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Many more school districts are feeling the pinch

Not just HISD. Not by a long shot.

For eight-straight years, Cypress-Fairbanks and Conroe ISDs earned the Texas Smart Schools Award, bestowed on school districts with prudent financial practices and high academic achievement.

Now, Cypress-Fairbanks faces a $50 million deficit next school year, and Conroe is projected to face its first deficit in nearly a decade in the next two to four years.

They are not alone.

As the Texas Legislature studies potential changes to the state’s school funding mechanisms, the majority of large Houston-area school districts are facing budget shortfalls they say stem from a lack of state aid. Of the 10 largest Houston-area school districts, all but three approved budgets last summer that included deficits of more than $1 million, according to a Chronicle review. At least nine say they may have to dip into reserve funds within the next three to five years if revenues do not increase.

For some, it is more dire. If nothing changes at the state or local level, district officials say Spring Branch ISD in west Houston will be financially insolvent in three years. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD will use up all its reserve funds in four or five years. Pasadena ISD only avoided a $20 million shortfall for the next school year by passing a tax hike referendum, and multiple districts are considering similar measures to keep their schools afloat.

That pain is felt in large and small districts across the state. North East ISD in San Antonio expects to cut $12 million from its budget next year, likely leading to teacher layoffs, according to the San Antonio Express-News. By 2020, budget documents in Ysleta ISD near El Paso show the district likely will draw down its reserve funds by $12 million. Friendswood ISD, which educates roughly 6,000 students in a sliver of southeast Greater Houston, is facing a $1.9 million budget shortfall next year.

“If we’ve been one of the most efficient districts in the state, and we’re facing this crisis, imagine what other districts are dealing with,” Cy-Fair ISD Chief Financial Officer Stuart Snow said.

[…]

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who sits on the Commission of Public Education Funding, said districts should expand their revenue streams to include sources other than local property taxes and the state. He pointed to Dallas ISD, which pulls in about $10 million annually from philanthropy. United Airlines also staffed one of DISD’s schools with 25 full-time employees, a partnership Bettencourt said should inspire districts elsewhere.

“It’s not going to be one-size fits all — there are many, many ways to do it right,” Bettencourt said. “At end of the day, we want the education system to get students the best educations they can get for best deals taxpayers can support. But we need to look for all the ways we can do it right.”

First of all, to Paul Bettencourt: You cannot be serious. Philanthropy? Are you kidding me? Dallas ISD’s 2017-2018 general revenue expenditures were over $1.4 billion. That $10 million represents 0.7% of the total. You gonna suggest everyone search their couch cushions, too? Oh, and I don’t know about you, but I’m old enough to remember when two of the biggest philanthropic entities in Houston were Enron and Continental Airlines. Good thing HISD didn’t make itself dependent on them, you know?

This is entirely the Legislature’s responsibility. We are here because they refuse to adequately fund schools, and because they use the increases in property valuations to fund the rest of the budget, while blaming local officials for their shortfalls and tax hikes. As with everything else in this state, nothing will change until the people we elect change. If you live in one of these districts, don’t take your frustrations out on your school board trustees. Take it out on the State Reps and State Senators who skimp on school finance, and the Governor and Lt. Governor who push them to keep doing it.

A clean separation

Well done.

Richard Carranza

Former Houston ISD superintendent Richard Carranza’s resignation from the district involved no financial settlements, and the two sides agreed not to sue each other following the separation, according to documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

A written agreement between Carranza and HISD board members shows a clean break after Carranza announced in early March that he planned to become chancellor of New York City public schools. Carranza officially resigned on March 31 and started his job in New York City on April 2. HISD board members have appointed Grenita Lathan, who previously served as the district’s chief academic officer, to serve indefinitely as interim superintendent.

Carranza’s three-year contract ran through August 2019, leading to questions about whether he would face any repercussions for resigning midway through that term. His contract didn’t include any penalties for resigning before August 2019, and it did stipulate both sides could mutually agree to end the agreement.

Carranza was paid his regular salary of $345,000 and benefits through March 31. He was allowed to take accrued but unused personal days through the last week of his employment.

[…]

Trustees have given no timetable for hiring a permanent superintendent. District officials on Wednesday named an interim chief academic officer, Noelia Longoria, to fill Lathan’s position. Longoria previously served as assistant superintendent of HISD’s Office of School Choice.

No drama is fine by me, and the terms are boringly normal. May it be this easy finding the right candidate to replace Carranza.

On a side note, the Chron editorial board calls for a change in how HISD trustees are elected.

One significant change that Houston ISD should consider is changing the way it elects school board members. Currently, the nine trustees are elected from single-member districts, rather than by voters from throughout the school district.

Texas law allows a couple of alternatives. One would be a board made up of a mix of single-member and at-large trustees. This is similar to how Houston’s City Council is elected. Sixty smaller school districts across Texas use this governance system, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.

Another alternative would be to switch to cumulative voting, where voters across the school district would be allowed to cast as many votes as there are candidates. This option has been available to Texas school districts since 1995 and is used by a number of smaller school districts for at-large trustee elections.

Changing the governance model could help address one of the biggest challenges facing the school board: Members are concerned about struggling campuses in their own electoral district, but not necessarily in the districts of other trustees.

Single-member districts have played a major role in assuring more diversity on school boards. They help ensure that multiple voices are heard in the development of education policy. But they also can result in a balkanized school district, with trustees focused on their individual parts rather than the whole.

The Chron notes that this “balkanization” was one of the reasons Rep. Harold Dutton pushed through HB 1842, the bill that now has HISD under the gun for the chronically low-performing schools. I’m kind of meh on this idea. I suppose a hybrid district/at large model would be all right, though I’d like someone to try to persuade me that At Large Council members are better at looking out for the interests of the entire city than the district members are (and I say that as someone who supports having At Large council members). I’m not convinced we need to change to do a better job of achieving our goals, but I’ll listen if you want to make a pitch. Campos has more.

HISD will not change its funding mechanism

Not this year, at least.

Houston ISD officials have abandoned plans to overhaul the way the district funds its schools, opting to keep HISD’s long-standing financing system as they work to fill a $115 million budget deficit.

Schools will continue to receive an allotment of money based on their enrollments next school year, but the amount campuses receive will shrink by nearly $200 per student.

The announcement walked back proposals made by former Superintendent Richard Carranza in January to centralize some staffing and budgeting decisions now made by principals.

Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the district needs to do more outreach and study its funding mechanisms before changing the way schools are allotted money. The district will create a committee in the coming months to study resource allocation.

“We wanted to pause and take a step back and give some proposals to the board about how do we engage the community about the funding allocation,” Lathan said. “What does it look like for HISD and our community?”

See here and here for some background. I was in full-on primary mode when the original plan was announced and I never quite had the brain space to pay close attention to it, and now it looks like I won’t have to. The plan now is the old-fashioned easier-to-understand one of cutting back a little bit here, there, and everywhere. It may be simpler, but I hope HISD will do outreach to make sure everyone has a chance to know what to expect. The Press has more.

What role might the city have in HISD?

The possibility that the city could have any role at all with HISD is itself interesting.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he has been asked to get “very, very, very involved” in Houston ISD as it faces potentially severe state sanctions, but he stopped short Wednesday of suggesting the city could take control of the district’s chronically under-performing campuses.

Asked whether the city could become a “partner” with the district, giving the city significant authority over operations at campuses, Turner said Wednesday: “Let’s just say I’ve been asked to be very, very involved by multiple individuals, and then I am deciding to what degree and to how far I am going to get involved in the day-to-day operation of any of the schools.”

In recent weeks, HISD administrators have proposed surrendering significant control over 10 underachieving campuses to “partners” as part of the district’s plan for avoiding state sanctions.

Under a law known as HB 1842, which was passed in 2015, the Texas Education Agency must replace HISD’s locally elected school board or close campuses if any one of the district’s 10 longest-failing schools fails to meet state academic standards this year.

Under a separate law known as SB 1882, which was passed in 2017, the district can stave off those potential sanctions for two years if it partners with a nonprofit, higher education institution, charter school network or government entity.

When HISD administrators initially recommended partnerships in early February, the district did not include governmental entities as a potential partner. However, in recent days, HISD leaders have added that option in public presentations about SB 1882, leading to speculation that the city of Houston could take control of HISD campuses.

There’s some precedent for this. Peter Brown advocated for an “urban school district” as part of his 2009 Mayoral campaign. Mayor Turner hired former HISD Trustee Juliet Stipeche as his Director of Education, a role he created. It’s not clear what role the city might play in HISD, if it even comes to that. Given the choices from SB1882, I’d go with a college or nonprofit first as a partner, and would prefer the city only if the other choices are a charter school or the state. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about what comes next, but I do appreciate the city being willing to step in, even if I’d rather it not be needed.

HISD chooses partnerships for low-performing schools

In the same story as the one with the news about interim HISD Superintendent Grenita Lathan, we get this news as well:

HISD administrators are recommending the district temporarily surrender significant control over 10 chronically underperforming schools as part of their plan for avoiding major state sanctions. Lathan has taken a large role in the process.

