. (Yes, it’s a Houston thing.) “Either we are committed to a future in which we collectively work for the good of the whole,” Criner wrote, “or we decide we’re all committed only to our individual success (even perhaps assuming that that will somehow lead to the common good). I think our story now is either: (i) Houston is the new Netherlands, using our technological genius to develop sophisticated answers to the most challenging global problems of the twenty-first century, or (ii) we are the little Dutch boy, who pokes his finger in the dike, solving the problems of the twenty-five people in his neighborhood. How we respond to this will determine into which of those categories we fit and will define Houston’s future.”

“I’m hopeful. But scared,” he added, neatly summing up the stakes moving forward.

In the past few decades, even as Houston was making its mark on the global economy, building gleaming towers designed by world-class architects and mansions the size of Middle Eastern embassies, as we were hosting world premieres of radically new operas and ballets and coming up with those crazy Asian-Cajun fusion dishes to die for—even as we really were and are optimistic, innovative, entrepreneurial, pretty tolerant, and all that other good stuff—we were doing so selectively. That instinct for the quick fix, or no fix at all, has been with us since the city started expanding in the sixties and seventies and is still a part of the Houston way. In reality, we keep dragging our dark side forward, a shadow sewn to our heels with the strongest surgical wire.

So now the question we face is this: Will Houston become a model for flood relief and disaster recovery, or just another once grand city sinking into mediocrity? In other words, can we be true to our reputation for innovation and aim for something higher than the status quo? The answer depends on which aspects of our culture wind up dominating the search for solutions.

That’s more of a high-level view than a specific suggestion, but it sums up the issue concisely. It’s important to realize that none of the things that many people have been saying we should do are impossible. They are all within our capabilities, if we want to do them. The choice is ours, and if the politicians we elect aren’t on board with it, then we need to elect new leaders. It’s as simple as that.

The HCC lineup

When I published the July finance reports for HCC trustees, I noted that the only reports available were for incumbents. There was no way to tell who might be challenging the two trustees up for re-election (Carolyn Evans-Shabazz and Robert Glaser) or who might be vying to succeed the convicted Chris Oliver. Thankfully, the Board Information – Trustee Elections page now has all of the candidates listed, so let’s take a look at who’s running for what.

District IV

Carolyn Evans-Shabazz
Manny Barrera
Daniel “DC” Caldwell, I

Evans-Shabazz is the incumbent. She was appointed to the seat in 2015 to fill in for Carroll Robinson, who had stepped down to run for Houston City Controller. She was unopposed that November for the rest of that term, so this is her first election for a full term. She also ran for City Council At Large #5 in 2013 and received about 31% of the vote in a three-way race against CM Jack Christie.

Barrera you know from his comments here. He ran for City Council in District J against CM Mike Laster, finishing third in a field of four. He previously ran for the HCC Board in 2007 for position VII, finishing third against eventual winner Neeta Sane. He’s an attorney and longtime watchdog/critic of HCC, as a bit of Googling will tell you. I couldn’t find a campaign webpage for him.

According to that LinkedIn profile I found, Daniel Caldwell is a former GOP precinct chair in Tarrant County who ran for Dallas City Council in 2015. Going from his LinkedIn profile, I found this website for him and his HCC campaign. I doubt he can get elected in this African-American district, but if Dave Wilson can (dishonestly) do it, I suppose anything is possible.

District V

Victoria Bryant‌‌
Robert Glaser‌

Glaser is the incumbent here. He won in 2013 to fill out the term of Richard Schechter, who had resigned. I didn’t do interviews for HCC that year, but he did fill out a Q&A for Texas Leftist that year. I’ve corresponded with him quite a bit, and he’s been helpful answering various questions I’ve had about what goes on at HCC.

Bryant ran for HISD in the 2016 special election to fill Harvin Moore’s seat; she finished third behind eventual winner Anne Sung and John Luman. Here’s the interview I did with her for that race. Bryant is a Republican, Glaser is a Democrat. This seat has been Democratic since at least Schechter’s election in 2005 – I can’t find results from 1999, the previous time this seat would have been up – but this is a weird year, with likely very low turnout, so it is very much the case that anything can happen.

District IX

Eugene “Gene” Pack
David Jaroszewski
Pretta Vandible Stallworth

Eugene Pack appears to have three different profiles on Facebook. I have no idea what’s up with that. He also appears to be a Republican – in fact, he’s listed as the Vice Chairman of the Texas Federation for Republican Outreach (warning: autoplay Trump video), which is a group I’d never heard of before googling around for this guy. You have to search for “Gene Pack” to find that page; I found it before I found that Facebook photo, so I’m pretty sure this is the same guy.

David Jaroszewski is as far as I can tell an attorney with an office in Baytown, who also teaches at Lee College; he’s the Director of the Paralegal Studies Program. He has no clearly identifying web presence that I can find, but you can see him doing some lectures on YouTube.

Pretta Stallworth is the co-President of a 501(c)3 called Parents for Public Schools Houston; here’s their webpage. I can’t say I’ve heard of this group – the one name I recognize on their board is Hugo Mojica, who has run unsuccessfully for Houston City Council and HISD in District I. All things being equal, I’d say she has the kind of profile to be the favorite in this district, but again, this is a weird year and I have no idea how many people will have a clue about who any of these people are. I sure hope the Chron and black media like The Defender and KCOH do some reporting on this race. It would suck to go from Chris Oliver to a complete cipher for the next six years.