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Fort Bend ISD

Huffman gets a Republican challenger

This is definitely one to watch.

Kristin Tassin

Kristin Tassin, the president of the Fort Bend ISD Board of Trustees, is running against state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, in the 2018 GOP primary.

“I’m officially running,” Tassin told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “The final decision really came down to the fact that the state Legislature is just not getting the job done on many issues that are important to families in Texas.”

Tassin citied issues including property tax reform and public education. “I feel like we need somebody in the Legislature who’s going to stand up for those things and bring real solutions and not be afraid to stand up to special interests,” she said.

Tassin has been an outspoken advocate for public education, penning a number of op-eds that have taken aim at the Senate — and Huffman — for how they have approached the issue. In one of those op-eds, Tassin took Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to task for his derisive use of the term “educrats.” 

“Most of us are parents, many with conservative views and values, who ran for the school board or got involved in our school districts in order to improve education and make a difference for the children in our communities and across the state of Texas,” Tassin said.

In the interview, Tassin said Huffman has “really been no friend to education,” pointing to Huffman’s vote during the regular session paving the way for a private school tuition subsidy bill to reach the floor. Huffman was among three Republicans who ultimately voted against the bill, but Tassin has argued the legislation would have never been able to make it to the floor without Huffman’s initial sign-off.

I’m Team Fran Watson all the way, but Kristin Tassin would be an upgrade over Joan Huffman. Huffman isn’t a freak like Bob Hall or Don Huffines, but she is a reliable vote for Dan Patrick, and anything that loosens Patrick’s grip on power is a good thing. We’ve seen plenty of wingnut challenges to establishment Republican incumbents before, but we’ve not seen a serious (much less successful) challenge by a more moderate R to a conservative incumbent. Mainstreamers have withstood challenges and they’ve won their share of open seat battles, but this is something new. I will be very interested to see who lines up behind whom in this race. I don’t expect any establishment Republican support for Tassin – that’s the way things are when an incumbent who is otherwise in good standing gets a primary challenger – but there’s plenty of room for outsiders to support her. Surely pro-education groups like Parent PAC will have to take a look at this race, and of course she can demonstrate strength in grassroots fundraising. If that happens, this could be a fascinating race. The odds are against Tassin, but the potential for shockwaves is real, and it would be amazing. I wish Tassin all the best.

A look ahead to Fort Bend County elections in 2017

(Note: From time to time I solicit guest posts on various topics, from people who have a particular interest or expertise in a particular topic. I don’t know much about local and municipal elections in Fort Bend County, so today’s post is by Steve Brown.

As has been aptly reported here over the last couple of weeks, Secretary Hilary Clinton was able to carry what was once seen as dependably “red” Fort Bend County. Those of us who’ve been working to turn Fort Bend purple, if not blue, have long known that our county wasn’t as conservative as most people believed. Our demographically diverse population, young families and growing base of millennials point to a Fort Bend ready to embrace more progressive values like adequate public school funding and climate change and denounce divisive, hate driven agendas. I have confidence that local Democratic Party leaders will continue working in advance of the 2018 midterms to keep that momentum going, but there are a few local elections on May 6, 2017 that can help to cement support among persuadable suburban voters and build our bench of new leaders.

There are a number of municipalities, school districts & MUDs that will hold elections this year – like Stafford, Rosenberg, Fulshear, Lamar Consolidated ISD to name a few. However, I want to draw your attention to the Fort Bend ISD and Sugar Land races.

If there’s one thing that the 2016 election taught us, it’s that a majority of voters in Fort Bend’s Commissioner 4 precinct either embraced Clinton’s message, rejected Trump or both. These voters live in diverse, highly educated communities like Telfair, Avalon and Sweetwater. Democrats have traditionally done well in our strongholds of Missouri City (which moved its city council election to November) and Fresno. The emergence of winnable precincts in and around Sugar Land create unique electoral opportunities. Although Clinton didn’t have the coattails to boost our down ballot candidates, she did leave behind a road map for these local races.

Fort Bend ISD

Fort Bend ISD trustees are elected district-wide. This year, three school board seats are up – one for a trustee who lives on the east side of the district, one from the west side and one elected at-large. Currently, there are only two minorities on Fort Bend ISD’s Board, and one of them, K.P. George, is up for re-election in May. It would be ideal to add at least one more progressive and/or minority to a Board that governs a district representing one of the most diverse student populations in the country.

Sugar Land City Council

Similarly, a progressive candidate in one of Sugar Land’s 4 district races could help to reshape that governing body as well. Clinton won about half of the precincts in Sugar Land and came extremely close in a handful of others to arguably make Sugar Land a “toss-up” municipality. Sugar Land’s four district council members will be up for re-election in May. Sugar Land recently annexed two master-planned communities so it may be too early to predict how that might impact electoral outcomes there. Nevertheless, good candidates should definitely consider running this Spring, and possibly win office with as few as 3500 votes.

