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No quorum for very special Council meeting

Close, but no cigar.

A handful of city council members who organized a rare special meeting to push for a Houston firefighters petition seeking pay “parity” with police to appear on the November ballot fell short of a quorum Friday and broke up without a vote.

The resolution they had put forward called on Mayor Sylvester Turner to let the council vote at its meeting next week to place the parity petition on the ballot.

Turner told one council member last Friday that he planned to have that discussion at the Aug. 8 council meeting, but word of that plan had not reached the full council Monday when members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig, Martha Castex-Tatum and Dwight Boykins signed a memo calling the special meeting.

[…]

No more than seven members reached the council chamber Friday morning, two short of the count necessary for a quorum, so Councilwoman Brenda Stardig called off the effort after 15 minutes.

Signatories Travis, Kubosh, Stardig and Boykins were present, though Boykins grew impatient and left. Council members Mike Knox, Steve Le and Dave Martin also were present. Castex-Tatum did not attend.

Martin had said he would skip the gathering, but the New Orleans native acknowledged he showed up in Cajun mode, spoiling for a fight.

See here for the background, and here for Mayor Turner’s statement. CM Martin did indeed mix it up, getting into squabbles with CMs Travis and Kubosh, which I encourage you to read. If more Council meetings had that kind of entertainment, I’m sure more people would tune in to them. There will be a Budget Committee hearing, followed by a Council vote on August 8, and we’ll have this thing on the November ballot.

HISD is optimistic about not being taken over (yet)

I hope it’s warranted.

Several of Houston ISD’s longest-struggling elementary and middle schools posted significant gains on state standardized tests in 2018, including all three campuses that must meet Texas academic standards this year to avoid triggering major sanctions, according to preliminary data released this week by the district and the Texas Education Agency.

District leaders are “hopeful” those strong gains will be enough for HISD to stave off campus closures or a state takeover of its locally-elected school board when final results are released in mid-August, a top HISD administrator said this week. At the same time, a few of the district’s chronically underperforming schools appear less likely to meet state standards this year, putting HISD at risk of punishment next year if those campuses do not show immediate improvement.

The largely positive results offer another glimmer of hope for HISD as it seeks to avoid state intervention tied to its failure to improve performance at its lowest-performing schools in recent years, a possibility that has roiled the district for months. District officials already were buoyed by an earlier release of preliminary data, which showed strong gains in grades 5 and 8, as well as high schools. The latest data include results for grades 3, 4, 6 and 7, providing a fuller picture of elementary and middle school performance.

Headed into the 2017-18 school year, 10 HISD schools had to meet state academic standards to avoid triggering sanctions after receiving at least four straight “improvement required” annual ratings. However, it is expected six of those schools will receive a one-year academic accountability reprieve due to Hurricane Harvey, leaving four campuses — Mading and Wesley elementary schools, Woodson PK-8 and Worthing High School — at risk of triggering punishment this year.

HISD administrators said they cannot yet conclude whether those four campuses will meet standards before Aug. 15, when the state makes it official. However, after analyzing the available test scores and reviewing Texas’ revised accountability system, district staff are cautiously optimistic all four campuses will shed the “improvement required” label.

“We’re hopeful. The data looked good for the campuses,” Carla Stevens, HISD’s assistant superintendent of research and accountability, said in an interview this week. “You can see there’s progress for a lot of these schools, and that’s what we’re counting on.”

See here for the background. Obviously, I hope they make it, but even if they do there will still be next year to contend with, as the schools who qualify for the waiver will need to be up to standard by then, so there’s no time to relax. We’ll know the answer in a few weeks.

Another homeless feeding lawsuit dismissed

Not the end of the story, though.

A state district judge this week dismissed a lawsuit a local activist filed last year against Houston’s ordinance regulating the charitable feeding of the city’s homeless, but the case is proceeding on with a new plaintiff.

Phillip Paul Bryant’s original lawsuit had said the 2012 law infringed on his ability to live his Christian faith by limiting how he could care for the poor, but city attorneys argued Bryant lacked the legal standing to challenge the law, as he had not been cited under it.

The ordinance requires advocates to obtain permission from property owners – public or private – before giving away food to more than five people in one setting.

A new plaintiff, Shere Dore, was added to the case last week, and the updated court filings describe a Christmas Eve 2016 incident in which the city allegedly confiscated food Dore was trying to give to the homeless.

I did not blog about this at the time the lawsuit was filed, but here’s a Chron story about it. You may think that finding a plaintiff who had actually been harmed by the law would be a pretty basic thing, but if you read all the way through either of these stories and note who the plaintiff’s attorney was, you can understand why this piece of jurisprudence may have gotten overlooked. I might also argue that if the first relevant violation of the law didn’t occur until over four years after it had been passed, then maybe it’s not really that onerous. But we’ll see about that when the suit gets re-filed.

Darian Ward indicted on charge of violating public information laws

Wow.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s former press secretary, Darian Ward, was indicted by a grand jury this week for failing to turn over public records in response to a reporter’s request late last year.

The indictment, handed up Tuesday but released by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office Thursday, says Ward, in “misrepresenting” the number of emails responsive to a reporter’s request for correspondence about her personal business activities, “unlawfully, with criminal negligence … failed and refused to give access to … public information.”

Ward resigned in January, weeks after news broke that she had been suspended for withholding the records, and because the records showed she had routinely conducted personal business on city time.

[…]

“Mayor Turner expects every city of Houston employee to comply with the Texas Public Information Act,” mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said, noting the mayor was on a trade mission to South America. “Questions about today’s grand jury decision should be directed to the Harris County District Attorney’s office.”

She is charged with failure or refusal by an officer for public information to provide access to public information, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, six months in jail or both.

The indictment first was reported by KPRC Channel 2.

[…]

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said it is common for officials to stall the release of records or impose unreasonable charges for the documents’ release without technically violating the law, and many more — typically unprovable — cases in which requesters suspect the act is being violated.

“It is very important that officials are taking the Texas Public Information Act seriously,” Shannon said. “Whatever comes out of this indictment, it shows that attention is being focused on the Public Information Act and the importance of adhering to the act.”

See here and here for some background on Darian Ward’s end of tenure with the city. I’m irresponsibly speculating well in advance of any evidence, but I would not be surprised if this winds up with a plea deal and a minimal fine. Whether that sets an example for adhering to the Public Information Act or not is up for debate, but I will agree that this law is routinely ignored and should be enforced more often. Those of you with long memories may recall the Rick Perry email saga, which included a complaint filed with the Travis County DA that did not result in any charges. We live in different times now, I guess.

A very special Council meeting

Who knew there was such a thing?

In a rare maneuver that sidesteps Mayor Sylvester Turner’s authority, five city council members have called a special meeting this week, hoping to force the issue of Houston firefighters’ push for a referendum on pay “parity” with police.

The council members aim to secure their colleagues’ support for a resolution calling on Turner to place an item on the council’s July 24 agenda to schedule a November election on the petition, which seeks to grant firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank.

In Houston’s strong-mayor form of government, the mayor generally has sole authority to decide what appears on the agenda for the weekly council meetings.

The lone exception allows three council members to set the agenda of a special meeting. Such gatherings — including this one — typically are organized without the mayor’s approval, and often struggle to muster a quorum, as many of the 16 council members are loathe to invite the mayor’s wrath.

Council members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig, Martha Castex-Tatum and Dwight Boykins signed a Monday memo calling a special council meeting for Friday at 10 a.m.

Turner is on a trade mission in South America and will not be back in time to attend the meeting.

Kubosh said he signed the memo to help ensure the issue was discussed, noting that several elections have passed since the petition was submitted.

“They were successful last year at stalling it a whole year, so, yes, I think that’s possible,” Kubosh said, referring to the Turner administration.

[…]

[CM Dave] Martin [who chairs the Council’s budget committee] said he does not intend to attend Friday’s meeting and doubts the organizers will have the quorum necessary for a formal vote.

“If they don’t show up, they don’t show up,” Kubosh said. “But I’ll show up.”

It is unclear what the impact would be if the proposed resolution reaches a vote and passes.

City Attorney Ron Lewis declined to address whether that outcome could force the mayor to act, given that the city charter gives Turner control of the council agenda.

“As a practical matter,” Lewis said, “the item will go on an agenda that’s timely, and the mayor’s committed to that.”

Insert shrug emoji here. The petitions were certified in May, and one would think the vote would be in November. According to Mayor Turner’s chief of staff and confirmed by CM Martin, this was to be discussed at the budget committee hearing on July 26, with the item for placing it on the ballot to be on Council’s August 8 agenda. I don’t know what else there is to say.

The World Cup and its possible infrastructure effects

Assuming Houston does get to be a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, that could spur some major projects, for transportation and recreation and who knows what else.

Houston will not receive final word on the bid until 2020 or 2021, but officials remain optimistic the city is a strong competitor for what could be six to eight American cities, each hosting five or six matches over 30 days. That means weeks of hotel stays, restaurant and bar sales and other expenses for visitors.

