Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

HCDE

HCDE happenings

The Chron paints an unflattering portrait of the Harris County Department of Education.

HCDE has operated in relative obscurity for decades, fighting off lawmakers’ occasional efforts to eliminate it by bankrolling lobbyists and political consultants.

Advocates for the agency say it provides indispensable support services to the 25 independent school districts in Harris County. But a prominent Senate Republican is leading a push for a state-led Sunset Advisory Commission Review of HCDE, saying its finances need to be scrutinized and its programs streamlined to avoid duplication with other agencies. And he has plenty of ammunition.

The Houston Chronicle requested to review HCDE’s financial records in January and found a reticent agency that had violated its own spending rules and declined to explain why its former superintendent, John Sawyer, stepped down three months into a new contract – and received a buyout.

Records show that Sawyer had doled out stipends to employees without notifying the Board of Trustees or seeking its approval, a policy violation.

He also had hired lobbyists and political consultants, including a convicted felon, for amounts just under limits that would have required the board’s OK.

Records also show that HCDE paid more than $1.5 million during the past decade to a nonprofit educational foundation accused of endorsing political candidates for HCDE’s board. The nonprofit’s president, its lone full-time employee, has received more than $1.5 million in salary and benefits since 2005, tax records show. His annual compensation has averaged about $182,000 – more than Harris County’s chief executive officer.

Board President Angie Chesnut said trustees took swift action after they learned in June about the stipends, which were paid for extra work. The total payments to 60 employees came to about $450,000 over the past decade, according to the agency’s records.

Chesnut said the board stopped pending payments, tightened the policy and meted out discipline. She would not disclose who was punished or exactly what action was taken.

The new superintendent can only approve cellphone and travel allowances without board approval. All political contracts – regardless of cost – now must go before the board.

“Do we make mistakes? Of course we do. Every organization makes mistakes,” Chesnut said. “The key to me, as a business manager, is that when you find those, you act to correct them, and that’s what we do.”

There’s more, so go read it. One always wonders what the genesis of such stories is. In this case, given that it opens with an anecdote from Trustee Michael Wolfe, who was ousted in 2012 but re-elected in 2014, and that much of the story focuses on now-former Superintendent John Sawyer, that would be my guess. There’s no shortage of bad blood between Wolfe and Sawyer, so if there was an opportunity for a bit of retribution on Wolfe’s part, I’m sure he grabbed it with both hands. It might have been nice to mention Wolfe’s tumultuous tenure on the HCDE board instead of just quoting him and moving on, but bygones are bygones, I suppose.

As for the substance of the story, I received the following email from former Trustee Debra Kerner, which she also sent to the Chron as a letter to the editor. I’ll let it speak for itself:

Dear Houston Chronicle Editorial Page Editor,

Regarding “HCDE draws sharp look” (Sunday, May 24, 2015, pg.1), I served as a countywide elected Trustee for the Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) from January 2009 to January 2015. During that time, I held various Board positions including Vice President. I read the article, “HCDE Draws Sharp Look” from Sunday, May 24, 2015 with intense interest and felt that as a private citizen and former board member, I had to respond. I would ask that the public consider these clarifying facts.

1) HCDE serves students, educators and school districts. Their services are provided at the request of Harris County school districts. They seek to enhance and innovate and provide services to the school districts and the residents of Harris County. All 25 of the school districts in Harris County choose to use at least some of the services from HCDE. HCDE provides even more services than are listed in the article, including Safe and Secure Schools. As told to me by the head of Region 4, all of these services cannot be duplicated by the Education Service Center (Region 4). Who would provide these services, if HCDE had to close?

2) During my tenure, HCDE underwent several audits and a Texas legislative study. These studies determined that HCDE’s education services saved taxpayer dollars and that it would cost school districts significantly more to replicate. While areas for improvement were identified, none of the studies recommended closure. The Board had always taken steps to improve the department and continues to do so.

3) One example that was noted in the article was the policy on hiring political consultants. The Board did not have the chance to vote on the Eversole contract. Once the board learned about these hirings, the policy was changed to bring more transparency to the process of hiring political consultants. While I understand, the concern about using tax dollars for this purpose, I believe it would be unfair to the students and educators served by HCDE to not give them a voice regarding the educational resources that are so valuable to them. Many school districts also hire lobbyists and political consultants to help educate legislators and others about their needs. In addition, HCDE has a group consistently seeking its abolishment. Three year olds and other students with severe disabilities cannot go to Austin to indicate the true value of HCDE, so HCDE does it for them. HCDE is a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves.

4) Ms. Vera and the Houston Chronicle have initiated countless open records request. HCDE has been compliant and constantly sought to increase transparency. Responding to these requests has been costly; however, none of these requests have yielded information that rises to the level of criminal activity. Any issues that were found, the Board had already initiated steps to improve the situation. At the same time, HCDE has continued to educate students, train teachers and provide valuable wraparound services.

5) We should focus on what HCDE is doing now. HCDE has hired a new superintendent, James Colbert, who is moving forward. The Board has made changes to address policies and procedures to ensure that things are done correctly and transparently. HCDE continues to respond to the needs of partner districts. I participated in the hiring of Mr. James Colbert and from what I’ve seen thus far, he is a true leader who is very responsive to the educational needs in Harris County. The reason HCDE has fought against additional studies regarding abolishment is that it is hard to plan for the future when the threat of closure hangs over their heads.

I was honored to serve with Trustees who truly cared about enhancing education in our county in a fiscally responsible way. It is a shame that the voices of a few are taken as fact when thousands of students and the 25 Harris County school districts find value in HCDE every single day.

Thank-you,
Debra Kerner
Former Trustee,
Harris County Department of Education

It must be noted that it was Kerner who lost to Wolfe in 2014. I’m the only one who’s making something out of Wolfe, so make of that what you will. I have always believed that HCDE serves a good and useful function – there’s plenty of testimony out there from teachers and many of Harris County’s smaller school districts to back that up – and have never understood the hate on that some people have for it. That’s politics for you, I suppose. Stace has more.

Interview index

For your convenience, here is a list of all my interviews and judicial Q&As for the November election. This includes ones I did for the primary and runoff.

Interviews

US SenateDavid Alameel

Attorney GeneralSam Houston
ComptrollerMike Collier
Land CommissionerJohn Cook
Railroad CommissionerSteve Brown

State Senate, SD15Sen. John Whitmire
State Senate, SD17Rita Lucido

State House, HD23Susan Criss
State House, HD75Rep. Mary Gonzalez
State House, HD131Rep. Alma Allen
State House, HD133Laura Nicol
State House, HD145Rep. Carol Alvarado

District AttorneyKim Ogg
County ClerkAnn Harris Bennett
District ClerkJudith Snively
TreasurerDavid Rosen
HCDE Trustee At LargeDebra Kerner
HCDE Trustee At LargeMelissa Noriega

Judicial Q&As

14th Court of AppealsKyle Carter

180th Criminal District CourtRandy Roll
185th Criminal District CourtMack McInnis
230th Criminal District CourtGreg Glass
248th Criminal District CourtShawna Reagin
263rd Criminal District CourtHerb Ritchie

55th Civil District CourtKay Morgan
113th Civil District CourtSteven Kirkland
190th Civil District CourtFarrah Martinez
234th Civil District CourtBarbara Gardner
281st Civil District CourtTanner Garth

246th Family District CourtSandra Peake
247th Family District CourtChip Wells
280th Family District CourtBarbara Stalder
308th Family District CourtJim Evans
309th Family District CourtKathy Vossler
311th Family District CourtSherri Cothrun

313th Juvenile District CourtTracy Good

Harris County Probate Court #1Kim Bohannon Hoesl
Harris County Probate Court #2Josefina Rendon
Harris County Probate Court #4James Horwitz

Harris County Criminal Court At Law No. 2Harold Landreneau
Harris County Criminal Court At Law No. 10George Barnstone
Harris County Criminal Court At Law No. 13Jason Luong

Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 2Scot Dollinger

Endorsement watch: Chron for Leticia

It’s amazing how easy some endorsement decisions are, or at least should be, this year.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

The differences between the candidates this year could hardly be more stark. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, the Democratic candidate, is not only knowledgeable and experienced but also congenial and easy to work with. Her Republican opponent, state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, is divisive, disruptive and self-aggrandizing.

We urge a vote for Van de Putte. Texas voters, regardless of party, need to think long and hard about a potential demagogue becoming lieutenant governor.

[…]

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who finished fourth in the March Republican primary for lieutenant governor, described his erstwhile opponent as an unsavory combination of Huey Long, Elmer Gantry and W. Lee “Pass the Biscuits Pappy” O’Daniel. Patterson said he would not vote for Patrick and told reporters that of the 31 members of the Senate, “very, very few of them have any trust in Sen. Patrick. Very few of them.”

Patrick, 64, is a formidable politician. He’s smart, he’s articulate and he knows the issues, but those attributes make him all the more dangerous in a leadership position.

Van de Putte, a moderate Democrat of Mexican descent, is a mother, grandmother and small-businesswoman. She was elected to the Texas House in 1990 and the Senate in 1999. The exact opposite of Patrick, the 59-year-old lawmaker has earned the respect of her colleagues in the majority-Republican Senate. They know she’ll work with them.

It’s a familiar litany, and I will be very surprised if all the other major papers don’t follow it as the Chron and the Caller have done. Despite his occasional attempts at bamboozlement, I doubt Dan Patrick himself would dispute the substance of these pieces. He is what he is and he knows it. The choice really couldn’t be any clearer.

Meanwhile, the Chron also made the obvious calls in the HCDE Trustee races.

County School Trustee, Position 5, At Large: Debra “Debby” Kerner

Our strong choice for this position is the Democratic incumbent Debra Kerner. Elected in 2008, Kerner is a career speech/language pathologist who brings a valuable perspective to this board, as she has spent her entire career working with special-needs children. She earned a masters degree from Columbia University and has been an instructor of speech pathology at University of Houston. She has also served as president of the Houston Association for Communication Disorders and a former vice president of the Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Kerner, 65, is being challenged by Republican candidate Michael Wolfe, who currently works as Community Outreach Director for the Harris County District Clerk’s Office. Wolfe has previously served as an HCDE trustee, where he was censured for his frequent absences from meetings and failure to notify the board about his whereabouts for three months. He was also accused of threatening board members during an executive session. When the editorial board asked about his absences, Wolfe did not give a satisfactory reply. Showing up is important. Without any question, Kerner deserves another term.

County School Trustee, Position 7, At Large: Melissa Noriega

We encourage voters to go with Noriega. After working for nearly three decades in the Houston Independent School District, three terms as an at-large member of Houston City Council and a short stint as a Democratic state representative, Noriega, 60, understands where HCDE contributes to local schools and how to pull the levers of government. As she will be the first to admit, the job of bulk purchasing, record storage and specialty schools isn’t particularly sexy, but it is valuable.

It’s a highly qualified and well-respected incumbent Trustee and one of the better City Council members we’ve had in recent years against two of the biggest jokers to “serve” in Harris County government; Noriega’s opponent is former Tax Assessor Don Sumners, whose mess is still being cleaned up in that office. The stakes are a lot smaller, but as with Lite Guv, the choices couldn’t be clearer. My interview with Debby Kerner is here, and my interview with Melissa Noriega is here. Please don’t overlook these races at the bottom of your ballot.

Interview with Melissa Noriega

Melissa Noriega

Melissa Noriega

We round out the county races this year with the Harris County Department of Education, a seven-member board that handles federal grants and provides various programs for the many independent school districts in Harris County. It’s hard to believe, but six years ago today there wasn’t a single Democrat on the HCDE. That started to change in 2008, when two Democrats won races for At Large seats against right-wing Republicans that had defeated more moderate incumbents in their primary. (One of those successful primary challengers was our current County Clerk, Stan Stanart.) Of those two winning Democrats, one was Debra Kerner, now running for re-election, and the other was Jim Henley, who stepped down last year leaving his position open for this election. Former At Large Houston City Council member Melissa Noriega is running to succeed Henley. In addition to her six successful years on Council, Noriega has a deep background in education, where she spent 27 years working for HISD in various capacities. We discussed her experience and her desire to help the HCDE continue doing its good works, among other things:

I will have more interviews in the coming weeks.

Interview with Debra Kerner

Debra Kerner

Debra Kerner

We round out the county races this year with the Harris County Department of Education, a seven-member board that handles federal grants and provides various programs for the many independent school districts in Harris County. It’s hard to believe, but six years ago today there wasn’t a single Democrat on the HCDE. That started to change in 2008, when two Democrats won races for At Large seats against right-wing Republicans that had defeated more moderate incumbents in their primary. (One of those successful primary challengers was our current County Clerk, Stan Stanart.) Debra Kerner was one of those two Democrats, and now she’s running for re-election to Place 5, At Large on the HCDE Board. Kerner is a speech pathologist who has run her own consulting firm for over 30 years, and she has brought a wealth of experience and empathy to her job on the HCDE. With pre-kindergarten being so much in the news lately, from the recent efforts to fund a pre-k program in Harris County to the competing proposals from Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott, there was plenty for us to talk about:

I will have more interviews in the coming weeks.

AG opines against Early To Rise

This kind of snuck in there.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion Monday saying a court would likely have found a petition effort last year to send a 1-cent property tax hike to voters to buoy local preschools to be illegal.

[…]

On Monday, Abbott wrote in a 4-page opinion addressed to state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who requested it, saying: “Because the Legislature has not authorized an election for the purpose of increasing a tax rate of a (countywide school district), a court would likely conclude that” the law does “not authorize a CSD to hold a petition-initiative election to increase the county equalization tax.”

Read the opinion here.