District leaders originally recommended forming partnerships for six of the 10 schools, while closing and reopening four other schools. But on Thursday, they announced plans for partnering all 10 schools.

Under a partnership, the district would surrender significant control over each campus to an outside organization, such as a nonprofit or higher education institution. District leaders are recommending the partnerships last for three years.

Under a closure-reopen plan, the district would maintain control over the school, but each campus would only serve limited grade levels in 2019-20 and the entire staff would be replaced.

“That was a major concern under a closure-restart” proposal, Lathan said.

Here’s an earlier version of the story, from just before Dr. Lathan’s appointment as interim Superintendent, and here’s a story about the previous proposal, which drew a lot of opposition from the community. I’m going to reserve judgment about this plan until I see how the people who will be most affected by it react.

HISD names an interim Superintendent

Congratulations!

Grenita Lathan

Houston ISD trustees unanimously appointed Grenita Lathan as interim superintendent late Thursday, elevating the district’s chief academic officer about two weeks after Richard Carranza announced he’s stepping down.

Lathan, 48, will serve as acting superintendent starting Friday, then become interim superintendent on April 1. Trustees accepted Carranza’s resignation, which takes effective immediately, on Thursday. Carranza is leaving to become chancellor of New York City public schools.

HISD board members chose Lathan after spending nine hours in closed session. Trustees referenced considering four internal candidates – Lathan, Deputy Superintendent Samuel Sarabia, Chief Student Support Officer Mark Smith and Chief of Staff Cynthia Wilson – before landing on Lathan. All nine trustees briefly spoke in favor of Lathan’s appointment, which occurred shortly before midnight.

“I think you exemplify the things we look for when we look at leadership,” HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones told Lathan.

Lathan joined Houston ISD in 2015 as chief officer overseeing elementary transformation schools, reuniting with her former boss and then-Superintendent, Terry Grier. Following Grier’s departure in 2016, Carranza elevated Lathan to chief academic officer.

“(It’s) excitement and, I’ll be very honest, validation for the work that’s been done not only by myself, but our entire team,” Lathan said.

Lathan served as superintendent of Peoria (Ill.) School District 150, home to about 14,000 students, from 2010 to 2015. She previously worked as interim deputy superintendent and chief elementary school improvement officer at San Diego Unified Public Schools, where Grier spent 18 months as superintendent. Prior to that, she held several positions, including teacher and principal, in North Carolina and Illinois.

The HISD press release is here. I presume Interim Superintendent Lathan will also be a candidate for the permanent job. Regardless, and for however long she has it, there’s a lot of work to be done. I wish Interim Superintendent Lathan all the best. The Press has more.

There should be plenty of interest in the HISD Superintendent job

That’s what the Board is prepping for.

Richard Carranza

HISD trustees likely will have no shortage of potential candidates from the across the country willing to take over for Superintendent Richard Carranza, who announced last Monday that he will leave the district this month to become chancellor of New York City public schools. Board members also could consider several internal and regional candidates with long histories of service in Houston education or experience as a superintendent, albeit on a smaller scale.

“I truly believe that there are folks out there internally, in this state and this nation that are very capable and are committed for the long haul to ensure there’s progress,” HISD Trustee Sergio Lira said.

HISD’s superintendent will face myriad obstacles: an education finance system that is draining money from the district, the threat of a state takeover due to chronically failing schools, and a burgeoning class and racial divide over allocation of resources.

Those issues will be well-known to internal or regional candidates. Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said national candidates also would be prepared for the chaos that comes with a running large, urban school district.

“The folks that are applying understand it’s a challenge and know the difficulties, like the lack of resources and the politics,” Domenech said. “These are not easy districts to run.”

HISD trustees will have several selling points to offer potential candidates.

As the largest school district in the nation’s second-largest state, with a student population of about 215,000 children, the position of HISD superintendent offers immense prestige. Board members have signaled they want to become more cohesive after years of division. City leaders also have pledged to become more engaged in aiding the district, particularly with low-performing schools that are drawing scrutiny from state leaders.

“I think we, as a city, need to demonstrate that we’re on the same page in terms of focusing on the most vulnerable children and communities that need to be served,” said Juliet Stipeche, director of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Office of Education and a former HISD trustee. “It will require somebody that’s up and ready for a strong challenge in an area that’s filled with opportunity.”

See here and here for the background. There are a few names of current HISD people mentioned in the story as well as possible candidates, but none of them appeared to be obvious frontrunners. For all its challenges – indeed, because of all its challenges – the HISD job is going to be attractive to a lot of candidates. It’s a big and diverse district, with a lot of resources even in tight budgetary times, and the opportunity is there to leave a mark and establish oneself as a visionary leader. Carranza’s departure is ill-timed for HISD, but the fact that he got poached by the New York school district shows that he was held in high regard, which will be a plus for everyone who might consider following him. We should see some talented applicants come forward for this position. We just need to pick the right one.

No decision on Carranza replacement yet

Tabled for now, but likely not for long.

Houston ISD trustees on Thursday opted not to appoint an interim superintendent at a school board meeting, leaving it unclear who will run the district after Superintendent Richard Carranza’s anticipated departure later this month.

Board members did not discuss potential candidates or options for moving forward during closed or open session Thursday because one trustee was absent. They are expected to consider options for appointing a temporary district leader at a March 22 meeting.

Trustees faced a relatively subdued crowd given Carranza’s abrupt announcement Monday that he plans to leave the district after 18 months to become chancellor of New York City public schools. They never referred to Carranza by name during the meeting or commented at length about his decision to leave, making only glancing references to his departure.

“The sky is not falling around replacing our superintendent,” HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said. “We do have some heavy lifts, but we’ve had to do some heavy lifts before.”

[…]

Skillern-Jones said board members discussed some legal matters surrounding Carranza’s departure during closed session, including their ability to re-hire the search firm that helped them land Carranza, who formerly presided over San Francisco Unified School District. Trustees expect they will be able to use the search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, free of charge because Carranza remained in HISD for less than two years.

See here for the background. The main question, as outlined in this this earlier story, is whether to “name a short-term interim superintendent and immediately begin a search for a more permanent replacement; name a long-term interim superintendent and postpone a superintendent search for a couple months; or post the position and hire a new permanent superintendent immediately”. I assume the third choice is basically a promotion from within the existing HISD hierarchy, while the other two would be a national search. The indication that the board could re-use the search firm that recommended Carranza suggests the board may be leaning towards one of those options. There’s a case to be made for hiring someone local – as one person in the story suggests, a local person may be less likely to be wooed away. I don’t know that I buy that – there isn’t a long history of HISD superintendents being poached, and the non-local Terry Grier stayed through the end of his contract – but it’s a point to debate. All I really care about is that they find someone who is up to the job.

Carranza departs

This sure came as a surprise.

Richard Carranza

As Houston ISD officials wrestle with how to fill a $115 million budget shortfall, stave off a potential state takeover and work to recover after Hurricane Harvey, Superintendent Richard Carranza announced Monday he would leave the district after less than two years on the job, accepting an offer to lead New York City’s school system.

Carranza appeared Monday afternoon at a press conference with New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio. Carranza’s status with Houston ISD was not immediately available. De Blasio said those details are being worked out, but the outgoing chancellor is expected to remain on board until the end of March.

At a press conference announcing his appointment Monday afternoon, Carranza said the chance to take over the nation’s largest school district and alignment with De Blasio’s agenda were primary factors in accepting the job.

“There is no other New York City Public Schools,” Carranza said. “It was an opportunity that I could not say ‘no’ to.”

Houston ISD board members are expected to meet Thursday to discuss the district’s next steps.

“We the board wish Carranza the best in his endeavors and appreciate the leadership he brought to this district,” Houston ISD Board of Trustees President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said in a statement. “We are committed to continuing the work he began and moving the district forward.”

Carranza’s departure leaves Texas’ largest school district leaderless as it faces consequential challenges. The district faces a $115 million budget shortfall and potential state takeover due to poor academic performances at a handful of the district’s more than 280 campuses.

I think it’s fair to say nobody saw this coming. It’s a little hard to judge Carranza’s tenure in office because he wasn’t here for that long, and there’s a lot of unfinished business that will need to be taken up by his successor. You can’t blame him for taking the opportunity, but the timing isn’t great for HISD. We’re going to need to find a new Super quickly, and that person will have a full to-do list when he or she arrives. Will the Board look for someone who will be gung ho about implementing the proposals Carranza laid out, or will they seek a different direction? Or will they just try to hire the best person they can get and let that person figure it out? A challenging and tumultuous year at HISD just got more so. I wish the Board all the best with the task they now have before them. HISD’s news story is here, and the Press has more.

HISD’s budget deficit is a little smaller

A bit of good news.

Houston ISD administrators do not expect to cut magnet programs or re-open the magnet application process ahead of the 2018-19 school year, an announcement likely to ease fears among parents who send their children to choice schools.

Houston ISD leaders said Monday they are lowering the district’s projected budget deficit from about $209 million to $115 million, which would dramatically reduce the level of potential staff and program cuts.