Ultimately, that could pay off with long-term projects in Houston. Part of the city’s pitch to selectors is use of a new green space east of the George R. Brown Convention Center, a long-sought cap for Texas Department of Transportation’s plans for a redesigned and buried Interstate 45. Though TxDOT plans to spend $7 billion redesigning and widening the freeway, it cannot spend federal or state highway money on park space capping the buried sections.

A local World Cup committee, however, could focus on fundraising and organize and plan a park, [Doug Hall, vice-president of special projects for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority,] said.

“The World Cup Local Organizing Committee would help raise funds for such a legacy project if it becomes a final part of the plan,” Hall said in January when officials were finalizing the city’s bid. “The Sports Authority’s tax funds can only be used on voter-approved projects and all monies are currently pledged to the existing sports stadiums.”

[…]

Only the spot along the convention center has been mentioned as a possible legacy project of a World Cup hosting. Preparations for the World Cup coming to Houston would also include numerous other upgrades and close coordination with Metro because public transit would be crucial to any events.

Metro and local organizers are already discussing some alternatives, officials said, though it will be years before final plans are prepared. In preliminary discussions, Metro has said transporting around half of the 75,000 people expected to attend soccer matches at NRG Park will require extensive bus service, along with possibly running light rail vehicles in couplings of three, as opposed to the typical two vehicles per trip.

Metro is also researching with NRG Park officials a more permanent redesign of its rail stop near NRG Park to provide shelter and possibly seating for passengers as they wait in sometimes long lines as trains depart after events packed to capacity. During major events such as Houston Texans football games and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, riders can sometimes wait 30 minutes or more for room on the train.

Some transit officials during a January discussion said a World Cup event could also spur additional coordination with the city about dedicated bus lanes in more parts of Houston, and perhaps even more.

“I am thinking that would require additional light rail,” Metro board member Troi Taylor said of the potential deluge of visitors for the World Cup.

We’re far enough out from 2026 that anything Metro might propose for the 2019 referendum could be completed by then, though anything that would require federal funds would be up against some very tight deadlines. I suppose work could be mostly done on I-45 by then as well, though I wouldn’t want to bet on that. It’s hard to know without knowing what the specific plans may be, but for sure we should be talking about it now, and working to build consensus for what we can. Anything that develops into a big political fight is a lot less likely to get done.

Dallas hyperlooping

North Texas takes the lead for this super sexy but possibly vaporware transportation technology.

The Regional Transportation Council announced Wednesday that it will consider the feasibility of a hyperloop as a way to connect Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington. The group is made up of 44 elected and appointed officials that choose funding priorities. It has been in discussions with Virgin Hyperloop One, a Los Angeles-based company that has a test track in Nevada.

“Whatever we build will be around for 100 years, so we need to consider it [a hyperloop system] as we move forward and let the process decide if it’s the best way to move or not,” said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

The regional group has been exploring solutions that would speed up trips between Dallas and Fort Worth and boost economic activity. It plans to hire consultants later this year to evaluate hyperloop and high-speed rail and compare them based on a variety of factors, such as noise, vibration and potential ridership. The study, called an environmental impact statement, will cost about $5 million and take two to three years to complete, Morris said.

A hyperloop system that carries passengers isn’t a reality yet — but that hasn’t kept companies and transportation officials from imagining a time when long commutes and trips to a sports arena or a restaurant in another city could take only a few minutes. A computer model by Virgin Hyperloop One estimated that a trip between downtown Dallas and downtown Fort Worth would take about 6 minutes and 20 seconds by hyperloop with passengers cruising at about 360 miles per hour.

[…]

Hyperloop One got a new name and infusion of funding last year from the Virgin Group and its founder Richard Branson. Texas was already on the company’s radar. Last fall, it included a Texas route on its short list of potential hyperloop sites. The proposed route of approximately 640 miles, dubbed the Texas Triangle, would connect Dallas-Fort Worth to Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Laredo. The proposal was submitted by engineering firm AECOM.

Dan Katz, Virgin Hyperloop One’s director of North American projects, said the company began talking to North Texas officials because of the proposal. He said the Dallas-Fort Worth hyperloop route could be the first phase of a larger, statewide project.

See here for some background. As noted, that larger statewide project contains a connection to Houston, but that’s not on the table right now.

A Houston leg from San Antonio remains possible, but company officials said it is not part of the current projects.

[…]

Wednesday’s announcement fulfills part of the plan envisioned when Hyperloop Texas advanced in a global competition to develop the projects. The San Antonio-to-Houston leg left out of the process is among the busiest corridors in the state.

Katz said the company is proceeding based on where officials have shown interest, with North Texas officials promoting both the Dallas-Fort Worth and Fort Worth-to-Laredo lines. Dallas officials toured the company’s Nevada test site earlier this year.

Interest in a direct Dallas-to-Houston hyperloop has lagged, as Texas Central Partners has worked on a high-speed rail line between the metro areas.

Facing huge demands on travel between Texas’ biggest metro areas, however, officials across the state are looking at all options.

“Adding an option like hyperloop to the existing system of roadways, rail transit, bicycle/pedestrian facilities and high-speed rail to Houston would expand the system in an exciting way,” said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “Connecting other regions in Texas through hyperloop would open up economic opportunities throughout the state.”

Might open up some opportunities for choosing where to live, too. Again, it’s easier to dream on this technology than it is to objectively assess it, but if they’re doing an environmental impact statement we’ll get some of the latter as well. I look forward to seeing what that has to say. The Dallas Observer has more.

Beer delivered to your home

Who needs groceries, am I right?

Favor, founded in Austin in 2013, prides itself in delivering almost anything in under an hour. But until now, beer and wine — long the No. 1 request from customers — was among the missing.

Favor finalized all the proper permits and licenses to deliver beer and wine in late 2017 or early 2018. But it was the partnership with H-E-B — and the grocery company’s wide selection — that made the delivery service possible, [Jag Bath, Favor CEO and H-E-B chief digital officer] said.

Favor will offer H-E-B’s entire beer and wine selection with no minimum order size. Because every H-E-B store is tailored to its neighborhood, the selection will vary by city. Houston-area selections will include such craft brands as Buffalo Bayou Brewing, No Label Brewing, Lone Pint Brewery and 8th Wonder Brewery, and wines from the Texas Hill Country.

This isn’t the first beer delivery service in Houston. HopDrop launched late last year to provide local craft and hard-to-find beers.

Oftentimes, it delivers brews that are available only on draft.

HopDrop also provides on-demand delivery in under an hour. Customers place an order online, and a driver is dispatched to a partner bar. That bar fills a 32-ounce can, called a crowler, with beer and gives it to the driver for home delivery. HopDrop has partnered with bars throughout the Houston area, from Spring to Katy, from downtown Houston to Webster, to ensure customers receive their orders in less than an hour.

The delivery fee is $5.99 plus the cost of beer. HopDrop also offers a monthly subscription service that waives the delivery fee and provides customers same-day orders from any partner bars throughout the greater Houston area. This allows a customer in Katy to get beer from a bar in Spring.

Its focus on beers typically unavailable in grocery stores will differentiate HopDrop from the new delivery service provided by Favor, co-owner Steven Macalello said. He isn’t worried about the competition. In fact, he thinks it’s good publicity for beer delivery overall.

I get the market for home delivery of groceries. Not used it myself, but I see why people do. This one’s a little less clear to me – are there really that many people who need an on-draft microbrew brought to their door? Maybe that’s just a failure of imagination on my part. I guess if you’re the grocery-delivery consumer anyway, or maybe if you’re just grocery-delivery-curious, being able to add a six-pack to the order sweetens the deal. Is this something you would use?

Minute Maid 2.0

The Astros are staying in their home stadium for the long term.

Now that the Astros are in Minute Maid Park for the long haul, “Minute Maid Park 2.0” is in the works.

The Harris County Houston Sports Authority on Monday unanimously approved an extension through 2050 on the club’s lease at the downtown, 18-year-old stadium.

“It’s difficult to build stadiums now,” said Astros owner Jim Crane. “We felt the options were not very many around downtown where there would be a good piece of land if we even thought about building a new stadium. We thought with the proper maintenance program and the improvements we continue to make for the ballpark, that was a better option for the city and it certainly was a better option for us.”

[…]

[Astros president of business operations Reid] Ryan said the club has hired MSA — a Cincinnati-based architecture group that developed the plan for recent renovations in center field — to begin planning what he termed “Minute Maid Park 2.0.”

“We’ve got a big white board and we’re looking at all kinds of things,” Ryan said. “Our goal, and with Jim’s direction and this lease, is to make sure our stadium stays the best in class for the next 20-30 years.”

Exceptions like Fenway and Wrigley aside, the life span of sports venues is in the 40-50 year range. Fifty is how old Minute Maid will be at the end of this lease extension. For all the reasons given above, it makes a lot of sense to plan for upgrades rather than think in terms of the next location, especially if they like the current location. It’s also likely to be cheaper to renovate, and you can amortize that expense over multiple years. This is a good plan all around.

Houston Flood Museum

Sounds like a good idea.

[Lacy] Johnson, a published author and Rice assistant professor, started writing to process the post-disaster “dissonance” she observed. The resulting essays published on Facebook quickly garnered hundreds of reactions and shares. It wasn’t long before the Houston Endowment approached her about harnessing that work for something greater.

