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Gayle Fallon

Keeping an eye on Katy ISD

This could be interesting.

Some of the details of George Scott’s “shadow school board” are still that – shadowy.

But as the conservative blogger has assembled a group to meet regularly to reach its own conclusions about the business of the fast-growing Katy ISD board, his mission is clear: to use public data to take aim at the district’s use of high-stakes testing.

He hopes the approach has far-reaching effects beyond the Katy ISD boundaries and will serve as a model for other districts.

“I’ve known George since I first became the president of the local, well over 30 years” said Gayle Fallon, the recently retired president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. “He and I have not always agreed, but I think he’s got a good idea here and one that if it takes off, could have a national impact.”

Scott and Fallon don’t necessarily see eye to eye on many things. But their interests align when it comes to the burden that they say standardized tests have placed on classroom teachers and students.

“With this new emphasis on data,” said Fallon, “teachers spend hours they used to spend with kids just doing data for school districts.”


If he can raise $13,000 through his Kickstarter campaign, Scott said the board will meet on Saturdays starting next year for all-day sessions reviewing data from ongoing public information requests. The money would go toward information requests, facility rentals and meals during the meetings but participants wouldn’t be otherwise compensated, according to Scott. If he raises more than expected, then the shadow board would prepare a budget. All the financials would be publicly available. In April, the board would produce a position paper with recommendations on how to push back on testing’s impact in the classroom as well as on other issues.

“There is an immense amount of data and the typical school board member hasn’t a clue,” said Scott. “They don’t have anybody getting a real actual understanding of the correlation between all of this testing they have and what it means in the organization and delivery at the campus level and the concept of holding people accountable.”

As noted, Scott is a blogger and former member of the Board of Managers of the Harris County Hospital District, among many other things. He’s also been a voice for fairness and transparency in how properties, especially commercial properties, are appraised – I’ve cited his work here more than once. Like Gayle Fallon, I don’t see eye to eye with him on many things, but I respect him and his work, and I think this is a worthwhile project, whatever they ultimately do or don’t find. I wish you and your team good luck, George, and feel free to send me a press release any time you unearth something interesting.

Lawsuit filed over teacher evaluation system

A new front is opened in the war on standardized testing.

Seven HISD teachers and their union are suing the school district to try to end job evaluations tied to students’ test scores, arguing the method is arbitrary, unfair and in violation of their due-process rights.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court late Wednesday, could have far-reaching implications as more districts and states use student test data to grade teachers.

The Houston case focuses on the district’s use of a specific, privately developed statistical model that analzes test data to try to gauge a teacher’s effectiveness.

In some cases, according to the lawsuit, teachers see their scores fluctuate from year to year, while other results are based on tests not aligned to the state curriculum. The lawsuit also argues that all teachers aren’t treated equally, and they can’t adequately challenge their ratings because the formula is too opaque.

For example, the lawsuit says, Andy Dewey, a social studies teacher at Carnegie Vanguard High School, received such high scores in 2012 that he qualified for the district’s top performance bonus; his results the next year dropped significantly.

“Mr. Dewey went from being deemed one of the highest performing teachers in HISD to one making ‘no detectable difference’ for his students,” the lawsuit said.

Dewey has told the Houston Chronicle previously that he does not understand why his scores vary when he and his fellow social studies teachers — they are rated as a team — don’t change their instruction significantly from year to year.


The system at the center of the lawsuit generally is called “value added.” It uses complex statistics to estimate how well students should perform on standardized tests based on their own past performance. Teachers whose students score better than expected get the best ratings, whether or not the students passed the test.

To do the analysis, HISD contracts with a North Carolina company, whose model is called the Education Value-Added Assessment System, or EVAAS.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here, the press release from the AFT is here, and some background is here. The Texas AFT has an illustration of the EVAAS formula here. I am not opposed in theory to the idea of value-added evaluations. This is basically what the sabermetric revolution in sports has been all about, coming up with ways to measure performance and determine the value of players in various sports. In sports, however, the relationship between the various metrics – runs created, points per possession, DVOA, etc – has been demonstrably linked to the teams’s actual on-field performance. They also show what sort of things a given player needs to do in order to be valuable. Finally, there are multiple systems that have been created to measure value, and they have risen or fallen based on their usefulness and accuracy. I don’t know how much any of this is true for EVAAS. I do know that teachers should have a clear understanding of what is expected of them, and they should have some input on their evaluation. I’ll be very interested to see how this goes. The Trib and K-12 Zone have more.

Makeup days

Sorry, kids.

Houston area schools are facing possible cuts in state funding, and a bruising in the court of public opinion, by making up days missed earlier this year because of icy roads.

With little fat built into the spring school calendar and several days of mandatory state testing, Houston schools have little choice but to make up the two days missed because of January ice scares on Good Friday, Memorial Day or at the end of the school year.

“There hadn’t been a bad weather day for so long, no one was paying attention,” said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. “Our winters are usually not the problem. It’s usually those fall hurricanes.”

The Houston Independent School District has opted to make up the two missed days on April 18 and May 26. By holding classes on Good Friday, HISD can take advantage of a little-known exception that permits Texas schools to receive state funding for absent students with a written notice that they are observing a religious holiday.

Districts making up class on April 17 could also grant excused absences for a travel day ahead of a religious holiday, according to state law.

Typically, schools are funded at a daily rate of roughly $35 per student in attendance each day, meaning low attendance on a single day could cost HISD and other districts millions of dollars, according to Texas Education Agency data.

Some folks are upset that HISD picked Good Friday and Memorial Day as the makeup days as opposed to shaving a day off of Spring Break or adding a day at the end of the year, but from a budgetary perspective these choices made the most sense. If you’re unhappy about this, I recommend you direct your displeasure at the Legislature and Rick Perry for their devastating cuts to public education in 2011 and their refusal to fully restore those cuts in 2013. I would also point out that one candidate for Governor this fall promises to fully fund public education, while the other continues to defend those budget cuts in court. You want to do something about this, that would be your best opportunity.

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.

On school shootings

I have four things to say about this.

In the national collective grief rising from Friday’s mass shooting in Connecticut, one apparent trust seems to have completely shattered: that an elementary school was sacred and safe ground.

Left in the wake of 20 children and eight adults massacred by a lone gunman is a renewed debate over how secure should schools be and at what cost. Closer to home at least one teacher’s union is now calling for more armed guards on Houston school campuses.

Several local school districts acknowledged they focus their full-time security staff on high school and middle school campuses and only send patrols to elementary schools. They said it was too early to say if that strategy would be changed or if there was money to pay for it.