The two announcements reflect the shifting nature of Houston ISD’s plans for major changes throughout the district, which have provoked anxiety among many parents and staff members. District leaders are proposing changes to the district’s magnet and funding systems — with the goal of providing more resources and programs to students in lower-income neighborhoods while facing a significant budget deficit largely brought on by the state’s school finance law.

Administrators are considering whether to phase out some magnet programs that have relatively little student interest or no consistent programming throughout a feeder pattern. District leaders want to better align magnets so students follow the same program from elementary through high school.

Administrators do not expect to cut many magnet programs, but any changes would not be made until 2019-20. Chief School Support Officer Mark Smith said the district did not want to rush any reductions that would force parents to immediately seek new options for their children.

See here for the background. What drove the sunnier budget estimate? Here’s the explanation.

When HISD first began budgeting for the 2018-2019 school year, it was in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Using a worst-case scenario, the district’s financial team projected a $208 million deficit based on four dynamic factors: the Local Optional Homestead Exemption (LOHE) lawsuit, a recapture payment to the state, a potential property tax value decreaseand an anticipated student enrollment decline. Taking direction from HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones, district administrators crafted a revised budget outlook for the 2018-19 school year.

The district’s legal team feels strongly that the state will prevail in the LOHE lawsuit. For HISD, this means a reduction in its recapture payment because the TEA will recognize half of the 20 percent local homestead exemption given to homeowners. A decision in the lawsuit could come after a hearing this spring. A win would reduce HISD’s recapture payment by $51 million.

Under the Texas Education Code, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has the authority to adjust property values. Based on the damage sustained from Hurricane Harvey and the lasting impact of the storm on our students and staff, we anticipate the commissioner will adjust property values, which in turn, would reduce our recapture payment. Governor Greg Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and other state leaders have publicly stated their support for this action. Click here to review a September 2017 press release from Lt. Governor Dan Patrick that confirms his support for schools districts in Region IV impacted by Hurricane Harvey, which includes HISD. In addition, Commissioner Morath surveyed school districts after the hurricane to gather projections on their property tax collections post-Harvey. HISD estimates a $42 million adjustment for property value loss associated with Hurricane Harvey.

It was prudent to budget under the worst-case assumption, and it makes sense to adjust on the reasonable expectation that he reality is better. HISD still has a big hole to fill, and changes to the magnet programs will be difficult and disruptive, though long overdue. I confess that I haven’t been following all this very closely – sorry, all the election stuff has taken over my brain – but I will get back into it as the process begins.

HISD working on a bond issue

It’s going to be quite the year for HISD.

Voters living in Houston ISD could be asked to approve a new school bond totaling at least $1.2 billion as early as November, according to a recently unveiled district financial plan.

The bond would finance major construction projects, technology upgrades, fine arts purchases and other capital costs. If the bond request totals $1.2 billion, it would likely come with a tax increase of 3 cents to 7 cents per $100 of taxable value, depending on Hurricane Harvey’s impact on property values, district administrators said.

For a homeowner with a property valued at about $275,000, roughly the average in HISD in recent years, the increase would amount to $80 to $190 per year.

District leaders unveiled the plans over the weekend during a wide-ranging preview of major changes to the district’s budget, magnet schools program and approach to long-failing schools. HISD’s last bond election came in 2012, when two-thirds of voters approved a $1.89 billion request.

District leaders did not present specific projects or amounts, but they’re expected in the coming months to finalize a proposal for school board members. Board trustees must approve sending a bond election to voters.

Administrators said the bond would help finance new campuses in pockets of the city’s west and south sides, where student enrollment has grown, along with upgrades to outdated elementary and middle schools. The 2012 bond largely focused on renovating and building new high schools, with 26 campuses getting about $1.3 billion worth of construction.

The district’s financial staff estimates that a $500 million bond request could be passed without raising taxes, but the amount “would not do much for a school district of this size,” HISD Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby said.

“It would be something that would possibly pass, depending on what you do, but it would not be as impactful as we need a bond to be, based on our strategic vision moving forward,” Busby said.

Add this to the other items already on the plate and once again you can see what a busy year the Board has for itself. The initial reaction I saw to this on Facebook was not positive, which may have been the result of this coming on the heels of the announcement about changes to the magnet school program – lots of people I know are already plenty anxious about that. It’s also a weird year for politics, people feel like there’s too many things for them to keep track of, and I’m sure some people are wondering why there’s another bond issue six years after the last one. HISD bond issues generally pass easily – the one in 2012 got 69% of the vote – but I suspect the Board and Superintendent Carranza are going to have to put together a solid plan and sell it to the voters, with a strong promise of engagement and accountability. I would not take anything for granted.

HISD’s plan to avoid state takeover

We’ll see how this works. As we know, the stakes are quite high.

Houston ISD administrators have proposed dramatic changes to 15 low-performing schools that, if approved, could temporarily prevent the state from taking over the district’s Board of Trustees or shuttering campuses.

In a bid to preempt state intervention and improve academic performance, the district is proposing two options for each of the 15 schools: either allow an outside organization to take control of hiring and curriculum, or close and immediately reopen the campus with entirely new staff and programming before the 2018-19 academic year.

Under the latter option, the campus would only serve limited grade levels in 2018-19 — pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in elementary schools, sixth grade in middle schools and ninth grade in high schools. As a result, the majority of students at any close-and-reopen school would be displaced in 2018-19. Each campus would add one grade level in subsequent years.

The sweeping proposal, which remains in the early stages, comes as Houston ISD faces significant sanctions for its failure to improve chronically low-performing schools following the 2015 passage of a law known as HB 1842.

[…]

District administrators haven’t recommended which schools would employ partnerships or close-and-reopen. They are expected to present recommendations at a Feb. 1 board meeting, with community meetings planned throughout the month. Administrators are aiming for a board vote on the changes by early March.

Add this to the other big changes in the works and you can see what an ambitious agenda the board has for itself. Again, there’s a lot there and I encourage you to read it all, and to get involved in the process. There ought to be plenty of opportunities to engage, so if you want HISD to hear what you think about, get out there and tell them.

HISD faces major changes

This is a very big story, but a key component to it is not discussed here.

Houston ISD officials said Saturday the district will need to cut about $200 million from its 2018-19 budget to bring spending in line with an increasingly gloomy financial outlook.

In an equally momentous move, Houston ISD officials also proposed far-reaching changes to how the district operates its magnet and school choice systems, some of the boldest moves to date by second-year Superintendent Richard Carranza.

Still reeling from Hurricane Harvey, Houston Independent School District officials revealed at a board meeting Saturday that the district is facing a double whammy: A multimillion-dollar, state-mandated “recapture” payment requiring districts with high property values to “share the wealth,” and an expected drop in enrollment and tax revenue because of the devastating storm, which severely damaged schools and delayed the start of classes by two weeks.

The proposed cuts come at an inopportune time, with the district battling to stave off a potential state takeover because of 10 chronically under-performing schools.

Although the measures outlined Saturday are preliminary and could change significantly before HISD’s board votes on them, officials acknowledged that the district is entering an uncertain time.

“It’s a sea change for HISD,” said Rene Barajas, the district’s chief financial officer. “But at the end of the day, from a budgetary perspective, we’re still going to get the job done. It’s just going to be harder.”

There’s a lot more and there’s too much to adequately summarize, so go read the rest. We know about the recapture payments, which even though they have been reduced due to Harvey are still significant. We know HISD has been talking about revamping its magnet programs for some time, and there’s a cost-savings component to that as well. We know that property values and enrollment have been affected by Harvey, and we know how daily attendance determines the amount of money the district gets from the state. So none of this is a surprise, though having to deal with all of it at once is a big shock.

What’s missing from this article is any mention of what the state could and should do to help ameliorate this blow. I think everyone agrees that if a school building is destroyed by a catastrophic weather event, it should be rebuilt via a combination of funding sources, mostly private insurance and emergency allocations from the state. Why shouldn’t that also apply to the secondary effects of that same catastrophe? It’s not HISD’s fault that its revenues, both from taxes and from state appropriations, will be down. There needs to be a mechanism to at least soften, if not remove, this burden. Bear in mind that one reason why the drop in property values is such a hit is because the state has shoved more and more of the responsibility for school finance on local districts. If Harvey had happened even a decade ago, the appraisal loss would still be felt, but not by as much. That’s not HISD’s doing, it’s the Legislature’s and the Governor’s and the Lieutenant Governor’s, all with the approval of the Supreme Court.

But what can be done can be undone. With little to no pain on its part, the Lege could tap into the Rainy Day Fund to get HISD past the worst of this, or it could recognize that the nearly one billion it appropriated last session for “border security” is little more than macho posturing, an endless boondoggle for a handful of sheriffs, and an sharp increase in traffic citations, and redirect some of that money to HISD and any other district in similar straits. There are other things the Lege could do, but all of it starts with the basic principle that the Lege should do something to help out here. When are we going to talk about that?

Extra school days may be coming

Darn that crazy weather.

School districts across greater Houston are working to determine if they need to add extra days to their academic calendars or extra minutes to their school days to make up two days missed this week due to icy weather.

Area students have already missed two weeks or more of classes during the current school year as a result of Hurricane Harvey and the flooding it triggered.