Now, as the one-year anniversary of Harvey approaches, Johnson is part of a collaborative effort behind the Houston Flood Museum, an institution she says will “think about our collective relationship to land, one another, urban planning, the water, and see how we can move on together.” In cooperation with the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, FotoFest, Houston Public Library, the Trust for Public Land, and more, the museum seeks to process and memorialize the experience of flooding through stories and art.

The initial focus will be on flooding related to Harvey. This August, HFM will begin collecting submissions of audio and photos and poems and pretty much anything else that can be curated and archived. Houston Public Media will contribute a multipart video series of local leaders looking back on the storm, as well as an additional podcast series that puts Harvey in historical context. Rice will preserve much of the material as part of the ongoing Harvey Memories Project. And while there are plans for pop-up exhibitions across the city, Johnson says a permanent brick-and-mortar presence is not in the cards.

“We’re kind of nomadic and ephemeral,” Johnson says about the museum. “I like to think about it using the flood as a metaphor: We’re inundating spaces for a short time, and then we recede.”

The under-construction museum website is here. I think this is a fantastic idea, and I can’t wait to see what it looks like. I’m sure it will give us all a lot to think about, and just maybe inspire us to do something positive. Link via Swamplot.

More on flood tunnels

They’re a thing, I swear.

Japanese flood tunnel

While it’s far from clear whether it will ever happen, the concept almost immediately generated widespread response when it was announced earlier this spring. Local officials told the Houston Chronicle it’s outside-the-box thinking with benefits that could outweigh the heavy price tag. Residents reading about the project on social media have expressed fears of sinkholes from the underground construction. Even entrepreneur Elon Musk, who owns tunnel construction company The Boring Company, jumped into the conversation on Twitter.

So would such a tunnel system really be a logical solution for Houston’s flood woes?

Drilled 100 to 200 feet underground, the underground channels act as temporary storage for floodwater during intense rainstorms, said Larry Larson, a senior policy adviser at the Association of State Floodplain Managers. Once the rain has stopped, the stormwater can be used for a variety of purposes. It can be pumped back to the surface into a river or wetlands or even used to recharge aquifers.

If cities have a section of river that regularly overflows, a tunnel can convey extra water underground and help reduce the amount of water that flows onto land during storms, said Christof Spieler, project manager of the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. Large-scale tunnels can also act as an additional set of waterways, taking pressure off undersized drainage networks, he said.

But Larson and Spieler said it’s hard to tell if such a system would make sense for Houston — a low-lying coastal city that’s experienced three 500-year floods in the past three years.

[…]

Flood control tunnels are nothing new to Texas — San Antonio built the San Pedro Creek Tunnel in 1991 and completed the longer San Antonio River Tunnel in 1997. Austin continues to put the finishing touches on the Waller Creek Tunnel and a tunnel in East Dallas received the long-awaited go-ahead in February.

Should the district choose to pursue the project, tunnels could cost up to $100 million per mile, Steve Costello, the city’s chief resilience officer, told the Houston Chronicle.

See here for the background. There’s a longish and very wonky conversation with Larson and Spieler about flood control, which if you read it you will know is basically an oxymoron, so do read the full article. There wasn’t any mention of other Texas flood tunnels in the earlier article, so I appreciate the Trib bringing those examples. I have a hard time imagining that this will happen here, but as noted the cost of the study is negligible, so why not at least examine the possibility? The worst that can happen is you wind up crossing it off the list.

I got those “too many traffic lights between Houston and Austin” blues

But maybe not for long. Depending on which route you drive.

[T]he Texas Department of Transportation is in the final stages of a decadeslong effort to at least make that 170-mile trip from Austin to Houston free of traffic lights.

Right now, there are just five traffic signals left on Texas 71 between Interstate 35 in South Austin and I-10 in Columbus, all of them between Austin and Bastrop. And TxDOT has engineering plans and money set aside to eliminate four of those lights by adding overpasses over the next four years. The fifth one — at FM 1209 just west of Bastrop — is in the cross hairs as well, but the timing of its removal is less certain, TxDOT Austin district engineer Terry McCoy told me.

[…]

Texas 71, other than in Austin and through Bastrop’s commercial district, has no frontage roads. And it has scads of roads and private drives entering it throughout the other, more rural sections. So to turn it into interstate now would require TxDOT not only to acquire a lot of right of way for what would be a wider highway in many places, but also to pay some property owners for lost access to the road.

Or, more likely, to build many, many miles of frontage roads. Either way, the cost would be enormous. This isn’t a project that’s going to happen in the foreseeable future.

What TxDOT is doing instead — trying to eliminate traffic lights little by little — is the next best thing.

During my youth in Austin, through the mid-1970s, a trip to Houston included going through Bastrop, Smithville, La Grange and Columbus, including a few lights in each town and the odd right or left turn. The towns broke up the trip and were interesting to look at out the window, but going through them added a lot of time to the trip. By the early 1990s, TxDOT had completed loops around all those towns and few traffic lights remained east of FM 973 in Del Valle.

But little by little, as development stretched southeast of Austin, traffic lights were added first to that Bastrop bypass and then to several other spots along the way. About 15 years ago, TxDOT began to take those on, building overpasses and associated frontage lanes at several spots in Bastrop and major roads along the way like Texas 21. More recently, TxDOT installed a deep underpass on Texas 71 at Riverside Drive and a short tollway to bypass traffic signals at Texas 130’s frontage roads.

But lights remain at Ross Road and Kellam Road in Del Valle, at Tucker Hill Lane and Pope Bend Road about halfway to Bastrop, and at FM 1209.

TxDOT has set aside $48 million to build overpasses at Ross and Kellam — work set to begin as soon as fall 2019 and be done by summer 2021 — and $52.6 million for overpasses at Tucker Hill and Pope Bend. That second set of projects, TxDOT hopes, will start in fall 2020 and be done by summer 2022. All of this, TxDOT officials caution, could be delayed somewhat by environmental clearance work and acquisition of right of way.

The FM 1209 overpass, TxDOT estimates, would cost an additional $35 million. That money has not been nailed down.

McCoy, by the way, said he would like to make similar progress on U.S. 290, the northern route to Houston, but it has far more traffic signals standing in the way.

So, something like five years from now, a driver might be able to get to and from Houston on Texas 71 without hitting a red light.

So good news if you take the I-10/SH71 route between Houston and Austin, which puts you into (or takes you out of) the southern end of Austin. If you’re coming to or from the northern side via US290, hang in there. That may be a more interesting challenge, since there are traffic lights far away from both endpoints, in places like Chappell Hill and Brenham. And like SH71, the story of how US290 has evolved over time is similar. It used to wend its way through lots of small towns – I still remember a McDonald’s in Hempstead that was the best available bathroom for miles in either direction – but has now ruthlessly bypassed them all, making the drive faster and more efficient but much less scenic. We’ll see what comes of this. In the meantime, if you’re wondering why I-10 doesn’t connect Houston directly to Austin instead of San Antonio – look at a map, if you drew a more-or-less straight line from Houston to El Paso, you’d go through Austin – click over and read the answer.

More on the latest Harvey funds

Here’s the full Chron story regarding that allocation of federal Harvey recovery money from Thursday. It wasn’t clear from the Trib story I quoted from, but that levee system is, at least in part, the Ike Dike.

Jim Blackburn of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center said he looked forward to seeing how the $3.9 billion would be appropriated. He said the amount was not nearly enough to fund the “Ike Dike” project, the estimated cost of which runs upwards of $12 billion, but he said the money could be used to build levees on Galveston and Bolivar islands. The corps has not yet approved a design for the coastal spine. A preliminary proposal is expected in the coming months.

“It is irregular to appropriate funds before the internal Corps review is completed,” Blackburn said. “With the amount of money at about $4 billion, that is not enough to build the gates across Bolivar Roads, but you could build the levees with that amount of money. However, no one knows where the levee is to be placed — on the beach? Raising the roads? Behind the roads on Galveston and Bolivar? Usually there is not such uncertainty.”

There remained a lot of uncertainty about the Houston area’s preparedness for the next big storm after 7 inches of rain fell on parts of Harris County on Wednesday before tapering off in the early afternoon. The 6 inches recorded at Hobby airport set a record for the July 4th holiday, putting nerves on edge in a region still recovering from Harvey’s catastrophic flooding.

Those totals fell short of the rainfall during the Tax Day and Memorial Day floods of 2015 and 2016, which each dumped more than a dozen inches on the area, and well short of Harvey’s 30 to 50 inches. Still, the rain fell hard and quickly Wednesday morning, flooding streets, stranding motorists, spurring Harris County to open its emergency operations center and forcing Houston to cancel its Freedom Over Texas celebration for the first time ever. Skies did clear in time for an evening fireworks show near downtown Houston.

“This was a relatively minor storm that almost reached catastrophic proportions,” Blackburn said. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in that these types of storms will occur more and more often.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the July 4th flooding, from a mere 4 to 6 hours of rain, highlighted the need for a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond that will go before voters on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Harvey making landfall. Some of the bond proceeds would go toward reducing street flooding in extreme rain events, according to the Harris County Flood Control District’s website.