Other officials and experts questioned the expense of providing enough security – the kind that could turn a school into a virtual fortress – to repel a heavily-armed intruder.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers union, said she favors placing more armed police officers in schools, even on elementary campuses. It’s a proposition she recognizes would be “very expensive.”

“We really need more security,” she said. “You never know what nutcase is suddenly going to decide that shooting up the local school is a good idea.”

Fallon, however, said she does not support arming teachers with pistols, as a small school district in Harrold, Texas, did in 2008, drawing national attention.


HISD spokesman Jason Spencer noted HISD has 279 campuses, and only 200 full-time officers who are assigned to high schools, middle schools and secondary school campuses. HISD officers patrol the elementary schools.

“We don’t have enough officers to have one stationed full time at each campus,” Spencer said. “We do the best we can with the resources we have.”

1. What does it say about us as a society that we are talking about the benefits of having armed guards stand over our children? I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s not what I want for my kids.

2. For those like Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who do believe that having armed guards in place is the key to preventing this kind of violence, I’d like for you to please explain the Fort Hood shooting to me. (Patterson conveniently omitted that tragedy from the list he gave in support of his argument.) Surely the problem there was not the lack of armed and trained personnel in the vicinity.

3. After cutting $5.4 billion from public education in 2011 and causing the layoff of thousands of teachers, librarians, counselors, nurses, support staff, bus drivers, and God knows who else, we’re going to find the money to hire thousands of armed security guards? Seriously?

4. If we really want to do something constructive, and spend our money in a way that might actually help the problem, then let’s finally get serious about mental health in this country. Right now, it’s far easier to buy an assault weapon than it is to access mental health services, and the latter is much more expensive if you can get it. I hope we can all agree this is a problem.

Actually, I have five things to say: Screw Mike Huckabee. That is all.

Two views of pensions

The Chron’s Sunday op-ed pages were filled with pension-related discussion. Here are the citizen members of the Long-Range Financial Management Task Force, fresh off of their report release, taking to the pages to lay out what the city wants from the Lege on pension issues.

  • The Texas Legislature must change the current law that gives control of the pension plans to the city employees and retirees who benefit from the funds. The Legislature needs to let the city, not the beneficiaries, manage the funds, since the city has the responsibility for paying the benefits. This change will not affect the integrity of the funds’ assets.
  • The city must be given full access to the three pension funds’ detailed financial information including investments, benefit structures, individual payments and participant information, so that the city can independently calculate benefits costs. Currently, state law and the funds’ internal policies deny the city access to this information. Even the trustee appointed by the mayor is prohibited from giving financial information to the city Finance Department for analysis. The city must have such information in order to fully understand the benefits being promised and paid and in order to be able to make the appropriate changes to the benefit structures to achieve benefit levels that are sustainable. Our biggest disappointment in this process was our inability to obtain full access to the pension information. Without it, we were unable to determine, for example, whether pension reductions necessary to build a sustainable retirement system could be limited to reductions for future employees or whether roll backs to current employees will be required.
  •  Benefit schedules must be adjusted to eliminate “spiking”- the manipulation of benefits through the use of overtime and late career or temporary salary increases in the calculation of final average pay upon which the benefits are based. Eligibility to receive retirement benefits must be at reasonable ages with retirement benefits capped at a reasonable level. Incredibly, under current plans, some former classified employees retire after only 20 years of service without regard to age and others receive annual retirement benefits in excess of 100 percent of their preretirement base pay.
  •  Pension security requires that the city fully fund the Actuarial Required Contribution every year based on a reasonable assumed discount rate without exception.
  •  We must eliminate the option of granting additional retirement payments for employees who reach retirement age but continue to work.
  • In a fair and sensitive way, we must change postretirement health care benefits, which impose unreasonable costs.

None of this sounds unreasonable in the abstract. There are no numbers attached to anything in this writeup, so there’s no way to judge how it would affect any individual or group of individuals, and of course we would need to hear from those people to know what their concerns are before anything moves forward. But as a starting point, none of this raises any red flags to me. I’d also like to thank our only Governor for bringing the penultimate item to everyone’s attention.

By the way, I have not seen this reported anywhere else, but there was a minority report written as well. This report was written by the employee representatives (including HOPE) on the Task Force, who represent some 40,000 city employees. From a statement they sent out:

The report states that it agrees with the goals of the Task Force but that the overall report focuses too much on short-term goals and not enough on solutions that address core financial issues. Instead, the Minority Report suggests the following:

• Restructuring the City Debt and take advantage of the historically low interest rate levels.
• Address City Structural Challenges by thoroughly analyzing its enterprise Funds, TIRZs and Management Districts and whether they provide a real financial benefit to City taxpayers.
• Analyze the Draining Fee Structure to determine what present City related services can be funded with it and make sure that any savings are transparent and communicated to the public.
• Long-term Economic Growth strategies need to be implemented that incorporate efficient services to the citizens of Houston.
• Carefully consider proposed Public-private combination strategies, like privatizing the City’s EMS services, to determine whether true cost-efficiencies can be realized without a deterioration of city services upon which the public now relies.

The other issue taken up by the Task Force was City Pensions. Presently, there are three City of Houston Pension programs, one for the Municipal employees, one for the Police (each governed by an appointed and elected pension board), and the Statewide Fire Fighters Pension governed at the state level. The Minority Report states that there are misconceptions about the pension reform matters that have been in the news and that the City’s long-term debt has historically been rolled forward with little long-term thought given to how the debt will be funded. The three pensions are governed by independent boards and the City can engage these boards to make changes through a ‘meet and confer’ process (as was done recently for Municipal and Police). The Minority Report recommended the following for the pensions.

• Funding of Pensions: They need to be funded at actuarially required contribution levels.
• The Risk Equation: The funding risk for the pensions is spread over investment returns, employee contributions and the system’s plan design. They note that the pension funds exist for the benefit of multiple generations of workers and must focus on the long term and that the City’s pensions have matched or exceeded their target returns of 8.5% (a rate that is considered reasonable but subject to projection changes at any time).
• Defined Benefit Plans (DB’s): Suggestions have been made to convert DB’s to defined contribution (DC) plans but the report notes that if done, they are only cheaper if benefits are cut. Presently, Municipal employees average less than $22,000 a year in retirement after a lifetime of work at low wages and no extras like bonuses. It has also been found that when DB plans are closed and converted to DC plans it results in substantial increases in costs and could jeopardize attracting future City employees.
• Transparency: It has been alleged that data from the pension plans is secretive, especially the DROP accounts, but the report points out that this is not so and that information is available to actuarially determine any future costs.