2018 Midterms

As we look forward to the 2018 mid-term elections, having solid candidates to engage persuadable voters in the parts of Sugar Land and Fort Bend ISD that overlap with Commissioner’s Precinct 4 will help lay the groundwork to win that commissioner’s precinct in 2018. A prospective nominee for that office could be buoyed by the support of a newly minted school board trustee and Sugar Land city council member- not to mention access to their voter base and donors. With the right collaboration and coordination it’s plausible that GOTV in Precincts 2 and 4 (which would both be on the ballot in 2018) could help to elect Democrats countywide – including County Judge, District Attorney and various judicial benches. A competitive commissioner’s 4 race could also have a positive effect on the HD 26 race in 2018 and 2020.

Democrats can’t win the state if we can’t win suburbs – especially the diverse ones. Fort Bend has been on the cusp of political change for some time now. We can finally reach that tipping point by taking seriously these low hanging local elections. All elections matter.

Steve Brown is a former Chair of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party and Managing Director at Capitol Assets Sustainable Energy Development LLC.

Van de Putte and Taylor in SA Mayor runoff

Here we go.

Leticia Van de Putte

Leticia Van de Putte

Former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte is set to face San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor in a runoff for the city’s top job.

With 95 percent of all precincts reporting late Saturday, Van de Putte led Taylor 31 percent to 28 percent, according to unofficial returns. Former state Rep. Mike Villarreal trailed in third at 26 percent, and former Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson in fourth at 10 percent.

With 14 declared candidates — four considered runoff prospects — the chance of an outright victory seemed slim Saturday. The runoff is scheduled for June 13, with early voting taking place from June 1-9.

“Our work’s not over, because what this means is we’re doing to work even harder to convince those who may not have cast a ballot to trust Leticia, to believe in her vision in this city,” Van de Putte said shortly after 10 p.m., surrounded by her family as confetti lingered in the air at her campaign headquarters on San Antonio’s West Side.

As results came in, Taylor told supporters at her election night party she was ready for a runoff.

“We can’t rest on our laurels because we’ve got some work to do to get to June 13,” she said, shortly after Adkisson and Villarreal conceded.

The four major candidates were seen as Democrats, though the election was nonpartisan.

That much is true, though as the Rivard Report notes, Taylor was generally the preferred candidate for Republican voters. It’ll be interesting to see how the runoff plays out, as there was no love lost between Van de Putte and Villarreal in the first round. She’s going to need Democrats to turn out to win, and if Villarreal supporters carry a grudge, that could get dicey. I’m no expert on San Antonio’s politics, so take that with some salt. Runoffs are tricky things, and anything can happen.

That was the marquee race, but I was at least as interested in Pasadena and Fort Bend ISD. Here are the unofficial results from Pasadena:

DISTRICT A — Ornaldo Ybarra leads Keith Nielsen 284-45;

DISTRICT B — Celestino Perez leads Bruce Leamon 118-107;

DISTRICT C — Sammy Casados leads Emilio Carmona 108-81;

DISTRICT D — Cody Ray Wheeler (182) leads J.E. “Bear” Hebert (77) and Pat Riley (28);

DISTRICT E — Cary Bass leads Larry Peacock 144-96;

DISTRICT F — Jeff Wagner 219 (unopposed)

DISTRICT G At Large — Pat Van Houte leads Steve Cote 859-599;

DISTRICT H At Large — Oscar Del Toro leads Darrell Morrison 755-728.

If you look at the comment on that Pasadena post, you’ll see that the folks who opposed Mayor Johnny Isbell and his power grabbing did pretty well. I wish I could find a list of candidates endorsed by the Texas Organizing Project to compare to this, but I can’t. Still, it looks good. And finally, as far as FBISD goes, I’m glad to see that Addie Heyliger won her race, which will help make that board a little more diverse and a little more reflective of the community. Congrats to her and to all of yesterday’s winners.

Early voting for May elections begins Monday

From the inbox:

EarlyVoting

Almost one million of Harris County’s registered voters will be eligible to vote in elections conducted during the May 9, 2015 Uniform Election, according to Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, the chief elections officer of the county. Early Voting begins Monday, April 27th.

“Fifty political entities whose boundaries are solely or in part in Harris County have scheduled an election” said Stanart. “These include 21 cities, 11 independent school districts, 17 utility, service or improvement districts and one college district.”

The County Clerk’s Office is conducting three of the May 9 elections: the Klein ISD Bond election along with the joint election for Humble ISD and the City of Humble. Voters residing in these three jurisdictions can find Early Voting, Election Day voting locations, and view a sample ballot at www.HarrisVotes.com.