Officials from Houston and Harris County said Wednesday that the preparedness level of first responders is the same or better than when Harvey hit, thanks to the addition of rescue boats and high-water vehicles to several agencies. But most of the flood infrastructure damaged by that historic storm has yet to be repaired, and it weakens each time a new system batters the region.

“I would expect to see that where there were previous damages, they probably start to get incrementally worse,” said Alan Black, director of engineering for the flood control district. “Anytime you’ve got exposed slopes, the erosion just keeps on going.”

Blackburn said just 5 percent of the $150 million in needed infrastructure repairs has been completed. He estimated that crews will need until the end of 2019 to complete the rest. The projects that the flood control district has completed so far, at a cost of $6 million, have focused on damaged infrastructure that posed the greatest risk to public safety.

See here for the background. I think of the Ike Dike as mostly protection for Galveston and the Port of Houston, but it is intended to extend down the coast. As Jim Blackburn notes, there are still many questions about the Ike Dike, which is why there are still bills to study it rattling around in Congress. We’ll see what happens with this. As for how the rest stacks up with the county bond referendum, I imagine they’re complementary, which is how it should be.

Mayor makes Metro appointments

Only one change, but it’s a big one.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has nominated Teresa “Terry” R. Morales to serve in Position 5 of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) board of directors, for a term that expires April 7, 2020.

The METRO board consists of nine members. Five are nominated by the Mayor of Houston and confirmed by Houston City Council. Two are appointed by the mayors of METRO’s 14 other member cities and two are appointed by the Harris County Commissioners Court.

Morales is a Senior Vice President of Amegy Bank in the Corporate Banking Division. She is involved in various internal group activities including the Amegy PAC, the Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee, and the Amegy Women’s Initiative Diversity Markets Committee.

She replaces Christof Spieler whose term expired April 7, 2018.

Morales is a native Houstonian and grew up in Houston’s East End. She earned a BBA in Finance from the University of Houston, and is also a graduate of Leadership Houston and the Center for Houston’s Future. Her involvement in the community includes being a Senior Fellow of the American Leadership Forum Class XXXIV, and an active role in several community organizations.

“Terry’s background in business combined with her community involvement make her an exceptional addition to the METRO board,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “As roads get more crowded, more Houstonians are ready to start using transit, but we have to make it more efficient and more convenient by building connections to destinations in high demand.”

Mayor Turner also announced his intention to reappoint four current METRO board members whose terms will expire April 7, 2020.

  • Lex Frieden, position one
  • Sanjay Ramabhadran, position two
  • Troi Taylor, position three
  • Carrin F. Patman, position four

Houston city council is scheduled to vote Wednesday, July 11, on the mayor’s appointments.

You can see the current Board here. Christof Spieler was and is a visionary and probably the most knowledgeable person about transit and transportation the Board has ever had. The bus system reimagining was his baby. All things come to an end, and if we’re lucky he’ll get back to blogging about transit now that he’s free to talk about this sort of thing in public again.

Ms. Morales comes onto a Board that has gotten a lot done in the past few years and which now has the challenge of defining and selling a vision for the future to its constituents. I wish her and her returning colleagues all the best with that task, and I wish Christof all the best in his post-Metro life.

Pension bond lawsuit dismissed

This hit my inbox late in the day on July 3.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The City of Houston is pleased that a court challenge to the 2017 election on the City’s pension bonds has been decided in its favor.

Today, State District Judge Mark Morefield dismissed the case styled James Noteware, Contestant vs. Sylvester Turner, Mayor of the City of Houston, Texas, and City of Houston, Texas, Contestees, Cause no 2017-83,251.

In December 2017, a voter sued the City to set aside the results of the Nov. 7, 2017 election after Houstonians overwhelmingly approved the pension bonds.

Tuesday’s ruling is important to the City’s pension reform plan.

“These pension bonds are a critical part of our pension reform statute and plan, and I am very pleased with the judge’s ruling,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

See here for the background. So far the only news coverage I’ve seen is this Chron story, which is not on the main houstonchronicle.com site and which mostly recapitulates the press release. It does indicate that the plaintiff plans to appeal, because of course he does. I’m hoping there will be more information once the Chron has had the chance to do some reporting on this, but for now this is what we have. Given that the bonds have been sold I’m honestly not sure what there is to adjudicate, but then I Am Not A Lawyer, so there you have it.

Feds approve $5 billion in Harvey aid

Good.

Photo by Yi-Chin Lee

Almost a year after Hurricane Harvey dumped historic rains on Texas, the state will receive more than $5 billion for a range of flood control projects, repairs and studies, the Trump administration announced Thursday.

[…]

[About $1 billion] will pay for the completion of flood control projects in the Houston area that were already underway — some of them for more than two decades because of the Harris County Flood Control District’s pay-as-you-go approach — and to repair damages that those projects suffered during Harvey.

A reworked flood control project on Clear Creek in southeast Harris County, the origins of which date back to the 1980s, will receive $295.2 million. Three major bayou-widening projects will receive a combined $185 million.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined how much to allocate to each project, factoring in guidance from members of the Texas congressional delegation.

Several flood- and disaster-related studies will also be funded; The Army Corps will receive $3 million to launch an unprecedented study of the Houston region’s watersheds. Another $6 million will go toward a study that will explore how to reduce flooding in Buffalo Bayou, including when the Army Corps releases water from Addicks and Barker dams. And the Port of Houston will get $30 million to dredge the perpetually-silty Houston Ship Channel. The Army Corps also will receive nearly $1.5 million to complete a safety project to shore up Addicks and Barker dams, which have been considered at risk of failure for years.

Most of the rest will be used to build coastal levees. I’m pretty sure this is a separate pot of money than the one the city will draw from for long term housing aid. Which is fine; we can use all the resources we can get, the more the better. If you want a reminder of what the priorities should be for Harvey recovery and future flood mitigation, I refer you back to the Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium report. The Chron has more.

Paying to park at Memorial Park

Let the pearl-clutching begin!

A quarter of the parking spaces at Memorial Park will be metered starting later this year, as the city and the park’s nonprofit operators scrape together dollars for maintenance amid an ambitious renovation.

Visitors who park near the golf clubhouse, the tennis center, the gymanisum and pool, and the new parking lots being completed near the renovated Eastern Glades area will need to pay $1 per three hours of parking.

The Memorial Park Conservancy expects the new meters to net $135,000 in the fiscal year that starts July 1, rising to $375,000 annually in about four years; both figures account for paying off the up-front cost of the meters.

Shellye Arnold, president of the nonprofit Memorial Park Conservancy that took over the park’s operations and began fundraising to implement a new master plan three years ago, said declining funding for public spaces has made parking revenues a key revenue source for parks across the country. It costs about $2 million a year to run Memorial Park, she said.

“There are two realities that make Memorial Park different than most other parks in Houston in regard to the needs of care and maintenance. One is its sheer size; at 1,500 acres, it’s nearly twice the size of (New York’s) Central Park,” she said. “Also, what we heard in the master planning was that Houstonians don’t want to commercialize this park. When you do that, it limits your ability to collect concessions and revenues to operate.”

In all, 572 of the nearly 2,250 spaces at the park will be metered. About 60 percent of the parking spots north of Memorial Drive will remain free; all the spots south of it will.

A buck for three hours, and 75% of the spaces will remain free. Seems like no big deal to me, but of course it’s got a certain former Mayoral candidate all indignant. Because free parking in Houston is our God-given Constitutional right, or something like that. This is a good idea, both as a funding source for the Conservancy, and also as a way to ensure that parking spaces open up on a regular basis. Honestly, they could have charged more – like, a buck for two hours, or two dollars for three hours – and it would still be a good deal. Complain if you want, but parking there, like parking downtown, is a scarce resource, and putting a (very modest) price on it just makes sense.

“Families Belong Together”

Make some noise, then make sure everyone you know gets out and votes.

As the temperature inched to the triple digits and sweating crowds swarmed the south lawn of the Texas State Capitol, speakers declared with grief, hope, indignation and determination that the Trump administration’s immigration policies do not reflect their values.

Parents brought their children. Grandparents brought their grandchildren. College friends and church groups all stood and cheered as, one after another, immigrants, activists, doctors and religious leaders took to the stage and called for the unification of the thousands of immigrant children who were separated from their parents by the federal government when crossing into the United States. The “Families Belong Together” rally in Austin was just one of many held across the state and nation, from Houston and El Paso to Washington, D.C. and New York to Dodge City, Kansas and Missoula, Montana.

“While our president and his supporters have sought to divide us, we are here in defiance,” said Michelle Castillo of the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas, to a cheering crowd of thousands in Austin. “To see each other’s humanity. Across race, across party lines.”

[…]

Bishop Joel Martinez of the United Methodist Church told the crowd he was hopeful seeing so many people in attendance. But, he said, nothing will get accomplished unless they go out and vote.

“Those who legislate and govern must answer at the polls for their acts,” he said.