Obviously, that last point contradicts what the authors of the above op-ed claim. I’d like to get some clarity on that. The full minority report can be seen here.

Over on the letters to the editor page, HFT President Gayle Fallon disputes some of the assertions made by Bill King in his latest screed about public pension systems.

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) is well managed and well funded. According to its last audit, it is solvent through 2075 and is funded at 82.7 percent – a better funding ratio than most private plans. A funding ratio of 80 percent or above is considered a sign of a healthy pension system.

There are several key points to consider as the attack on public pension funds ramps up:

  • More than half of the money in the TRS funds has been contributed by the educational employees.
  • In 1995, the state reduced its contribution from 7.31 percent to 6.0 percent, the minimum that is constitutionally guaranteed to educators, and left it there for 12 years. Employees contribute 6.4 percent.
  • Contrary to King’s statement that retirees have had no cost of living adjustment in over 10 years, retirees received a cost of living increase this year from TRS.
  • The TRS rate of return has exceeded the 8 percent rate targeted by TRS actuaries for decades. As a result, the taxpayer share of benefits paid is only 20 percent.
  • Moving workers to 401(k) plans places all of the risk on the employees. If the market drops during their retirement, they have nothing to protect them from spending their old age in abject poverty. Most workers who have a 401(k) also have Social Security. Texas teachers do not. All they have is TRS.

I will say again, as I contribute to the problem today, I think we are devoting too much time and attention to the pension issue as it relates to city finances and not enough to other issues. King is talking about more than just the city of Houston’s pension systems, and despite his assurances about his intentions I don’t have a particularly high level of trust in what he’s saying. Part of this is simply a distaste for advocacy of austerity, sacrifice, and change that don’t affect the person doing the advocating. We’ve already had plenty of that, thanks. There likely will need to be some changes made to public pension systems, in Houston and in Texas, to ensure their long term viability and to be fair to the taxpayers. All I’m saying is that it’s only one piece of the puzzle, and we need to spend more time on all the other pieces.

Teacher evaluations

HISD is gearing up to implement a new teacher evaluation system, but not without a fight first.

The Houston Federation of Teachers has launched what is expected to be a protracted battle to void the new evaluation. It starts with a hearing Wednesday before an attorney, who will hear evidence from the union and the district administration.

Union president Gayle Fallon said she anticipates losing but vows to appeal to the Texas education commissioner. The case could set a state precedent for districts that tinker with how they rate teachers.

“We have some really good arguments,” said the union’s attorney, Martha Owen. “I’m hesitant to predict (the outcomes). The commissioner hasn’t ruled in cases like this.”


Fallon contends that the Houston Independent School District violated state law in designing the evaluation. Among other problems, she argues, the district didn’t sufficiently take teacher input into account.

Texas law says districts may deviate from the state appraisal if the replacement is “developed by” district and school committees made up of teachers and community members. At least 87 percent of districts use the state model, according to the Texas Education Agency.

HISD officials and their consultants at The New Teacher Project have said they involved 2,600 teachers and 1,500 administrators, parents and community members in designing the appraisal. District- and school-level committees met and teachers could fill out online surveys.

I know I discussed the challenges of evaluating teachers when I interviewed Gayle Fallon last year. I don’t think we really have a handle on what the “best” way to do this is. I guess the way I look at this is this: How much faith do you have in the employee evaluation system they have where you work? Obviously, there has to be some way to do this, but if the people who are being evaluated by it don’t have faith in it, isn’t that a problem?

HISD approves tougher teacher evaluation plan

I have some concerns about this.

Teachers in the Houston Independent School District next year will face tougher job evaluations that grade them on their students’ test scores under a nationally watched plan that trustees approved Thursday.

The 7-2 vote did not shift from last month when the board gave initial approval to the evaluation system, thrusting HISD into the national debate over the best way to rate teachers as a way to improve public schools.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has pushed for the use of test scores to hold teachers more accountable, applauded the nation’s seventh-largest district for its plan.

“The new system uses multiple measures and incorporates student academic growth in a thoughtful and balanced way,” Duncan said. “Houston is providing a model for the state and other districts to follow.”

HISD’s two main teacher groups oppose parts of the plan, particularly the use of certain test data and the fast rollout.

I would have preferred to see a smaller rollout of this first, to get a better understanding of what the issues are before subjecting everyone to it. There’s also the fact that academic research on the effectiveness of these methods is mixed. Chron reporter Ericka Mellon does a great job rounding up some of the results from various studies here. One thing caught my eye:

[I]f you have 12 minutes, Jonah Rockoff, a business professor at Columbia University, gives a good explanation of value added and sums up the debate. His position: Value-added, a method about as reliable as batting averages in baseball, is fair to use as one part of teachers’ job evaluations.

There’s a video embedded with that explanation, which I have not yet had the time to watch. The irony, if that’s a direct quote, is that as any baseball stathead knows, batting average is actually quite unreliable in the sense that it tends to fluctuate from year to year. You remember what Crash Davis said in Bull Durham about the difference between a .250 hitter and a .300 hitter is one seeing-eye grounder a week? It’s absolutely true, and the research there shows that the year-to-year correlation for batting average is considerably lower than things like isolated power and walk rate. I’ll have to watch the video to see how Professor Rockoff meant that statement, but if that’s what we’re relying on then folks have a reason to be skeptical. School Zone and Hair Balls have more.

Meet the HISD hopefuls

The people who are hoping to be appointed to the open HISD Trustee seat made their appearance at Furr High School and made their pitch.

Trustees are slated to discuss their options Thursday and must make a decision by next Tuesday. They could name an appointee to serve through 2011.

The eight prospective candidates generally echoed similar priorities, agreeing with the board’s focus on quality teachers and principals.

“I think with one exception everyone read the (HISD) website and told them exactly what they wanted to hear,” said Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon, who joined more than 60 people in the audience.

“That’s not really critical of the candidates. It’s more critical of the process,” Fallon added. “If you tell them what they don’t want to hear, what would the odds be that you’re getting the appointment?”

Well, I’ve been to enough candidate forums to know that this phenomenon is not uncommon, but Fallon’s point is well taken. The difference, of course, is that there they’re speaking to the voters, not the powers that be, and that they have an incentive to differentiate themselves. I don’t know how well an artificial event like that would be at bringing that out. And I don’t know how the Board is going to decide what the consensus of the community is, though I do know that having an election is a pretty good way of determining it. More on the candidates, if that’s the right word, from Campos, Hair Balls, and School Days.

