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May 5 election results

Martha Castex Tatum

Martha Castex-Tatum is your winner of the District K special election. She dominated in Harris County with over 65% of the vote, and while she finished below fifty percent in Fort Bend County, she had more than enough votes to clear the bar. By my highly unofficial count, she got 59.7% of the vote overall. Congratulations to Martha Castex-Tatum on her victory.

In the HD13 special election, the two Republican candidates will run it off in June for the right to get a bump in seniority over other members of the legislative class of 2018. Cecil Webster appears to be on track to finish a point or so behind his November 2016 percentage, but about seven points ahead of his 2015 special election percentage. Would have been nice to say he ran ahead of the 2016 numbers, but it didn’t happen. Thanks to the contentious primary runoff, there was a lot more money spent on the Republican candidates in this race.

Other races that I mentioned along the way: Dalia Kasseb is headed for a runoff in her Pearland City Council race. She made it to a runoff in a different Council race last year but came up short from there. Daniel Hernandez lost in Pearland ISD, and Monique Rodriguez also lost in her race for Deer Park ISD.

Next up: Primary runoffs. Early voting begins a week from Monday, May 14. I’ll have plenty of info on those races coming up.

Today is May Election Day

From the inbox:

Saturday, May 5, 2018 is Election Day for voters in Houston Council Member District K. Voters will determine who will fill the vacancy in the southwest Council District. Polling locations will be open from 7 am to 7 pm.

There will be twenty-eight (28) Election Day polling locations for registered voters to cast their ballot in District K. However, each voter must vote at the polling location designated for the voting precinct in which they are registered to vote.

“Harris County polling locations are only available to individuals who are registered to vote in Harris County within Houston’s Council District K,” said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, the chief election officer of the County, noting that District K registered voters residing in Fort Bend County must contact the Fort Bend County Election Office for information regarding the May 5, Election.

Aside from the City of Houston election, over 70 political entities in Harris County, including school, emergency, and utility districts, are conducting an election on May 5. “While my office is only conducting the City of Houston Council Member District K Special Election, all Harris County registered voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com to determine if they reside in one of the jurisdictions that are holding an election on May 5,” informed Stanart.

For more information about the May 5 City of Houston Council Member District K Special Election, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965. Voters may also visit the website to determine if they are eligible to vote in an upcoming election or review the list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the polls.

You can look up your polling place here. Basically, this is a normal election in the sense that you would vote at your normal precinct location. If you’re in Fort Bend County, you can look up your precinct location here.

Also on the ballot today is the special election in HD13.

Two Republicans are battling until the end — over everything from endorsements to toll roads — ahead of a special election Saturday to fill a rural Texas House seat east of Austin that will give the winner momentum in the race for a full term.

Former Grimes County Judge Ben Leman and Bellville businesswoman Jill Wolfskill — plus one Democrat, Cecil Webster — are on the ballot Saturday to finish the term of ex-state Rep. Leighton Schubert, R-Caldwell, who resigned in February for a local junior college job after previously announcing he would not seek re-election. Leman and Wolfskill are also in a May 22 runoff for the full term representing House District 13, a solidly Republican district that covers a seven-county region between Austin and Houston, stretching from outside Bryan down toward Victoria.

The winner of the special election will complete the rest of Schubert’s term, which ends in January, while the victor in November will serve the full two-year term that comes next.

That has upped the stakes for the special election, in which a victory could be a boon to a candidate’s fortunes in the contest 17 days later. Yet little is assured in the low-turnout, unpredictable environment of a special election, and Leman and Wolfskill — who finished just 525 votes apart in the five-way March primary — are leaving nothing to chance as they seek to distinguish themselves in the home stretch.

The rest of the story continues to focus on the two Republican candidates, with one more passing mention of Cecil Webster at the very end. It’s all about who has or hasn’t been endorsed by which terrible conservative group. Which all makes sense, since whoever wins the Republican nomination will be the overwhelming favorite to win in November in this 75%+ Trump district. That doesn’t mean Webster can’t make it to the runoff of this election, however. It would take good turnout on the Dem side, and probably an uneven split between the two R’s, but it can happen. I’ve seen a few Facebook ads for Webster this past week, so he’s running a real campaign. I’ve got my fingers crossed. I’ll have the results tomorrow.