That’s exactly right, and we cannot forget it. As a child of the 70s and 80s, I grew up on horror stories about life on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. So many times we were told about the horrible things that those repressive totalitarian governments did to the people who lived there. Well, the things we’re hearing right now, in our own country, about children being taken by force and deception, parents being told they can only get them back if they agree to be deported, preschoolers appearing by themselves in court – all of them would have been totally plausible if they’d been told about the Soviet Union by Ronald Reagan. I can’t adequately express what a fucking disgrace, embarrassment, travesty this is.

So get angry. Get inspired by the pictures of the protesters. And get fired up to vote in November. ThinkProgress and Daily Kos have more.

The Lawrence decision, 15 years later

Time flies, but society moves slowly.

Theirs was an unlikely case.

John Lawrence and Tyron Garner weren’t in love, they weren’t a committed couple and it’s not clear that they were even having sex one September 1998 evening in Lawrence’s Houston apartment when a police officer burst in and arrested them for violating a Texas law that prohibited “deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex.” That law was rarely enforced, especially in homes — how often, after all, do police appear in private bedrooms? In the Lawrence case, officers entered in response to a false report of a weapons disturbance.

The factual details of that night are often called into question; Lawrence told one interviewer that he and Garner were seated some 15 feet apart when police arrived. But the two pleaded “no contest” to the sodomy charge, allowing them — and their team of advocate lawyers — to challenge the law itself.

Ultimately, they won, and it was their unlikely case that sparked a sweeping ruling from the nation’s highest court, one that overturned not just Texas’ ban on sodomy but 13 similar laws across the country.

That Supreme Court decision was June 26, 2003 — 15 years ago Tuesday. One law professor at the time said it “removed the reflexive assumption of gay people’s inferiority,” laying the legal groundwork for same-sex marriage. Without the immediate, presumptive criminal charge against LGBT people, new doors were opened — new jobs, new opportunities, new freedom in their skin.

The ruling “gave lesbian, bisexual and gay people back their dignity,” said Camilla Taylor, a Lambda Legal attorney who started with the legal advocacy group in 2003, just in time to watch her colleague, Paul Smith — a gay man himself — argue Lawrence before the Supreme Court.

“Everyone knew this case had the power to change the world. The court gave us everything we asked for and more — and went big, just as we demanded,” Taylor said.

Ten years later, June 26 became an even more important milestone for gay rights when the high court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. And then, in 2015, the date again gained new significance with the ruling known as Obergefell that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

But this year, as the date rolls around, LGBT Texans are still reckoning with the legal and political landscape in a state where they have few protections against discrimination and their rights as couples are again being questioned in court.

Fifteen years later, some wonder, how much progress have same-sex couples in Texas really made?

You want to know how long I’ve been doing this blog thing? Long enough to have blogged about the Lawrence decision. As this story notes, the next big test of where we stand as a society with regard to the rights and dignity of same-sex couples comes in January, right here in Houston, when the anti-same sex employee benefits lawsuit gets heard in a Harris County district court. It’s a bullshit case from top to bottom, but as we’ve seen lately from both the state and federal Supreme Courts, being bullshit is not a hindrance when there’s an agenda at play. Just remember you’ll have at least one and probably two opportunities to have your own influence on our Supreme Court, with the first one being this November. Please do make the most of it.

Where the anti-vaxxers are

A lot of them are right here.

Four Texas cities, including Houston, rank among the 15 metropolitan “hotspots” of vaccine exemptions, more than any other state, according to a new study.

The study found Austin, Fort Worth and Plano also are among the nation’s cities with the highest number of kindergartners not getting vaccinated for non-medical reasons. Since 2009, the proportion of children opting out of such recommended vaccines increased in Texas and 11 other states, the study showed.

“There are some scary trends we were able to identify,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a Houston vaccine scientist and one of the study authors. “They’re a sign that anti-vaccine groups, such as Texans for Vaccine Choice, have been very successful at lobbying efforts – both of the Texas legislature and through social media and other advocacy — to convince parents not to vaccinate their kids.”

[…]

The overall number of people invoking non-medical exemptions isn’t yet high enough to threaten herd immunity, the idea that vaccination of most of the population provides protection for those individuals without immunity to a contagious disease. But public health officials fear clusters of “anti-vaxxers” could leave some children vulnerable.

Texas’ increasing exemptions have been well documented. Though the number is still small, they have spiked from less than 3,000 in 2003 to more than 45,000 of the state’s roughly 5.5 million schoolchildren today, a 19-fold increase.

Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital said he undertook the study because of the Texas increase. He said wanted to look at whether it was a phenomenon unique to the state or mirrored elsewhere. National vaccination rates haven’t changed much in recent years.

You can see the study here. Dr. Hotez is correct to identify the political problem as being a key aspect to this. One clear pathway to getting more kids vaccinated is to take away or at least tighten up the so-called “conscience” objections to vaccines. If the law says you have to vaccinate your kids, the odds are pretty good that you will. But first you have to pass such a law, and right now we have a legislature that’s not inclined to do that.

Council approves initial Harvey housing aid

It’s a start.

Houston City Council has approved a plan to direct how the first long-term federal housing aid headed this way after Hurricane Harvey will be spent, targeting $600 million to repair or build single-family homes and $375 million to fix or construct apartments.

The action plan is a key step in the city’s effort to draw on $1.15 billion in federal housing aid, part of the $5 billion allocated to Texas from Congress’ first hurricane-related appropriation last fall. Harris County will get a similar amount.

The plan now awaits approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, after which it will be attached as an amendment to the Texas General Land Office’s plan that addresses recovery along the rest of the Gulf Coast.

HUD approved the state’s plan this week, though housing advocates have filed a complaint against it, aiming to ensure the recovery money will benefit low-income Texans and people of color.

At least 70 percent of the HUD funds must benefit families making no more than 80 percent of the area’s median household income, or about $60,000 for a family of four. The funds must address the city’s “unmet housing need” — families displaced by the storm whose lives and homes were not restored to normal with whatever aid they may have received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Small Business Administration.

The city’s action plan is here, and data from the community engagements is here. A Chron story about that housing discrimination complaint is here. There’s a lot going on with this, and a lot of people who are still in need as we are already in the next hurricane season. We need to get this right. ThinkProgress has more.

Your Houston PAC

There’s a new player on the local scene.

Bill Baldwin, a longtime real estate broker, volunteer and member of Houston’s planning commission, has launched a political action committee aimed at improving the city’s neighborhoods, schools and local governments.

The tenets of the nonpartisan PAC, called Your Houston, will center around issues of quality of life, resiliency, mobility and neighborhoods. It will focus on local elections and referendums.

[…]

The new PAC, he said, will work to support the efforts of local advocacy groups, many of which lack funding and influence.

“All of these groups are doing great advocacy work, but they don’t have money. They don’t have political power,” Baldwin said. “I’m going to add money and political power to advocacy, and elect amazing officials that think of our city as a 21st century city.”

Their Facebook page is here and their still-in-progress website is here. The Chron story says that they intend to engage in the Harris County flood bond election, “urging the county to clearly define the projects involved and then educating the public”. Which is fine, we can use all the engagement we can get on that. Beyond that, I’ll wait to see what they have to say on specific issues and which candidates they choose to back. A couple of their initial board members are people I know and trust, so that’s good, but as always the devil is in the details. Campos has more.

Texans cheerleader lawsuit update

Couple points of interest here.

A former Texans cheerleader who says cheer director Alto Gary derided her as “skinny fat” and applied duct tape to her stomach before a 2017 game added her name Friday to one of two lawsuits filed against the team over payment and workplace issues.

Angelina Rosa, a two-year member of the cheerleading squad who said she also was a dancer for the Chicago Bulls and a member of the Astros’ Shooting Stars group, is the 10th cheerleader to join one of two suits filed against the team in Houston federal court.

Rosa is the sixth former cheerleader to sign on as a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred and Houston attorney Kimberly Spurlock. Four have joined a suit filed by Houston attorney Bruse Loyd seeking class action status.

While descriptions of the duct-taping incident were included in both lawsuits, Friday was the first time that Rosa was identified as the affected cheerleader.

[…]

Both lawsuits accuse the Texans of failing to pay minimum wage and overtime for hours spent on the job, and both allege other workplace violations.

The Texans have denied the allegations and have filed motions seeking their dismissal. If the cases are not dismissed, the Texans want them delayed while allegations are submitted to arbitration before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Since the lawsuits were filed, several former cheerleaders have told local news outlets, including the Chronicle, that they were not subjected to the abuses described by their fellow former cheerleaders.

I had noted before that the Texans had filed for dismissal of one of the lawsuits, and I had wondered about the other one. Now I know. As far as the denial by some other cheerleaders about the allegations made in these lawsuits, that’s of interest and would surely be a key pillar of the defense if this ever makes it to a courtroom, but the presence of some cheerleaders – even many cheerleaders – who say they were not abused or harassed does not have any bearing on the testimony of those who say they were. One can be both credibly accused of bad behavior, and also credibly defended by others who say “that never happened to me”. The defense against harassment by some other members of the Texans’ cheerleading squad also doesn’t address the claims of wage theft. We are still a very long way from a resolution here.