CEP gets a good grade

As reported by Hair Balls, the Texas A&M consultant that was brought in by HISD and Superintendent Terry Grier to evaluate Community Education Partners (CEP), its provider for the disciplinary alternate education program, has now issued his long-awaited report. You can read it here, but the short answer is that CEP was given a fine evaluation. Here’s the executive summary of the report:

Observations of CEP schools indicated that both CEP campuses were well‐organized to effectively manage behavior and deliver instruction with clear goals. CEP referrals also reportedly have a positive impact on the behavioral and learning climate of home schools. Importantly, CEP exceeded the standards for most quantitative contract indicators. For example, results indicate that CEP exceeded performance expectations relative to the state assessment (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills), pre and post‐assessment, middle school promotion rates, and leaver status. Where standards were not met, specifically for disciplinary action rates and attendance, two facts should be observed. First, for both disciplinary action rates and attendance, the contract called for examining the performance of students who attended CEP for 120 days or more, thus focusing these analyses on less than 10% of the student population served by CEP; CEP would have met these standards had the entire population of students served been considered. Second, the contract provides CEP with an opportunity to remedy any performance issues noted in its evaluation. In sum, the vast majority of data gathered and analyzed for this evaluation indicates that CEP performed well relative to expectations.

The whole report is worth reading for the feedback it got from principals, which suggested a few places for improvement. The Chron story about the report has an interesting tidbit:

The analysis of dropout data showed that CEP lost 9 percent of its students in the 2008-09 school year. Records showed that many left for schools outside Texas, to be home-schooled or to go to their home country. But 158 students — of the 2,913 enrolled — could not be accounted for.

The researchers did not look at the number of students who were referred to CEP but dropped out rather than enroll. That has been a concern for critics of CEP, including former HISD administrator Bob Kimball, who has done his own studies of CEP, and advocates with the League of United Latin American Citizens, Council 402.

As we know, keeping track of dropouts is a big problem in this state.

Anyway. Grier had made an effort to get HISD out of its contract with CEP, for which the cost of the program was cited as a concern, but in the end that contract was maintained, with some changes. It’s hard to read this report as anything but a validation of Gayle Fallon and the HFT, who were staunch opponents of cutting ties with CEP and had vouched for its effectiveness all along. See here for all previous blogging on this topic.

HISD to keep CEP

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has been pushing for months to get HISD out of its contract with Community Education Partners (CEP), its provider for the disciplinary alternate education program. He ran into opposition from HFT President Gayle Fallon, who has strongly disputed some of Grier’s claims about CEP’s effectiveness, and from some HISD Trustees. Grier, whose main argument was that CEP cost too much, has now given up this fight, at least for the time being.

Reversing position after months of discussion, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier told trustees today that he no longer wants them to cut the CEP contract, but keep it going, albeit with some changes.

The turnabout comes before the district has ever received its long-delayed assessment of CEP from a Texas A&M professor.

Instead of the 1,600 student spots set aside now, that’ll be reduced to 1,200 (which just happens to be about the number of spots CEP provided this school year). The target maximum will be reduced another 100 in 2011-12 and another in 2012-13.

The contract amount will go from $18,290,221 in 2009-10 to about $13.7 million in the next school year for a savings of more than $4.5 million — not including the cost of special education and transportation. The district is setting aside money to pay extra if it uses more than the maximum cap for those years.

Grier said it wouldn’t work for the district to try to start an in-house alternative program before the start of next year, and Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett said there wouldn’t be any cost advantage in going with the Harris County Department of Education.

I still haven’t come to a conclusion of my own about CEP. It was certainly worth reviewing, due to its size and total cost, and I’m glad Grier brought the subject up. I never saw any conclusive evidence to back up Grier’s claim that students were being referred to CEP needlessly, however, and in the absence of an alternate proposal, there was no compelling case in the end to change. Perhaps after the A&M report comes in we can take this up again. The Chron and School Zone has more.

Stimulus fight

As we know, HISD is reducing its workforce, including teachers, due to budget shortfalls. The Houston Federation of Teachers says that this is happening while there are a lot of unspent stimulus funds.

Houston Federation of Teachers leader Gayle Fallon pointed to Texas Education Agency spread sheets showing federal stimulus dollars and annual formula dollars, which are based on enrollment.

“We’re looking at hundreds of millions of dollars in unspent federal funds,” she said.

She’s talking about roughly $300 million, the majority of it consisting of federal stimulus dollars. The issue is being highlighted in The Houston Federation of Teachers’ next newsletter, which raised the question: Why is so much money left on the table when so many teachers might lose their jobs?

HISD Spokesman Norm Uhl said he has the answer.

“You can’t use it to offset general fund shortfalls,” Uhl said. “Federal funds have very specific rules you can use it for “A” but you can’t use it for “B.”

Fallon sent me a copy of her document, which you can see here. I emailed Uhl for a response, and this is what he sent to me:

The simple explanation is that some of those funds are for this year (through summer school) and will be spent this year. Some of the stimulus dollars we are spending half this year and half next year and there are some two-year funds that are part of next year’s budget. All of this money is already plugged into either this year’s budget or next year’s budget. It is NOT new money that can be used to cover general fund shortfalls. Federal funds have very specific rules or strings attached. You can spend it on “a” but not on “B” and you cannot supplant using federal dollars. In other words you cannot cover General Fund expenditures with certain federal funds. It’s called supplanting and it’s illegal.

I have to say, I’m still trying to figure all of this out. Not just this argument over stimulus funds, the whole debate over what Superintendent Grier is doing and whether or not it will be successful, where “successful” means better student performance and better graduation rates. I don’t know how I feel just yet about a lot of the stuff that’s going on in HISD. When I get it all straight in my head, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’m going to present whatever information I can. I hope it’s helpful to you as well.

Everybody’s talking about Terry

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, that is. A few things I’ve noticed lately:

From Rick Casey:

For all his controversies in previous districts, Grier earned a reputation for improving the performance of all children, but especially of low-income and minority children.

I have room for only one example, from the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record in 2003, where Grier had been superintendent for three years:

“District students have reached all-time highs on state tests during Grier’s tenure. Black students, who traditionally score lower on standardized tests than their white peers, have made particularly strong progress. At some grade levels, black students have improved by 20 percentage points since the 1999-2000 school year. White students also continue to make gains.

“Dropout rates have improved and the number of students taking Advanced Placement high school courses has nearly doubled in the last three years.”

