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September 18th, 2017:

Interview with Monica Flores Richart

Monica Flores Richart

So it’s been a very strange election season. I’m sure you don’t need me to go over all the reasons for that again. Let me cut to the chase by saying I will be presenting an abbreviated set of candidate interviews, mostly with HISD Trustee candidates. I’m not going to be able to talk to all of the candidates I’d normally want to, but I’m going to try to talk to most of them. I may wind up revisiting some races in the runoffs. It is what it is this year.

There are three candidates running in HISD I to succeed outgoing Trustee Anna Eastman. Monica Flores Richart is an attorney who has also worked as a political consultant – I met her when she was working with Nick Lampson’s Congressional campaign in 2006. She subsequently became an education advocate with a focus on HISD’s magnet school program, and has served on the Houston Heights Association Education Committee and the HISD Hispanic Advisory Committee. Please note that I conducted this interview before Hurricane Harvey paid us a visit, so as a result my focus is different than it will be in subsequent interviews. I have always tried to be consistent in the questions that I ask candidates, but in this case that just wasn’t possible. Here’s the interview:

I will have more interviews with HISD District I candidates this week and with other candidates going forward.

More on recapture and the Rainy Day Fund

There are some conditions that have to be met to get our recapture money back.

Houston Independent School District won’t have to hand millions of dollars to the state to spend at other schools if HISD needs that money to recover from Hurricane Harvey, but the district will have to apply for that money, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Friday.

The same goes for any of the roughly 250 school districts in declared disaster areas that are required to pay so-called recapture payments to the state as part of the “Robin Hood” program that siphons money from property wealthy school districts to give to property poor ones.

Morath, who leads the Texas Education Agency, said school districts will need to apply for the funds with the state and pay any recapture money not need for Harvey recovery. First, districts will have to exhaust their insurance and federal aid before trying to tap that money, he said.

“They have to have exhausted all their other funding sources first,” said Morath.

See here for the background. I get it, we want to make sure that all sources of recovery revenue are fully tapped. Let’s just make sure this doesn’t turn into a reason to nickel-and-dime the school districts, or to bury them under paperwork. The priority is the kids and their schools and teachers. We should not lose sight of that.

In related news, the state may make a bigger commitment to helping school districts recover.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Education Commissioner Mike Morath signaled Wednesday that the state will use rainy day funds to help schools saddled with Hurricane Harvey-related expenses, but the chances are slim that the state will delay state standardized tests planned for next spring.

Patrick, a Houston Republican, made vows to close to 45 superintendents from storm damaged areas in southeast Texas that he would support holding funding at current levels for school districts losing students due to Harvey, and for increasing money for school systems gaining displaced students.

[…]

Morath’s statements came one day after Patrick met with superintendents vowing state aid for storm-related costs not covered by insurance or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The promise came during a meeting Tuesday between Patrick and administrators of school districts affected by flooding.

In a press release sent late Wednesday, Patrick doubled down on that support, but stopped short of promising the state would cover all costs not covered by insurance plans and federal agencies.

The state aid could help prevent deep financial cuts in the hardest-hit school districts, and it could keep districts’ “rainy day” funds intact. Several districts, including Houston and Aldine ISDs, dipped into their reserve funds this year to balance their budgets.

In a statement, Humble ISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said Patrick “made it clear that it was his goal for districts to be made whole financially, both in terms of funding related to student attendance and facility repairs.” District officials don’t have an estimate of storm-related costs, but Kingwood High School, home to 2,800 students, will be closed for at least several months due to flood damage.

“The state’s intent to protect schools will help make a very difficult year more manageable, and we are encouraged,” Fagen said.

I’m glad, but I’m not inclined to take Dan Patrick’s word on anything, so I’ll want to see how this plays out. I can’t think of a good reason why the state shouldn’t completely fill any gaps that are left by insurance and the feds. There’s plenty of money in the Rainy Day Fund, and using it in this fashion would help districts avoid painful cuts or possibly tax increases. There needs to be a commitment to getting every district, school, and student back to where they were before the storm. If that’s asking for a lot, well, Harvey did a lot of damage. Are we going to shrug our shoulders, or are we going to be up to the challenge?

Dukes gets deferral on felony charges

Possibly good news for one embattled legislative incumbent.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

The Travis County district attorney will not pursue, at least for now, the most serious charges against state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, saying prosecutors have renewed their investigation into the travel vouchers at the heart of the 13 felony counts the Austin Democrat is facing.

District Attorney Margaret Moore confirmed to the American-Statesman on Thursday that prosecutors have obtained new information relating to the vouchers, which Dukes is accused of falsifying for financial gain. But Moore declined to elaborate on what the new information is.

“The district attorney’s office recently received new, unexpected information pertinent to that case and the new information has created a need for further investigation by this office and the Texas Rangers,” Moore said.

The case had been set for trial in October. On Wednesday, Moore’s office informed Dukes’ defense lawyers and state District Judge Brad Urrutia of her decision.

Moore said prosecutors will move forward with the October trial date on two misdemeanor charges against Dukes relating to allegations of her using legislative staffers for personal gain.

[…]

The 13 felony counts stem from monthly travel voucher forms Dukes signed in late 2013 and 2014. The forms stated that, on the dates in question, Dukes “traveled by personal car to the Capitol to attend to legislative duties.” She was paid $61.50 for each day she claimed on the forms.

The House Manual of Policies & Procedures states that lawmakers can collect the travel pay between legislative sessions for trips to Austin “to attend to legislative duties in their office.”

KiYa Moghaddam, a former Dukes staffer who prepared the voucher forms for Dukes during that time, told the Statesman last year that she questioned Dukes about misusing the forms.

“I told her that she had to actually be at the Capitol,” Moghaddam said last year. “I was thinking about the fact that I’m a taxpayer, and I don’t necessarily want my tax payments going to someone who’s not working for the interest of the constituency she represents.”

The indictment says that Dukes did “knowingly make a false entry in a government record, and present and use said government record with knowledge of its falsity, by instructing her staff to add a false entry to her State of Texas Travel Voucher Form.”

Dukes was paid $799.50 for the 13 days included in the indictment. She was a frequent user of the voucher forms, collecting $4,674 from 76 days she claimed in the first nine months of 2014. She abruptly stopped collecting the travel pay at that time, which was when Moghaddam questioned her use of the vouchers.

See here for the most recent update. We don’t know what new evidence the DA’s office has, so we can’t say whether this may lead to charges being dismissed or reduced, or possibly added. Or maybe it puts the DA in a stronger position to negotiate a plea deal. It seems more likely than not to be good news for Dukes, but let’s wait and see what the next story is before drawing any conclusions. In the meantime, she still faces trial on the misdemeanor charges, and multiple primary opponents who have been calling for her to honor her previous pledge to step down.

Abbott waives fees for birth certificates for individuals from hurricane-affected counties

From Diane Trautman on Facebook, also sent to me in email:

Governor Greg Abbott has approved a request allowing the state to waive fees for mail-in or walk-in birth certificate issuance requests, and local registrars to waive fees for walk-in birth certificate issuance requests, for individuals from hurricane-affected counties. This is important for several reasons, one of which is that a birth certificate is a valid form of supporting documentation for voters without proper ID who need to sign an Affidavit of Reasonable Impediment.

A list of the affected counties is at the announcement. The language used is pretty legalistic, so unless you are familiar with “Section 418.016 of the code”, you may not realize from the announcement just what this means, so thanks to Diane Trautman for the interpretation. You probably know someone, or know someone who knows someone, who needs to know this, so please pass it on.