Forty-seven political entities are conducting their own election. “Voters should know that during the May Election cycle, sovereign political jurisdictions within the County can order an election and can conduct an election without the involvement of the County Clerk’s Office,” said Stanart. The cities include, Missouri City, Deer Park, Friendswood, Galena Park, Hedwig Village, Hilshire Village, Hunters Creek Village, Jersey Village, Morgan’s Point, Pasadena, Pearland, Piney Point Village, Seabrook, Shoreacres, South Houston, Southside Place, Stafford, West University Place, Waller and Webster. The Independent School Districts (ISD) include Alief, Clear Creek, Deer Park, Goose Creek, La Porte, New Caney, Pasadena, Pearland and Spring Branch. The Municipal Utility Districts (MUD), Service Districts (SD), Improvement Districts (ID) and Emergency Service Districts (ESD) include Chelford City MUD, Faulkey-Gully MUD, Trail of the Lakes MUD, Westador MUD, HC MUD 122, HC MUD 200, HCMUD 217, HC MUD 248, HC MUD 536, DOWDELL PUD, Stafford Municipal SD, HMW Special UD, HC ESD 16, HC ESD 21, Waller-Harris ESD 200, HC ID 15 and HC ID 17. The only college district conducting an election is Lee College.

As a service to the voters of Harris County, the voter Election Day Poll search on www.HarrisVotes.com will display the May 9th elections for which a voter is eligible to vote, if the entity provided Harris County notice of their intent to hold an election on May 9, 2015. The entity website and contact phone numbers, as provided by the entities, are also displayed as a result of the voter search on www.HarrisVotes.com.

“To obtain Early Voting and Election Day information for entities holding elections not conducted by my office, voters are encouraged to use the search result’s web link or phone number to contact the entity directly,” concluded Stanart.

The city of Houston does not have May elections, and neither do HISD and HCC, so if you’re like me you have no action to take. That said, there are elections of interest in Pasadena and across the county line in Fort Bend, and of course there’s the big Mayoral race in San Antonio. Every election matters, and the more local the election the more direct the effects on your day to day life will be. So check www.HarrisVotes.com if you’re in Harris County, or your county’s elections webpage if not, and make sure you participate if there’s an election that affects you.

Fort Bend ISD

A lot going on over there.

With a fifth-grader in Palmer Elementary School in Missouri City, Steve Brown has begun to think about where his son should attend middle school. The campus is just a two-minute drive from the current one but the change has him concerned.

According to the latest accountability rating, the middle school met standards but earned no distinctions. Plus, he’s heard it has discipline issues. Some parents even move to avoid it, said Brown, to the other side of “the tracks.”

“Even in middle-class, suburban Fort Bend County, there are tracks and that track is Highway 6,” said Brown, “It’s unfortunate, but it signifies that we still have not come as far as we thought.”

Brown’s story was part of a discussion with a panel of parents, lawyers and advocates held Thursday in the library at the University of Houston Sugar Land campus to discuss racial discrepancies in the district’s truancy complaints and disciplinary actions. What emerged was a picture of a divided district, often along racial and socioeconomic lines, that touches almost every aspect of a student’s life.

Like neighboring school districts such as Lamar, Katy and Houston, the Fort Bend ISD reports a consistent overrepresentation of black, Hispanic and special education students who are disciplined. The district also refers cases to a special truancy county court, which some see as contributing to a culture of criminalization of black and Hispanic students.

The district has responded, creating a special office to review discipline data weekly as well as expulsions and discretionary placements at alternative education campuses. Early data from this school year shows success in bringing the number of African American students punished down. And Superintendent Charles Dupre has promised the community that the district will hold a series of dialogues to address the disparities, the focus of an Office for Civil Rights investigation. He has said he shares “concerns about the number of African-American and Hispanic students who are subject to disciplinary actions in Fort Bend ISD and across the state.”

The Steve Brown in this story is the same Steve Brown who ran for Railroad Commissioner last November. He’d emailed me a couple of weeks ago about the race for Fort Bend ISD Trustee, Position 6, which takes place in May. As Steve pointed out to me, and as this story does not note, the FBISD student body is very diverse, while its Board of Trustees is not. At that time, there was a story in Houston Style Magazine about one of the candidates in the race, Stuart Jackson. Look at the stock photo at the top of that story, then look at Stuart Jackson’s webpage. There was a bit of fuss over that, and then this happened.

With less than a month until Election Day, Stuart Jackson, one of four candidates for Fort Bend ISD Position 6, has terminated a contract with a political consultant because of a misleading magazine article.

Jackson, a software company owner and first-time political candidate, decided to part ways with Burt Levine, a Houston-based paid political consultant who represents candidates from both major political parties and from many different ethnicities in Fort Bend County and throughout the Greater Houston area.

The contract was terminated over a story that Levine wrote in Houston Style Magazine on Feb. 25. Jackson was contacted by a former FBISD board candidate, Vanesia Johnson, who wrote a letter to the community, including The Star, stating that the article misled voters to believe that Jackson, who is white, was African-American.

The Missouri City resident is running against incumbent Jenny Bailey as well as Addie Heyliger and J.J. Clemence for the position.

[…]

Jackson said he discovered the story after it was published, and that he’s never tried to conceal his race or ethnicity to any portion of the electorate.

He’s attended several events throughout the community and has his face featured prominently on his campaign website.

Jackson thinks issues such as the article take away from the substance of the election – which he says, is finding the best person to represent the students of FBISD.

“I feel good about the campaign,” Jackson said. “We need more local control and and more community control. What frustrates me more than anything is the (article) takes the wind out of any message I am trying to push forward.”