From Lisa Falkenberg:

Lee isn’t your typical failing school. In one campus, its students seem to personify every major socio-economic problem and demographic challenge facing urban schools today. At the same time, it’s a petri dish for academic innovation, full of Stand and Deliver-type successes.

It’s a place you have to see to believe, which is why it’s so unbelievable that HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has chosen to make major decisions about Lee without setting foot on campus since he started in September.

From a Texas Tribune interview with Houston Mayor Annise Parker, as helpfully transcribed by Houston Tomorrow:

“I’m not satisfied with the quality of public education in Houston. My youngest child … goes to a public high school. Unlike a lot of other cities and states, I have no authority over the school system, although I feel like I have a lot of responsibility just as a citizen.

“We have a brand new superintendent [of the Houston Independent School District], Terry Grier, who’s been there just a few months longer than I’ve been in office. If he does not do a good job, I will not be successful as mayor.”

From an email sent by Gayle Fallon, President of the Houston Federation of Teachers:


At the Board meeting on April 8, Terry Grier will ask the Board to lay off teachers from schools that are closing or losing positions. This includes special ed teachers, diagnosticians, elementary and secondary core subject teachers, counselors, and nurses.

Before Grier, HISD kept these employees and they were placed in other teaching positions.

At the same time, HISD is recruiting new teachers to fill the anticipated 1200 vacancies for 2010-11.

HISD needs to treat its employees decently and place these employees in open positions!

HFT needs you to attend the Board meeting to let the Board know that laying off Houston teachers so they can hire from California is not acceptable.

It may not be you this time but he is not through changing and closing programs and laying off HISD teachers.

Sign up to speak to Items E4-E7 regarding teacher layoffs. Forms to address the Board are on the HISD website.

Houston Federation of Teachers

See here for some background on that last item, and here for Grier’s response to HFT; see also today’s Chron for more about the layoffs at HISD and FBISD. Maybe it’s just because I’m paying more attention now that I have a kid in HISD, but I don’t remember previous Superintendents being such a focal point. Dr. Grier’s tenure here will not be boring, that’s for sure.

Interview with HISD Superintendent Terry Grier

On Monday I published an interview with HFT President Gayle Fallon in which we covered a number of topics relating to HISD, many of which are a source of contention between the HFT and HISD Superintendent Terry Grier. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Grier and discuss these issues, among others, with him. Here’s the interview:

Download the MP3 file

As was the case with Fallon, Grier is a strong advocate for his positions. I found both conversations to be illuminating and thought provoking, and I hope you will, too. Let me know what you think.

UPDATE: Among the things Superintendent Grier and I discussed were the state of HISD’s finances. He painted as positive a picture as he could, but there’s a lot of not so good out there.

More on Grier’s alternative to CEP

The Chron has a story about HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s recent proposal to replace Community Education Partners (CEP) with a school swap program for some students with discipline issues.

The transfer program, meant to give students a second chance in a traditional school away from their friends, would not be open to violent offenders or to those who require suspension to a separate alternative program under state law. But Grier, who recently floated the idea with principals, said transfers might be granted for students who are frequently tardy or who get caught drinking beer at a football game, for example.

“What intrigued the principals about this is that many times they have seen that kids moving from one school to another school in a year — many times because parents just stayed ahead of the rent collector — do better in different environments because they’re not around old friends,” Grier said.


The transfer students and their families must agree to a contract with the new school, and each child is put on a behavior-intervention plan, which could require meetings with a social worker or an outside social services agency, said Michael Haggen, deputy superintendent of the Recovery School District. A school psychologist also checks in with the students.

If the students misbehave, they can be kicked to an alternative school. Otherwise, the change of setting is permanent, Haggen said. The students do not get to return to their home schools.

Last year, 82 New Orleans students were given discipline transfers while 442 were expelled to special alternative schools, according to Haggen. That’s out of 35,725 students.

[New Orleans school superintendent Paul] Vallas said the Philadelphia school district, which he used to run, had a discipline transfer system, but he acknowledged it didn’t work. Gwen Morris, who worked as Vallas’ chief of alternative schools in Philadelphia and now consults in New Orleans, agreed. She said the old Philadelphia system did not offer students any supports or help them change their behavior.

The idea for Houston is that the transfer school would have money provided to them for mentors for these students, who would have entered a similar contract before transferring. It sounds like there are still a lot of details to be worked out, and there’s not much of a track record for the idea as yet. I refer you back to my interview with Gayle Fallon for the case against making this change.

Something that I still don’t think has been adequately explored in all of this:

According to HISD data, only a quarter of the 2,441 referrals to CEP last school year were for mandatory reasons.

Level IV misconduct will result in mandatory removal to a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program, which in HISD means CEP. Discretion exists for Level III misconduct:

Level III acts include misconduct for which an administrator may suspend the student, place the student into in-school suspension, or, if the administrator finds the Level III misconduct to be serious or persistent as defined in this Code, refer the student to a district-level Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP). The principal or other appropriate administrator makes the disciplinary determination on the basis of the severity of the misconduct. The period of the suspension is limited to three days per occurrence.

Click the link to see the long list of Level III offenses. Fallon has told me that generally speaking it takes six or seven of these offenses for a kid to be labeled persistent and get referred to CEP. What needs to be clarified here is how many of the 1800 or so non-mandatory referrals to CEP were for fewer than, say, five Level III offenses. Superintendent Grier has said that some referrals to CEP are for minor infractions. I want to try and pin down what he means by that, and how often it happens.

Interview with Gayle Fallon

As you know, I’ve been following the news in HISD lately, in particular the political struggle going on between new HISD Superintendent Terry Grier and the Houston Federation of Teachers, over things like the proposal to dump CEP as the disciplinary alternate education provider, and the teacher dismissal plan. In a recent post, I noted that some of the claims Superintendent Grier was making about CEP were completely at odds with claims being made by HFT President Gayle Fallon. That led to Fallon leaving a comment on that post and sending me some data about HISD’s disciplinary statistics, and ultimately to this interview I conducted with Fallon:

Download the MP3 file

It’s clear that Fallon and Grier don’t see eye to eye on a number of issues. I thought she made a pretty strong case for the HFT’s positions; I’d be interested to know what you think. I am working on arranging an interview with Grier and hope to have that done and posted within the week.

