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Just so we’re clear, cities don’t run the schools

Lisa Falkenberg does some fact checking.

Ben Hall

Ben Hall

Houston Mayoral Candidate Ben Hall seems to have done his homework before he began claiming that, if elected, he’d have statutory authority over local schools.

But he apparently didn’t check his interpretation of the statute with the Texas Education Agency.

In an interview last week, Hall criticized Mayor Annise Parker for continuing “to remain silent” on education, and he took issue with Parker’s assertion that although her office is engaged in education-related activities, she doesn’t have statutory oversight.

“Well, one, she’s legally wrong on that,” Hall told me. “There is statutory authority for cities to take over even school districts or assets of school districts that are independent.”

I checked that statement with TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe, who researched the issue and found “the candidate is wrong.”

“Cities can regulate school districts in limited ways through general provisions like fire and safety codes,” Ratcliffe said, but the state ultimately regulates education and only the state education commissioner has the ability to “take over” or close a district.

One exception to the state’s power, Ratcliffe said, is something called a “municipal school district,” which has a hybrid governance that requires city council approval of the district budget. Ratcliffe said she believes the Stafford district is the only such hybrid left.

“But that is an anachronism,” Ratcliffe said. “Cities can’t run school districts any more than districts could cities.”

See here for the background. Now to be fair, this response isn’t the final word. I don’t know if Debbie Ratcliffe is a lawyer, but whether she is one or she just consulted with one, this is all just someone’s opinion, and in the absence of a court case one can reasonably dispute that particular interpretation of Texas’ education code. But ask yourself this question: What do you think would happen if Ben Hall were to try to exert some kind of authority over the schools to “expand education” according to his vision, whatever that vision may be? Do you think the two dozen or so school districts that overlap Houston will respond by saying “Sure, Mayor Hall! Whatever you want!”? Or do you think they will tell him, in polite but precise legal terminology, to go pound sand?

Again, if we had more details about what Hall has in mind, we could better judge whether his vision is realistic and/or worthwhile. As Falkenberg has documented, what he has said so far won’t fly. I really would be interested in hearing any ideas Hall might have to use the Mayor’s office to improve schools. But first he has to come up with something that he could actually do.

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6 Comments

  1. I’m sure Ratcliffe consulted with legal flacks inside TEA before officially speaking. Hall’s probably been reading too many of Rahm Emanuel’s Chitown press clippings without asking: “Is Illinois education law different from that in Texas?”

  2. Darrell Jordan says:

    Did you watch the video on ABC13? He explains in detail what he would like to do with the schools and he does not mention taking over the schools. In Mayor Parker’s interview she says education is on her “To Do List” if she is reelected.

  3. Ross says:

    I would prefer that the City leave running the schools to the school districts. The City has enough on its plate. Where the City could really help is by increasing police presence in school zones in the morning and afternoon.

  4. Steven Houston says:

    Ross, that’s a great idea but I was told there are more school zones in the Houston city limits than there are city officers. I’m not sure if they meant all city officers together or just the street officers working on school days but given the proliferation of school zones expanding beyond the four sides of each school, I wouldn’t bet either way.

  5. Ross says:

    Since the current HPD presence in school zones appears to be zero (I’ve never seen one) even 5 officers who move from school to school every day would be an improvement. I’m talking about a half hour every morning – afternoons don’t seem quite as bad. HPD does a horrific job of traffic enforcement – and no, writing 100 tickets on the far side of the Shepherd and TC Jester bridges over White Oak Bayou or the off ramp from 45 to Jefferson doesn’t count as real traffic enforcement.

  6. Steven Houston says:

    Ross, go visit the north side of town during morning hours. Drive slow or you may regret your wish because I see officers all over the school zones out there. The city cut back the number of TED officers several times and individual stations are lucky to keep up with their calls for service, never mind engage in proactive enforcement.

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