“I am grateful for the attorney general’s clear opinion today confirming the illegality of the Early To Rise initiative,” Emmett said in a statement. “Despite numerous threats of lawsuits, it was clear to me that this bizarre proposal was illegal and wrong-headed. It’s gratifying to have the confirmation of both the appellate court and the state of Texas.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Basically, the Early To Rise campaign submitted petition signatures on behalf of the Harris County School Readiness Corp, but County Judge Ed Emmett refused to put the measure on the ballot, a decision that was allowed to stand when the 14th Court of Appeals declined to hear HCSRC’s appeal. County Attorney Vince Ryan also submitted a request for an opinion on Emmett’s behalf, not that it makes much difference. As we know, AG opinions aren’t binding but they do have an effect, and as such I don’t see how the same process, with a differently worded petition, would be viable again. I do think we haven’t heard the last of this, however. The question is where they go from here. Neither the webpage nor the Facebook page has any reaction to the AG opinion. I sure hope there is a way forward of some kind, because there are lots of benefits to universal pre-K. Judge Emmett opposed the petition process but supports the idea. Surely there is a way to work this out and have another go in a way everyone agrees is legally acceptable.

January campaign finance reports for Houston officeholders

One more set of finance reports to document, from city of Houston officeholders and candidates. I’m not going to link to the individual reports this time, since the city’s system automatically downloads the PDFs and I don’t feel like uploading these all to my Google drive. Here are the basic summaries, with my comments afterwards

Officeholder Office Raised Spent Loan Cash ========================================================== Parker Mayor 121,165 574,185 0 461,089 Green Controller 6,575 39,253 0 14,585 Costello AL1 81,200 62,410 15,000 144,753 Robinson AL2 26,246 33,265 0 32,918 Kubosh AL3 83,691 84,157 15,000 11,452 Bradford AL4 8,050 30,257 0 33,485 Christie AL5 15,275 11,606 0 10,548 Stardig A 5,250 30,393 0 24,238 Davis B 19,300 28,798 0 84,551 Cohen C 47,982 76,405 0 93,364 Boykins D 16,375 49,004 0 6,727 Martin E 45,650 27,968 0 43,423 Nguyen F 21,269 5,795 0 8,750 Pennington G 13,550 30,046 0 192,142 Gonzales H 40,375 33,623 0 90,782 Gallegos I 38,882 18,279 0 22,940 Laster J 3,500 8,081 0 77,408 Green K 10,150 15,455 0 77,366 Hale SD15 0 472 0 0 Noriega HCDE 0 8,690 1,000 9,335 Chavez AL3 3,150 6,652 160 15,716 Calvert AL3 1,600 65,031 10,000 2,654 Brown A 21,969 22,121 0 25,729 Peck A 0 2,811 0 0 Knox A 1,220 17,271 0 931 Richards D 2,000 16,043 0 2,727 Jones, J D 0 0 0 3,203 Provost D 7,960 9,033 0 15 Edwards D 3,745 4,415 0 0 Rodriguez I 0 3,581 0 6,731 Garces I 32,950 49,802 0 0 Ablaza I 380 10,288 0 673 Mendez I 2,050 19,120 0 0

Mayor Parker has a decent amount on hand, not as much as she had after some other elections, but then she won’t be on any ballot until 2018, so there’s no rush. I know she has at least one fundraiser happening, and I’m sure she’ll have a solid start on fundraising for whatever office she might have her eye on in four years’ time.

And speaking of being prepared for the next election, CM Costello is in pretty good shape, too. It’ll take a lot more money than that to mount a successful campaign for Mayor in 2015, and there are likely to be several strong candidates competing for the usual pots of cash, but every little bit helps.

The other At Large incumbents are in reasonable shape. Both Kubosh and Christie have done some degree of self-funding, so their totals aren’t worrisome. While I believe there will be some competitive At Large races in 2015, and not just in the two open seats, I don’t think anyone will be caught short in this department the way Andrew Burks was.

I continue to marvel at the totals in the district seats. Many of those incumbents have been helped by not having well-financed opponents. CMs Gonzales and Pennington are well placed if they have their eyes on another race. Personally, I think CM Gonzales ought to consider running for City Controller. If nothing else, that will likely be less crowded than the Mayor’s race in 2015.

CM Richard Nguyen, who was nicely profiled by Mustafa Tameez recently, received nearly half of his total – $9,500, to be exact – from various PACs after the election; this is called “late train” money. As far as the money he received from individuals, every one of them had a Vietnamese name. That’s some good networking there.

Of the others listed, two of them – Ron Hale and Melissa Noriega – are running for something in 2014. The rest, with one exception, was either an unsuccessful candidate in 2013 or a term-limited Council member. The exception is former CM Jolanda Jones, whose eligibility to run for something else remains disputed. The one notable thing in this bunch is the $25K that now-former CM Helena Brown had on hand. Given that CM Brenda Stardig left a lot of money unspent in 2011 when Brown knocked her off, there’s a certain irony to that. Beyond that, no one left themselves very much for a subsequent campaign if they have one in mind. I won’t be surprised if one or more people on this list runs for something again, perhaps in 2015, but if so they’ll be starting out as they did in 2013.

January campaign finance reports for Harris County candidates

BagOfMoney

In our previous episode, we looked at the campaign finance reports for Democratic statewide candidates. Today, let’s have a look at the reports for candidates for countywide office in Harris County. I’m not going to get down to the Constable or JP level – I’m not aware of any interesting primaries, those districts tend not to be too competitive, and there are only so many hours in the day. Neither County Commissioner Jack Cagle nor Jack Morman has an opponent, so I’m skipping them as well. The real interest is in the countywide campaigns, so here are those reports.

County Judge

Ed Emmett
Ahmad Hassan
David Collins

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Emmett 28,600 119,244 401,209 Hassan 0 1,250 0 Collins 0 0 0

The only thing Judge Emmett has to fear, I’d say, is a 2010-style Democratic wave. Other than that, he should win without too much trouble. In the meantime, he will have plenty of campaign cash to spend on various things, including a $10K contribution to the campaign of Paul Simpson, who is challenging Jared woodfill to be Chair of the Harris County GOP, and $5K to the New Dome PAC. It’ll be interesting to see how much he spends on other campaigns from here on out.

District Attorney

Friends of Mike Anderson
Friends of Devon Anderson
Kim Ogg
Lloyd Oliver

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Anderson 0 29,730 36,739 Ogg 66,643 8,897 40,771 Oliver 0 0 0

The Friends of Mike Anderson PAC gave a contribution of $66,469.58 to the Friends of Devon Anderson PAC, which closed out the books on it. I presume Devon Anderson will commence fundraising at some point, and will have all the resources she needs. Kim Ogg has done a decent job fundraising so far, but it’s what you do with what you’ve got that ultimately matters. Zack Fertitta had $145K on hand as of his 30 day report in 2012, and we know how that movie ended. Early voting starts in three weeks, you know.

County Clerk

Stan Stanart
Ann Harris Bennett
Gayle Mitchell

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Stanart 16,400 19,398 45,969 Bennett 10,748 7,113 2,442 Mitchell 1,138 2,010 0

Stan Stanart has $20K in outstanding loans, which was the case in July as well. His fundraising came almost entirely from two sources – the campaign of County Commissioner Jack Cagle ($10K), and a Holloway Frost of Texas Memory Systems ($5K).

District Clerk

Chris Daniel
Friends of Chris Daniel
Court Koenning
Judith Snively

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Daniel 0 15,871 0 Daniel SPAC 31,843 24,166 20,859 Koenning 38,165 48,974 112,814 Snively 5,300 3,095 2,204

Still a lot of money in this race. Incumbent Chris Daniel’s PAC and challenger Court Koenning both have the same outstanding loan totals that they had in July – $74,500 for Daniel, and $50K for Koenning. Democrat Judith Snively has loaned herself $4K. I suspect we won’t see as much money raised in this race after the primary as we do before it.

County Treasurer

Orlando Sanchez
Arnold Hinojosa
David Rosen

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Sanchez 23,500 5,577 220,437 Hinojosa 0 1,250 0 Rosen 2,875 2,122 651

Orlando Sanchez’s eye-popping cash on hand total comes from an equally eye-popping $200K loan to himself. This leaves me wondering where he got that kind of money. Did he do really well for himself from 2002 through 2007, when he was in the private sector, or was he just that well off before he was elected Treasurer in 2006? Maybe someone with a journalism degree and some spare time should look into that. Google tells me that his primary challenger Hinojosa is a constable in Precinct 5. Other than paying the filing fee, he had no activity to report.

HCDE Trustee

Debra Kerner
RW Bray
Michael Wolfe – No report

Melissa Noriega
Don Sumners

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Kerner 0 810 329 Bray 135 0 135 Wolfe Noriega 0 8,690 9,335 Sumners 0 750 0

Neither Michael Wolfe nor Melissa Noriega has filed a report with the County Clerk; Noriega’s report is from the Houston finance reporting system, for her City Council account, which will presumably be transferred at some point. Not a whole lot else to say except that everyone on this list has run for office at least once before, and with the exception of RW Bray has held office at least once. Who knew the HCDE Board of Trustees would be so popular?

113th District Civil Court (D)
311th Family District Court (R)

Steve Kirkland
Lori Gray

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Kirkland 55,065 6,806 35,963 Gray 35,000 30,209 4,791

Denise Pratt
Donna Detamore
Alecia Franklin
Anthont Magdaleno
Philip Placzek

Candidate Raised Spent Cash on hand ========================================== Pratt 146,020 78,361 67,659 Detamore 0 2,591 0 Franklin 15,555 13,595 47,317 Magdaleno 7,562 11,519 299 Placzek 6,700 25,012 149

I’m not interested in watching all of the contested judicial primaries, but these two are certainly keeping and eye on. The 113th is shaping up as a rerun of the 215th from 2012, in which the candidate running against Steve Kirkland is being financed by one person. In this case, George Fleming and the Texans for Good Leaders PAC he runs gave all of the money that Lori Gray collected. I don’t know Ms. Gray – she has responded to Texpatriate’s Q&A, but as yet has not sent answers to mine; if she has a campaign webpage or Facebook page I haven’t found it – but I don’t care for lawyers with vendettas like Mr. Fleming.

As for Judge Pratt, she may have a gaggle of challengers this March, but she’s not feeling the financial heat at this time. She’s also doing what she can to stay in the good graces of the establishment, with $10K to Gary Polland’s Conservative Media Properties, LLC for advertising and $10K to the Harris County GOP for various things (I’m not counting the $2500 for the filing fee). We’ll see how much good it does her.

Still more state and county finance reports, plus the city reports, to go through, and the federal reports should start being posted on February 1. January is a very busy month.

Funding after school programs

This should be a no-brainer.

CM C.O. "Brad" Bradford

CM C.O. “Brad” Bradford

To combat youth crime, a former Houston police chief says the city must first solve another problem: unstable and inadequate funding for after-school programs.

City Councilman C.O. Bradford said it is more urgent than ever to make after-school programs a public-safety priority as federal grants continue to dwindle or expire, forcing dozens of area providers to shut their doors this year and leaving more children unattended during critical hours.

“Deadly house parties. Drive-by shootings. Killed kids,” he said. “We’re going to see more and more of that.”

Bradford, Houston’s police chief from 1997 to 2003, has failed on previous attempts to persuade Houston leaders to take city funds earmarked for new police officers and instead spend them to expand after-school programs, but he vows to continue the push.

Since 2011, Bradford has chaired a coalition of area after-school care providers called ENRICH, which is based out of the Harris County Department of Education’s Cooperative for After-School Enrichment. The group’s end-of-year report highlighted local studies it organized and funded that show that after-school programs are linked to reducing youth crime.

For more than a decade, numerous national and regional studies have concluded that about 20 percent of all crimes – and more than half of violent crimes – committed by kids and teens happen in the four hours after school on weekdays, combatting the perception that mischievous kids prefer to skulk the dark. Some hope a solution is as simple as providing positive alternatives during those hours.

Former Mayor Lee Brown touted after-school programs as an anti-crime measure when the city began funding some in the late 1990s. Although the city spends millions from federal grants each year, only about $225,000 comes from the general fund.

“Too many young boys and girls are being cited and being detained because they are simply being children, and we are not providing the proper guidance, coaching and counseling they need,” Bradford said.

ENRICH reported that 53 percent of funding for after-school programs in Harris, Waller and Fort Bend counties came from federal sources in the 2012-13 school year. Dozens of after-school programs focused on academic enrichment were forced to shut down after that school year as federal grants expired with no option to reapply for one or two years.

I completely agree with CM Bradford that this is a priority and a sound investment that needs to be funded. You know the old expression “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”? That’s the idea here. Kids who are bored are more likely to get into trouble than kids who are busy. Doesn’t make them bad kids, it just makes them kids. I don’t know about you, but I certainly did a few stupid things when I was a kid and didn’t have anything better to do. The fact that federal grants are getting scarcer for this, presumably in the name of “austerity” or “smaller government”, is a scandal and a travesty, but this is the world we live in right now. We can pay now to help keep kids busy and engaged and productive, or we can pay later when they’re not. You tell me what makes more sense.

Final filings: We have a statewide Democrat

Boy, I didn’t see this coming.

Judge Larry Meyers

Judge Larry Meyers

Longtime Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Lawrence “Larry” Meyers announced Monday that he is leaving the Republican Party to run as a Democrat for the Texas Supreme Court.

Meyers, of Fort Worth, filed Monday on the last day of filing to seek Place 6 on the Supreme Court, currently held by Jeff Brown.

“I am thrilled to welcome Judge Meyers to the Texas Democratic Party,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said. “I am even more excited to know that Judge Meyers doesn’t stand alone. Every day, I hear from real voters that our party represents the strongest path forward for our state.

“Texas is changing and voters will continue ot reject a Republican Party more focused on ideology than ideas.”

Meyers’ party switch makes him the first statewide Democratic officeholder since 1998.