HISD disciplinary data

Last week, I noted some differences of fact between HISD Superintendent Terry Grier and HFT President Gayle Fallon over the cost and use of alternate school CEP, which Grier wants to dump. Fallon left a comment in that post, and followed it up in a reply to an email I sent her with some spreadsheets detailing how many referrals to CEP there have been in the past three years. I’ve uploaded them all to Google Docs and placed them in this folder for your perusal. They’re broken down by HISD Trustee district and school. A couple of observations:

– Over the three years listed, the number of students referred to CEP was less than four percent of the total disciplinary incidents. Based on that, it’s hard to say that students are being over-referred. Suspensions, in school and out of school, were the vast majority of the punishments.

– The flip side of that the relatively small number of students sent to CEP makes it an appealing target for cost cutting. By my calculation, an average of 3234 students per year were referred to CEP. HISD paid CEP $22 million last year, which works out to $6802 per student. By comparison, Fort Bend ISD was allocated $4871 per student by the state; Tomball ISD got $5783. Especially given that not all CEP referrals are for the full school year, it’s not unreasonable to think there may be a cheaper way to do this.

– One thing you see as you pore through all this data is that in both absolute and per student terms, there are far more incidents and CEP referrals from the middle schools than from the high schools. Hair Balls made this observation as well, noting that many of them are “overage” middle schoolers. I presume that one reason for the decline in high school referrals is simply because many of these troublemaking middle schoolers have dropped out or gotten entangled in the criminal justice system instead. One wonders if there’s a viable strategy to reduce the number of middle school offenders. That would pay dividends if it could be done.

– I’m going to explore some of these questions in more detail in the coming days, as I have an interview with Fallon lined up and am working on getting one with Grier. If there’s anything you think I should ask, please leave a comment.

UPDATE: For reasons not clear to me, the files themselves are not visible in the folder. So here are the direct links to the files themselves:

Eastman, District 1

Galloway, District 2

Rodriguez, District 3

Harris, District 4

Lunceford, District 5

Meyers, District 6

Moore, District 7

Davila, District 8

Marshall, District 9

Sorry for the confusion.

Fact check on Aisle 5, please

As we know, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has proposed ending HISD’s relationship with Community Education Partners (CEP), which provides alternate schools for kids with discipline problems. Following that, the Chron editorialized in favor of Grier’s stance.

Grier contends that CEP costs too much — $22 million annually and $180 million since 1997. During that period a number of other school districts across the nation severed ties with CEP, some on grounds that it was not effective in either educating or reforming students with disciplinary problems. In Atlanta, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the city’s school district and CEP, charging that its alternative schools were functioning as curriculum-deficient warehouses for minority students. The Atlanta district subsequently ended its contract with CEP and settled the ACLU suit.

In the case of HISD, critics have long complained that middle and high school principals routinely send students with relatively minor behavioral issues to the CEP campuses.

The superintendent is proposing that a smaller alternative school for serious student offenders, including those bringing drugs or guns on campus, be established at a cost of $14 million a year. Interested groups, including CEP, could bid for a contract to run the new school.

On Wednesday, HFT President Gayle Fallon wrote a letter to the editor disputing several of the Chron’s assertions.

The Chronicle asserted that HISD teachers send students to CEP for minor infractions. That is not true. According to HISD records, it takes an average of six to seven serious disciplinary infractions before a student is sent to CEP for persistent misconduct. The state law defines “persistent misconduct” as a student who is so disruptive that a teacher cannot teach other students effectively with this child in class. Less than 2 percent of the Level 3 infractions reported to the district end up at CEP. These are the serious cases.

Grier states he can do the disciplinary program cheaper, but let’s look at his record. The cost of his internal programs in Guilford County, N.C. ($41,281/pupil) and in San Diego ($27,105/pupil) were both higher than our current cost. His programs also gave the appearance of discriminatory practices. In Guilford his alternative schools had 89 percent African-American students in a district that was 45.5 percent African-American.

What we have here is not a difference of opinion but a difference of fact. Grier and the Chron say that kids can be sent to CEP for minor infractions; Fallon says that’s not true. Grier and the Chron say that CEP is too expensive; Fallon says that Grier’s proposed alternative cost more in the places where he’s tried it before than what CEP does now. How is any interested observer, let alone an HISD Board member, supposed to decide on a preferred outcome if we can’t be sure who’s got their facts straight and who doesn’t? It cannot be the case that both Grier and Fallon are correct, though they both could be partially right. It sure would be nice if we could get a definitive, objective evaluation of what everyone is saying. Until then, I don’t know about you, but I’m confused.

Grier pushing to dump CEP

As we know, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has been pushing to get HISD away from using Community Education Partners (CEP) as a provider of alternate schools for kids with discipline issues. He has now made his recommendation to the Board of Trustees, who were somewhat skeptical.

Grier, who has been on the job six months, said CEP’s price tag — nearly $22 million this school year — is too high. He wants the school board to invite other groups to submit proposals to run a smaller, less expensive alternative school. CEP could re-apply.

“We want the best program to meet the needs of our kids,” Grier told the board at a Monday night meeting.

The new alternative school, estimated to cost $14 million, would serve only those students who commit serious offenses such as selling drugs or bringing weapons on campus that require expulsion under state law or district policy. HISD currently gives principals the option of sending students to CEP for discretionary reasons such as smoking, using profanity or chronically misbehaving.

Grier is proposing that students who commit less serious offenses get sent to another HISD campus in a swapping program. Problem students at one middle or high school would be sent to another in hopes that their behavior would improve in a different environment — away from friends but without the metal detectors and strict rules of an alternative school.

Hair Balls has more on this, in particular more on the pushback from the trustees. I don’t know enough about this to fully form a judgment, but Grier’s proposal would cost less and would be less punitive to students whose infractions are minor, and both of those things are appealing to me. There are clearly some legitimate concerns, though, and I do agree that this is another big change at a time when there’s a whole lot else already going on. I’d like for there to be a full and frank debate so that we can make a well-informed decision. As such, stuff like this isn’t helpful:

Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon, an ardent supporter of CEP whose union has exclusive bargaining rights at the Houston campuses, criticized Grier’s idea.

“That jerk is willing to throw these kids away rather than save them so he can divert a few dollars into his asinine new programs that no one wants,” she said.

I get that HFT doesn’t much care for Grier right now, and I certainly get that they have good reason to feel like they’re under siege. Fallon’s job is to protect the teachers’ interests, and I don’t expect her to be too happy about this idea. But if you hope to persuade me of the merits of your argument, that’s not the way to do it. So please, tell me why CEP is the better choice. I can’t make a good judgment if I don’t have that information.

HISD gives final approval to teacher dismissal plan

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has gotten approval from the HISD Board of Trustees to implement a plan that would allow for the dismissal of teachers whose students don’t make enough progress on standardized tests.