Jackson reached out to Johnson, who was defeated by board trustee and then-board president Jim Rice, 70.4 to 29.6 percent, for the FBISD Position 3 seat in 2013.

“He brought my outrage down to confusion,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe completely that (Jackson) didn’t know (about the article beforehand).”

Consider that another reminder that these smaller, lower-profile local elections really matter. The candidate that Steve Brown and Vanesia Johnson are supporting is Addie Heyliger. Each FBISD trustee is elected at large, which is another wrinkle in all this; there’s a bill by Rep. Ron Reynolds to create single member districts, but it hasn’t had a hearing and seems to me to be unlikely to pass at this point. If you live in Fort Bend, are you following this race at all?

Reading and writing and operating systems

Religion, politics, and operating systems – three things sure to start a spirited discussion.

By January 2016, when the Houston Independent School District’s latest tech initiative hits full stride, the district will issue laptops to every high school student and teacher in the district. All 65,000 of those laptops will run Windows 7 and cloud-based Office 365. For Microsoft, that’s sweet news: a solid little victory in the digital war for global domination.

As every tech geek knows, Microsoft, the world’s third-largest technology company, is embroiled in a three-way war with the first- and second-largest, Apple and Google. Each of those behemoths hopes to establish its own computing ecosystem as the world’s digital default, to be the system that everyone everywhere just seems to use on the fast-growing array of devices that connect to the Web. (Coming soon: Dog collars! Home thermostats! Cars!)

In the last two years, elementary, middle and high schools have been among the war’s hottest fronts. In part, that’s simply because K-12 education is a fast-growing, largely untapped market: According to analyst Phillip Maddocks of Futuresource, a research and forecasting company, only about 25 percent of U.S. students and teachers are currently equipped with devices such as laptops or tablets.

But that number is bound to rise. Last year, President Barack Obama announced the creation of the federal ConnectEd program, with a goal of making high-speed broadband available to 99 percent of American students by 2017. In January, Obama’s State of the Union address included a call to bring American classrooms up to date. Soon after, a group of private tech companies, including Apple and Microsoft, committed to donate $750 million in devices, software, training and Wi-Fi – as well as to offering deep discounts.

For those tech companies, such efforts are one part altruism, one part gold rush. As the remaining 75 percent of American students obtain devices and Wi-Fi, their hardware, software and habits are up for grabs.

“The scale is what’s so new,” says Cameron Evans, chief technology officer at Microsoft Education. “Before, there were always five computers in the back of the classroom. Until 2012, that was acceptable.”

As the story notes, Apple has been the leader in this space, but they’ve been vulnerable lately thanks to the high profile flop in Fort Bend and some embarrassing security failures in Los Angeles. Both were more due to design and implementation flaws than anything else, but they still look bad. Microsoft and Google have been competing on price and on compatibility, and have made some inroads. I know this is somewhat heretical to say, especially for an IT guy, but to some extent the OS and hardware don’t really matter. Basic concepts, about things like security and programming and how to use various apps, don’t really change that much from one device to the next. Of course, from the vendors’ perspective, they’re trying to lock in preferences. From my perspective, I’d like to see kids get experience with multiple platforms. Mostly I hope they get a solid curriculum that really takes advantage of the technology available to them. We’re still figuring out how to do that, so I hope we stay flexible and open-minded about it.

School districts deal with ACA paperwork

The headline for this story says that Texas school districts are “struggling” to deal with requirements of the Affordable Care Act, but there’s not much evidence of actual struggles in the story itself.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Texas school districts are scrambling to meet an Affordable Care Act provision that requires them to offer health insurance to thousands of substitute teachers, bus drivers and other workers who clock at least 30 hours a week.

While many of these workers are already eligible for health insurance, tracking compliance is proving cumbersome for administrators. Compared with traditional employers, school systems rely on more variable-hour workers and follow an unusual calendar.

“It’s kind of a nightmare. It’s extremely complex,” said Holly Murphy, senior attorney for the Texas Association of School Boards, who is touring the state to address school administrators’ questions about the new requirement.

How districts choose to handle the mandate could spell either good or bad news for employees. Some school systems may cap part-time employees’ hours, while others appear to be creating new full-time positions to ease the demand from hourly workers. Both options should make the bookkeeping aspect of compliance prior to the Jan. 1 deadline simpler, officials said.

The Fort Bend Independent School District posted job openings for 74 educational assistants – one at each campus – who will essentially be full-time substitutes eligible for benefits. Those positions should help take pressure off the district’s pool of 1,000 part-time substitutes, administrators said, although the district would still face the increased cost of providing benefits to more employees.

“We basically solved the issue around the Affordable Care Act,” said Kermit Spears, chief human resources officer at Fort Bend ISD.

Groups of suburban and rural school districts are considering creating co-ops that could share and provide benefits for full-time substitutes, Murphy said.

[…]

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said limiting hours isn’t in the spirit of the law and wouldn’t even be an option in the Houston ISD, which already struggles with substitute shortages.

“That’s the sort of shoddy behavior we were worried about,” she said.

She applauded the Houston ISD’s move to begin offering this month a basic $5-a-month health insurance plan to employees earning under $25,000 a year.