What’s more, since his term on the CCA isn’t up until 2016, no matter what happens in that race he’ll be on the bench at least until then. It’s a little strange having a criminal court judge running for a civil court, but that’s far from the strangest thing that’s happened this cycle. Meyers announced a challenge to Sharon Keller in the GOP primary in 2012 despite having previously been an ally of hers, but as far as I can tell he didn’t actually go through with it; the SOS page for the 2012 GOP primary shows her as unopposed. In any event, welcome to the party, Judge Meyers. Best of luck in your election.

That was the first surprise of the day but it wasn’t the last and may not have been the biggest, for next came this.

U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, has filed to run against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in the March GOP primary, joining at least eight other hopefuls vying for the senior senator’s seat, according to a spokesman with the Republican Party of Texas.

Stockman, who had filed for re-election in Congressional District 36, had to withdraw from that race to seek Cornyn’s seat.

In an interview with the website WND, Stockman said he was running because he was “extremely disappointed in the way [Cornyn] treated his fellow congressmen and broke the 11th commandment and undermined Ted Cruz’s fight to stop Obamacare.”

There’s crazy, there’s bat$#!+ crazy, and then there’s Steve Stockman, who does a triple lutz barrel roll with a half-gainer but still sticks the landing. Take that, Louie Gohmert!

GOP political consultant Matt Mackowiak said Stockman faces an uphill battle, from recent investigations into his political and fundraising operation to Cornyn’s “huge bankroll.”

“Now we will find out if Sen. Cornyn is truly vulnerable, which I have doubted,” Mackowiak said, adding, “I predict that not one member of the congressional delegation will support Stockman. Ultimately, he will need outside groups to spend, and that is the most important unknown right now.”

All I can say is that so far, no one has gone broke underestimating the insanity of Republican primary voters. I suppose there’s a first time for everything. In the meantime, I join with PDiddie, Texpatriate, Juanita, and BOR in marveling at the spectacle.

Stockman’s change in office means that he won’t be running for CD36, which means there’s at least a chance Congress could be a tiny bit less wacko in 2015. There are three other Republicans running, and one Democrat.

Meanwhile, Michael Cole has had his eye on the heavily-Republican district since 2012, when he ran as a libertarian. He got about 6,000 votes in that election.

Now Cole, a 38 year old teacher from Orange, Texas, is running again as a Democrat. He says he has a campaign team in place, has been crisscrossing the district, and is about to file his first report on fundraising to the Federal Elections Commission. He said he’d focus on getting things done and charged outgoing Stockman with wasting time on politics.

“I can listen to what my constituents want instead of just showboating against Barack Obama,” he said, noting that his major focus would be on middle class job growth.

The change in candidates doesn’t change the fact that this is a 70% GOP district. But still, a Republican and a Libertarian both turning Democrat to run next year? Not a bad day if you ask me.

Anyway. Here’s the TDP list, which will not include people that filed at their county offices, and the Harris County GOP list; I’ve put the HCDP list beneath the fold, since the updated version of it isn’t online just yet. Stace notes the contested primaries of interest in Harris County, but here are a few other highlights:

– In addition to Larry Meyers, the Dems have two other Supreme Court candidates (Bill Moody and Gina Benavides, who is a Justice on the 13th Court of Appeals) and one CCA candidate (John Granberg for Place 3). Not a full slate, but not too bad. According to a TDP press release, Granberg is an attorney from El Paso (as is Moody, who is a District Court judge) and Benavides is from McAllen.

– Kinky Friedman has a second opponent for Ag Commissioner, Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III. Either the Dems got used to the idea of Friedman on the ballot or they failed utterly to find an opponent for him that isn’t some dude. I never thought I’d say this, but as things stand today I’d vote for Kinky.

– Another press release from the TDP makes a nice-sounding claim:

Today, the Texas Democratic Party announced its slate of candidates for 2014. Texas Democrats are fielding more candidates for statewide office in this election cycle than any time since 2002.

In addition to the statewide slate, the party devoted significant time to recruiting for down ballot races, and announced challengers in State Senate districts 10 and 17, and a full slate of candidates to the State Board of Education.

The party spent significant time recruiting Justices of the Peace, County Constables, County Judges, County Commissioners and others in places like Lubbock, Wichita Falls, San Angelo and across Texas.

I like the look of that. I wish they had more information in that release, but it’s an encouraging sign regardless.

– There will not be a rematch in CD33 between Rep. Marc Veasey and Domingo Garcia. As a fan of Rep. Veasey, I’m glad to hear that.

– Rep. Harold Dutton did file for re-election in HD142. Some people just can’t be rushed, I guess. Rep. Carol Alvarado joined Rep. Alma Allen in drawing a primary challenger, as Susan Delgado filed at the last minute in HD145. I’ll be voting for Rep. Alvarado, thanks. Oh, and the GOP did find a challenger for HD144 – Gilbert Pena, who lost in the primary for that district in 2012.

– Dems did not get candidates foe each local judicial race, but there are a few contested judicial primaries. Yes, that’s a little frustrating, but people will run where they want to run.

– No one is running against Commissioner Jack Morman, and no one else is running for County Judge. Alas. Ann Harris Bennett has an opponent for County Clerk, Gayle Mitchell, who filed a finance report in July but has been quiet since.

– Possibly the biggest surprise locally is that outgoing CM Melissa Noriega filed for HCDE At Large Position 7, making that a three way race with Traci Jensen and Lily Leal. I will have more on that later.

I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to say about many of these races soon. Here’s the Chron story for now, which doesn’t add anything I didn’t already have here. What are your thoughts about the lineups?

(more…)

Filing deadline today

Before I get into the details of who has or hasn’t filed for what, I have a bone to pick with this AP story.

Perhaps what the candidate filings reveal most is the relative strength and depth of the political parties in Texas. Four top Republicans are in a fierce battle for lieutenant governor, three for attorney general and five for agriculture commissioner.

Three Republicans are in the race for the Railroad Commission, an entry-level statewide office that gives the winner routine access to the state’s biggest campaign donors as well as the governor and attorney general. The only competition in the judicial races is for open seats vacated by Republican incumbents.

If a party can be judged by the number of people who want to lead it, Republicans certainly remain popular and thriving. Most of their statewide candidates have decades of experience winning elections.

Democrats have yet to field a complete slate of statewide candidates and have just one candidate each for lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and land commissioner. The only potentially competitive race pits failed gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman against Jim Hogan for agriculture commissioner.

San Antonio Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the only Democrat running for lieutenant governor, was first elected to the Texas House in 1990 and to the Senate in 1999. She has the most campaign experience among Democratic candidates followed by Davis, who won her Senate seat in 2008. Freidman and attorney general candidate Sam Houston have run statewide offices before, but have never won.

That lack of experience and the shortage of candidates reveal the shallowness of the Democratic bench after 20 years out of power. There are young Democrats who have statewide potential, such as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and his twin brother U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, but they’ve decided like some others to sit out the 2014 race, likely to let others test the waters before they take the plunge themselves.

I’ll stipulate that the Republican side of the ballot has more overall experience. For obvious reasons, it’s the only primary that features statewide officeholders. But to say “most of their statewide candidates have decades of experience winning elections” overstates things considerably. Outside of the Lt Governor’s race, most of their candidates are current or former legislators, and I submit that decades of winning a gerrymandered legislative district is hardly indicative of statewide potential.

To break it down a bit more scientifically, the GOP field for the non-Governor and Lt. Governor races are made up of the following:

Railroad Commissioner: One former State Rep and three people you’ve never heard of.
Land Commissioner: One scion of a political dynasty making his first run for office, and some other dude.
Ag Commissioner: Two former State Reps, the Mayor of a small town, and a state party functionary who lost a State Rep race in 2004.
Attorney General: A State Senator, a State Rep, and an appointed Railroad Commissioner that defeated a Libertarian in 2012 in the only election he’s run to date.
Comptroller: A State Senator, a State Rep, and a failed gubernatorial candidate.

Not exactly Murderer’s Row, is it? What they have first and foremost is the advantage of their party. That’s no small thing, of course, but it has nothing to do with anything any of them has done.

That said, most current statewide officeholders made the initial leap from legislative offices – Rick Perry and Susan Combs were State Reps before winning their first statewide elections, with Combs spending two years in Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s office in between; Todd Staples and Jerry Patterson were State Senators. Dems have plenty of legislators that would make fine candidates for state office – two of them are currently running – but it’s a lot harder to convince someone to give up a safe seat for what we would all acknowledge is an underdog bid for higher office. How much that changes in 2018, if at all, depends entirely on how well things go this year. If we have one or more breakthroughs, or even if we come reasonably close, you can bet there will be plenty of candidates with “decades of experience winning elections” next time.

Anyway. As we head into the last day of candidate filing, the local Democratic ballot is filling in nicely. Dems have at least one candidate for nineteen of the 24 State House seats in Harris County. Four are GOP-held seats – HDs 126, 127, 128, and 130 – and one is HD142, which is currently held by Rep. Harold Dutton. Either Rep. Dutton is just dithering until the last day, or he’s planning to retire and his preferred successor will file sometime late today. I guess we’ll find out soon enough. The two additions to the Democratic challenger ledger are Luis Lopez in HD132, who appears to be this person, and Fred Vernon in HD138, about whom I know nothing. Dems also now have two Congressional challengers, James Cargas in CD07 as expected, and Niko Letsos in CD02, about whom I know nothing.

By the way, for comparison purposes, the Harris County GOP is only contesting 14 of 24 State Rep seats. The three lucky Dems that have drawn challengers so far are Rep. Gene Wu in HD137, Rep. Hubert Vo in HD149 – we already knew about that one – and Rep. Jessica Farrar in HD148, who draws 2011 At Large #3 Council candidate Chris Carmona. I have to say, if they leave freshman Rep. Mary Ann Perez in HD144 unopposed, I would consider that an abject failure of recruitment if I were a Republican. Beyond that, the thing that piqued my interest was seeing the two worst recent officeholders – Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners – back on the ballot, as each is running for the two At Large HCDE Trustee offices. Putting aside their myriad and deep incompetencies while in office, the only possible reason these two clowns would be running for the HCDE is that they want to screw it up for the purpose of killing it off. As we know, Dems have Traci Jensen and Lily Leal running for one of those seats. Debra Kerner is the incumbent for the other seat and I believe she has filed but with petitions, so her status hasn’t been finalized yet. All I know is that we have enough chuckleheads in office already. We don’t need to put these two retreads back into positions of power.

Statewide, Texpatriate noted on Saturday that Dale Henry has filed to run for Railroad Commissioner, which will pit him against Steve Brown. Henry ran for this office as a Dem in 2006, 2008 (he lost in the primary to Mark Thompson), and 2010. Henry is a qualified candidate, but he’s a dinosaur in terms of campaign techniques and technologies. That might have been charming in 2006 or 2008, but it’s way out of place in 2014. All due respect to Dale Henry, but I’ll be voting for Steve Brown. We are still waiting to see how many statewide judicial candidates we’ll get. Word is we’ll have them, but who and how many remain unknown. Finally, between the Harris County primary filings email and the TDP filings page, I see that Dems have at least two candidates for the 14th Circuit Court of Appeals – Gordon Goodman for Place 7, and Kyle Carter, who was re-elected to the 125th Civil District Court in 2012, for Chief Justice. There are still slots on that court and on the 1st Court of Appeals, so I hope there are more of these to come. As always, if you are aware of other filings or rumors of filings, leave a comment and let us know.

Susan Criss to file in HD23

Some excellent news from the inbox, via Carl Whitmarsh:

Susan Criss

For fifteen years I was honored to wear a black robe for the people of Galveston County. Four times I raised my hand and swore, so help me God, to faithfully execute the duties of the office of the 212th District Court of Galveston County, Texas and to the best of my ability protect, preserve and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of Texas.

While I dearly love this job it is time for me to serve my community in a different capacity. In order to do that I am required by law to resign from this position before December 9, 2013. I sent a letter to Governor Perry resigning from this bench effective at 5 pm December 6, 2013. I ask that he appoint someone to fill this term.

On Sunday December 8, 2013 at 2:00 p.m. I will file for the office of State Representative of District 23 at the Texas Democratic Party office in Austin.

For a decade and a half I administered justice to the best of my ability. I tried to be fair to everyone who appeared before my bench. When I was a young prosecutor Judge Raymond Magee told me that the man who drives to the courthouse in a pickup truck deserves the same justice as the man who drove there in a Cadillac. I never forgot his words and aspired to live up to them every day.

I was addressed as “Your Honor”. That was an appropriate term but not because I was special. It truly was my greatest honor to be able to serve the people of Galveston County in our justice system. I loved this job, the people I worked with, the lawyers who appeared before me and the people I served.

One sign on the door of my courtroom reads “This court belongs to the people.” The other has a quote by Sam Houston, “Do right and risk the consequences.” Both signs reflect my beliefs about justice and about government service.

The pink granite building in Austin also belongs to the people, the ones who drive Cadillacs, the ones who drive pickup trucks and the ones who cannot drive at all.

The people of District 23 deserve strong effective representation in the Texas House. I am excited about working hard to ensure that District 23’s voices are heard in Austin

She also posted that on her Facebook wall, along with that badass picture embedded above. I had wondered if anyone had filed in HD23, and I’m delighted to see a positive answer to that. Retaining this seat that’s being vacated by Rep. Craig Eiland will not be easy, but Judge Criss is as strong a candidate as one could want to make the effort. The Chron has picked up the story, and PDiddie was on it before that.

In other filing news, we have a couple more contested primaries in Harris County. An Azuwuike Okorafor, who may be this attorney, has filed to challenge Rep. Alma Allen in HD131. Allen easily turned back a campaign by Council Member Wanda Adams in 2012, so barring anything unexpected I don’t think this time will be any different. Also, a Lily Leal, who may be this person, filed to run for HCDE Trustee At Large Position 7, which is the seat formerly held by Jim Henley for which 2012 SBOE candidate Traci Jensen filed earlier in the period.