Some of the area’s largest districts — including Houston and Cypress-Fairbanks — have already announced they will likely need to add at least one day to the school year after canceling classes Tuesday and Wednesday. The Cy-Fair and Humble school districts said students will no longer have a day off on Monday, Feb. 19, which will instead be used as a make-up day. That date had already been set aside as a make-up day in the event of unexpected school closures.

Houston ISD Superintendent Richard Carranza said Wednesday that his district, Texas’ largest, would likely need to add two instructional days to its academic year.

“We’re going to try to avoid adding days onto the end of the year. It wreaks havoc on graduation schedules, and lots of students and families have announced dates and have people flying in,” Carranza said. “We’ll do everything in our power to avoid tacking onto the end of the school year.”

As I recall, the last time HISD had to do this they added one day at the end of the year, and also opened schools on Memorial Day. I won’t be surprised if that’s on the table for this year, much to my girls’ dismay. It is what it is, and as noted at the end of the story, we all better hope for good weather from here on out. They’ll let us know when they know.

HISD to standardize start times

This had been talked about for some time.

HISD will implement standardized school start times for the 2018-19 school year to better deliver efficient, reliable, and affordable transportation to our students.

Currently, HISD manages 67 different school start times – the highest in the state – as it transports nearly 36,000 students on almost 1,200 different routes each day. Beginning next fall, the district will operate with two standardized start/dismissal times:

  • 7:30 a.m.-2:50 p.m. for elementary schools and K-8 campuses
  • 8:30 a.m.-3:50 p.m. for all secondary campuses (middle school, high school, and grade 6-12 campuses)

[…]

Standardizing school start times will bring efficiencies to the district’s bus routes and ensure that students arrive to campus and depart on time, resulting in fewer interruptions to teaching, learning, and family schedules. The new start times will also extend the life of the district’s bus fleet and reduce maintenance and fuel costs.

As it happens, my daughters will be entering middle and high school next fall, and I can tell you they approve of this change. There was a proposal like this a few years ago that ultimately went nowhere. This time around, HISD did a survey of parents, and they went with the option that was favored by both parents and principals. If you have kids in HISD, what do you think about this? The Chron and the Press have more.

Looking ahead to 2019

Yes, yes, I know. We’ve barely begun the 2018 cycle. Who in their right mind is thinking about 2019? I plead guilty to political insanity, but the beginning of the year is always the best time to look forward, and just as 2018 will be unlike any election year we’ve seen before, I think 2019 will be unusual, too. Let’s just take a moment to contemplate what lies ahead.

I’ve posted this list before, but just to review here are the Council members who are term-limited going into 2019:

Brenda Stardig – District A
Jerry Davis – District B
Ellen Cohen – District C
Mike Laster – District J
Larry Green – District K
Jack Christie – At Large #5

There is an opportunity for progressives to elect a candidate more favorable to them with CM Christie’s departure, and his At Large colleagues Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh will also draw attention. Against that, I would remind everyone that Bill King carried Districts C and J in 2015, so we’re going to have to play defense, too.

It is too early to start speculating about who might run where, but keep two things in mind. One is that there’s likely some pent-up demand for city offices, since there won’t have been an election since 2015, and two is that some number of people who are currently running for something in 2018 will find themselves on the sidelines by March or May, and some of them may decide to shift their focus to a more local race. The point I’m making here is expect there to be a lot of candidates, and not just for the term-limited offices. I don’t expect Mayor Turner to be seriously challenged, but I do expect the firefighters to find someone to support against him. Finally, I expect Pasadena to be a hotbed of action again for their May elections, as Democrats missed by seven votes in District B winning a majority on Pasadena City Council.

The following HISD Trustees are up for election in 2019:

Rhonda Skillern-Jones – District II
Sergio Lira – District III
Jolanda Jones – District IV
Diana Davila – District VIII

Skillern-Jones was forced into a runoff in 2015, but she then won that easily. Lira was elected this year to finish Manuel Rodriguez’s term. Jolanda is Jolanda, and no election that includes her will ever be boring. Davila sued to get on the Democratic primary ballot for Justice of the Peace, but was not successful. I have to assume whoever runs against her will make an issue of the fact that she was job-hopping in the interim.

The following HCC Trustees are up for election in 2019:

Zeph Capo – District 1
Dave Wilson – District 2
Neeta Sane – District 7

It is too early to think about who might be running for what in Houston and HISD. It is very much NOT too early to find and begin building support for a good candidate to run against Dave Wilson and kick his homophobic ass out of office. That is all.

Precinct analysis: Two facts about 2017 turnout

As always after an election, I received an early copy of the canvass report, which tells me how the vote went in each individual precinct. Unlike other years, I didn’t have a clear direction for what to do with it, because there’s no obvious basis for comparisons. There are no partisan races, and no Mayoral contest, so it’s hard to say what questions to try to answer. So I sat on this for awhile, but with 2017 about to exit stage right, I figured I should finally do something with the data I had. Since turnout, or lack of it, is what everyone was talking about in this election, I thought I’d try to learn something about that. In general, we know what usually brings people to the polls in city elections – a contested Mayor’s race and contentious referenda. We had neither this time, so I thought I’d try to see if the bond issues we did have did more to draw people out than the HISD races did.

I don’t know that I have an answer, but I do have a couple of data points. First, in the precincts where there was an HISD race on the ballot, did more people vote in that HISD race than they did in the bond elections?


Dist  PropA    HISD
===================
I     9,490   8,900
III   3,365   3,114
V     8,583   7,656
VI    7,182   6,396
VII  11,848  11,471
IX    7,622   7,454

I used Prop A, the pension obligation bonds issue, as my proxy for all the city issues. It didn’t actually have the most votes, but their totals were all within about one percent of each other, so it’s good enough for our purposes. The totals for some districts, especially V and IX, are less than what you’ll find on the County Clerk’s page, because several of the precincts in those districts are outside city limits. Note also that I added up total votes cast in each, not ballots cast. That’s basically the whole point here – if someone voted in the HISD race but not for Prop A, I assume the HISD race is the main reason this person voted, and vice versa. In all cases, Prop A drew more votes.

The other way to look at this is to simply compare turnout in precincts that had an HISD race to precincts that didn’t. If you add up the total votes cast for Prop A in the precincts that had no HISD race, you get 48,630 votes cast out of 613,206 voters, for 7.93% turnout. The figures for the districts are as follows:

District 1 – 9,490 votes, 78,067 voters, 12.16% turnout
District 3 – 3,365 votes, 55,207 voters, 6.10% turnout
District 5 – 8,583 votes, 60,555 voters, 14.17% turnout
District 6 – 7,182 votes, 72,931 voters, 9.85% turnout
District 7 – 11,848 votes 88,949 voters, 13.32% turnout
District 9 – 7,622 votes, 74,716 voters, 10.20% turnout

Add it up and for all of HISD you get 48,090 votes, 430,425 voters, and 11.17% turnout. So yes, as one would expect, having an HISD race on the ballot in addition to the city bonds meant people were more likely to show up than just having the bonds. The difference, in this case, is a bit more than three percentage points.

So there you have it. There may have been other questions to investigate, but like most people, my attention turned to 2018 as soon as this was in the books. The next city election will be more like what we’re used to. We’ve got plenty to occupy ourselves with until then.

HISD proposes to rebuild four schools damaged by Harvey

Seems reasonable.

Students at four storm-damaged Houston ISD elementary schools wouldn’t return to their home campuses until at least 2020 under a district proposal for replacing the structures announced Monday.

The $126-million plan calls for the four campuses — Braeburn, Kolter, Mitchell and Scarborough elementary schools — to be demolished and rebuilt at their current locations. The properties would be elevated to prevent the type of flooding that occurred after Hurricane Harvey, district officials said.

Houston ISD’s Board of Trustees is scheduled to vote on the plan Thursday.

“Based on the catastrophic flood damage and the elevation increase each campus would need to prevent future flooding, we’ve decided that the best use of HISD resources is to rebuild these four buildings,” the district’s chief operating officer, Brian Busby, said in a statement.

Students attending the four schools have been in temporary locations since September, traveling distances ranging from four to 11 miles away from their home campus. It’s not immediately known whether students would remain at the same temporary campuses until the new buildings are constructed.

[…]

District officials expect that virtually all storm-related costs will be covered through insurance, Federal Emergency Management Agency funds and state aid. As the district awaits reimbursement for costs, the $126 million for reconstruction would be paid out of the district’s “rainy day” reserves and Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone funds.

Trustee Mike Lunceford, whose district includes Braeburn and Kolter elementary schools, said decisions about rebuilding schools should be made now, rather than waiting for payments from FEMA and the state. He said he’s supportive of the district’s plan, though he has a few questions about the cost and a separate proposal to change the district’s policies for maintaining reserve funds.

“A lot of people are talking to me, asking if we’re going to rebuild the schools,” Lunceford said. “They definitely need to be rebuilt. Both schools (in my district) have more than adequate population.”

Not using these schools is not an option, and not doing something to mitigate against future flooding, however unlikely another Harvey may be, is irresponsible. The funding should be there, but if in the end HISD has to float some bonds for this, it’s worth it. The Press has more.