“HISD did very early compliance,” Fallon said. “We have paraprofessionals and clerks and food service and custodial (employees) who can afford insurance for the first time, and we got told instantly it was the Affordable Care Act that did this.”

Sounds more like “School districts have a variety of options for meeting the requirements that workers’ hours are documented and that everyone who works at least 30 hours per week receives a health insurance plan” to me. Limiting some workers to a maximum of 29 hours per week, which a number of unscrupulous businesses in food service and similar industries have tried to avoid offering health insurance at all, is an option for school districts as well. The vast majority of these employees are already eligible for health insurance under the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, so the situation is very different here. School districts will have to do some more paperwork to be in compliance with the ACA, but if anyone is equipped to deal with paperwork it’s school districts, and the net effect will be that more employees wind up with health insurance. I’m okay with that.

Rolling out the laptops

I look forward to seeing how this goes.

Tens of thousands of local students will receive taxpayer-funded laptops or tablets this month as the Houston and Clear Creek school districts join the national movement toward digital education.

School leaders say dispatching the devices can help bridge the gap between rich and poor families and lead to more engaging instruction, though some recent trials elsewhere were plagued with problems.

As the nation’s seventh-largest school system, HISD will be closely watched as it becomes the latest big-city district to experiment with giving students personal technology devices to use in class and at home.

By the end of January, the Houston Independent School District plans to have distributed laptops to roughly 18,000 students at a quarter of its high schools. At the same time, Clear Creek ISD expects to deploy about 6,000 tablets to all its ninth- and 10th-graders. Both districts intend to dispatch many more devices over the next few years.

“This project is not going to go without bumps,” said Lenny Schad, HISD’s chief technology officer. “But I’m confident when those bumps do occur, we’re going to be able to react very quickly and move forward.”

[…]

Research into whether personal technology programs – typically called one-to-one initiatives – lead to improved student achievement has yielded mixed results. While some districts and states started giving devices to students on a small scale more than a decade ago, few of those efforts have survived, largely for budget reasons.

But as cell phones and computers have become ubiquitous, technology experts say schools need to take public education more into the digital age.

“It is irresponsible for any school district not to be moving to creating 21st century learning environments. I think it’s criminal,” said Leslie Wilson, who co-directed Michigan’s $40 million school laptop program in the early 2000s. “But it’s also criminal to go about doing that without doing it right.”

[…]

Clear Creek voters approved the technology plan as part of a bond referendum last May. By the fall of 2015, the district expects to dispatch about 30,000 tablets to students in grades 4 through 12. The cost per device, including software, a case and extended warranty, is $541, according to the district.

HISD officials say leasing the HP laptops is cheaper, at about $260 for the device and software, excluding the case.

In both districts, the students ultimately have to return the devices.

So far, HISD has funded its laptop program with federal dollars designated for low-income students as well as professional development. For this school year, the district has budgeted more than $8.1 million for the devices, teacher training and other expenses. By January 2016, HISD plans to dispatch nearly 65,000 laptops to all its high school students.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has said he eventually would like to give devices to younger students as well.

See here, here, and here for the background. I agree that school districts need to make modern technologies available to their students. How else do we expect students to learn about them? It’s also vitally important for districts to have a solid plan for deploying laptops or tablets or whatever, to have a strong training program in place for teachers, and to track results and make adjustments as needed. There’s not enough long-term research available yet to provide clear guideposts, but we can at least learn from the failures of others. I’m excited about this and I hope it produces great results.

More on the Fort Bend ISD iPad failure

The Observer presents a good overview of the disastrous iPad experiment at the Fort Bend Independent School District.

An audit of Fort Bend ISD’s iAchieve program released last month, details the ways the effort was cursed. (You can read the report below.) In short, Fort Bend ISD expected too much from its program too soon. It rushed ahead without enough tech infrastructure, without the right people, and without enough control over where its money was going. It hired a contractor the district knew well, but that had little experience developing iPad learning platforms.

“I felt they were rushing it—they only did a one-month pilot,” says [Jenny] Bailey, a school trustee elected during the iAchieve backlash. “Everyone knows you can’t really measure anything in a month. I felt like it was being pushed out for some odd reason.”

Bailey says the district seemed determined to take a particularly hard road, building its own platform with all new lessons.

[…]

Naturally, the district would need a highly skilled contractors to handle the technical side of this monstrous undertaking, and in February 2012 they made their pick: a Louisiana-based company called Curriculum Ventures that, as the auditors note, first registered with the state on the same day it bid on the iAchieve contract.

Curriculum Ventures had two employees, one of whom boasts that his experience includes having “(so far) built 5 businesses that were failures, 1 that was semi-successful, and 1 more that is mostly successful.”

If anything, the audit downplays what a strange decision this was. Bonnie Louque, the company’s director, was well known to [former FBISD Superintendent] Timothy Jenney and Fort Bend ISD as the seller of a curriculum called Character Links, a set of classroom handouts about positive traits like acceptance and respect. (Louque did not reply to phone or email messages from the Observer.)