Democrats now also have a candidate for County Judge. Unfortunately, that candidate is Ahmad Hassan, the former Republican (he ran against Sheila Jackson Lee in 2006) who ran for County Judge in 2008 and 2010, losing in each primary to David Mincberg and Gordon Quan, respectively. He’s a perfectly nice person but has no real qualifications for this job or understanding of what it is – give a listen to the interview I did with him in 2010 to see what I mean. I don’t think there’s much appetite among Dems to run against incumbent County Judge Ed Emmett, and I can’t blame them – Emmett is generally well-liked, very well-funded, and was easily the top Republican votegetter both times he was on the ballot. I think 2014 is more likely to be a good year in Harris County than not, and while I expect Ed Emmett to run ahead of the GOP pack, it’s certainly possible he could lose. If he lost to a Mincberg or a Quan that would be one thing. Losing to Hassan would not be a good thing, and would invite comparisons to Jim Foster. This is one primary race that I would very much prefer to be a contested race.

Elsewhere, Trail Blazers confirms that LaRouchie wacko Kesha Rogers has indeed filed to run for the Senate. I will reiterate what I said yesterday that it’s everyone’s job to make sure she doesn’t make it to a runoff, let alone wins the nomination. Ignorance cannot be an excuse, y’all. BOR reports that the Democrats “will indeed be fielding several statewide judicial candidates, who are in the process of gathering the signatures required to run”. I have heard that El Paso District Court Judge Bill Moody was running again, and I had heard there were at least some other Supreme Court candidates out there, but that’s all I know. No clue whether we’ll have any CCA candidates. Finally, Tom Pauken has ended his quest for the GOP gubernatorial nomination on the very reasonable grounds that he had no chance of winning. I can’t claim to have been a fan, but it was better to have more critics of Greg Abbott out there, so to that extent I’m sorry to see him go. Texpatriate has more.

Kim Ogg officially files for DA

This is the marquee matchup in Harris County in November, at least so far.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg, the only Democratic yet to announce a bid for Harris County district attorney, said Monday that most voters do not identify with a particular party when it comes to criminal justice races.

“I think the race for Harris County’s criminal district attorney is potentially less partisan than other traditional legislative races,” Ogg said at her official filing at the Harris County Democratic Headquarters.

The former prosecutor who ran Crime Stoppers of Houston from 1999 to 2006 also said recent gains made by Democrats give her confidence.

“I think Harris County poses the greatest opportunity to reflect the change that’s happening in Houston, in Texas and in America,” Ogg said. “So I look forward to representing the Democratic Party as their nominee after the (primary) election in March.”

[…]

[On Monday,] Ogg said she would return the office to the [“trace case”] policy begun by [Pat] Lykos, whose position was that a tiny amount, less than 1/100 of a gram, was not enough to be tested by the prosecution and defense.

See here and here for the background. As you know, I support the Lykos “trace case” policy, so I am glad to see Kim Ogg take that position. I will be very interested to hear what she has to say about reviewing cases under the mandate of SB344 as well.

In related news, I get a daily report from the HCDP about who has filed for what, and I can report that Judith Snively has filed to run for District Clerk. Snively was a candidate for Harris County Criminal Court #3 in 2010 and did us all the favor of defeating Lloyd Oliver for the nomination in that race. Incumbent District Clerk Chris Daniel has a primary challenger, Court Koenning, but I was not aware of any Dem running for this office until just recently. Two candidates for other offices that had previously made their intentions known, David Rosen for Treasurer and Traci Jensen for HCDE Position 7 At Large, have also officially filed, and Ann Harris Bennett, who will run for County Clerk, sent out an email announcing that she will file on December 7. All incumbent Democratic State Reps except for Harold Dutton have filed so far. Finally, we have our first two legislative challengers, as an Alison Ruff has filed for HD134 and a John Gay filed for the open HD129. I had been aware of another person looking at the HD134 race, though she has since decided against it, but Ms. Ruff is a new name to me. Anyone out there know anything about her?

2014 Democratic lineup updates

In honor of Peggy Fikac, an update on who is running for what as a Democrat in 2014. Starting at the top, folks who attended the HCDP Johnson-Rayburn-Richards event on Saturday had the opportunity to meet Maxey Scherr, a 33-year-old attorney from El Paso who will be filing to run for Senate against John Cornyn. Art Pronin has a couple of pictures of her on his Facebook page – see here and here, assuming his security settings allow for that, and see here for a brief bio and video. I had a chance to meet Maxey on Friday thanks to Barbara Radnofsky, who was hosting her and introducing her around. She would be a first-time candidate, which is daunting to say the least at a statewide level, but she has some connections that will serve her well to get going. She is friends with both Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Rep. Silvestre Reyes, and is good friends with and a former schoolmate of the daughter of John Cook, the former Mayor of El Paso who is now the Democratic candidate for Land Commissioner. Scherr’s father James Scherr is a fixture in politics there and will apparently take a year off from his position as senior partner at their law firm to fundraise for her. I think she has the potential to raise a few bucks, which will be worth keeping an eye on. Rick Noriega took in about $4.5 million over the course of his candidacy in 2008; I think Scherr can top that. I also think she can take advantage of advances in technology and changes in the electorate and how to reach them to stretch those dollars farther. I expect her to run a progressive campaign geared at least in part towards voters of her own cohort, which is something we’re not used to seeing in this state and which ought to provide a good contrast to an old-boy establishment figure like Cornyn. Look for more information and a formal announcement from Maxey Scherr shortly.

A bit farther down on the ticket, BOR confirmed something that I first reported two weeks earlier, that former Fort Bend Democratic Party Chair Steve Brown is exploring a run for Railroad Commissioner. From BOR:

Steve Brown

In our exclusive interview, Mr. Brown spoke with me about his political history, including having served in the Clinton White House and how he was elected as chair of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party in 2010. He resigned the Chairmanship earlier this year when he began considering a run for elected office. He stated that he wanted to run for Texas Railroad Commissioner because the Commission needs an advocate for regular Texans while making sure people who are doing the right things in regards to oil and gas production are not being punished.

Mr. Brown stated his preference to see the Commission change its name to reflect that it is a regulatory commission over the energy sector, and not railroads. He also stated his desire to see stronger ethics rules implemented over the Commissioners. When asked about Republicans who cited federal oversight was a job killer, Mr. Brown responded that people who used that excuse were not being creative when it came to finding solutions. He pointed out again that one of the roles of a Commissioner is to punish bad actors who violate laws, not to give everyone a free pass.

Stephen Brown has been a great advocate for the Texas Democratic Party as Fort Bend County’s Chairman and served the Party with distinction and honor.

There’s an interview at the link, so go give it a listen. With Scherr and Brown jumping in, the one remaining hole among the non-judicial offices is Lt. Governor, where we are still waiting on a decision from Sen. Leticia Van de Putte. While she waits, as noted by PDiddie, Maria Alvarado, the 2006 Democratic candidate for Lt. Gov., has announced her candidacy. Good for her and all, but with all due respect, I’m still waiting for Sen. Van de Putte.

That still leaves judicial candidates. Via both Maxey Scherr and Attorney General candidate Sam Houston, whom I saw briefly on Saturday evening, El Paso District Court Judge Bill Moody, the top Democratic votegetter in 2006, will be running for Supreme Court again. Sam Houston told me that the TDP was working with other candidates for Supreme Court and that he expected the Dems to field a full slate there, though he didn’t know what was going on with the Court of Criminal Appeals. This is the first news I’ve heard about the statewide judicial races, and it’s reasonably encouraging. If you have heard anything about these races, please leave a comment and let us know.

Finally, in Harris County, we now have a Democratic candidate for the At Large HCDE Trustee position that Jim Henley vacated in June. Traci Jensen, who ran for the State Board of Education in 2012 and who had expressed interest in being appointed to fill Henley’s seat, announced on Facebook that she would run for the position. Rumor has it that former Trustee Michael Wolfe, who was ousted by Diane Trautman last year, is seeking to reclaim a spot on the Board, so having a strong and well-qualified candidate like Jensen will be important.

Last but not least, Glorice McPherson is out collecting signatures to run for County Commissioner in Precinct 2, which would be against Jack Morman. McPherson ran against Steve Radack in 2012 in CC3, which puzzled me a bit at first, but her voter registration card indicates she lives in CC2, so I presume she moved in the last year or so. A lot of people have been talking about running in CC2 so I don’t expect this will be the last word, but for now there is at least one candidate in the race.

That’s all I’ve got. If you have any further rumor, innuendo, or actual fact about 2014, leave a comment and pass it on. Remember, the filing period begins November 9, so there’s hardly time to catch one’s breath after this election before the next one gets going.

Early to Rise appeal denied

That pretty much wraps it up, for now at least.

A controversial 1-cent property tax to buoy local preschools will not be on the November ballot following a Houston appeals court ruling.

The 14th Court of Appeals, in an opinion issued late Thursday, rejected the Harris County School Readiness Corp.’s lawsuit to force County Judge Ed Emmett to put the tax before voters this fall. The three-judge panel dismissed the lawsuit.

[…]

“In the petition, relators ask this court to compel the Honorable Ed Emmett, Harris County Judge, to order an election in accordance with the ‘Petition to Authorize a One Cent Tax for Early Childhood Education,'” a three-judge panel wrote in the opinion.

The panel said the group failed to prove it was entitled to a writ of mandamus forcing Emmett to put the measure on the ballot. It did not elaborate in its two-page opinion.

The order is here. It’s pretty much “They asked us to do something, and our answer is No”.

The School Readiness Corp. said in a statement Friday that it “respectfully accepts the opinion,” but is “deeply saddened by the impact this decision will have on thousands of preschool children in Harris County.”

[…]

However, the group’s lawyer, Richard Mithoff, said he has told his clients “it would be very difficult if not impossible to get the matter on the ballot this time for the November election.”

As for future ballots, Mithoff said, the group “will assess all options.”

“What the campaign has clearly learned from this, what the leadership has clearly learned, is that there’s overwhelming support for funding early childhood education,” he said.

A copy of their full statement is beneath the fold. See here for the last update and here for most of my other posts on this. It seems clear to me that they should try again next year. They had no trouble getting the signatures, they got support from school and law enforcement leaders, and even Judge Emmett admitted that if the language on their referendum had been a little different he would have had to put it on the ballot. That’s a fixable problem, and so is the fractious relationship between the School Readiness Corp and the County Judge, who would normally be inclined to support a pre-K expansion effort. If the School Readiness Corp can engage with Judge Emmett to the point where he’s at least neutral on their efforts rather than actively opposed, and they can improve and strengthen their model for oversight, I see no reason why they can’t be successful with this in 2014. I know they aimed for this year because their polling suggested that the electorate would be more favorable to them because the city of Houston and its Mayoral election would be the biggest component of it, but I’m sure they did their poll before the Astrodome referendum was on the radar, and who knows how that might wind up skewing things. The idea behind Early to Rise is compelling and worthwhile. They just need to work on the details. I would like to see them try again next year.

(more…)

July finance reports for Harris County officeholders and challengers

Odd-numbered years are primarily about city elections, but primaries are just around the corner, and some hopefuls for county and state offices are already out there lining up support and raising money. Here’s a peek at some of the Harris County incumbents that are on the ballot in 2014 and the people that have filed paperwork to take them on.

County Judge

Ed Emmett

Raised = $436,997
Spent = $86,579
On Hand = $496,580

Judge Emmett has no challengers that I’ve heard of as yet. I believe Harris County will be substantially Democratic in 2014, but even if it is, the last man standing on the Republican side will be Emmett, who has been the top Republican votegetter in each of his two elections. It’s possible he could be challenged by someone from the wingnut end of his party – one hears occasional rumblings of such things, but no names have reached my ears so far. If he decides that he’s had enough, I’m sure the primary to succeed him will be fierce on both sides. Emmett got a lot of money from the kinds of people and PACs you’d expect for someone in his position. Among the more interesting contributions he received were $5,000 from the PAC of CM Stephen Costello’s engineering company. He also got $2,500 from Drayton McLane and $10,000 from Bob McNair, so I guess football is a bigger influence than baseball for him.

Commissioners Court

Jack Morman

Raised = $508,820
Spent = $80,867
On Hand = $834,030

As we know, Morman’s race is likely to be the marquee event next year, and he’s fundraising like he is well aware of that fact. Eighteen of his contributions were for $10,000 each, though unlike Emmett he got only $2,500 from McNair and nothing from McLane. One person I have heard so far that is thinking about a challenge to Morman is term-limited CM James Rodriguez, but he has only $10K on hand as of July. Either he’s not that interested, or he’s taking his time about it.

Jack Cagle

Raised = $338,598
Spent = $83,361
On Hand = $346,087

Unlike Morman, Commissioner Cagle is unlikely to face any serious competition next year. Not really much to say about this one.

County Clerk

Stan Stanart

Raised = $37,620
Spent = $7,354
On Hand = $48,764
Loan = $20,000

Stanart will be up for his first re-election after winning in the wave of 2010. He’s an ideological crusader, and his contributions reflect that, with donations from the likes of Norm Adams, Donna Bahorich, and the campaign funds of John Culberson and Paul Bettencourt. He has two opponents:

Ann Harris Bennett – $1,736 on hand after spending $3,194.
Gayle L. Mitchell – Designation of treasurer filing.

Bennett lost to Stanart in 2010, though she was one of the top votegetters among Dems, and lost narrowly to Mike Sullivan for Tax Assessor in 2012. I know nothing about Gayle Mitchell beyond the fact that she has filed the designation of treasurer form for the purpose of running for County Clerk next year.