Santos, Lira, and Stallworth win runoffs

Congratulations to all, and on to 2018.

Elizabeth Santos

Two current educators, Elizabeth Santos and Sergio Lira, won seats on the Houston ISD school board, according to preliminary results from Saturday’s runoff election.

Voters also chose Pretta VanDible Stallworth, a business consultant and adjunct professor, to fill the final seat on the Houston Community College board, based on the unofficial results.

[…]

Santos, an English literature teacher at Northside High School, appeared to cruise to victory over Gretchen Himsl, a policy analyst for Children at Risk, an education and child-welfare advocacy nonprofit. She would represent District I on Houston’s northwest and north sides.

Santos campaigned on allocating more funding for teachers and classroom instruction, emphasizing the community schools model and offering a diverse voice from the district’s east side, which is largely Latino. The 35-year-old Houston ISD schools graduate had the endorsement and financial backing of the largest national and local teachers unions.

Sergio Lira

“It’s been incredibly special to me, to be able to really anchor myself inside the community,” Santos said. “Not everyone has had their voice heard in this district, and to be able to have that voice, that’s one thing I’m absolutely hopeful and excited about.”

In November’s three-candidate general election for District I, Santos earned 45 percent of the vote, with Himsl receiving 34 percent.

Lira, an assistant principal at Bellaire High School, looked to score a come-from-behind victory Saturday after finishing in second in the general election for District III, which represents the district’s southeast side. Challenger Jesse Rodriguez earned 40 percent of the general election vote to Lira’s 34 percent.

Lira, 56, emphasized his experience as an educator on the campaign trail, contrasting it Rodriguez, a customer care manager and volunteer radio host.

You can see the numbers here. Both boards have their work cut out for them. The stakes are especially high for HISD, as they try to stave off intervention from the TEA. Best of luck to all the winners, now let’s get to work.

Runoff Day for HISD and HCC is tomorrow

From the inbox:

Saturday, December 9, is Election Day for voters in Houston Community College District IX and HISD Trustee Districts I and III. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Voters must vote at their designated Election Day polling location which can be found by using the “Find Your Poll” lookup on www.HarrisVotes.com. Eligible voters are not required to have voted in the November General and Special Elections to vote in the Joint Runoff Elections.

An estimated 90,000 registered voters meet the requirement to vote in the Houston Community College Trustee District IX which is located in Southwest and South-central Houston. There are 78,000 eligible voters in the Houston ISD Trustee District I which is located in Northwest Houston. There are 55,000 eligible voters in Houston ISD Trustee District III which is located in Southeast Houston.

“To be eligible to vote in a particular contest on the Runoff Election ballot, you must be registered to vote in the district which is up for election,” stressed Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart.

To find your Election Day polling location, view a personal sample ballot, or review a list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the polls, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

Here’s a brief Chron story about the runoffs. If you didn’t already know who the candidates are, it won’t tell you much. Early voting has been light – there were 3,725 ballots cast as of the end of the EV period in all three races combined. For the first time in a long time, I’ll be voting on Election Day, as my new work location and the smaller number of EV locations made it difficult for me to get to a polling place. I’ll have the race results on Sunday. Good luck to all the candidates.

Endorsement watch: HISD and HCC runoffs

In two of the three runoffs on the ballot, the Chron endorsed candidates who did not make the cut. As early voting begins for the runoffs, they make their new choices and reiterate the one they got right.

Houston Community College System, trustee, District IX: Pretta VanDible Stallworth

Experience as a teacher in higher education combined with previous tenure on the HCC board sets apart Pretta VanDible Stallworth. An impressive résumé and firm grasp of the HCC board duties should earn her the seat being vacated by Chris Oliver, who pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges in May.

VanDible Stallworth, 59, has worked as an adjunct professor at Bellhaven College and guest professor at DeVry University. She also served on the HCC board from 1989-1993. Her position as chaplain for Senate 13 District PAC also demonstrates a healthy ability to reflect the values of her community. While we’ve expressed a cautiousness about VanDible Stallworth’s belief that the board should be more involved with reviewing contracts, her education and experience makes her the best candidate in this race.

Gretchen Himsl

Houston ISD, trustee, District I: Gretchen Himsl

Houston Independent School District, the seventh-largest public school system in the nation and the largest in Texas, is at a crossroads. The school district is facing a takeover by the state for failure to improve about a dozen schools. This drastic step would mean that Houston voters would lose the right to elect officials to govern the school system, which educates 216,000 of our children, and for which we pay local property taxes. The district also faced a budgetary shortfall even before Hurricane Harvey cut a path of destruction across the district and damaged many of its schools.

These are hard issues, and voters need to elect the candidate best qualified to deal with the complexity.

Two candidates are in a runoff for trustee of District I, a position that was ably held by Anna Eastman for eight years: Elizabeth Santos, a schoolteacher, and Gretchen Himsl, who works at Children At Risk, a Houston nonprofit.

Both have demonstrated a commitment to students through their actions for many years, Santos in the classroom and Himsl in the policymaking and volunteer world. Both women care deeply about public education.

The two candidates also agree on several policy points, including the need to rein in high-stakes testing.

But the similarities stop there. The two candidates bring markedly different skill sets to the table. Himsl is a policy wonk and volunteer. Santos is a passionate educator and advocate.

At a time when the future of the entire district has been brought into question, voters should pick someone with the skills to analyze and articulate the policies that can save HISD – and the ability to implement them as solutions. That candidate is Gretchen Himsl.

Sergio Lira

Houston ISD, trustee, District III – Unexpired Term: Sergio Lira

We endorsed Sergio Lira during the general election and again encourage voters to pick him to fill the seat previously held by longtime trustee Manuel Rodriguez Jr., who passed away in July.

Lira, 56, has spent nearly his entire career as an educator in this southeast district, although he currently serves as an assistant principal at Bellaire High School. He has direct experience turning around underperforming campuses and was awarded “Teacher of the Year” when he taught in elementary schools. In addition to his classroom and administrative experience, Lira also has an impressive list of credentials: a master’s in education management, a certificate from the Superintendent Certification program and a doctorate of education in educational leadership from the University of Houston-Clear Lake College of Education.

My interviews with the HISD candidates from earlier:

Gretchen Himsl
Elizabeth Santos

Sergio Lira
Jesse Rodriguez

I did not get the chance to interview the candidates in HCC IX. Early voting began yesterday, and runs through Tuesday, with Runoff Day on Saturday, December 9. Which, if you live in my neck of the woods, is the same day as Lights in the Heights. So vote early, it will be much more convenient.

Early voting for HISD and HCC runoffs begins today

From the inbox:

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart announced today that nine Early Voting locations will open starting Nov. 29 where eligible voters may cast a ballot during the early voting period for theDecember 9, 2017 Joint Runoff Election. The Early Voting Period for the Runoff Election runs from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2 and resumes Dec. 4 to Dec. 5.

“To find out if you reside in one of the three districts where an election is taking place and view your individual sample ballot,  you may visit www.HarrisVotes.com, advised Stanart, Harris County Clerk and Chief Election Official. “In this instance, the districts in play do not overlap. So all eligible voters will see only one contest on their ballot.” 

County Clerk Stanart encourages voters to review the early voting schedule before heading to the poll to confirm the address of the early voting location.  In the conduct of non-countywide elections, only available early voting sites within or near each district are utilized in a Runoff Election.   

“To be eligible to vote in a particular contest on the Runoff Election ballot, you must be registered to vote in the district which is up for election,” emphasized Stanart“Qualified voters of one of these districts, may vote in the Runoff, even if they did not vote in the November Election.”

An estimated 90,000 registered voters meet the requirement to vote in the Houston Community College Trustee District IX race, 78,000 in the Houston ISD Trustee District I race and 55,000 in Houston ISD Trustee District III race.  The Joint Runoff Election is being held because no candidate received over fifty-percent of the votes on November 7 in these three districts.

Voters may find the complete Early Voting Schedule, view a personal sample ballot, or review the list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the poll at www.HarrisVotes.com.  Voters may also call 713.755.6965 for election information.

###

 

Harris County, Texas – Early Voting Locations
December 9, 2017 Joint Runoff Election

Location Address City Zip
Harris County Administration Building 1001 Preston Street, 4th Floor Houston 77002
Moody Park Community Center 3725 Fulton Street Houston 77009
HCCS Southeast College 6960 Rustic Street, Parking Garage Houston 77087
Young Neighborhood Library 5107 Griggs Road Houston 77021
Fiesta Mart 8130 Kirby Drive Houston 77054
Metropolitan Multi-Service Center 1475 West Gray Street Houston 77019
Sunnyside Multi-Purpose Center 9314 Cullen Boulevard Houston 77051
Hiram Clarke Multi-Service Center 3810 West Fuqua Street Houston 77045
Hardy Senior Center 11901 West Hardy Road Houston 77076

As noted before, only some of us have cause to vote. If you’re not in HCC 9 or HISD I or III, all of which are highlighted in the embedded map, you’re off the hook. For the lucky few who do get to vote, note that early voting is only six days (no voting on Sunday), so make your plan to get out there.