HISD approves its budget

In the end, they took what they initially rejected.

Houston ISD trustees unanimously passed a $2 billion budget Monday that is nearly identical to the one they narrowly rejected two weeks ago, signing off on significant cuts and agreeing to draw as much as $17 million from the district’s rainy-day fund.

At an hourlong early-morning meeting, trustees said they wanted to pass balanced budgets after back-to-back years of dipping into reserves, but they ultimately approved the spending plan ahead of a June 30 deadline.

[…]

The approved budget calls for about $83 million in spending cuts, which will result in hundreds of layoffs of support service staff. Hundreds of teaching positions also will be eliminated, but HISD administrators said they expect the vast majority of those jobs will be cut through attrition.

The budget includes about $17 million in new spending on dyslexia services, special education, the district’s plan for low-performing campuses and a comprehensive outside performance review. Trustees shaved about $1.5 million off the projected shortfall in recent days by choosing to use the state’s Legislative Budget Board for the performance review instead of a third-party vendor.

Trustees approved a budget last year that used $106 million in reserves to cover a shortfall and pay for raises ranging from 2 to 4 percent for many staff members, though they ultimately used less rainy-day money than expected.

At the June 14 budget meeting, several trustees said they were reluctant to tap reserves again, even on a smaller scale.

Glenn Reed, HISD’s general manager of budgeting and financial planning, said the district likely will not spend as much as is currently budgeted, and it could receive more tax revenue than was projected. As a result, Reed said: “I don’t expect to dip into our reserves next year.”

Administrators built the plan assuming a 1 percent increase in property values, but the Harris County Appraisal District expects HISD to see a 2 percent increase. Concerns about property appraisal appeals related to Hurricane Harvey led to the conservative projection.

HISD is expected to have about $275 million in reserves at the end of June, equal to about a month and a half of operating expenses. District officials have recommended keeping at least 3 months’ worth of operating expenses in reserve to cover emergency costs.

See here for the background. They could have done this last week, but it was definitely more exciting this way. In all seriousness, I get the urge to not want to dip into the reserve fund again, but 1) given the justifiably conservative revenue estimates that the district will almost certainly exceed, they probably won’t need to, and 2) sometimes the alternatives are worse. This was one of those times, so good call on taking the original path. The Press has more.

Achieve 180 schools show encouraging gains

Some good news we could all use.

One year into Achieve 180, early results show marked improvement at many of the district’s chronically underperforming schools. After years of falling behind academically, the 42 schools covered under HISD’s targeted improvement plan reported, on average, about twice as much academic growth as students across the state and district, according to preliminary state standardized test scores released in recent weeks.

In interviews and presentations over the past month, HISD administrators heralded the early results as evidence the district is raising achievement in schools that long have ranked among the worst in the region. Several of those schools have drawn additional scrutiny as the district faces potentially major sanctions — either a state takeover of HISD’s locally elected school board or forced campus closures — if they do not immediately improve.

HISD did not earn an A-plus across the board — English test scores at its longest-struggling high schools barely moved, and parts of the Achieve 180 plan fell flatter than expected — but the results were enough to raise spirits in a district besieged by the threat of sanctions tied to poor academic performance.

“Any time you see growth in any one of our campuses, you’re happy,” said Erick Pruitt, HISD’s area superintendent over 32 of its 42 Achieve 180 schools. “However, our team is not satisfied with the growth.”

[…]

CJ Rodgers, the principal of a Chicago Public Schools turnaround campus affiliated with the Academy For Urban Leadership, a nonprofit that helps operate low-performing schools in the city, said it is common for test scores to rise immediately when chronically struggling campuses receive intensive support.

“We spent the entire first year really re-establishing routines, how we want to do school, and that goes from the students to staff to lunch room to custodians to teachers,” Rodgers said. “I think the difficult part about this work is how you sustain it.”

HISD leaders have said they want Achieve 180 to last at least three years, and the district’s proposed budget included an additional $3 million for the plan this year. Trustees rejected the budget proposal on June 14, though they are expected to vote on a revised proposal this week.

However, it also is possible Achieve 180 gets short-circuited in the coming months. Under a law passed in 2015, four of HISD’s longest-struggling schools must all meet state academic standard this year to avoid the Texas Education Agency replacing HISD’s school board or closing still-failing campuses.

TEA leaders have not committed to which sanction they would impose, but their public comments suggest replacing the school board is more likely. New trustees could decide to hire a new superintendent who scraps some or all of Achieve 180.

I would hope that whatever happens with the TEA, Achieve 180 is allowed to continue. Seems to me that if a program like this can get this kind of result at long-struggling campuses, the state would find it in its interest to help fund similar programs elsewhere. Maybe someone should ask Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick about that. Be that as it may, I’m glad to see the good results, and I hope we are all committed to seeing them continue. In the end, it’s the success of the students that really matters.

“As the Board turns”

deep sigh

Houston ISD Trustee Jolanda Jones publicly aired personal attacks and allegations against fellow school board members in online posts this week, chipping away at the board’s efforts to present a more collegial front in the face of administrative upheaval and potentially major state sanctions this year.

In three Facebook posts, Jones alleged a newly elected trustee called a longtime board member a “thief” and a “crook” with “no moral character,” and she accused a fellow trustee of misleading her during the process of electing a school board president. Jones also claimed five trustees who rejected HISD’s proposed budget last week will be responsible for employees losing their homes — even though board members are expected to pass the budget next week, with no adverse impact on staff members.

You can click over and read the rest; I don’t care to litigate any of it. I’m just going to say this: For the first time ever, as of last November, the Board is comprised entirely of Democrats, with (I believe) a majority of members elected with the support of the local AFT. Even if the Board were firing on all cylinders, the current partisan makeup would present as a tempting target for the state for takeover, given the issues with the low-performing schools. But at least a high-functioning Board, whose membership is two-thirds new since 2015, would have a compelling argument to make that they deserve a little more time to make progress on the problem. With the way things are now, who’s going to stand in their defense when Mike Morath picks a new Board to replace them?

Houston on the short list for the 2020 DNC

One in three shot at it.

Democratic Party officials have culled the list of potential host cities for the 2020 Democratic National Convention from eight to four, and Houston is still in the mix, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday.

The mayor kicked off Wednesday’s regular city council meeting with the announcement, noting that Milwaukee, Denver and the Miami area are the other remaining finalists. By the end of the meeting, however, he said he was told Denver had withdrawn its bid, leaving Houston as one of three finalists.

“Our chances have gotten exponentially better,” Turner said. “I’m excited about the proposal we submitted.”

[…]

Turner said he also wants to bid on hosting the 2024 Republic National Convention when the time comes.

“It’s all about marketing and selling the city of Houston,” the mayor said.

See here, here, and here for the background. All three sites have their pros and cons, so it’s probably just a matter of how each bid gets sold to the city. I’m hopeful but not overly optimistic. As for the 2024 RNC, all I can say is that it better be a post-Trump Republican Party by then, or there’s no amount of marketing value that could make it worth the effort. The Trib has more.

Our typically feckless state leaders

Way to set an example for the rest of us, y’all.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick frequently talk tough about illegal immigration, but they refuse to publicly support the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy that’s spurred outrage for ripping thousands of undocumented children out of the arms of their parents.

Neither are they criticizing it.

Texas’ top Republicans are making a calculated decision to hide from the humanitarian crisis, largely taking place on Texas soil, because they are afraid of upsetting their political base.

The governor has tried to say as little as possible about the White House policy, making only one public comment backing Trump’s argument that the children’s and parents’ traumatic experiences can be used as leverage for an immigration overhaul.

“This is horrible and this rips everyone’s hearts apart about what’s going on,” Abbott told a Dallas-area TV station. He added that Trump had offered to “end the ripping apart of these families” if Democrats agree to a new immigration law.

Abbott declined repeated requests for comment from the Houston Chronicle. Instead, his staff forwarded the statement made last weekend to NBC TV. The governor seeks to appear loyal without attracting attention to himself.

“It shouldn’t be a tightrope to do the right thing,” said John Weaver, a longtime campaign strategist from Texas who has consulted for Republicans like George H.W. Bush and now Ohio Gov. John Kasich. “It’s disappointing that we haven’t heard from the governor but not surprising. We’ve gone from Texas having very strong leaders to having leaders who are very calculating.”

[…]

Patrick never brought up the separation policy or the border when he spoke for half an hour at the Texas Republican Party convention in San Antonio on Friday. His office and campaign have not returned repeated calls for comment.

“Dan Patrick’s silence, in the face of such brutality committed on Texas soil, makes him as culpable as the administration. Morally, it’s as though he wrenched the children from their parents with his own hands,” said Mike Collier, a Democratic businessman running against Patrick for lieutenant governor in November.

As the Lone Star Project noted, Abbott has expressed his support for the Trump detention policy previously, before it became untenable for everyone this side of Ken Paxton and Sid Miller to oppose it. I suppose he and Patrick were just taking their time and hoping this would all go away, as befitting their cowardly natures, but their absence was definitely noticed.