District Clerk

Chris Daniel

Raised = $0
Spent = $7,190
On Hand = $0

Friends of Chris Daniel

Raised = 27,350
Spent = $21,846
On Hand = $19,898
Loan = $74,500

Daniel’s PAC mostly took in money from other PACs, law firms, and bail bond companies. The expenditures on his non-PAC form were from personal funds, with the intent to seek reimbursement. He has an opponent for March:

Court Koenning

Raised = $54,075
Spent = $5,375
On Hand = $101,575
Loan = $50,000

Koenning is a former Chief of Staff for Dan Patrick, among other things. That’s a crazy amount of money for this race, almost entirely from individuals. Among his donors were Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Eversole, who gave $200, and Ashley and Jeremy Radack, who gave $2,500 and may or may not have any relation to Steve Radack. This will be a race to watch. In browsing the filings, I got a brief thrill from seeing Loren Jackson‘s name, but he was basically cleaning out his campaign coffers by making a payment to the TEC to settle a complaint. I’m sure there will be a Dem in this race, but he or she has not stepped forward as yet.

County Treasurer

Orlando Sanchez

Raised = $10,241
Spent = $7,044
On Hand = $3,165

Sanchez raised more money than I’m used to seeing him take in. Three thousand dollars of his total came from PACs, law firms, and bail bond companies. The first two have a lot of overlap with city elections, the latter one doesn’t, presumably because the jail is a county function. Sanchez got donations of $100 each from Bruce Hotze, Michael Kubosh, and Toni Lawrence.

David Rosen – Designation of treasurer

Stace noted Rosen’s campaign kickoff a few days ago. Rosen lost a Democratic primary for HCDE Trustee last year to Diane Trautman. He has a website up, with a lot more about what he’d do in office than Sanchez has done in eight years. As he noted in an email to me, if he wins he’d be the youngest elected official in Harris County in over 40 years, which is to say since well before he was born. But not me, because I’m old.

HCDE Trustee

Debra Kerner

Raised = $0
Spent = $35
On Hand = $739

HCDE candidates don’t raise much money. For an At Large race, it would hardly matter anyway. No candidate has filed a designation of treasurer yet to succeed Jim Henley.

I expect we’ll see a lot more activity, or at least hear some more active rumors, after Sen. Wendy Davis makes her announcement. For now, this is how things stand.

No Early To Rise on the ballot

Place your bets on the outcome of the litigation.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Monday he would not place a 1-cent property tax on the November ballot intended to buoy area pre-schools, prompting a lawsuit by a local nonprofit that suppliedtens of thousands of signatures on a petition asking him to do so.

Emmett, a critic of the effort since it launched at the beginning of summer, said the ballot language on the petition does not comply with a certain chapter of the Texas Education Code.

[…]

Citing a seven-page legal opinion by a private lawyer, Emmett conceded that the antiquated law still is applicable, because a section of the education code says it is, but said that the ballot language on the petition is too specific about both the nature of the proposed tax – specifically, that it says the tax would be “additional,” on top of the education department’s current 1-cent taxing authority – and how it would be used.

“Describing the requested tax as ‘additional’ is a significant departure from the statute because there is no authority in Chapter 18 for more than one tax,” Emmett said at a news conference on Monday, the last day items could be placed on the Nov. 5 ballot. “If early childhood expenditures can be controlled by the general public through a tax election, then why not vocational educational, agricultural education, adult education, special education or any other source of educational programs that the public imagination might run to?”

Emmett said he could not change the ballot language because it would be different than the language on the petition that people had signed.

His lawyer, William Bednar, who drafted the opinion, confirmed that if the language had been different – meaning less restrictive – Emmett would have had to order the election.

See here for more on the dispute over the law. Judge Emmett’s decision is not a surprise, though honestly neither direction would have been a surprise. One reason why Judge Emmett received legal advice from a private lawyer is that he did not receive an opinion from the AG’s office prior to the announcement. You can search the Attorney General’s opinions and see for yourself if you want. You can get a little peek at the legal advice Judge Emmett got on Chron reporter Kiah Collier’s Twitter feed. It won’t tell you much, but it’s more than what the AG had to say. This too is not a big surprise, since the opinion process is usually measured in months, but in this case it meant Emmett had to go out on his own. For the third non-surprise of the day, the Early To Rise folks announced immediately afterward that they were filing suit. Here’s their press release.

“Because we believe the law requires the county judge to place this issue before the voters, we will be filing a petition for a writ of mandamus in behalf of the registered voters who signed the petition requesting relief from the Court of Appeals,” said attorneys Richard Mithoff and Russell Post, who are representing Jonathan Day in behalf of registered voters who signed the petition seeking to put the issue on the ballot.

“This is not about Judge Emmett. He is a committed and conscientious public official,” Mithoff said. “This is not about the wisdom of the early childhood initiative: voters may disagree about whether revenue should be raised for this project.”

“This is about the law,” he said.

The Texas Legislature has authorized voters to petition for an election to authorize their government to levy and collect taxes for educational purposes. The requirement to invoke this procedure represents a high hurdle–requiring the support of 10% of voters from the last gubernatorial election. We have now validated more than twice that number.

Under these circumstances, the Texas Legislature has mandated that a county judge has no discretion to second-guess the will of the people. Rather, “the county judge . . . shall immediately order an election.” This command is unambiguous and unequivocal; it must be enforced.

Therefore, this initiative should be put before the voters to decide if early childhood education is something they want to invest in.

Emmett is quoted in that Chron story saying he expected to get sued no matter what he decided. As I’ve been saying that this will ultimately be decided in court, I believe him. I will note that I received an advisory about Mithoff’s press conference an hour before Emmett’s presser was scheduled to begin, so I’d say it’s a fair conclusion that Early To Rise knew which way the wind was blowing.

[The lawsuit] implores Emmett to order the election immediately, and requests the court make a decision by Sept. 16 “assuring sufficient time to satisfy the printing deadline for” the election.

I have no idea which way the courts will go. I’m not sure this will be truly settled in time for the election – I suspect that no matter what happens, there will be more to come afterward. What do you think will happen?

The law and the Early To Rise petition process

Much has been made about the obscurity of the state law that allows for the petition process that the Early To Rise folks have followed to put an item on the ballot that would raise money for pre-K education in Harris County. The Chron takes a closer look at the statutes in question and the requests for clarification on them from the Attorney General.

When the campaign first launched earlier this summer, Emmett said he believed the law was not applicable because it no longer was on the books, saying the state “didn’t recodify these sections and you can’t find these anywhere in state statutes today.”

The state law stipulating the petition process – two sections of the Texas Education Code, specifically – was repealed in 1995 when the Legislature reorganized the education code, according to campaign and county lawyers.

The law, which dates to the 1920s, gave county education departments in the state authority to levy a so-called “equalization tax” to raise revenue for “the support of the public schools of the county.” Unlike school districts, whose governing bodies can raise taxes by a vote, the equalization tax can be authorized only by an election called via citizen petition.

Under the education code, a county education department operating under those repealed sections “may continue to operate under” them, meaning those sections stipulating the petition process still apply.

That fact is conceded in two separate requests for a legal opinion sent to the state attorney general this month on the applicability of the law, one from County Attorney Vince Ryan on behalf of [County Judge Ed] Emmett and another by state Sen. Dan Patrick.

However, Patrick wrote, whether the education department could operate under those repealed laws if its tax rate is increased still is in question.

Emmett’s objections recently have come down to whether the ballot language proposed on the petitions is consistent with the repealed sections.

The petition language says the revenue generated is “to be used solely and exclusively for early childhood education purposes,” which does not appear to fit the definition of an equalization tax “to be distributed equally among all school districts” in the county.

One of the leaders of the petition group, Jonathan Day, a former city of Houston attorney, said the law does not say exactly what the ballot language must be. He also pointed to other sections of the law that stipulate broad uses for equalization tax revenue, including “for the advancement of public free schools in such counties.”

The education department is “already spending money on early childhood,” Day noted.

I’m not even going to try to guess what AG Greg Abbott will write in his opinion. I do know that county education departments used to be common in Texas, but as of today there are only two left, in Harris and Dallas, and this is undoubtedly why those statutes were modified or repealed back in 1995. It’s just a muddle, and I will say again, it will ultimately be settled in court. The story also notes that Emmett will announce his decision about whether or not to put this on the ballot on Monday, which is the deadline for making such a decision in time for the election. I presume we will have AG Abbott’s opinion by then as well, but I’m just guessing.

Interview with Roy Morales

Roy Morales

Roy Morales

As of my last At Large #3 interview, I reported that I had not yet been able to make arrangements with either Michael Kubosh or Roy Morales. I’m pleased to say now that both interviews have been completed; I have Morales’ here, and will publish Kubosh’s at a later date. Morales is a familiar candidate in city races, having run for At Large #3 the last time it was open, in 2007, and for Mayor in 2009. He also served on the HCDE Board of Trustees as the trustee for Precinct 1 from 2007 to 2013, and he ran for CD29 in 2010. Morales is a Lt. Colonel (Retired) in the Air Force, and a businessman. Here’s what we talked about:

Roy Morales interview

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2013 Election page.

Finally, the Early To Rise plan

This is what we’ve got after their presentation to the HCDE Board of Trustees on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, the Harris County School Readiness Corp. pitched its plan to expand early education at a five-hour gathering with wary trustees for the Harris County Department of Education. The corporation’s proposal suggests that if voters approve a ballot initiative expanding the education department’s taxing authority by 1 cent per $100 of assessed value, the public agency should contract with the nonprofit to administer the estimated $25 million collected each year.

“Help is not on the way,” said Jonathan Day, a member of the corporation’s board, about the need to improve early childhood education programs in Harris County. “We’re not going to get help from the federal government, or the state government. We believe this needs to start here on a local level.”

Responding to public and trustee concerns about accountability, the proposed 10-year contract would allow the department to appoint half of the agency’s governing board, to approve rules for spending tax dollars and to review 14 areas of performance.

A three-member staff of the corporation would contract with existing education groups to expand training for teachers and buy school supplies for child care centers serving children up to age 5.

See here for the previous update. The bit about allowing HCDE to appoint half of the governing board is a step in the right direction. Even better news is that at long last we have some firm details. Here’s a draft services agreement, and the Harris County School Readiness Corporation policies on accountability and conflicts of interests. Both came in late Wednesday via Houston Politics. I haven’t had the chance to read through them, but there they are.

There’s another wrinkle in all this, as noted by this story from before the presentation.

Before the department’s board can vote on any agreement, it must go through a state-mandated request for proposals, according to education department officials.

“We presume we’ll get at least one,” chuckled Superintendent John Sawyer, who represented the department in initial negotiations.

Jonathan Day, a member of the corporation’s board and a former Houston city attorney, said he is confident the request for proposals will not slow down the group’s reaching an agreement in the narrow window before the November election.

“We think this kind of structure we have proposed is the right one. We hope the board will agree,” he said. “But look, we’d be happy if somebody else could do this better than we can.”

I rather doubt there’s another group out there in position to submit a bid, but you never know. It’s not clear what happens if the measure passes but the Harris County School Readiness Corporation fails to reach an agreement with the HCDE. Does that mean that the HCDE board can choose not to implement the tax increase, thus essentially nullifying the election, or does it mean another round of RFPs?

Of course, first this has to make it to the ballot.

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan has until Monday to verify at least 78,000 of the 150,000 petitions submitted by the group, which could trigger the proposal’s appearance on the ballot. The county attorney and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, have asked the attorney general’s office to clarify what Judge Ed Emmett must do if the minimum level of signatures are verified, arguing the initiative process used may not still be in effect.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that enough petition signatures were collected. The AG opinion is still the big unknown, but as I’ve said all along, I expect this to eventually be settled in court. How long that might take, and whether it affects the ballot this year or not, I have no clue. KUHF has more.

Time for more information about Early To Rise

What Lisa Falkenberg says.

They’ve turned over more than 150,000 signatures in favor of putting an early education tax on the Harris County ballot in November. Now the folks behind the Early to Rise campaign need to turn over the details.

Actually, they should have turned them over a while ago. The well-meaning folks who signed the petition did so with only the vaguest notion that, somehow, they’d be helping kids, and our community. But some of us need a little more information.

The petition said only that it was authorizing the Harris County Department of Education to levy a tax of one penny per $100 of assessed home value “for early childhood education purposes to improve success of children in kindergarten and beyond.”

A fact sheet called the effort a “public/private partnership” that will provide training, assistance and equipment to preschool programs and parents. Clicking on “take a deeper look at the Early to Rise Plan” on the group’s website won’t get you any deeper. It gives the basics and a list of board members who would lead a newly formed nonprofit to administer the tax funds.

Those board members include respected community leaders such as James Calaway of the Center for Houston’s Future, former Houston first lady Andrea White and the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell. But their good names aren’t enough. We need a detailed proposal, in writing, that spells out how money will be distributed, to what kinds of operations, under what criteria? How many families will be helped? How many children? At what age?

Not to mention how will the board members be chosen, what kind of oversight will they be subject to, what kind of disclosures will they have to make to ensure that any conflicts of interest can come to light, what is the process to remove a board member that needs to be removed, etc etc etc. We know these answers for elected officials, and we know these answers for boards and whatnot that are appointed by elected officials. We know none of that for Early To Rise and the Harris County School Readiness Corporation. The American Prospect, which has a nice overview of Early To Rise and the story so far, suggests that they don’t really have a good answer to these questions.