Early voting set for HISD and HCC runoffs

Here’s the schedule and locations. Note that while the early vote period covers a week, from Wednesday, November 29 through Tuesday, December 5, there are only six days to vote, as there is no voting on Sunday the 3rd. Runoff Day itself is Saturday, December 9, which may be a bit complicated in my neck of the woods as that is also the date for Lights in the Heights. Won’t be the first time I’ll spend the better part of that evening refreshing the harrisvotes.com webpage on my laptop.

Anyway. For the most part, the regular early voting locations in HISD I and III and HCC 9 will be open, along with the Harris County Administration Building downtown and the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on West Gray, because that’s where Heights people like to vote. If you’re not in one of those districts you’re off the hook thanks to there being no city races on the ballot. For the same reason, we can expect turnout to be pretty light. I can throw one number at you: In the 2005 runoff for HISD I, when there was an At Large Council race but not a Mayor’s race, Natasha Kamrani defeated Anne Flores Santiago with 3,026 total votes being cast. I’d draw the over/under line at that level, with fewer votes in HISD III and maybe about the same in HCC 9. Make your plan to vote if you’re in one of these districts, the EV period will begin and end before you know it.

School districts affected by Harvey ask for a break on testing

One way or another we’re going to have to reckon with this.

Leaders of school districts heavily affected by Hurricane Harvey told a legislative panel on Monday that they would like to see Texas’ accountability and testing requirements relaxed in the wake of the disaster. They also said the storms have dealt a financial blow and that they weren’t optimistic about being reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or insurance anytime soon.

[…]

Although the state’s accountability system and standardized testing was not on the agenda, it was repeatedly brought up by superintendents and education leaders who testified.

Before the superintendents testified, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said his agency had polled Harvey-affected school districts and found that by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, school districts preferred to keep the current testing windows the same rather than move them later.

That stunned Port Aransas ISD Superintendent Mark Kemp, who helped reopen the district to students in mid-October.

“I’m on all the conference calls and meetings with our local superintendents, and we keep saying the same thing – just give us a one-year reprieve,” Kemp said. “The stress of testing is huge, and on top of that, we have students who have to find their next meal, who have nowhere to lay their head at night.”

Other superintendents who testified Monday said they’d rather have the state hold them harmless for their students’ results than change the testing window. None spoke in favor of leaving the state’s testing and accountability system in place, as is, for storm-affected districts this year.

Katy ISD Superintendent Lance Hindt said his district’s accountability data has been out of whack since the late-August storm. At Mayde Creek High School, for example, Hindt said they’ve seen a 14 percentage-point drop in the number of students who submitted free or reduced-price lunch applications. He said that’s because the district offered free meals through September, so many students who qualify didn’t end up submitting applications on time.

He proposed the state give every campus and district within the federal government’s disaster area an accountability ranking of “not rated – data integrity issues.” Hindt said that’s a designation that already exists and can be used under current law, and that it reflects the situation in Katy ISD and other Harvey-affected districts.

“Why hold districts accountable based on flawed data?” Hindt asked. “The state does not care that parents lost jobs or are living on the second story of their home. If you don’t think that will have impact on accountability, let me come back a year from now and show you how it did.”

I’ve been generally sympathetic to this position all along, and I like the proposed solution from Superintendent Hindt. One way or another, the TEA is going to have to come to terms with the fact that this is going to be a hugely abnormal year for many students. Why not plan to take that into account now?

My thoughts following the 2017 election

1. Turnout in Houston was considerably higher than anyone predicted. Adding in Fort Bend to Harris yields 101,178 voters. Harris County had 149,730. The Houston share of Harris County was 66.43%, which is lower than I expected as well.

2. Early voting in odd years is not the same as early voting in even years. In even years, a significant majority of voters are showing up before Election Day. In odd years, Election Day still reigns supreme. In Harris County, 59.49% of the total vote was cast on Election Day. For the Houston part of Harris County, that total was 58.74% of the vote. It’s not clear to me why this is the case, but if I had to guess I’d say that the presence of big well-funded campaigns is a big part of the reason people vote early, because they are being told to vote during the early process. In the absence of such campaigns, people don’t think about voting before Election Day nearly as much. Just a guess, but one that will inform how I think about the next odd year election.

3. After the 2015 election, the HISD Board of Trustees had four men and five women. After the 2017 election, it will have one man and eight women. It will also be all Democratic, as the three Republican men who served in districts V, VI, and VII have all been succeeded by Democratic women. Let that sink in for a minute.

4. A lot will be said about the national election results and what that means for Democrats and Republicans going into 2018. We haven’t really had an election that has been cast in that light – unlike the 2015/2016 cycle, for example, there have been no special legislative elections. I think you have to look at the 2017 HISD results as a piece of that puzzle, even if they weren’t run as Dem-versus-GOP referenda. The Democratic candidates won the three formerly Republican-held Trustee seats because more Democrats showed up to vote. I don’t want to over-dramatize that, but it has to mean at least a little something.

5. Of course, if one wants to be cynical, it could mean that the TEA will have more reason to drop the hammer on HISD if one or more of the Improvement Required schools fails to meet standards. Who at the state level will care about disbanding an all-Democratic Board of Trustees?

6. In the runup to Tuesday, the lower-than-usual turnout projections were cited as a reason why the city bond issues might have trouble. This was going to be a weird year with no city elections, and Harvey caused a lot of disruption, but the main piece of logic underpinning that was the assumption that lower turnout = a more Republican electorate, which in turn would be dangerous for the bonds. Remember, while no one officially opposed the pension bonds, the Harris County GOP and associated conservative groups did oppose the other bonds. It turned out there was no cause for alarm, as all the issues passed by huge margins. While I think that Republicans were more favorably inclined to the bond referenda than we may have given them credit for, this needs to be a reminder that sometimes it’s Republican voters who don’t show up in the expected numbers. The HISD results point to that. If we want to draw an inference for 2018, it’s that overall turnout doesn’t have to be huge for Democrats to have a good year. Who is motivated to vote matters.

7. There will be three runoffs on the menu for December, two in HISD (District I, Elizabeth Santos versus Gretchen Himsl, and District III, Jesse Rodriguez versus Sergio Lira) and one in HCC. One quick thought about that:

Meanwhile, Eugene “Gene” Pack and Pretta VanDible Stallworth were the top vote-getters in a three-way contest for an open seat in District IX. Pack, a retired auto broker, narrowly edged out Stallworth, a business consultant, for the top spot. But both fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. David Jaroszewski, a professor, was well behind.

Earlier Tuesday night, Pack expressed optimism that his early lead indicated voters endorsed him as an “outsider.”

“They’re tired of the direction the board has been going in,” he said.

Maybe, but with all due respect I’d suggest that Pack’s strong showing was a combination of his simple name and top spot on the ballot. My advice for the runoff to Pretta Stallworth is to make sure the voters there know that Pack is a Trump-supporting Republican. I’d guess that would outweigh any valorization of “outsider” status.

8. Finally, the Chron is in a scolding mood.

The ballot featured neither president, nor governor nor mayor, but Tuesday’s election was one of the most important to face Houstonians in decades.

So how did we respond? By not participating. Turnout – at less than 10 percent – was abysmally low.

By approving a $1 billion pension obligation bond, voters set City Hall on track to financial reforms that will cut expenses and, hopefully, usher our city out of a 16-year fiscal crisis. Months of negotiations, years of failed efforts, all came down to this vote – and the vast majority of Houstonians couldn’t be bothered to weigh in.

The immediate issues at City Hall – or Commissioner’s Court or school board – often have a greater impact on American’s everyday lives, yet the local issues have a way of getting lost in the cacophony of national politics. Blame it on media consolidation or the spread of Facebook and Twitter, but our government loses a core of its representative nature when elections that deserve all the attention of a professional sporting event pass with the fanfare of a Little League game.

Something has to change in our civic culture. Easier voting processes. Making Election Day a national holiday. Better promotion efforts. Local officials and nonprofits need to start work now on improving this atrocious turnout.

Actually, we know exactly what drives turnout in Houston municipal elections: the combination of a contested Mayor’s race and a controversial ballot proposition. This year had neither. But you know, one reason why those factors I cited generate turnout is that a lot of money gets spent by the campaigns to entice, encourage, and enrage people to go vote. Maybe what we need when faced with a low key slate like this is a dedicated source of funding to simulate a more exciting election year. How we can accomplish that is left as an exercise for the reader. Oh, and if we’re casting about for blame, I’ll just note that pre-Tuesday coverage from the Chron included one lame overview of the HISD races, and exactly nothing about the HCC ones. Maybe the lack of interest from voters was a reflection of that.

2017 results: HISD and HCC

There were still precincts to be counted as I was writing this so there are a couple of races where I’ll have to equivocate, but here’s what happened in the local races that had actual candidates in them. Let’s start with the easier one, the HCC races:

– Trustees Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (73%) and Robert Glaser (58%) led from the get go and cruised to easy wins.

– In District 9, Gene Pack (42%) and Pretta VanDible Stallworth (37%) will head into a runoff for the right to succeed Chris Oliver.

In HISD, there are a couple of clear results, and a couple that I’ll have to update in the morning:

– Incumbent Trustees Wanda Adams (68%) and Anne Sung (60%) were easily re-elected.