A 2007 Houston Chronicle story credits Jenney with “discover[ing] the program,” and since then Fort Bend ISD has been named a national “School of Character” thanks in part to its use of Character Links. How Louque parlayed that relationship into a key role developing technology for Texas’ seventh-largest school district is a little less clear.

In September 2011, Louque & Associates got a $135,000 contract to develop a prototype of the interactive science platform, awarded without a competitive bid process.

One month later, now known as Curriculum Ventures, they bid for the million-dollar iAchieve contract. Fort Bend administrators gave them the high score out of four bidders, with 4.5 out of a possible 5 in “demonstrated competence and qualification.”

With Curriculum Ventures on board—and already billing for project maintenance beginning on day one—the district piloted iAchieve in 4th, 5th and 8th grade classrooms in spring and fall of 2012.

See here and here for the background. Clearly, the lesson here is that this sort of project should not be undertaken without a well-thought out plan and a contractor capable of executing it. The Fort Bend experience can serve as a good example of what not to do for any other school district that’s thinking about going down this path. The good news for FBISD is that this isn’t a total loss. As the story notes, they do still have all the equipment, a more robust WiFi infrastructure, and some new tech experts on staff. They can regroup from here and still get value out of their investment. I wish them good luck with that.

Fort Bend ISD halts iPad program

This is a surprise.

Widespread problems found by a consultant have prompted Fort Bend school district officials to shelve a $16 million initiative to integrate thousands of iPads into the classroom experience at 14 schools.

A review commissioned by the Fort Bend Independent School District found that the program, known as iAchieve, was rolled out last year with unrealistic goals. The review also concluded use of the devices was limited, managers had inadequate skills and the vendor hired to develop the learning platform was a startup with no relevant experience.

Officials hoped to improve lagging science scores by delivering an interactive curriculum for second through eighth grades using 6,300 iPads. Pilot efforts were conducted in fourth and eighth grades at three schools in spring 2012, and the initiative was expanded to 14 schools.

The superintendent, Timothy Jenney, and chief information officer who led the implementation have left the district. Current Superintendent Charles Dupre initiated the review by Gibson Consulting Group soon after he was hired in April.

“There was no clarity of why and how (the program) came to be and (was) executed, and that caused me some concern,” Dupre said.

[…]

According to the report, the district’s timetable for the program was overly aggressive. For example, the consultant noted that pilot classes were delayed because of lack of instructional content and problems with the platform and network issues.

Another issue was the district’s decision to appoint its chief information officer as the project manager. Such a major technology initiative required a full-time manager with expertise in large-scale projects, curriculum development and instructional technology, the report said.

The district created three special project coordinator positions to support implementation, but the skill requirements posted for the job were insufficient, the consultant found.

In addition, the review found the iPads were not fully used in the classrooms. On average, only two schools reported that as many as half of their students used the devices daily.

Teachers surveyed about the program following a second round of pilots in fall 2012 said the quality of the content was poor, the platform didn’t function properly and the lessons were inconsistent with district lesson plans, the report said.

Pretty brutal. I noted the pilot launch last year, but apparently there hasn’t been much public news about how the program had been going. The FBISD trustees received the report from Gibson Consulting on September 9. The Fort Bend Star was the only other place where I saw any reporting on this when I googled “iAchieve”. From their story:

The report showed a series of problems with iAchieve starting with an unrealistic timeline that overly stressed teachers charged with writing the science curriculum. Constant changes to the iAchieve’s software program, or platform, and inconsistencies in curriculum standards meant “the goal lines were always being moved” resulting in a lackluster launch that never gave the program solid footing.

“Most of the schools show a real underutilization of the iPads in the course of a typical day,” said Lon Heuer with Gibson Consulting Group.

In addition, the report suggested that the district should have hired an iAchieve manager with skills in project management and instructional technology to take charge of the large-scale project. The report mentioned 12 special project coordinators who were hired to help teachers navigate iAchieve, did not have the right skill set to do properly do the job.

“The former CIO (Robert Calvert) served as the project manager but being a CIO is a full time job,” said Heuer “(iAchieve) was hindered by the fact that it didn’t have a dedicated project manager with skills in project management and a background in instructional technology.”

Gibson’s report also detailed a series of poor contract management practices involving Curriculum Ventures, a company hired by the district to oversee the instructional technology. Whether Curriculum Ventures had any prior experience implementing a large scale project such as iAchieve is murky, the report says. Furthermore, the district lacked documentation showing the progress and status of iAchieve and there was little or no accountability as the program progressed.

“It appeared the company was doing work but Fort Bend ISD had no idea what was being done and how the project was moving forward,” Heuer said.

I have not come across a copy of the report itself, but it’s clear that this program had issues with its design and was poorly executed. I hope HISD, which is working on a laptops for all plan, takes a close look at what happened in Fort Bend to see what it can learn from that experience.

School districts are still a long way from getting relief

School districts may have gotten a favorable ruling in the latest school finance lawsuit, and if it survives appeal it could have far-reaching effects on the current system, but that doesn’t mean that things will get better for them now. If anything, they’re likely to get worse first.