The obvious concerns over handing the revenues to an unelected nonprofit board are not lost on the leaders of Early to Rise. However Jonathan Day, a former city councilman and one of the Early to Rise board members, argues this is much better than the alternative of letting the Harris County Department of Education administer the program, which would politicize the process. The Department of Education has had its share of political drama, including hiring a former county commissioner and convicted felon as its lobbyist. Day worries that by giving the Department of Education control over the process, childcare centers would get selected for the program based on political advantage rather than need. He says that’s already become a problem with charter schools. “We have some bad charter schools. Are we able to close ‘em down?” he says. “Every one of those charter schools has a bunch of defenders, [including] the state representative.” By putting the money in the hands of an unelected body, Day believes the program will avoid many of the same political problems. “You can to a very significant extent, avoid those kinds of results which are very damaging,” he says, and notes that the Department of Education would still have oversight.

Day was a City Attorney, not a City Council member, but never mind that. I don’t get making HCDE out to be nefarious, especially since this proposal isn’t going to go anywhere without HCDE’s support. I agree that the hiring of Jerry Eversole was a forehead-slapping move, but he was hired for the purpose of lobbying Commissioners Court to back off its efforts to get a bill passed to kill the HCDE. I personally wouldn’t touch Eversole with a ten-foot pole, but that is a role for which he is qualified. Most of the actual political drama on HCDE had to do with a faction that never numbered more than one or two that was on board with the kill-HCDE agenda. The biggest, and possibly sole, protagonist of this was Michael Wolfe, who was defeated in 2012. Outside of Wolfe, the drama level at HCDE has been remarkably low. Bringing up charter schools is a distraction, since they have nothing to do with any of this, and besides, the Lege passed a bill this past session that among other things will – in theory, at least – make it easier to shut down substandard charters. Finally, I can’t believe that Jonathan Day is naive enough to think that an unelected and not-selected-by-electeds board would be less subject to political pressure or less tempted by favoritism than any other board. This goes right back to the question of oversight and what the consequences are for misbehavior. We need to have some assurances that our tax dollars are being used appropriately. That is not too much to ask.

Back to Falkenberg:

Bob Sanborn, CEO of the nonprofit watchdog organization Children at Risk, says he shares many of [County Judge Ed] Emmett’s worries: “I don’t really trust the governing structure. I don’t trust the taxing entity it’s going through, and that becomes a little problematic. This whole idea of unelected boards – what happens when they change membership?”

At the same time, he said he told Emmett in a conversation a while back, “you know, in the end, if this is on the ballot, it’s pro-children and I have to support it.”

I think that’s where many of our hearts are. Now the folks at Early to Rise just have to persuade our minds.

Yeah, that’s where I am, too. But it’s a huge leap of faith, and it’s one none of us should have to make. We’ll know on Tuesday what the plan is for HCDE. I sure hope these concerns get addressed.

Early To Rise submits its petitions

From here it gets real.

The Harris County School Readiness Corp., a new nonprofit led by business and civic leaders, is calling for a ballot intiative to levy a 1-cent-per-$100 tax through the Harris County Department of Education to generate about $25 million a year for training teachers and buying school supplies for child care centers serving children up to age 5.

Chairman James Calaway touted the proposal Tuesday as he stood ready to roll a dolly stacked with five boxes filled with more than 150,000 signatures into the office of one of the plan’s most vocal critics, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

“Let’s deliver these to the county judge so he can begin his five days of verification to get it on the ballot,” he said.

Here’s their press release. There’s already a dispute over how quickly the signatures must be certified. Calaway says Tax Assessor Mike Sullivan has five days to randomly verify a subsample of the signatures. Sullivan and County Judge Ed Emmett say he has until the deadline for putting items on the ballot, which is August 26. That’s also the deadline for the Attorney General to render an opinion that would be relevant and timely. At the behest of Judge Emmett, County Attorney Vince Ryan has submitted a request for an AG opinion that asks “whether the Harris County Judge is authorized to deny a petition to order an election to levy and collect an equalization tax for the Harris County Department of Education and related questions”. (Sen. Dan Patrick has also requested an opinion.) You can hear all the attorneys limbering up in the background as they prepare for the inevitable lawsuit. I presume the fact that Ryan submitted the request means that Judge Emmett was told he couldn’t do it himself, a fact that Lisa Falkenberg pointed out awhile back. So at least this is known to be kosher.

I don’t know what will happen next, but if I had to guess I’d say this makes it to the ballot. Barring a ruling that the law being used is invalid, I’m not sure what the pretext would be for stopping it. Doesn’t mean Abbott couldn’t come up with a reason if he wants to, of course. But let’s say it does make it onto the ballot. I’m wondering now if the Harris County School Readiness Corporation has had any second thoughts about its reasons for pushing this in 2013 instead of waiting till 2014. As I understand it, they thought that they’d have a better shot in 2013, when voters from the city would be a disproportionately large share of the electorate. While I don’t think that support or opposition to the Early To Rise plan will cleave exactly along partisan lines, I do think it’s reasonable to think the Democrats are more likely to support it and Republicans are more likely to oppose it, and given that, you’d like for the mostly-Democratic city to be the bulk of the voters. Of course, in our generally low-turnout city elections, the voters who show up aren’t necessarily representative of what a high-turnout electorate would be. With the addition of the Astrodome referendum, it’s impossible to say what the county electorate will look like, and it’s no longer a guarantee that city of Houston voters will be the bulk of it. If the key to getting this passed is a Democratic electorate, then maybe it would have been better to wait till next year and the hoped-for Wendy Davis Express to serve as a tailwind. Of course, no one could have known all this six months ago, or whenever the Harris County School Readiness Corporation first geared up. They picked their target, now we’ll see how wise they were to do so.

That’s getting ahead of ourselves, because we still don’t quite know exactly what we’d be voting for.

For months, corporation members have been negotiating with the Harris County Department of Education on a governance agreement.

“We’ve been working to find the right balance of public oversight,” Calaway said, declining to talk specifically about details until the proposal is presented publicly to the department’s board of trustees Tuesday.

Wishing to dispel myths that the nonprofit simply would be cut a check for the tax dollars and left free to spend it on its own operations, Calaway said much of the finance and accounting work would be handled by the Department of Education.

The nonprofit’s three-person staff would coordinate with existing early education providers to spend the money, he said.

The challenge is sorting out how much public oversight to mandate for a private entity spending public dollars, Calaway and education department Superintendent John Sawyer agreed.

Sawyer said the proposal is unlike any other private-public partnership he has seen.

“Elected officials would allow the operations to be overseen by a board different from themselves,” he said. “My board has got to come to grips with that. Or not.”

The suggestion of having HCDE name a board member has been dropped by agreement. I suspect they’ll get the details hammered out, but I’m wondering what happens if they don’t. Does it make sense for the Harris County School Readiness Corporation to push a proposal that the HCDE hates? The whole reason why the Harris County School Readiness Corporation was able to mount this petition drive is because the HCDE still exists, unlike most other county school boards. It’s HCDE’s tax rate that we’re being asked to increase. Being harmonious with them would seem to be the first order of business. We’ll see what they come up with by Tuesday. Campos, who thinks the “right balance of public oversight” is “100%”, has more.

School superintendents for Early To Rise

From the press release:

(Houston, TX) Today Harris County Superintendents participated in a press conference for the Early to Rise campaign, which is seeking to create a dedicated funding stream to improve the quality of early childhood education through a ballot measure in November. Representing over 400,000 students and their families, the superintendents gave comments on the program. In attendance were Dr. Terry Grier Superintendent of Houston Independent School District, and Dr. Wanda Bamberg Superintendent of Aldine Independent School District. Dr. Mark Henry Superintendent of Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District, Dr. Guy Sconzo Superintendent of Humble Independent School District and Dr. Duncan Klussman of Spring Branch Independent School District, were unable to attend but provided comments.

This campaign has garnered the approval of over 145,000 of our fellow Harris County citizens who have signed a petition to place this important initiative on the November ballot, making it the largest petition drive in the history of Harris County. The Early to Rise campaign will help to raise the standards, training and educational outcomes for young children up to age 5 so that they can begin Kindergarten excited, curious and ready for school.

All representatives felt that making this kind of investment in early childhood education is absolutely critical to the region’s social progress and economic vitality. The first steps toward prosperity begin in the early years and this innovative effort is supported by extensive research.

That’s an impressive number of signatures. I presume they will turn in the petitions next week, to be followed by someone filing a lawsuit, because that’s what I’ve expected all along. As with Sheriff Garcia, it makes sense for school supers to support this. It’s very much in their interest for kids to show up for kinder as prepared for it as possible.

Sheriff Garcia endorses the Early To Rise campaign

It makes sense that he would.

The group attempting to get a 1-cent tax hike on the November ballot to bolster early childhood education programs got a hearty endorsement from Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia on Wednesday, and announced it had cleared the first major hurdle in putting its initiative to voters this fall.

James Calaway, chairman of the so-called Early to Rise campaign, said the group – using volunteer and also paid canvassers, according to its campaign finance report – has collected more than 140,000 signatures on its petition, nearly twice the 78,000 signatures it says it needs to force County Judge Ed Emmett to place the initiative on the ballot. The group will turn the petition in early next week, and promised that a sufficient number of the signatures will be valid as they are from registered voters.

Calaway made the announcement on Wednesday across the street from the main county jail at 1200 Baker Street, where the county’s top lawman hosted a news conference to endorse the program, saying it would help keep kids out of trouble with his deputies and is “far cheaper” than incarceration.

“This is truly an issue of investing now,” Garcia said.

The 1-cent tax hike, which would be levied by the Harris County Department of Education and administered by the private non-profit School Readiness Corporation, would generate $25 million a year for teacher training, school supplies and other supplements at low-performing childcare centers in the county serving children up to age 5.

While several members of the Department of Education board of trustees said recently they would not support the plan unless they are able to have more immediate oversight – including appointing a member to the School Readiness Corporation board – Calaway said the group is working up a “multi-page agreement” with the agency and expects it to endorse the plan.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’m glad to see that Early To Rise is working out an agreement with the HCDE on oversight, because that was the biggest concern I had with this. HCDE should have some direct responsibility here. I look forward to seeing what that agreement has to say.

A press release announcing the Sheriff’s endorsement is here. The reason why I say that it makes sense for Sheriff Garcia to endorse this can be summed up in the following comment he made in that release:

“This is truly an issue of pay me now, or pay me later. We either need to pay for better early childhood education now, or we will end up paying for more inmates later, we either help our youngsters succeed when they’re 4 or we have to pay for the consequences when they’re 24”.

Surely no reasonable person disputes that. The main dispute over this campaign has been an existential one of process.

The third hurdle may not be so easy to clear, though: County Judge Emmett is still saying he thinks the law dictating the petition process does not apply, and has asked for opinions from the county attorney’s office and the state attorney general.

“I’ve said from the beginning I don’t think this law is really applicable,” Emmett said this week. “I’ve always assumed they’re going to turn in signatures.”

Lisa Falkenberg, who has explored this disagreement before, continues that exploration.

On Monday, Emmett requested an opinion on the petition from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. He asked if the old law under which the petition was devised is still in effect and, if so, whether Emmett has the authority to reject the petition if it doesn’t “substantially follow” the language of the statute. Of course, Emmett has already decided that the petition’s language doesn’t follow the statute closely enough.

There’s only one problem with Emmett’s request. As county judge, he is not one of the officials authorized by Texas statute to request an opinion from the attorney general.

A technicality? Yes. But shouldn’t a guy holding others accountable to the sometimes inane technicalities of Texas law be holding himself to the same standard?

[…]

Jonathan Day, former Houston city attorney and an Early to Rise board member, said he doesn’t understand Emmett’s focus on hyper-technical aspects of the petition.

“I’m just perplexed that he filed the request himself,” Day said. “I think the statute is very straightforward. It doesn’t require a law degree to determine that he’s not an official who under the law is authorized to ask for an opinion.”

Day maintained that the petition is on firm legal ground and called Emmett’s nit-picking arguments “illogical.”

I’m nowhere near qualified to arbitrate this one, so go read Falkenberg’s column and see what you think. I don’t have a big problem with Judge Emmett asking for the AG’s opinion, even if he’s technically not supposed to, but if he really is technically not supposed to then I fully expect that the AG will reply by telling him to follow the rules as written. That is the “conservative” thing to do, right? Be that as it may, I fully expect this to wind up in court one way or another, and I won’t be surprised if the issue surfaces again in 2015 when the Lege reconvenes and another bill to abolish the HCDE gets filed. As Judge Emmett is a supporter of that effort, that could be an issue in his re-election campaign as well. We’ll see what happens with this election first.

Petitioning for Early To Rise

This arrived in my inbox a couple of days ago:

With only two weeks to go, we really need your help! We are working to get an initiative on the ballot in November 2013 to fund the Early to Rise Program.

The Early to Rise is a program designed to help young children up to age 5 get ready for Kindergarten through increasing the quality of early childhood education in Harris County. Here’s how you can help:

1. Get the petition, sign it, complete it and MAIL it back or CALL US (713-614-8812) and we’ll pick it up!

–OR–

2. Get the petition, sign it, complete it and pass it around among your friends and coworkers who are registered voters in Harris County. Then  MAIL it back or CALL US (713-614-8812) and we’ll pick it up!

3  Vote for the program on November 5th, 2013.

Early to Rise Flyer (more Information on the program)

Early to Rise Petition (the Petition itself)

Petition Instructions (more instructions on the petition)

Please call Eva Calvillo at Texans Together at 713-782-8833 or email Eva Calvillo If you have any questions about these materials or need help in getting started.

You can mail signed petitions to:

Texans Together Educational Fund
P.O. Box 1296
Houston, Texas    77251

It’s time to stand up for toddlers in Harris County and we can on the November ballot!

See here and here for the background, and here for more on the petition effort. Lisa Falkenberg notes the rather convoluted politics of all this.

Ed Emmett should have been one of the first people to find out about a petition drive seeking to put a penny tax on the November ballot to improve early childhood education and teacher training in Harris County.

After all, as county judge, he’s the guy the petition directs to place the tax increase generating $25 million a year on the ballot.