– Jesse Rodriguez (41%) and Sergio Lira (32%) were going into overtime in Distric III, while Elizabeth Santos (45%) and Gretchen Himsl (33%) were doing the same in I. Given how the District I race has gone so far, I expect it to get a little nasty for the runoff.

– Sue Deigaard (53%) appeared to be headed for a clear win in her four-way race. As of this drafting, 37 of 56 precincts had reported, but Deigaard had 4,502 votes out of 8,446 total. If the remaining 19 precincts have a proportional amount of votes in them as the first 37, a little back-of-the-envelope math suggests she’d need about 43.4% of those votes to stay in the majority and win outright. I’d say those are pretty good odds, but we’ll see.

– The race that will have everyone up way past their bedtimes is in District VI, where with 35 of 40 precincts counted, incumbent Holly Flynn Vilaseca had 50.04% of the vote – she had 3,119 out of 6,233, which puts her five votes into a majority. Either she squeaks out a clean win – she was a pinch over 50% in early and absentee voting and a slightly smaller pinch under it on Tuesday – or she goes into a runoff with a substantial lead. Good position to be in, but boy I know what I’d prefer.

UPDATE: At 12:46 AM, the final results were posted, and Holly Flynn Vilaseca wound up with 50.38% of the vote, putting her back in office without a runoff. Here’s the Chron story.

Election Day 2017

It’s time to vote if you haven’t already. Not many people have, as we know.

Harris County turnout is expected to remain feeble through Election Day, with no marquee race to draw voters to the polls and thousands still displaced by Hurricane Harvey.

Fewer than 59,000 of the county’s more than 2.2 million registered voters cast a ballot by the end of early voting Friday, a paltry showing even in a traditionally low-turnout state.

“Nobody’s voting because really nothing overly controversial is on the ballot,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said, projecting total voter participation will reach of 80,000 to 100,000.

Unlike in recent off-cycle elections, Houston residents do not have mayoral or city council races to weigh in on, thanks to a recent change to term limits.

Instead, the city ballot features several propositions, as well as races for the Houston ISD and Houston Community College school boards.

What’s interesting about this is that Prof. Jones is suggesting that somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of the total votes have already been cast. That’s a higher percentage than what I estimated, and it feels a bit peculiar to me because early voting has topped out at around half of the final total in odd-year elections. Maybe this year will be different – Lord knows, it’s different in many other ways – but I would like to understand the reasoning behind that projection. In any event, going by my “Houston is 70% of Harris County in odd year vote totals”, that suggests final citywide turnout of 56,000 to 70,000, which is similar to my estimate but with a lower ceiling.

Here’s the usual press release from the County Clerk’s office:

“Regardless of where voters reside in Harris County, voters will see seven state propositions on their ballot,”said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, alerting the registered voters in the County that Tuesday’s November 7, 2017 General and Special Elections is a countywide and statewide election. In addition to the State Propositions, the ballot also features items offered by 29 political jurisdictions within the County.  Polling locations will be open from 7 am to 7 pm.

“Voters can view their individual sample ballot and review the items on which they may vote by visiting the County Clerk’s election website,  www.HarrisVotes.com,Stanart specified. “This election merits the attention and participation of all voters. Aside from the State, there are five cities, 14 ISDs, and 10 utility districts with contests on the ballot.”

“Voters should know the address of their voting location and the acceptable forms of identification required at the poll before going to vote,” advised Stanart.  “The polling location in approximately 30 voting precincts in areas impacted by Hurricane Harvey, have changed.”  There will be 735 Election Day polling location available throughout Harris County.  On Election Day, voters must vote at the voting precinct where they are registered to vote.

“Voters in the City of Houston should be aware that this is the first odd-numbered year election when the Mayor, Controller and City Council races are not on the ballot,” informed Stanart.  “Don’t be surprised if you don’t see those contests on your ballot.”

Voters may find their designated Election Day polling location, view a personal sample ballot, or review the list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at their poll at www.HarrisVotes.com. Voters may also call 713.755.6965 for election information.

Stan Stanart is the Clerk, Recorder and the Chief Elections Officer of the third largest county in the United States.

 

List of Political Entities on the Nov. 7, 2017 General & Special Elections Ballot in Harris County, TX
State of Texas Pasadena ISD
City of Baytown Spring Branch ISD
City of Bellaire Stafford Municipal SD
City of Houston Tomball ISD
City of Missouri City Crosby MUD
Houston Community College System Harris County MUD No. 61 (defined area)
Aldine ISD Harris County MUD No. 551
Alief ISD Harris County MUD No. 552
Crosby ISD Mount Houston Road MUD
Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Northwest Harris County MUD No. 6
Deer Park ISD Northwest Harris County MUD No. 22
Houston ISD Cypress-Klein UD
Katy ISD Prestonwood Forest UD
Klein ISD Harris County WC & ID No. 133
New Caney ISD The Woodlands Township

Finally, if you have been displaced by Hurricane Harvey, please read this information from the Secretary of State Short version: you can still vote in your original precinct, as long as it is your intent to return there at some point. Note that state election law says you don’t actually have to return, you just have to say you intend to. You can re-register another time. So no excuses, go and vote if you haven’t already. I’ll have results tomorrow.

Late money in the HISD races

Here it comes.

A political action committee mostly funded by the nation’s largest teachers’ union has received $225,000 to spend on supporting four candidates for the Houston ISD school board election and a city ballot measure, campaign finance reports show.

Houston United for Strong Public Schools plans to spend in support of three incumbent candidates — Wanda Adams, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Anne Sung — and newcomer Elizabeth Santos ahead of Tuesday’s election, records show. The PAC doesn’t plan to spend on candidates in two other Houston ISD board races.

Political action committees operate independently of individual candidates’ campaigns. Houston United for Strong Public Schools has received the most donations to date among PACs supporting local school board candidates.

Records show Houston United for Strong Public Schools took in $150,000 from the political arm of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents about 1.7 million public employees, most of them working in schools.

The PAC also received $75,000 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union representing about 1.6 million public service employees. In addition to supporting the four board candidates, the PAC plans to spend in favor of a Houston city ballot measure to authorize the sale of $1 billion in bonds under a pension reform plan.

That’s a lot of money, but at least from my perspective in District I, it hasn’t been particularly visible to me. I’ve received mail from the Santos campaign, but no more than what I’ve received from the Himsl and Richart campaigns. I haven’t received any robocalls or been visited by any canvassers – for whatever the reason, it’s extremely rare for someone to knock on my door on behalf of a campaign – and if there are ads running on TV or the radio, I’ve not seen them. I don’t think I’ve seen any Facebook ads or ads in my Gmail, either. Maybe the bulk of this money is being earmarked for a runoff, I don’t know. Risky strategy if that’s the case.

The eight day finance reports are now available, but you won’t see any activity related to HUSPS in there. For example, here’s Santos’ 8 day report, which includes a $5K donation from Houston Federation of Teachers COPE, but HUSPS is nowhere to be seen. You have to go to the Texas Ethics Commission page and search for Houston United for Strong Public Schools there. In their TEC report, you can see that while they’ve raised $225K, they’ve only spent $115K, and $47K of that was for polling, which ought to be fascinating given the turnout context. I can’t tell from this how much they have spent in each race – there isn’t a single entry that specifies a dollar amount for Santos, for example. I don’t spend as much time with PAC reports as I have done with candidate reports, so maybe I just don’t know how to read these. Point is, this is where to look to get the details.

All of this has caused some controversy, which has played out on Facebook. The HUSPS website has no “About” page, and it took some sleuthing to figure out their origin. Not to put too fine a point on it, but large amounts of money being spent on local races by groups whose backers are not apparent is generally something that many of us find alarming. As Campos has noted, it’s hardly unusual for the HFT to get involved in HISD elections – they’re as much of a stakeholder as anyone else, after all – but this method of doing so is new. I don’t understand the rationale behind this approach, either, but it is what they have chosen to do. We’ll see how it plays out.

2017 EV daily report: Final numbers and our attempt at projecting turnout

Here are the final numbers. Believe it or not, people did vote on Friday despite the fact that the entire metro area appeared to be at the Astros parade. Here are the daily totals from previous years:

2015

2013

2011

2009

2007

And here’s a select comparison:


Year    Early    Mail    Total   Mailed
=======================================
2017   46,224  12,205   58,429   19,875
2015  164,104  29,859  193,963   43,280
2011   49,669   8,676   58,345   15,264
2007   43,420   6,844   50,264   13,870

So 2017 early voting is almost identical in total to 2011 and ahead of 2007, but the source of the votes are different. 2017 trails 2011 with in person voting but makes up for that in absentee ballots, and holds a sizable lead in absentee ballots over 2007. That’s a clear change in voter behavior, and something to continue to watch as we go forward.