“It’s pretty bleak for next year,” said Tracy Hoke, chief financial officer for the Fort Bend Independent School District, the lead plaintiff in one of six lawsuits filed against the state over funding. “Certainly, there won’t be a lot of new staffing, and employees are very, very tired. Our custodians are cleaning more. Our teachers have larger classes. Our counselors are stretched very thin.”

Hoke and other district leaders say they plan to craft their budgets for 2013-14 similar to current levels of spending, presuming lawmakers will not pour much new money into schools this legislative session, which ends in late May.

[…]

The House Democratic Caucus said its members plan to file a budget amendment this session to restore the $5.4 billion in cuts, while the chairman of the House Republican Caucus, Rep. Brandon Creighton, of Conroe, said acting so soon would be “irresponsible and unproductive.” The state is expected to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, which could overrule Dietz’s decision.

“To me,” countered Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside ISD in San Antonio, “it’s shortsighted to wait for the Supreme Court, to kick the can down the road another 14 to 16 months when you know there is a problem.”

Woods said he regularly hears complaints that classes are too big and that custodians and technology assistants are too few. His district, like Fort Bend ISD and other fast-growing school systems, should get more money next year because enrollment is rising. Woods, however, said the enrollment growth funding would not cover the cost of opening three new campuses.

[…]

In Houston ISD, the state’s largest district, chief financial officer Ken Huewitt estimates having to fill a $50 million budget shortfall in the upcoming school year. The school board dipped into savings and used one-time federal funds to help balance the budget last year. Jobs may have to be cut, said HISD spokesman Jason Spencer, though it is too soon to know for sure.

“We’re hopeful they’re not going to take any more away from us, but we’re not expecting them to give us anything more,” Huewitt said of lawmakers. “But it’s early.”

I can only imagine what the effect of having to absorb North Forest ISD would have on HISD’s budget. Be that as it may, the Democrats in the House are going to try to force the issue of school finance in this session.

The House Democratic Caucus says it will introduce a measure to restore the $5.4 billion in cuts to this year’s budget by adding it to an emergency spending bill needed to pay for Medicaid. Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, D-San Antonio, will also try on Monday to convince the House to declare school finance an emergency item and begin work on the matter immediately.

These votes will be just the beginning of a long, drawn out effort to get Republicans to either vote for increased government spending — which will get them in trouble in the 2014 Republican primaries — or get them to vote against public education spending, which will give Democrats an issue in the 2014 general elections.

The Republican leadership recognizes the trap and will do its best to side-step it. The GOP will also use parliamentary procedure to block votes and argue that rewriting school finance laws while there is ongoing litigation is foolish.

Privately, Republicans say they want to delay any action on school finance for as long as possible and are considering stalling tactics. Abbott can do Republican lawmakers a favor and slow-peddle the appeals process to make sure the lawsuit lasts well into 2014. Then Gov. Rick Perry can call a special legislative session after the 2014 primaries and before the 2014 general election.

Such a special session would allow Republican lawmakers to vote for a school finance overhaul that boosts spending after they’ve made it past the notoriously conservative Republican primary voter. They would also solve the school finance problem before Democrats could attack them for not taking care of public schools, one of the most important issues for the general election voter.

As expected, Rep. Martinez-Fischer filed HR 408 yesterday to encourage the Lege to appropriate the money it had cut in 2011 without waiting for the Supreme Court to rule. You can read the press statement from MALC here. In his oddball iconoclastic way, Republican Rep. David Simpson is with the Dems on taking action now. More than half of that $8.8 billion in surplus funds from 2011 that resulted from Comptroller Combs’ gross underestimation of available revenue has now been marked to pay our outstanding Medicaid bills, so a full restoration of public ed money would need to involve the Rainy Day fund and/or current revenues, at least in part. That doesn’t make the debate any less worth having, of course. I don’t expect this to actually happen – the Lege will fund enrollment growth, and there may be some funds restored for things like pre-K – but the more we debate it, the better. We can help schools now, we don’t have to wait. It’s our choice.

Fort Bend ISD goes BYOD

Students in the Fort Bend Independent School District may now bring their own mobile device to class to connect to the school’s WiFi and be part of the curriculum.

Fort Bend ISD’s policy allows students to use electronic devices to access the WiFi network in the classroom.

Before this year, the district forbade cellphone use on campus, and any technology use required permission from administrators. The policy follows a similar Katy ISD program, begun last school year. And Spring ISD has launched a pilot project this year at a high school and two middle schools.

Teachers have incorporated smartphones into math lessons by replacing flash cards with game apps and creating class blogs for language arts classes, where students question each other about their assigned reading. Students can also use smartphones in class to take pictures of concepts on the chalk board or to take part in class polls.

Jarret Reid Whitaker, the executive director of the Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship at Rice University, said the “bring your own device” trend is catching on around the state.

“This is an area that every district will have to face,” Whitaker said. “I think right now the only issue of concern raised is making sure students use it appropriately.”

Critics have pointed to insufficient evidence of a link between more access to technology and student success. Others note the potential for more cheating and the temptation to use the devices for non-academic purposes.