Firefighters have their signatures

On to the next act in this drama.

A petition Houston firefighters submitted last summer seeking pay parity with police contains enough valid signatures to trigger a referendum election, City Secretary Anna Russell reported to Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city council Thursday.

Russell finished verifying the signatures a day ahead of a deadline given to the city by a state district judge last month. The judge originally set a deadline of April 27 after the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued the city last December, complaining Russell’s office had not validated its referendum petition in time for either the November 2017 or May 2018 ballots. Judge Dan Hinde agreed to give Russell another week after city lawyers said additional staff and overtime had been approved to finish the count.

Russell’s memo to the mayor and council said her office checked 26,708 signatures against Harris County’s list of qualified voters; 20,228 were verified. State law requires 20,000 qualified signatures on a petition to get a referedum on the ballot.

It is unclear when the item will appear before voters. City attorneys argued in court that the Turner administration does not intend to schedule a vote before the next regular municipal election cycle in November 2019, but the mayor, when asked about the petition count Wednesday, said the city council would have to discuss the matter.

[…]

Turner said Wednesday he presumed the petition contained enough names to trigger a vote, but suggested the proposal’s lack of clarity could undermine its validity, noting, for instance, that hundreds more firefighters than police officers carry the rank of “captain.”

“I don’t know what parity means,” Turner said. “Does it mean you scale everything down? If the voters vote on something, the voters need to know what they’re voting (on).”

See here and here for the background. You know how I feel about this, so you know I agree with the Mayor’s assessment of what this means. As to when the election should be held, I suppose there’s an argument for 2019 instead of this November. I’m sure we’ll get to hear that argument from the city when the firefighters file a motion to force the election this year. Council does need to approve putting the item on the ballot, along with the language of it, whether this year or next. We’ll see how that goes.

The revenue cap and the police

It’s something. Not what I want, but something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner used his third State of the City speech to call — again — for the city to be able to collect more revenue than allowed by the property tax cap voters imposed 14 years ago, this time floating the idea of collecting extra dollars specifically for public safety.

Turner had taken a similar line during the 2015 campaign, then moved to advocating for a full repeal of the cap during much of his first two years in office. He backed away from placing such a request on last November’s ballot, however, fearing it would imperil the $1 billion bond referendum that was needed to secure the landmark pension reform package he shepherded through the Legislature last year.

The mayor on Tuesday instead highlighted the need to increase staffing in the Houston Police Department, and he suggested the idea of following former Mayor Bill White’s playbook from 2006, when White got voters’ permission to let the city collect $90 million more than the cap otherwise would have allowed for spending on public safety.

It took Houston eight years to exhaust that breathing room and run into the cap for the first time. Amid rising property values, the City Council has been forced to cut the property tax rate every fall since to avoid collecting more revenue than the cap allows. Council cut the tax rate to 58.42 cents per $100 of assessed value last September, the lowest rate since 1988.

The revenue cap limits the annual growth in city property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population growth, whichever is lower.

Turner did not commit to White’s approach, to a dollar amount, or to placing an item before voters this November, saying he intends to force a conversation on the need to invest in more officers and in ancillary areas such as cybersecurity protections, adding “the current model is not sustainable.”

“I’m just simply sounding the alarm. We cannot continue to cut and cut and cut and add 500 to 600 more police to our force,” Turner said after his speech to a luncheon hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership. “I did not want to throw out a number because people then tag onto that number and we don’t have a robust conversation on the need and then how we should meet that need.”

Tweets from his official Twitter account, however, were more definitive about taking the matter to voters: “I will move to put an item on the ballot on (sic) this November to make sure Houston continues to be resilient and strong when it comes to protecting innocent people.” said one. Another said, “Our city sorely needs revenue to increase staffing & resources for first responders at Police & Fire Dpartments. But we’re constrained by the #revenuecap. That’s why it’s time to ask voters to lift the cap solely for strengthening public safety & city services.”

[…]

What makes Turner’s Tuesday comments different, said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, is that he is focusing solely on public safety.