One other difference to point out, which requires another set of numbers. Here are the last day in person totals for the odd year elections going back to 2007:

2017 = 9,092
2015 = 35,493
2013 = 18,893
2011 = 10,559
2009 = 17,072
2007 = 10,473

Even with more people voting early, this year’s last day totals are the weakest we’ve ever seen. I’d attribute some of that to the Astros parade, and some of it to the overall lack of campaign activity compared to previous years. One possible effect of this is that more people will wind up voting on Tuesday than we would have expected. Turnout wasn’t just lower than one might have thought on Friday, after all. The whole week was lighter than it might have been, and to the extent that was a real thing and not just the way this year would have played out anyway I’ll cite the World Series as a reason. Unless the term limits referendum gets thrown out and we get put back on two year terms, we’ll next have a chance to see what a non-Mayoral election year is like in 2021. And who knows, maybe the Astros will be in the World Series again then.

So we turn our attention to final turnout. For once, I’m not going to overthink this. As we’ve already established, city turnout in odd years is roughly 70% of the county; it ranges from about 67% in years where there isn’t something that specifically drives non-city voters to the polls to 73%, and we’re splitting the difference. In odd years past, early voting has been between 40 and 50 percent of final turnout. I continue to believe that early voting will be a higher share of this year’s tally, partly because of trends we’ve seen in other years and partly out of the belief that hardcore voters are more likely to vote early, but I’m not going to put all my eggs in that basket. If we assume the range of outcomes is that early voting will be between 40 and 60 percent of the final total, then when the dust clears we should expect between 54,000 and 81,000 voters. Which, again, corresponds pretty well to my original gut-feel estimates of 50 to 75 thousand. I love it when reality seems to line up with my intuition. All that said, I could be off in any number of directions, and that guesstimated range is wide enough to cover a lot of potential error. Feel free to make your own guesses in the comments.

2017 EV daily report: Day 10, and the first sign of an uptick

Here are the numbers through Wednesday. I know I said yesterday that I don’t usually report the latest results in Week 2 because they come in late, but like everyone else I was up late watching Game 7, so here you go. Here are the daily totals from previous years:

2015

2013

2011

2009

2007

And here’s a select comparison:


Year    Early    Mail    Total   Mailed
=======================================
2017   31,865  10,801   42,666   19,875
2015  107,086  26,508  133,594   43,280
2011   33,201   6,888   40,089   15,262
2007   27,522   5,625   33,147   13,870

First, let me note that I screwed up the Mailed totals for this year in yesterday’s post. I must have read from the Ballots Returned line – the County Clerk used to have the Ballots Mailed totals right underneath the in person totals, which never made sense, but they have since changed that. Anyway, Wednesday was the high-water mark for in person votes, with 4,172, but it followed a Tuesday in which only 3,250 people voted, and they had no World Series sleep deprivation to blame it on. In the other years I’ve featured, both Tuesday and Wednesday were new highs for in person voting. That trend continues in all years through the next two days. I expect that to happen here, but maybe we won’t have the big spike on Friday. Or maybe we will, I don’t know. If there is another World Series hangover, it would certainly be on those days. I’m pretty sure nobody has a turnout modeler that takes this sort of thing into account. I’ll report the final numbers on Sunday.

2017 EV daily report: Day 8, and one more look at a way to guess turnout

Here are the numbers through Monday. Now that we are in the second week of early voting, when the hours each day are 7 to 7, these reports arrive in my inbox later in the evening. Here are the daily totals from previous years:

2015

2013

2011

2009

2007

And here’s a select comparison:


Year    Early    Mail    Total   Mailed
=======================================
2017   24,442   8,201   32,643   21,320
2015   73,905  23,650   97,555   43,279
2011   23,621   4,958   28,579   14,609
2007   19,250   4,353   23,603   13,589

The first Monday of Week 2 was busier than all preceding days, by a lot in 2015 and by a little in 2011 and 2007. Each day after that was busier still. This year, the second Monday was less busy than Thursday and Friday last week. I suspect an Astros hangover from Sunday night may have had something to do with that – Lord knows, traffic on I-45 in the morning and in the downtown tunnels at lunchtime were both eerily mild – in which case we ought to see more of an uptick going forward.

As for the other way of guessing turnout, which would be my third model for thinking about it, we have the May 2004 special city charter election, called by Mayor White to make adjustments to the pension funds, in the immediate aftermath of reports that recent changes had greatly increased the city’s financial obligations. A total of 86,748 people showed up for that election. I seriously doubt we’ll approach that, but my initial guesses on turnout for this year before I started looking at any data were 50,000 to 75,000, so it’s not ridiculously out of the question. Let’s file this one away for next May, when we may have to vote on the firefighter’s pay parity proposal.

2017 EV daily report: Day 6

Here are the numbers through Saturday. Sunday’s numbers didn’t come in last night, but it’s the shortest EV day so its numbers are always the smallest. Here are the daily totals from previous years:

2015

2013

2011

2009

2007

And here’s a select comparison:


Year    Early    Mail    Total   Mailed
=======================================
2017   19,425   8,201   27,626   19,873
2015   57,657  21,141   78,798   42,938
2011   18,205   4,340   22,545   14,105
2007   14,235   3,555   17,790   13,097

No insights today, just a reminder that the next five days are always the busiest period for early voting, though sometimes that’s just the last day or two. It will be interesting to see how this plays out this year.

2017 EV daily report: Just remember, the reports we get are all of Harris County

Here are today’s numbers, and here are the daily totals from previous years:

2015

2013

2011

2009

2007

And here’s a select comparison:


Year    Early    Mail    Total   Mailed
=======================================
2017   11,953   7,513   19,466   19,581
2015   36,322  19,789   56,111   42,520
2011   10,818   3,823   14,641   13,697
2007    8,080   3,126   11,206   12,775

So 2011 appears to be the closest comparison so far. That might imply a much higher level of turnout than what I’ve been suggesting, but I’m not prepared to believe that yet. The main reason for this is that less than 40% of the vote was cast early in 2011, and I seriously doubt that’s what we’re going to get this time. Odd year elections skew more towards Election Day and less towards early voting than even year elections – in 2015, just over half of the vote was cast early – but I think this year we will see a higher percentage of the vote cast early. The message from the County Clerk is to take advantage of the early voting period because a number of polling sites are unavailable thanks to Harvey, and I think people will heed that. We’ll take our guesses about that later in the EV period, but for now just keep that in mind. 2017 may be a bit ahead of 2011 in early voting, but I suspect that’s because more people will be voting early than usual.

It should also be noted that these reports encompass all of Harris County, so some of those numbers above are not for Houston or HISD. I’ve gone through this exercise before, but let’s review the percentage of county turnout that was in Houston in these elections:


Year   Harris  Houston   Share
==============================
2015  421,460  268,872   63.8%
2013  260,437  174,620   67.0%
2011  164,971  121,468   73.6%
2009  257,312  178,777   69.5%
2007  193,945  123,413   63.6%
2005  332,154  189,046   56.9%
2003  374,459  298,110   79.6%

“Share” is just simply the percentage of the county vote that came from Houston. There’s a big span here, but that comes with an asterisk, because the conditions were not the same each year. For example, in 2015 and 2007, Harris County had bond elections in addition to the state constitutional amendments. In 2005, the notorious state anti-gay marriage referendum was on the ballot, which coupled with a non-competitive Mayoral election meant a much larger county share. Finally, in 2003 there was the Metro referendum, which covered all of the county. There were also no state constitutional amendments on the ballot, as those had been voted on in September, to enhance the odds of the tort “reform” amendment passing.

Bottom line, with boring constitutional amendments on the ballot, I’d suggest that county/city ratio will be like the other years, which is to say between 67 and 73 percent. Let’s say 70%, just to split the difference. That’s another thing we’ll have to take into account when we do our projections later on.

What about those constitutional amendments?

Would you like someone to explain to you what those seven Constitutional amendments are about, in painstaking detail, with a recommendation for how to vote on each? Daniel Williams is here for you.

It’s that time of the biennium again! Time for voters to consider constitutional amendments on small minutia of public policy. Texas has the longest state constitution in the nation. It’s so detailed and specific that many ordinary and noncontroversial provisions of the law must be submitted to the voters for approval. That means that we the voters have a responsibility to educate ourselves on all that ordinary and noncontroversial minutia and do our best to vote in an informed and thoughtful way.

I’ve included the text of each proposed constitutional amendment, along with an attempt to briefly explain what the amendment is trying to do and how I’ll be voting when early voting starts tomorrow. I’ve also included information on how various advocacy groups and media outlets on all sides of the political spectrum have endorsed. If I’ve left off a group you think should be included let me know in the comments and I’ll add it.

Click over to read said painstakingly detailed explanations, the TL;dr version of which is “vote FOR props 1, 3, 5, and 7, and AGAINST props 2, 4, and 6”.

If you want further reading on the amendments, the League of Women Voters 2017 guide has you covered, though they don’t make recommendations. They do have information about the city of Houston bond referenda, and a brief Q&A with the HISD and HCC candidates; all but two of them provided answers. Finally, the Texas AFL-CIO has a guide to the amendments as well, along with their recommendations. You may find this exercise exasperating, but you can’t say you don’t have sufficient information to make good decisions.

On the matter of other elections, Instant News Bellaire has coverage on the elections for Bellaire’s Mayor and City Council. And if you live in Alief ISD, Stace has a slate for you. Now get out there and vote!