The Aldine Independent School District altered its strict cellphone policy this year to allow devices at school, although they must be turned off at all times. The Houston Independent School District still forbids cellphone use in its classrooms.

FBISD had a pilot iPad program last year, so this is presumably an extension of that; McAllen ISD is also using iPads in a big way. I think this is a good idea, assuming that every teacher still has the right to set their own policies in their classrooms. There’s a debate that the story touches on about the devices being a distraction and an enabler of cheating, and that there’s no evidence as yet that the use of such devices improves test scores. I get that, and again I believe no teacher should be required to use technology they don’t like or don’t believe makes their jobs easier, but I think not taking advantage of mobile devices where possible is like what ignoring would have been like 20 years ago. Smartphones, iPads, and the like are part of kids’ worlds these days, and they’re where all of the innovation is happening in computing. If we’re serious about wanting to graduate students who are ready for the challenges of the job market they’ll be facing, I don’t see how we can ignore such a key component to that market. As for the point about not improving test scores, all I can say is that even if there’s a sufficient body of research to make firm conclusions for technology that’s only been in existence for a couple of years, if this is our excuse for not integrating new technology into the classroom then we really are putting too much emphasis on standardized tests. I think school districts need to figure this out and get on with it, and I think it’s only a matter of time before the Lege makes them do it whether they want to or not. Better to get started on it now, if you ask me.

Fort Bend ISD layoffs

Unfortunately, I expect we’ll hear more stories like this in the coming months.

On Thursday, many teachers in the Fort Bend Independent School District got the letter they had dreaded.

It was notification from Rhonda McWilliams, the district’s chief human resources officer, that their jobs will be slashed after the current school year.

“Unfortunately, your position has been identified for reduction, and you will not be offered a contract of employment for the 2010-2011 school year,” the letter reads.

The layoff plan is targeting about 450 positions districtwide, including non-teaching jobs.

As we know, Fort Bend is one of the fastest growing school districts in the state. Does it make sense for them to be looking to shed employees, especially teachers, like this? Now, some of the commenters on that story are claiming that the FBISD administration is dysfunctional, and maybe that’s true. I don’t live there, I don’t know. I do know that their financial pressures are real, and that if we had a sensible school finance system, they wouldn’t be in such a tough situation. The question is, what are we going to do about that? The status quo isn’t working. It’s up to us to fix it. Juanita has more.

The school district squeeze

Everywhere you look there’s bad budget news.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Fort Bend ISD Chief Financial Officer Tracy Hoke, who’s worked in school finance for two decades. “I could turn out every light, and we’d still have a deficit.”

Hoke isn’t exaggerating about the lights. The Fort Bend Independent School District is facing a $20 million deficit for the coming academic year. The district’s annual utility bill is expected to top $18 million, a $1 million increase over this year.

The district’s other expenses also are rising — staffing three new schools will cost $2.3 million, for example — but its revenues are staying essentially flat under Texas’ school funding system. In 2006, state lawmakers slashed property tax rates and capped districts’ revenue at a certain amount per child. That amount varied widely and tended to penalize school systems with booming student enrollment. Fort Bend, for example, got $4,871 per student, while Tomball ISD earned $5,783.

Three things to note here. One is that any school finance system that cannot keep up with the needs of the fastest growing districts is a system that is built for failure, in every sense of the word. My thesaurus isn’t big enough to adequately describe the magnitude of the catastrophe that is brewing.

Two, education and health care are the biggest parts of the budget. As was recently pointed out to me, you could zero out the criminal justice article of the budget – shut down the prisons, set all the inmates free, close the courts – and you still wouldn’t cover even half of the revenue shortfall. (Don’t believe me – see for yourself. Schools are covered in Article 3, health and Human services in Article 2, with the biggest piece (Medicaid) being under the Health and Human Services Commission, and criminal justice is in Article 5, under Department of Criminal Justice.) We basically froze school spending in the 2006 special session where that giant unaffordable property tax cut originated, and the Lege is going to be forced to cut school spending further in 2011. Did I mention this was a giant disaster about to happen? Which leads to point three:

David Thompson is a Houston attorney who represented districts in a school finance lawsuit that was decided by the Texas Supreme Court in 2005. The court ruled for the districts, noting that they no longer had “meaningful discretion” over their property tax rates. The Legislature responded with revisions to the funding system in 2006.

Thompson said the changes provided “temporary relief,” but schools now are struggling under their fourth year of the so-called target revenue system. He wouldn’t say whether school boards are considering suing again.

“I will say that the trends to me are disturbingly looking like they looked prior to 2006,” Thompson said. “We have funding for schools that is arbitrary and not rational and not related to the standards we’re trying to accomplish. We have growing equity gaps in some places.”

You want to make a sure-fire bet on something? Bet on there being another school finance-related lawsuit in the coming decade, quite possibly in the early part of it. And before you say “well, maybe we can do more cuts on the health and human services side”, let me say three words to you: Frew v. Hawkins. It’s lawsuits all the way down. Fixing the revenue side of the equation is the only way out.