“What is happening on the border tonight is an affront to humanity and to all that we as proud Americans hold dear,” state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, told the American-Statesman Tuesday. “We are better than this. To watch our own governor remain silent in the face of this atrocity is an affront to all that we as Texans hold dear. As a member of the Texas Legislature, I am ashamed that my ‘so called’ leader is so controlled by his fealty to the president’s myopic vision of America that he is frightened like a feeble squirrel from taking action. It is time to act. NOW. Governor Abbott. Can you hear me?”

Both of those stories were from yesterday morning. By around lunchtime, Abbott had been forced out of his spider hole to make a few grudging remarks.

Gov. Greg Abbott is asking Texans in Congress to take bipartisan action to address the crisis of thousands of immigrant children being separated from their parents.

“This disgraceful condition must end; and it can only end with action by Congress to reform the broken immigration system,” he wrote in a letter to all members of the Texas delegation, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn.

Abbott called family separations, which are the result of a Trump administration policy announced earlier this year, “tragic and heartrending.” But he also called the separations the “latest calamity children suffer because of a broken U.S. border” — and urged members to “seize” the opportunity to work across the aisle and finally fix the problem.

“Texans are not fooled by the partisan divide on this issue,” Abbott wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune. “They know that even if all Republicans agree, a bill fixing the problem will not pass without Democrat support in the Senate.”

Naturally, as befitting his craven nature, Abbott hid behind the lie that Trump was forced into the family separation policy and only Democrats could save him, to which Trump himself quickly put the lie with a hasty afternoon executive order, one that has ulterior motives. But as one Democratic Senator pointed out prior to that, it was easily within the power of even one Republican Senator to force the issue. And if Greg Abbott is sincere about wanting to keep families together and make progress on immigration, here’s a bill he could support. Don’t hold your breath would be my advice. Greg Abbott always, without fail, takes the easiest way out. Vox and ThinkProgress have more.

In which we try again to eliminate a rape kit backlog

How exactly did we get here?

The city’s independent crime lab on Tuesday announced an ambitious plan to clear a backlog of hundreds of rape kits and other DNA evidence, the latest effort to rein in a recurring problem that has bedeviled criminal prosecutions for more than a decade.

Over a 10-month period, the Houston Forensic Science Center plans to spend $2 million to outsource testing of nearly 1,000 cases and cross-train staff in data analysis with the hope of preventing similar backlogs in the future.

“HFSC, like many labs across the country, has long struggled with backlogs in its DNA section,” said Dr. Peter Stout, HFSC’s CEO and president. “Our plan is to simultaneously eliminate a longstanding backlog while building a sustainable, efficient process that allows for an average 30-day turnaround time on DNA work.”

Officials said cross-training staff would help alleviate future delays, particularly during the data analysis of the testing, a time-intensive process that fewer than 10 analysts are authorized to perform.

[…]

Evidence backlogs have plagued Houston law enforcement for decades. A 2002 scandal at the Houston Police Department’s crime lab led the department to temporarily shutter its lab and led to calls for a regional testing lab.

The department reopened its lab, but then weathered additional scandals in 2009, after its rape kit backlog swelled to more than 4,000 cases and its fingerprint backlog surpassed 6,000 cases.

That same year, the National Academy of Sciences found serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system, and called for forensic labs to be operated independently of law enforcement departments.

Four years later, after spending millions of dollars, the department announced that it had cleared its rape kit backlog.

Questions, I have questions.

1. As the story notes, the previous backlog, which predates the creation of the HFSC, was cleared in 2013. Like I said up front, how did we get here five years later?

2. To be more specific, is this a matter of priorities, or of resources? If it’s priorities, what tasks for the lab are being prioritized over “rape kits and other DNA evidence”?

3. If it’s resources – the story does note that “fewer than 10 analysts are authorized to perform” the backlogged tasks – then what will it cost to avoid this in the future? Where does that funding come from?

4. Not a question, but since someone (such as a former candidate for Mayor whose name I no longer feel obligated to mention) will surely call for the HFSC to be merged with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, I will simply note that the HCIFS has had its own backlog issues in recent years.

I can understand why these questions might not have been addressed in the initial reporting. I do hope they will come up in subsequent stories.

Mayor Turner says “No!” to the child detention warehouse

Damn right.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner called on the owner of a building east of downtown Houston and the nonprofit hoping to operate the former warehouse as a detention center for immigrant children separated from their families at the nation’s southern border to reconsider their plans.

The mayor also said he is in no rush to issue city permits at the site, and called on the state not to issue a childcare license to the 54,000-square-foot facility two blocks north of BBVA Compass Stadium for use by federal contractor Southwest Key Programs.

Turner, flanked by numerous nonprofit, religious and political leaders, said he wanted to show a unified front to protest the “unjust and immoral policy” the Trump administration began enforcing in April, when a “zero tolerance” approach began driving up the number of children removed from their parents upon crossing the border illegally.

[…]

Turner said he respects the work Southwest Key has done in the past, noting that he worked with the group’s leaders during his time in the Texas Legislature, but the mayor said these circumstances are objectionable and proclaimed he will not “be an enabler” in this process.

“I’ve done my best to try to stay clear of the national dialogue on many issues. I’ve done my best to try to focus on the issues that confront the city of Houston, recognizing that we need the partnership of the national — the feds — the state, working with the city,” Turner said. “This one is different. There comes a time when Americans, when Houstonians, when Texans have to say to those higher than ourselves: This is wrong. This is just wrong.”

You know how I feel about this. The city can take all the time it wants, double- and triple-checking on the permit, because Lord knows the state doesn’t give a damn. Everyone on Council should be behind the Mayor on this as well. It shouldn’t be that hard for anyone to do, since even a bunch of Republican members of Congress are not happy with the forced separation of children from their parentsnot that they’ll do anything about it, of course – with the notable exception of that paragon of virtue, Ken Paxton. Just don’t be fooled by Ted Cruz. The Trib and Texas Monthly have more.

UPDATE: The longer version of the story suggests how the city might slow-walk this.

Asked by a reporter if he planned to “slow-walk” the permitting process, Turner smiled. He said city fire inspectors have not visited the property and that health inspectors have yet to grant a food service permit. Code enforcement officials already have granted a certificate of occupancy, affirming that the facility meets the minimum requirements to operate as a “dormitory/shelter,” though Houston Public Works spokeswoman Alanna Reed said the paperwork connected with that application made no mention of Southwest Key, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement or the plan to house children at the site.

Health department director Stephen Williams said there are “certain deficiencies” at the site that would need to be corrected before a permit is issued. Fire Chief Sam Pena said switching from housing adults to housing children will require a more thorough review than what the city fire marshal’s office conducted when the facility served as a shelter after Harvey.

“If it’s primarily children, having enough people there to ensure proper evacuation, proper access, because you’re dealing with a different type of juvenile person,” Pena said. “We’re going to be meticulous and judicious as far as our inspections, especially for the proposed use of this, but it’s nothing different than what we’d do for any other business.”

These things do take time, you know.

Houston submits its DNC 2020 bid

From the inbox:

Houston, recognized for its record of successfully hosting mega-events, today submitted an official bid to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

The bid document of about 600 pages shows how Houston’s convention infrastructure and its people put the city in a superior position to host the presidential nominating convention.

The downtown Toyota Center indoor arena and the close-by, expanded George R. Brown Convention Center in the Avenida Houston convention campus would provide the main gathering spaces for the July 13-16, 2020 convention. A Metro light rail system crisscrosses downtown nearby. Delegates and other participants traveling by air would arrive at Houston’s two international airports. Both have a 4-star rating from Skytrax, making Houston the only U.S. city with two.

About 24,000 hotel rooms would be available within 14 miles of the convention sites, placing the city well ahead of other cities on hospitality logistics. A record-high 20 million visitors traveled to Houston in 2016.

Houston’s specialty in hosting major events shone through with the 2017 Super Bowl, the 2016 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament finals and the continuing annual Offshore Technology Conference, Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, Comicpalooza and others.

The city hosted the Republican National Convention in 1992 and the Democratic National Convention in 1928. Houston has since become the fourth most populous U.S. city and its most diverse, attracting new residents from across the nation and the globe. The city is praised as a pluralistic society that lives as one. (“Nothing less than the story of the American city of the future,” – Los Angeles Times, 5/9/2017)

Houston is strong and resilient. The city showed exceptional mettle, bravery and neighborliness in the aftermath of the floods caused by Harvey. “Houston has bounced back from Harvey faster than anyone predicted, inspiring the Twitter hashtag #HoustonStrong,” The New York Times said on 11/23/2017.

“I am confident that we are the right city and this is the right time to bring the convention to Houston,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in letter to DNC Chairman Tom Perez that introduces the bid package.

“Houston is a proven event town and has excelled in hosting high profile national events,” the mayor said in the letter. “Whether celebratory, such as the Super Bowl or somber, such as the recent memorial events for former First Lady Barbara Bush, we meet the producer’s goals while exceeding expectations with seamless execution and constant attention to public safety.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the Chron story. Video from the Council meeting where the bid effort was discussed and approved is here. Houston has definitely shown it can handle big events, and I’ll be delighted if we win, but we’re one of many, so keep expectations realistic. We should know in a few months.