But Emmett got the news from another source: “Gwen, my wife, comes in and says ‘I just got an e-mail asking me to sign a petition to the county judge.’ And I’m going ‘what?’ Obviously, I didn’t know anything about it.”

While the lack of heads-up signaled disorganization to Emmett, it was the petition’s reliance on an antiquated state law, the unchecked administrative role of a private nonprofit, and the requirement that the tax be collected by the politically controversial Harris County Department of Education that led Emmett to brand the initiative a “fiasco.”

“This has been handled politically about as poorly as any issue I’ve ever seen in my life,” he told me a few weeks ago in a phone interview.

I followed up this week to see if this thinking had “evolved” since he’s been able to talk with interested parties.

Yes, he told me. He’d gone from being “bemused and bewildered” to a point where he now says unflinchingly: “What they’re trying to do is just nutty. I can’t put it any other way. And I totally support doing everything we can for early childhood education. It’s put me in a real awkward situation.”

Falkenberg noted that there was going to be an open house by Early To Rise, the group behind this effort, on Friday. The Chron covered that as well, including an appearance by Judge Emmett, attending on his own.

The newly formed nonprofit Harris County School Readiness Corp., with the help of a variety of organizations and paid canvassers, has gathered about 40,000 of the 78,000 petition signatures it says it needs to require Emmett to put a 1-cent property tax hike on the upcoming election ballot. The increase would generate $25 million a year for a program called “Early to Rise,” designed to improve child-care centers in the county serving children up to age 5 by training teachers and buying school supplies.

“There’s been an outpouring of support,” said Jonathan Day, a member of the corporation’s board and a former Houston city attorney, expressing optimism the group will meet its mid-August deadline.

[…]

The statutes say Emmett would have to call an election to increase the property tax rate of the Harris County Department of Education if he receives a petition with a sufficient number of signatures.

Emmett said he has asked the county attorney’s office for an opinion on the petitioning laws and plans to ask the state attorney general for the same. First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office has concluded that the laws are “still applicable” but that the final opinion may not reflect that “in light of a whole lot of statutes that apply to this situation.”

Day conceded the laws no longer are codified but says they still apply.

“We hope that he’ll reconsider,” said Day, who criticized Emmett for not offering an alternative to the proposal on Friday when his group, whose membership includes former Houston first lady Andrea White, held its first formal information session at the United Way of Greater Houston, which co-hosted the event with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and the Center for Houston’s Future.

“I think we have to come up with a better answer,” said Emmett, who went to the session to share his position with the dozens of attendees.

I really don’t know what to make of all this. I support doing everything we can for early childhood education, too, but I understand Judge Emmett’s concerns. The likelihood of a lawsuit, whatever County Attorney Vince Ryan and AG Greg Abbott say about the law in question, is basically 100%. There are still questions about governance of this program, if it comes to be; HCDE Board of Trustees Chair Angie Chesnut has said she can’t support it if HCDE doesn’t get to name at least one member of the corporation. Judge Emmett has pointed out that the one penny tax increase in the plan would make what HCDE levies exceed its statutory maximum, which will likely be another lawsuit magnet. There’s just so many questions to be answered. The goal of universal early learning programs is laudable and worthwhile. The path to get there has been strange, to say the least.

All questions about this aside, the fact remains that as with the New Dome Experience plan, petitions would have to be collected and certified in time for the item to be placed on the November ballot. They have a bit more time since Commissioners Court won’t be involved, but the signatures still need to be verified, and that takes time. The information is there if you want to participate, or go to the Early To Rise Facebook page for more. If this gets to the ballot, will you vote for it? Leave a comment and let me know.

More on the HCDE pre-k proposal

Some more details on that pre-k proposal being pitched to the HCDE. It raises more questions than it answers.

pre-k

Members applauded the effort by the recently formed Harris County School Readiness Corp., a non-profit group whose membership includes business, philanthropic and community leaders, including former Houston first lady Andrea White. At the end of the meeting, they voted 6-1 to allow Superintendent John Sawyer, who was absent Tuesday, to further study the plan and bring back a recommendation for how to proceed.

The tone of the discussion, however, took a drastic turn during a question-and-answer session after a member of the corporation, former Houston city attorney Jonathan Day, presented the plan to the board with Carol Shattuck, president and CEO of partner group Collaborative for Children.

New trustee Howard Jefferson, who had just been sworn in, asked Day to describe the proposed terms of any agreement between the department and the corporation, and what responsibilities the department may have.

Explaining “work will be done by non-profit service providers,” Day told him “the control of the program in terms of allocation to various providers would be in the hands of the non-profit,” not the agency.

He went onto explain, admitting his bluntness, that the group wanted to avoid having the education department board handle the program because of its reputation as a stepping stone for higher political office. He also alluded to recent criticism the agency has faced for hiring lobbyists, including former county commissioner Jerry Eversole, who resigned in October 2011 after being accused of taking cash bribes in exchange for contracts.

“I think this kind of a structure will really work well,” Day said. “I’ll be very blunt with you, we are aware of the criticism about the structure of this board… But we thought that a nonprofit is a way to provide stability and to provide the assurance of the public that this is going to be mired down in partisan controversy.”

[…]

Board President Angie Chesnut and Board Vice President Debra Kerner, alluding to an earlier discussion, then asked Day, whether the the trustees would be able to appoint a member to the corporation’s board.

“Is that something we were still considering?” Kerner asked.

“That’s a matter we need to discuss,” Day replied. “It’s something that we are open to, but to be very blunt… we would like to avoid to the maximum extent possible the problems and perceptions of the partisanship and disagreements, we do not want to import that into our board.”

Chesnut then told Day: “I have to be honest with you, also. I will not support this process without having participation on your board.”

A clarification: In my previous post, I said that the HCDE approved the plan. As you can see from the first paragraph quoted above, all they approved was for Superintendent Sawyer to study the plan. I just misread the story on which I based that statement. My apologies for the confusion.

From this post, and from Big Jolly’s account of the HCDE meeting, it sounds like this idea isn’t fully formed yet. It would certainly help if the Harris County School Readiness Corporation would get their website and Facebook pages up so we can examine their plan in more detail, and give them feedback directly. I do think the HCDE Board needs to appoint at least one member to the School Readiness Corp’s board – at least two would be better. But really, just getting all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed would go a long way. I think this is fated to wind up in court one way or another, so while Judge Emmett is soliciting opinions from the County Attorney and the Attorney General about the legalities of all this, it would be wise for the HCSRC to get and publish its own opinion. Who knows, maybe there’s a less dicey way to make this happen. But let’s get some more information, no matter what else. Stace has more.

Would you pay more for pre-K in Harris County?

You might get the chance to vote on it.

pre-k

The recently formed Harris County School Readiness Corp., a group whose membership includes former Houston first lady Andrea White, is circulating a petition calling for the placement of an item on the next election ballot that would increase the county property tax rate by 1 cent, generating about $25 million a year to train teachers and buy school supplies for child-care centers serving children up to age 5.

“All the recent brain science development has indicated that early childhood education is absolutely pivotal,” said Jonathan Day, a member of the corporation’s board and a former Houston city attorney. “The business community and academics, everybody’s of the single mind that, if there is a single point of investment for leverage to improve children’s education, it’s at early childhood.”

The initiative stems from a recommendation made in an April report commissioned by the Greater Houston Partnership and the Collaborative for Children. It is similar to one launched by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, which ended in voters last year approving a modest sales tax hike to build new pre-kindergarten centers.

The corporation, however, faces several big hurdles before voters have a say.

Chief among them: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who says he believes the state law dictating the petition process the group is following is no longer valid.

While most county-related matters require the approval of the five-member Harris County Commissioners Court, the corporation is going by a process laid out in a state law that technically no longer is on the books that says county judges must call elections to increase the tax rates of county education departments if enough signatures are collected on a petition. The corporation will have to gather at least 78,000.

While conceding that the group’s legal interpretation “may be right” and describing childhood education as “a great need,” Emmett said he believes that portion of the education code no longer applies, and has asked the county attorney’s office to review it.

“I’m going to ask probably even the attorney general if I have to,” Emmett said, expressing a declining lack of confidence in the education department for hiring lobbyists to visit court members and state lawmakers. “They didn’t recodify these sections and you can’t find these anywhere in state statutes today.”

The issue here is that only two counties, Harris and Dallas, still have education departments. As is often the case, the laws on the books don’t quite line up with current reality, and as such there’s an ambiguity. Judge Emmett will seek counsel about that, as he should, but it’s a lead pipe cinch that if this election goes forward and the proponents of raising the tax rate win, someone will file a lawsuit to invalidate it. I can already hear Paul Bettencourt and the Hotze brothers cracking their knuckles in anticipation. Hell, there will probably be a lawsuit even before the election if enough petition signatures are collected to require one. At least then we’ll have a more definitive answer to the Judge’s question, though it might be quicker to just wait till 2015 and try to get a bill passed to clarify matters then.

Be that as it may, getting to the point of having an election is no sure thing. As Campos calculates, it’ll take about 78,000 signatures to clear that bar. I’m not exactly sure what that is based on – it’s always some percentage of the turnout of the previous election, but what that percentage is and which election it’s derived from are unknown to me. It’s also not clear to me that this would pass if it made it onto the ballot. The San Antonio pre-k initiative that Mayor Julian Castro championed passed with 53.56% of the vote, which is solid but not overwhelming and it happened in a city rather than a county in a high-turnout election. It’s easy to visualize the campaign against this initiative, no matter how good it sounds on paper. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea, I’m just saying it’s far from a slam-dunk.

There’s not a lot of information out there about the Harris County School Readiness Corporation right now – no webpage or Facebook presence, though I am told both will be up soon. I did get this press release yesterday, which fills in a few blanks.

Houston: Citizens for School Readiness made a presentation today to the Harris County Board of Education on the importance of early childhood education. The Board received a report commissioned by the Houston Endowment and conducted by the Greater Houston Partnership and Collaborative for Children, demonstrating the need for improved early education. Also presented to the Board was a plan to place a ballot measure before the voters this November that would create a dedicated revenue stream for early childhood education.

The additional revenues will be overseen by the Harris County School Readiness Corporation, a public/private partnership board headed by Mr. James Calaway, Chairman of the Board of the Center for Houston’s Future. Also serving on the board is Houston’s Former First Lady, Mrs. Andrea White, as well as Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell of Windsor Village United Methodist Church, Mr. Jonathan Day former Houston City Attorney and civic leader, leading Houston businessman Mr. Lupe Fraga, Ms. Y. Ping Sun, and Ms. Laura Jaramillo, Senior Vice President of Wells Fargo.

A poll conducted by Dr. Richard Murray of the University of Houston found strong support for the proposed measure. Dr. Murray’s survey showed, “Nearly 70% of county voters said a local effort to improve early childhood education in Harris County should be a priority.”

“People from every sector of this city recognize the critical importance of strengthening early childhood education for our youngest children. Kindergarten is the new first grade, and children need to enter kindergarten already knowing their ABCs and with their skill sets already developed.” said Mr. Jonathan Day, referencing numerous studies that tout the long-term social benefits of early childhood education programs.

There’s more, so click over and read the rest. Like I said, I think the hill is a lot steeper than Dr. Murray’s poll suggests, but I daresay the pro-pre-K group won’t be outspent. What do you think about this?

UPDATE: HCDE trustees approve the plan, which has a wrinkle I didn’t catch the first time around.

The Harris County Department of Education board of trustees voted 6-1 Tuesday to allow its superintendent to review a proposal calling for a 1-cent increase to the agency’s tax rate to fund early childhood education programs. Board members, however, expressed concern about the lack of oversight they may have under the proposal, pitched by recently formed nonprofit Harris County School Readiness Corp.

The group’s plan, which it presented to the board on Tuesday, involves collecting at least 78,000 signatures on a petition, which would – according to a 1937 state law – require the county judge to place the tax hike on the next election ballot.

The increase would generate an additional $25 million a year, which would be used in part to train teachers to staff child-care centers in the county serving children up to age 5. If voters were to approve the hike, the nonprofit’s plan says its own board would administer the new revenue.

The item approved by the board Tuesday allows the superintendent to review the plan and later bring a recommendation back to the board.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the funds being administered by the unelected board of a nonprofit. See CPRIT for the reasons why. I’d still like to see pre-k funding happen, but I’d like to know more about how these funds would be administered.

HCDE fills its vacancy

Well, this is interesting. I received the following in my inbox on Friday afternoon:

Hello all,

Please see the information below:
“Yesterday, the Harris County Board of Education voted to appoint Mr. Howard Jefferson of the NAACP national board to fill position 7 in order to complete the remainder of Jim Henley’s term. We thank Mr. Jefferson for his willingness to return to the Board and serve. We thank all of those who engaged in this selection process. Your passion for education for the children in our county is inspiring. Let us continue to do what’s best for them!” – Erica S. Lee

Best,
Erica Lee, Pos. 6, Pct. 1

Howard Jefferson

What makes this interesting is that Mr. Jefferson was not one of the six finalists that had applied for the job to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Trustee Jim Henley. One can only speculate as to why the six remaining Board members went outside that list to find someone else. My speculation goes something like this: The six remaining Board members were split three Dems, three Republicans. The three Republicans did not want to appoint a Democrat who would then have the advantage of incumbency over a Republican candidate in 2014, when this seat is up for re-election. (Please note that I do not fault them for thinking this way, if in fact this was their thinking; remember, all of this is my own speculation. I’d have felt the same way if all of the applicants had been Republicans.) The logical compromise in a situation like this is to select a candidate who promises not to run for re-election. Enter Howard Jefferson, a well respected former Board member, whose last minute decision to not file for re-election in 2006 paved the way for Roy Morales to win the Position 6, Precinct 1 seat that Erica Lee now holds by forfeit. He’s qualified, he’s willing, he’s a Democrat and thus will maintain the Board’s pre-resignation 4-3 partisan balance, and I have been unofficially told he does not plan to run for election in 2014. I love it when a plan comes together.