Data provided by HISD show that, over the last three years, 421 teachers have gotten far lower-than-expected progress from their students on standardized tests. That represents about 12 percent of the teachers the policy could affect and 3 percent of all teachers in the district.

“Don’t forget that we have approximately 13,000 teachers in HISD,” Grier said. “The vast majority are doing a good job.”

Some of the teachers may have poor scores in one subject but rate highly in another. In those cases, Grier has suggested that principals could switch teaching assignments instead of turning to termination.


The district only tracks the individual performance of teachers in grades three through 8 in the subjects of math, science, social studies and language arts. These 3,500 or so teachers would be the ones affected by HISD’s plan to include so-called value-added scores in formal job evaluations and as a potential reason for dismissal.

Standardized test data is not available for teachers of lower grades or elective classes. High school teachers get rated on the performance of their entire department, such as math or science.

More here and here. The unions object to this for a variety of reasons, including a lack of clarity about how the policy is to be applied; principals, who would be responsible for recommending that a teacher be fired, are also concerned about that. I certainly agree that at the very least, the process needs to be very specific about what conditions can lead to termination, and what remediating steps can be taken and must be taken to head it off. I confess, while I agree with this idea in principle, I have problems with basing it all on standardized test scores. There is, or at least there should be, more to education and evaluating teachers than that, not to mention the fact that it seems unfair to subject only a fraction of the teacher population to this condition. Of course, moving evaluations away from standardized test scores necessarily makes them more subjective, and thus harder to quantify and codify as processes. I don’t know what if any method would be best, but I do hope we intend to evaluate the process itself on a yearly basis, to see if it actually works as intended, and I hope we have the courage to admit it and do something about it if it does not. School Zone has more, and be sure to see this FAQ posted by HISD about the “Value Added” scores.

UPDATE: Hair Balls has more.

HISD moves ahead with its teacher dismissal plan

Here we go.

The school board on Thursday gave initial approval to a policy that allows the district to dismiss teachers whose students consistently perform below expectations on standardized tests. The change represents a move to make personnel decisions based more on student learning instead of relying solely on principals’ classroom observations of teachers.

[HISD Superintendent Terry] Grier and school board members have emphasized that the district’s goal is not to fire teachers but to help them improve. Teachers’ job evaluations now will include their so-called value-added scores, a statistical measure of their effectiveness in helping students reach their potential on standardized exams.

Well, we’ll see how it goes. The teachers don’t much like this, and I can’t say I blame them. We rely an awful lot on standardized tests, and while I think they provide a good metric, they’re just one dimension. They shouldn’t be over-emphasized. I think as long as they’re just another factor in the evaluation, it’ll be all right. The more it’s used, the less comfortable I’ll be.

Do bear in mind that not all teachers teach subjects that are covered by standardized tests. That was a complaint about the merit pay program, too, since it meant some teachers were automatically excluded. Also, as noted in Hair Balls, using improvement on standardized tests as a metric isn’t so effective for Gifted and Talented teachers, whose students generally start out at a very high level on these tests and thus literally can’t improve much, and it complicates the decision of when to transition bilingual kids into English-only classes. The devil is very much in the details here.

One thing I’m curious about:

[Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle] Fallon places blame on principals who don’t identify weak teachers early in their careers. For their first three or four years on the job, public school teachers in Texas are on probationary contracts, making it easier for districts to dismiss them.

In Texas, getting rid of a teacher with more experience, however, can take up to seven months and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees.

“It’s a long process,” said attorney David Thompson, who represents HISD and other Texas districts. “You can see why educators who don’t deal with this every day find it daunting and why it can be discouraging.”

Why not place a greater burden on the principals to do a better job of weeding out the weaker teachers before they get tenure? You have to be careful to not do this in a way that would provide an incentive for principals to fire any time they’re in doubt, but if this is the best time to take action, then let’s make sure action gets taken when appropriate. Come up with a metric that shows how many teachers that were subsequently identified as underperforming a given principal allowed to get tenure, and make that a part of a principal’s evaluation. That’s not perfect – among other things, some people who start out as good performers do later become poor ones, for a variety of reasons – but I think it’s in the right direction. What do you think? School Zone has more.

Evaluating teachers

This is sure to be contentious, but I think it’s the right direction.

Teachers in Houston ISD could lose their jobs for failing to improve student test scores under a controversial proposal slated for a school board vote Thursday.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s plan to tie teachers’ job evaluations to their students’ progress on standardized tests would put Houston among a small but growing number of school districts pushing to make it easier to oust ineffective teachers.


Under the HISD proposal, teachers’ value-added marks would be included in their job appraisals starting next school year. The policy does not say how much weight would be given to the value-added data in the overall evaluation.

Teachers could lose their jobs based on the data. The proposal would allow HISD not to renew a teacher’s contract because of “insufficient academic growth as reflected by value-added scores.”


[Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon] said her concern with the proposed changes center on its use of the value-added method, which she considers flawed, too complex and not transparent.

“If you’re going to fire me, it ought to be for something that I know how you calculate it,” she said. “You can’t show me this number predicts whether I’m a good teacher.”

I think the principle that poor teachers need to be, in the words of Trustee Paula Harris, professionally developed or out of the system, is reasonably uncontroversial. That said, it’s fair to be suspicious of the methodology used to determine which teachers fall into that category. As the Trib reminds us, the much-ballyhooed merit pay program was a bust. I don’t know what the best way to do this is – for all I know, this is as good as anything – but it’s imperative to get it right. I applaud Superintendent Grier for swinging for the fences, and I hope Fallon and her cohorts keep pushing him and the board to make this as fair and transparent as possible. I’ve posted a statement from the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, as well as an email from former Trustee Natasha Kamrani, beneath the fold.


HISD candidate spending

After all I’ve done detailing how city candidates are spending their campaign money, I’d love to be able to tell how how candidates for HISD Trustee are spending theirs. I’d love to, but unfortunately I can’t, because that information isn’t available online, and I just don’t have the time to tromp over to HISD headquarters and request printed copies to peruse. Fortunately, Ericka Mellon did do that, and she reports on it. Not as detailed as I’d have liked, but much better than nothing. And with that, I resolve to ask every HISD candidate I’ll interview in 2011 whether they support a requirement that these reports be made available online, as it is with the city, county, state, and feds. That really shouldn’t be an issue this far into the 21st century, but there you have it.

On a related note, you should also read this article about what the Houston Federation of Teachers is doing in the HISD Trustee races.