Say “No!” to warehousing “tender age” children

We cannot allow this.

The large vacant warehouse in downtown Houston has housed women and families who were once homeless and adults displaced by Hurricane Harvey.

Until now, however, it has never sheltered small children who are on their own in a strange country, many of them separated from their parents who were jailed after illegally crossing the southern border.

Southwest Key Programs, a Texas nonprofit that has a lucrative contract with the federal government to care for thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children, confirmed Friday it has signed a lease with the owner of the warehouse at 419 Emancipation Ave.

Its application with the state requests a general residential operating license to hold up to 240 children between the ages of “0 to 17.” Several stakeholders who work with immigrant minors said they have been told the facility would largely serve “tender age” children who are younger than 12, as well as pregnant and nursing teenagers.

[…]

Federal officials said Friday about 2,000 children have been separated from their parents between mid-April, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new zero-tolerance policy, and the end of May.

The sudden surge has overwhelmed the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which now has more than 11,400 children in their care in about 100 shelters across the country that are almost full. The ORR has issued calls to agencies that run such facilities for the government to see if they can increase their capacity and are considering housing children in tent-like structures on military bases, including in Texas.

“They are being required to house increasingly large numbers of very young children … who should have never gone to (the agency) in the first place,” said Jennifer Podkul, director of policy for Kids in Need of Defense, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that provides services to unaccompanied minors.

Keeping such young children in a residential facility like the one proposed in Houston would represent a sharp shift from previous practice.

“My understanding is that the kids would be sleeping at this facility in Houston, and that’s surprising and would be a different structure than we’ve ever seen before for this type of population,” she said. “This would be the first one.”

Small children and pregnant teenagers are usually placed with foster parents who work with specialized organizations that contract with the federal government to provide such care. The minors spend their nights in a foster home and their days in a licensed facility for children, where they are provided services such as medical and legal screenings.

“Traditionally the government has relied on families and supported homestays for this population because of their special needs,” Podkul said. “Very young children can’t sleep through the night all the time. They have physical limitations because of their size. … I don’t know how you provide for that in such a large facility.”

This so-called “shelter” would be one of these:

In South Texas, pediatricians started sounding the alarm weeks ago as migrant shelters began filling up with younger children separated from their parents after they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

The concerned pediatricians contacted Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and she flew to Texas and visited a shelter for migrant children in the Rio Grande Valley. There, she saw a young girl in tears. “She couldn’t have been more than 2 years old,” Kraft says. “Just crying and pounding and having a huge, huge temper tantrum. This child was just screaming, and nobody could help her. And we know why she was crying. She didn’t have her mother. She didn’t have her parent who could soothe her and take care of her.”

The number of migrant children in U.S. government custody is soaring — partly the result of a policy decision by the Trump administration to separate children from their parents who are being prosecuted for unlawful entry. Hundreds of the children being held in shelters are under age 13.

Medical professionals, members of Congress and religious leaders are calling on the Trump administration to stop separating migrant families. They question whether these shelter facilities are appropriate for younger children.

[…]

Pediatricians and immigrant advocates are warning that separating migrant children from their families can cause “toxic stress” that disrupts a child’s brain development and harms long-term health.

At the facility in South Texas, Kraft says, the staff told her that federal regulations prevented them from touching or holding the child to soothe her.

While shelter managers and other experts say there is no such rule, Kraft says the confusion underscores why these shelters are not the right place for young children — especially kids who have fled dangerous countries and who have just been separated from their parents. “By separating parents and children, we are doing irreparable harm to these children. The long-term concern of what we call toxic stress is that brains are not developed efficiently or effectively,” Kraft says. “And these children go on to have behavior problems, to have long-term medical problems.”

This is cruel and inhumane, and it is being done as a matter of deliberate policy. What kind of people want to separate parents from their children like this? CM Robert Gallegos, in whose district this would be, wrote this on Facebook:

The mayor will host a press conference early next week regarding the federal government’s proposal. While the City was not involved in the decision or notified beforehand, we will advocate for these children and do all we can to ensure they are cared for with compassion and dignity. Children should be with their families, not warehoused in a detention center hundreds of miles away from their parents. The Trump administration’s inhumane policy of separating families is shameful and goes against the very values our nation was founded on.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia released this statement:

This week it was discovered that federal authorities, in conjunction with contracted private partners, have signed a lease to open a baby jail to detain child immigrants just east of downtown Houston. State Senator Sylvia Garcia issued the following statement in reaction:

“Now is the time to gather together to stop this baby jail before a single child seeking refuge is locked up in our city. The Trump administration has made it clear that it will rip children away from their parents despite legal and child development experts telling them that it is unnecessary and known to cause lifelong harm. No law requires this. Humanity demands compassion. We must say as a community with one voice that jailing children away from their parents is wrong, it should not happen anywhere, and we as Houstonians will not allow it to happen here. Not now. Not ever.”

We need to hear from all of our elected officials. This is an abomination, and we cannot let it happen.

HISD Board will need a budget do-over

It’s never boring over there.

Houston ISD trustees narrowly rejected the district’s proposed $2 billion budget, did not move forward with making Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan the district’s permanent leader and voted to end the employment of acclaimed Furr High School Principal Bertie Simmons during an eventful meeting Thursday.

In a surprising split, board members voted 5-4 to reject the budget proposal after several trustees expressed concern about using $19 million from HISD’s rainy-day fund to cover a shortfall. Trustees had voiced little public opposition to the budget until Thursday’s meeting.

Trustees now have until June 30 to comply with state law and pass a budget for 2018-19. HISD administrators are expected to present a revised budget proposal in the coming days. A date has not been set for the next board meeting.

HISD’s budget has been subject to intense scrutiny since January, when district administrators forecasted a deficit of about $200 million. Administrators revised their projections after receiving a sunnier revenue outlook in recent months, cutting the expected deficit in half. They proposed slashing about $83 million in spending — which would result in hundreds of layoffs — and using $19 million from the rainy-day fund to cover the remaining shortfall.

Until Thursday, much of the discussion surrounding HISD’s proposed budget had centered on the distribution of cuts. At several public budget meetings in recent months, trustees gave no indication that they would reject the proposed budget because it used rainy-day funds.

But several trustees on Thursday said HISD needs to stop using reserves to balance its budget. Last year, board members voted 8-1 to take $106 million from the district’s rainy-day fund to cover its deficit.

The proposed budget already contained a lot of cuts, as this earlier Chron story details. If the concern is about using $19 million from the reserve fund, then either they’ll have to find money elsewhere or cut some more. That doesn’t sound great, but I’m not sure how they can accomplish the former, so options – and time – are limited. The Press has more.

Here comes the FIFA World Cup

Three cheers for the three nations.

In a long-anticipated vote on Wednesday, the joint bid of the U.S., Mexico and Canada defeated Morocco, its only challenger, as 200 national soccer federations cast their ballots to cap FIFA’s annual Congress.

The three-nation bid captured 134 votes, with Morocco earning 65 from the panel and only Lebanon choosing neither option.

“This is an incredible, and incredibly important, moment for soccer in North America and beyond,” said Carlos Cordeiro, the president of U.S. Soccer.

The 2026 tournament will feature an expanded field of 48 teams — as opposed to recent editions having 32 — and will mark the first time in FIFA’s history that a three-nation bid has been awarded the showpiece event.

The joint bid’s plans call for 60 of the 80 games to be played in the United States — including all matches from the quarterfinals onward — while Canada and Mexico host 10 apiece. The final is expected to be played at MetLife Stadium, just outside New York.

See here and here for the background. I had previously said that if Three Nations won the bid that Houston would get to be a host city, but that’s not quite true, as this story notes:

In an agreement announced when the bid launched last year, the United States will stage 60 of the 80 matches, including all from the quarterfinals on, while Mexico and Canada will get 10 apiece. Twenty-three cities, including Washington and Baltimore, are in the running to become the 16 match venues. In all likelihood, 11 of the 17 proposed U.S. sites will make the cut. A decision is not expected for another two years.

[…]

Mexican venues under consideration are Monterrey, Guadalajara and Mexico City. Canada narrowed its list to Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton.

The U.S. metro areas in the running are Atlanta (Mercedes-Benz Stadium), Baltimore (M&T Bank Stadium), Boston (Gillette Stadium), Cincinnati (Paul Brown Stadium), Dallas (AT&T Stadium), Denver (Sports Authority Field), Houston (NRG Stadium), Kansas City (Arrowhead Stadium), Los Angeles (Rose Bowl and the new NFL stadium), Miami (Hard Rock Stadium), Nashville (Nissan Stadium), New York (MetLife Stadium), Orlando (Camping World Stadium), Philadelphia (Lincoln Financial Field), San Jose (Levi’s Stadium), Seattle (Century Link Field) and Washington (FedEx Field).

Given Houston’s track record with Super Bowls and Final Fours, not to mention international friendly soccer matches, I feel good about our chances, but there are no guarantees. In the meantime, US Soccer is involved in a bid for the 2027 Women’s World Cup as well, so who knows, maybe we’ll get a twofer. Slate and ThinkProgress have more.