Again, I want to stress – this is my own speculation. I am not privy to any official information, and no one has told me that this is how it went down. But we’re all grownups here, so until someone flatly denies what I’m saying it’s probably not too far from the truth. Be that as it may, Howard Jefferson is an excellent person to fill this role – I’ve reprinted the bio that came with the email announcing his appointment beneath the fold – and honestly, it’s fine by me if the Democratic nominee is chosen by the voters next March. I hope a couple of the un-selected finalists give some consideration to making a race for it.

UPDATE: Here’s the official press release on Jefferson’s appointment. The key sentence: “The move comes after an impasse during board deliberations to appoint a replacement for Jim Henley, former HCDE trustee for position 7, who resigned his position.” I’d say that’s pretty strong inferential evidence for my speculation.

(more…)

Here are the HCDE hopefuls

JimHenley

Via Stace, here are the six finalists to succeed HCDE Trustee Jim Henley, who is resigning his position as of when a replacement is chosen:

  • Davetta Daniels, who ran for HISD Trustee against Paula Harris in 2007 and 2011
  • Sue Deigaard, who has been active in matters relating to public education funding
  • Louis Evans, UH-D Executive Director, Distance Learning and former HCDE Board member in Position 4, Precinct 3
  • Rey Guerra, engineer, community activist, and guest blogger
  • Traci Jensen, 2012 candidate for SBOE 6
  • Mubeen Khumawala, a former teacher at YES Prep who is now a project analyst for Deloitte

I know Sue, Rey, and Traci, and think any of them would be fine. Stace is supporting Rey Guerra; as he notes, the current Board lacks Latino representation. According to the Board Vacancy FAQ, the successor will be chosen at the next HCDE Board meeting on May 21. If you have a preference, you might want to contact your precinct Board member and the two remaining At Large members (Diane Trautman and Debby Kerner) and let them know.

Statement from Jim Henley

On Sunday afternoon, I received the following statement from Jim Henley, who submitted his resignation as HCDE Trustee earlier this year:

JimHenley

I submitted my resignation as Trustee of The Harris County Department of Education in January of 2013. The Texas Constitution requires that I remain in office until the HCDE Board of Trustees appoints my successor.

I was elected in November 2008 to a six year term which will end in December of 2014. I have submitted to the board the name of a person who is uniquely qualified to complete my term, as provided by the law regarding the resignation of trustees. The board is not bound by my nomination.

My most significant contribution as a trustee was in leading the effort for an independent performance review of HCDE. It was the first such review in the recent history of the department. The review found HCDE to be effective and efficient in most of its services, while making recommendations for improvement in several areas.

While HCDE has been reluctant to embrace several of these essential recommendations, the department remains a vital resource to the twenty six independent school districts in Harris County. The current effort by opponents of public education (House Bill 945) to eliminate HCDE would decrease services to school districts while increasing their need to raise taxes. I urge the defeat of this ill-advised legislation.

The Texas Constitution prohibits trustees from being employed in public education. I have a passion for teaching and plan to return to the classroom as well as enjoy some time working on my farm. I am grateful for the trust the voters of Harris County bestowed upon me. I hope my conduct in elective office has been an example of honest and ethical public service.

Jim Henley

Trustee Position 7, At Large HCDE

See here and here for the background on HB945, which was heard in the Public Education committee on April 16 but has not yet come up for a vote in that committee. If I’m reading the Dates of Interest page correctly, if that bill isn’t reported out of committee – that is, if it hasn’t been voted out of committee – by next Monday, May 6, it’s too late for it to be voted on by the whole House this session. As we know, such deadlines are not necessarily the last word in these matters, but it is an obstacle. Keep an eye on the clock. In any event, my thanks again to Henley for his service, and I look forward to hearing who he has in mind as a successor.

HCDE Trustee Jim Henley to resign

Got this in my inbox late Friday afternoon:

JimHenley

Trustee Jim Henley (Democrat at-large) submitted his resignation from the Board earlier this year.  The Harris County Department of Education Board will have an open application process to fill the remainder of his term that goes until January 2015.

The HCDE advertisement and FAQs regarding filling a board vacancy are now available via our website under FEATURED NEWS.  Applications are due Thursday, May 2, 2013 by 5 PM.

Link to our website:  http://www.hcde-texas.org (look under the headline FEATURED NEWS).

Direct link to the notices:  http://www.hcde-texas.org/default.aspx?name=BoardVacancy.

I haven’t seen any reporting on this as yet. I’ve sent an email to Henley to ask him about it, and will update when I hear from him. In the meantime, if you’ve always harbored the secret desire to be an HCDE trustee, here’s the Board Vacancy FAQ to tell you everything you need to know:

Q: How will the vacancy be filled?

A: The HCDE Board of Trustees approved procedures to fill the vacant position on April 23, 2013. Qualified applicants who would like to serve as an HCDE trustee must submit application packets by 5 p.m. on Thursday, May 2, 2013. If more than six applications are received, the Board will meet to screen the applications and select no more than six finalists to be interviewed by the Board of Trustees. If six or fewer applications are received, all applicants will be interviewed by the Board. The interviews are expected to take place on Monday, May 13, 2013, beginning at 3:30 p.m. and if necessary, continue on Tuesday, May 14, 2013, beginning at 3:30 p.m. Interviews will be open to the public, but only members of the HCDE Board of Trustees shall be permitted to comment or ask questions of the finalists.

Q: When will the HCDE Board of Trustees make its decision?

A: The HCDE Board of Trustees anticipates that the Board will vote to appoint an individual to fill the vacancy at its meeting on Tuesday, May 21, 2013.

Q: How long will the appointed trustee serve?

A: In accordance with former Tex. Educ. Code § 17.04, which governs HCDE, the individual appointed to fill Position 7 shall serve the unexpired portion of the Position 7 term that runs until November 2014, when elections will be held. If the appointed individual chooses to run for election, he/she may do so and if he/she wins, he/she would serve a full six-year term. If the appointed individual chooses not to run for election in 2014, he/she would serve until January 2015, when the elected trustee for Position 7 would assume office.

There’s more, so click over if this interests you. I’m sad to see Henley step down – he’s a fine person, and he did an excellent job on the HCDE Board. With his departure, the remaining Board is evenly divided among Rs and Ds, so party will not be the deciding factor in naming his replacement. As I said before, elections for these offices are pretty much determined by the partisan tide, though one presumes a candidate of either party that can get enough support to be selected might have a small edge on the margins. I thank Jim Henley for his service, and I wish the Board good luck in finding someone of his quality to fill out his term.

Should Travis County DA Lehmberg resign?

Perspectives on that are colored by politics right now.

Rosemary Lehmberg

While Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg sought to put her weekend drunken driving arrest behind her, debate over her political future reached the State Capitol on Monday, where lawmakers weighed in on whether she should resign and how a replacement might be chosen.

Some officials pointed to an obscure provision in state law that allows a district attorney to be removed from office for being drunk. The provision also says that a single county resident could start such a removal.

If Lehmberg, a Democrat, were to resign or be removed from office, Republican Gov. Rick Perry would appoint a replacement who would be subject to confirmation by the GOP-controlled state Senate.

Chapter 87 of the state’s Local Government Code lists among the “general grounds for removal” of a district attorney and other county officials “intoxication on or off duty caused by drinking an alcoholic beverage.”

Under that law, a removal petition could be filed by anyone who has lived in Travis County for six months and is “not currently under indictment” for a crime here. The petition would be filed with a district judge, and a trial would be held on the charge — with a jury to determine the official’s fate, according to the law.

While there was no indication Monday that such a petition was being contemplated, an unofficial online petition to Gov. Rick Perry seeking Lehmberg’s removal was gathering signatures at Change.org. The petition by “Beth S” in Cedar Park said Lehmberg, as a result of her arrest, “is not a person to lead this county in delivering justice.”

That petition has now been filed, though Lehmberg has said that she has no intention of resigning. She has also said that she will not contest the charges against her and will accept whatever punishment she receives, which will depend in part on the result of her blood alcohol test, which is still pending. If her BAC was less than 0.15, she will be charged with a Class B misdemeanor, for which the maximum sentence is a $2000 fine and six months in jail. More than that is a Class A, for which the max is a $4000 fine and a year in the pokey.

I’m curious about two things. One is how often District Attorneys get into legal trouble of their own, and how often they resign as a result. Surely Lehmberg isn’t the first DA in Texas to be arrested for drunk driving. What are the precedents here? We in Harris County saw Chuck Rosenthal resign in 2008, though that was a far different situation than Lehmberg’s, not least of which was that the pressure on Rosenthal came largely from his fellow Republicans, who correctly saw him as a major liability for them heading into that fall’s election. How often have DAs been arrested for something, and how often have DAs resigned for whatever the reason? It would be nice to know so we could have some context to evaluate Lehmberg’s case.

Also, while the max sentences Lehmberg can receive include jail time, it seems highly unlikely to me that a first time offender such as she will see the inside of a jail cell. What is the typical range of punishment for a first time DUI offense, in Travis County and across the state? I’m hardly an expert on this, but if you made me guess I’d assume that things like a fine, probation, alcohol counseling, and a suspension of her license would be in the mix, but not jail time. Those of you who do know more about this, please speak up in the comments. Does one’s perception of Lehmberg’s position change if that’s the actual punishment she’s likely to face? If she were County Attorney or Tax Assessor or some other office – I’m sorry, but that obscure law about drunk DAs needs to stay obscure – would that change your perception? These are the things I’d like to hear more about.

Finally, on the matter of the petition to remove Lehmberg, BOR has a good analysis of what it means and what the procedures are, as well as a copy of the petition itself. It’s not quite as straightforward as news reports have made it sound. Interestingly, there’s a connection between the law being cited to remove Lehmberg and the attempt by the HCDE to oust Michael Wolfe. Which didn’t work, for whatever that’s worth. Anyway, if nothing else this has the potential to be some entertaining political theater, so keep an eye on it.

Watch the county’s business

I wholeheartedly approve of this.

Meetings of the Harris County Commissioners Court and the governing boards of the Port of Houston Authority, the Harris Health System and the Harris County Department of Education soon could be streamed live online.

County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday [asked] the court for permission to find a vendor to provide “live-streaming and archiving services for Commissioners Court and other public meetings” held in the ninth-floor chamber of the county administration building.

On Friday, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack added a supplemental item to Tuesday’s meeting agenda calling for that search to include other taxpayer-supported agencies – the port, Harris Health System and the county education department – and for them to foot the bill.

Radack said Emmett has “got a good idea and I think we might as well expand it to include those other people and see if the other members of court agree or disagree.”

“Frankly, I would like to tune into some of them myself just to see what they do,” said Radack said, a frequent critic of the hospital district and port.

He added that including more agencies could reduce the overall cost quoted by a vendor.

Emmett applauded the expanded proposal, and most commissioners expressed support for it.

“I think my original proposal was quite good and I think the supplemental just makes it that much better,” Emmett said. “My attitude is that if you’re going to have public meetings and it’s an easy way to allow the public to look in on your public meetings, I’m all for it.”

About time, I say. This should be the norm for government entities. It’s inexpensive to provide, it promotes transparency and involvement, and it’s just the right thing to do. Kudos to Judge Emmett for proposing it and to Commissioner Radack for improving on Judge Emmett’s idea.

HCDE hires Eversole to lobby for them

From the Things That Make Me Do A Facepalm department: The HCDE has hired Jerry Eversole as a lobbyist. Yeah, that Jerry Eversole.

Eversole was taciturn in discussing his work Thursday, saying department of education officials approached him. His contract will pay $45,000, plus expenses, between Dec. 1, 2012, and Aug. 31, and calls for him to help raise awareness of the benefits of the department’s programs with local, state and federal officials.

“I have the right to work and make a living,” Eversole said. “And I’ll say that the person who has a problem with me is (County Judge) Ed Emmett. So, if you want comments about what’s wrong with me and about any of my convictions and why I was convicted, he seems to know everything, so you can call him. That’s really all I have to say.”

Emmett, through a spokesman, declined to respond to Eversole’s comments.

The department, which is governed by an elected board of trustees and is not part of Harris County government, also has hired lobbyists and former state representatives Rob Eissler, who was paid $10,125 in December and January, and Stan Schlueter, who was paid $6,125 in January. The department did not produce Eissler and Schlueter’s contracts by deadline.

Department Superintendent John Sawyer is on vacation until March 19 and unavailable for comment, spokeswoman Tammy Lanier said.

Board of trustees President Angie Chesnut said Sawyer was within his authority to make the hires but said she disagrees with the move.

“Had the decision been mine – and I do not speak for the board – I would not have done that,” she said. “And that’s no disrespect to Mr. Eversole. It’s just that I think it creates in the public’s mind a question that doesn’t need to surround HCDE. There most certainly must have been other alternatives.”

Ugh. Look, I have no problem with HCDE hiring someone to speak for their interests, which are currently being threatened. It makes sense to hire someone who knows the players and has a rapport with them. Engaging Rob Eissler was a good move. But geez, if you first reaction to the idea of hiring Jerry Eversole for this was something other than “You’ve got to be kidding”, then I suggest you get out more. Eversole may have the right qualifications – Steve Radack thought his hire was a smart move by HCDE, not that it was going to change his mind about abolishing it – but the optics of it are terrible, as KTRK’s lurid reporting should make clear. I’m sorry, but nothing good can come of this, and John Sawyer needs to have his head examined for even thinking of it. Finally, yes, Jerry, you have a right to earn a living. But that doesn’t mean that all options need to be open to you. Metro is hiring bus drivers – I suggest you look into that opportunity.