In a letter to union leaders this month, HFT President Gayle Fallon campaigned for a “pro-employee board” that won’t push for teachers to be fired or put on improvement plans if their students perform poorly on state tests.

For the last three years, the Houston Independent School District has ranked teachers based on their students’ performance and paid bonuses to those at the top of the pack. Some trustees have been calling on the administration to focus now on those teachers ranked near the bottom.

“If our candidates win … the balance of power shifts,” Fallon wrote to her union stewards. “You get a pro-employee board and we end the threats and begin to restore some sanity to HISD.”

HFT is backing Alma Lara, whom they’ve been supporting since before Natasha Kamrani decided not to run for re-election, in District I, and Adrian Collins in District IX. They did not endorse in District V. I certainly sympathize with what the HFT is doing – it’s their purpose to protect the interests of their members, after all – but I also think there’s merit to what HISD wants to do, and by Fallon’s admission later in the article, the threat of which she warns has been overstated.

And finally, if you’re in the Alief ISD, you should read this story about a candidate forum for the Alief ISD contestants.

School board candidates who are campaigning for reform in Alief ISD had few specifics about where they would cut spending. The group includes [Sarah] Winkler’s opponent for Position 6, Baltazar Gutierrez, sales representative for an industrial casting company, along with incumbent Nghi Ho, Tammi Sturm, mother, and business owner, and Marilyn Swick, co-owner with her husband of The Houston Sleep Center.

Graduate student Gary Floyd, who is in the race for Position 7 with Swick and incumbent Gary Cook, did not participate in the forum.

Gutierrez denied he’s aligned with Improve Alief Schools Political Action Committee created by affluent homeowners, but he’s pictured on the group’s flyer, which advocates for a line-by-line budget review to trim 2 percent, about $9 million, from the current budget and give taxpayers relief.

Ho’s competition is for the Position 5 seat by Grace Parmer, 19, a Hastings High graduate currently enrolled in the Honors College at Houston Baptist University. She has aligned with Winkler, Cook, who is a hospital administrator, and retired teacher Ella Jefferson in a campaign to protect and further academic gains the district has made in the past few years. Budget cuts can’t occur without having an impact on personnel and school programs, they say.

You know how I feel about the “tax cuts above all else” philosophy, especially when it’s those who would benefit the most that are pushing it. My interview with Sarah Winkler is here.

Let the Terry Grier honeymoon watch begin

Place your bets on when the first major brouhaha of the Terry Grier Era will take place.

Closing small schools. Firing teachers whose students consistently fail. Tinkering with popular magnet programs.

A pile of these and other political hot potatoes is now in the lap of Terry Grier, who began work Friday as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District.

The issues are not entirely new to Grier, who has led eight other school systems, but whether he can successfully tackle them in Houston will hinge on his ability to win over the school board, teachers, parents, local politicians and the community.

“He is very personable and he is very bright,” said Gayle Fallon, the president of HISD’s largest teacher group. “If he learns the politics of Houston, he’ll do fine. If he doesn’t, it’ll eat him alive.”

This post is not intended as any kind of comment on Grier’s political skills. I don’t know nearly enough about the man to make any such comment. It’s just to note the reality of the situation, in which conflicts about certain contentious issues are expected and inevitable. The question is how long will it take till the fur starts flying, how fractious it becomes, and most importantly, how much resentment lingers afterward among those who don’t get what they wanted. The answers to those questions will determine to a large extent how we eventually assess Grier’s tenure.

Kamrani not running for re-election as HISD trustee

There are now two open HISD Trustee seats up for election this fall as District I incumbent Natasha Kamrani announces that she will step down after this term.

HISD Trustee Natasha Kamrani, who is completing her first term on the school board, has confirmed to me that she will not be seeking re-election. “I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity to impact public education outside the board,” said Kamrani, the former Houston executive director of Teach for America who has ruffled the feathersof the Houston Federation of Teachers during her board tenure.

Alma Lara, the former principal of HISD’s Ketelsen Elementary, has filed to run for Kamrani’s District I seat. Lara has won the HFT’s support but not Kamrani’s. “There’s been some people who’ve expressed interest the seat, and I really hope they will get involved in the race,” Kamrani said. “We definitely need people who put the needs of children above special interests.”

Lara retired from HISD after 35 years in public education. Her campaign Web site highlights HISD’s dropout problem. “I hope to work with the school board to seek alternatives that will help students stay in school,” she says on her Web site. “It will take a collaborative effort with all stakeholders in the Houston community to find programs for creating a ‘Zero Tolerance’ culture to dropouts.”

As I said before, Kamrani is a friend of mine, and I’m sorry to see her depart. I think she did a lot of good work; if she was a feather-ruffler, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ll be doing an interview with her shortly – an exit interview, I suppose – in which we’ll discuss her tenure and what she plans to do next. I also look forward to meeting Ms. Lara and any other candidates for this seat.

The HISD Trustee races

Most of the electoral action this fall will be for City of Houston races, but there are also five HISD Trustee seats on the ballot, one of which will be open. School Zone reports on the two races that will be the highest profile.

District I: Natasha Kamrani, who is wrapping up her first term, has not announced whether she will seek re-election. Expect word soon. Alma Lara, a former principal in HISD, is planning to run for Kamrani’s seat. She’s filed paperwork naming a campaign treasurer and has a Web site. Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers who had a public spat with Kamrani last year over holding bad teachers accountable, is praising Lara. “She’s a great principal,” Fallon told me. “We had a great relationship with her. I think she has a really good chance. She’s so wired into the community.” Fallon also supported Kamrani’s opponent four years ago.

District V: Dianne Johnson, elected in 2001, is not seeking re-election. “I think eight years is enough,” Johnson told me. “If that’s enough for the president, it ought to be enough time for a board member. It’s probably time to give other people other opportunities. It’s probably time for Dianne to look for other opportunities.” Michael Lunceford, a parent whose children have graduated from HISD, is running to replace her. No one else has filed paperwork yet.

Greg Meyers, Harvin Moore, and Larry Marshall are all running for re-election, and likely won’t face much of a challenge. I live in District I and am friends with Kamrani, but it’s fair to say her time in office has been rather tumultuous. That race will be one to watch whether or not she runs again. Be sure to read the comments on that School Zone post, as Gayle Fallon mixes it up with some of the usual anonymous gripers. As for Dianne Johnson’s to-be-open seat, I know nothing at this point about Michael Lunceford, and found nothing of use via Google. All I can say at this point is I’m sure there will be more candidates.