“There does not exist a strong public appetite for lifting the revenue cap unconditionally,” Jones said. “The only way to really sell it is via public safety. That’s probably the only winning method.”

Turner seemed to acknowledged as much Tuesday, saying in part, “It’s quite clear, it seems to me, people want to maintain the revenue cap. OK, fine. What I’m simply saying is, we need to find a way to generate some additional dollars on top of that revenue cap.”

It’s depressing to me that people have come to believe the BS about this stupid policy, which was imposed on Houston and basically noplace else by the usual gang of governmental nihilists, but propaganda does work. I’d love to see an all-out assault on the revenue cap, marshaling all the arguments about how it undercuts the city’s ability to prosper from economic growth and how it forces budget priorities on us whether we want them or not, but I recognize that this would be a tough fight against a wealthy and motivated opponent, which we could lose. It’s a fight we can engage another day, perhaps when the climate has changed enough. In the meantime, we all know that budgets can be flexible, and money is often fungible. Even earmarking extra revenue in this fashion makes the budget more manageable. If it’s the best we can do, then let’s do it.

Metro will pilot automated vehicle shuttle at TSU

from the inbox:

Texas Southern University students may have another transportation option on campus in the fall semester: an autonomous shuttle. Today, METRO’s Board of Directors gave the nod to the autonomous vehicle (AV) project, a first for the agency.  Although the low speed vehicle will drive itself, an operator will be on board at all times.  The pilot will take place along TSU’s mile-long, famed Tiger Walk. Several members of the public spoke at the meeting in support of the project.

“We are so fortunate to be able to partner with Texas Southern to pilot this autonomous vehicle. The location is ideal and its transportation studies program provides the type of academic expertise needed. It also allows us to explore how this technology can be applied on a greater scale,” said METRO President & CEO Tom Lambert.

Riders will not be charged to use the shuttle, which will be about the size of a minivan, similar to those used in Las Vegas and Arlington at AT&T Stadium.

“Our Texas Southern University family, led by President Dr. Austin Lane and Provost Dr. Kendall Harris,  is thrilled about the METRO decision today. Student, faculty and visitor access will be enhanced, especially for nighttime classes and activities,” said Dr. Carol Lewis, professor and emeritus director of TSU’s Center for Transportation Training & Research.

If successful, the project is designed to eventually extend the AV shuttle route to connect with METRORail and the Eastwood Transit Center.

METRO’s Board approved spending up to $250,000 for the first phase.

“The Board’s action clears the way for us to request proposals from vendors and select a vehicle.  We are excited to begin studying how this could enhance our service overall,” said Kimberly Williams, METRO’s chief innovation officer.

The pilot will help METRO study how autonomous vehicles could be used to improve first and last mile transit connections, as well as other uses in places, such as business parks and medical centers.

Along with METRO, the planning committee for the project includes Texas Southern University, the city of Houston, the Houston-Galveston Area Council and the Houston District of the Texas Department of Transportation.

“Our university transportation research center will work with the partners to assess a myriad of variables associated with AV operation, such as user acceptance, vehicle operation, accessibility for persons with disabilities and electrical utilization and recharging. The university looks forward to contributing to the advancement of technologies for our Houston community,” Dr. Lewis added.

METRO was a key part of the application that helped Texas secure a designation as an AV proving ground by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2016.

This was also reported on the Metro blog, and Swamplot noted an earlier mention of automated vehicles for Metro outside of this pilot. Using this as a way to help conquer the first/last mile problem makes a lot of sense – I’ve advocated a tighter integration with B-Cycle for the same purpose – so I’ll be very interested to see how this goes and what Metro’s vision for this is beyond the TSU campus if this is a success. For what it’s worth, though, as Streetsblog notes, in a different world we’d already have a light rail line in this same place on the TSU campus. What might have been, you know? Anyway, we’ll keep an eye on this because it’s very likely to start showing up elsewhere in the city. KUHF has more.

Early voting ends for May 5 elections

Go vote Saturday if you haven’t voted yet.

Voters across southwest Houston will head to the polls Saturday to vote on a replacement for late District K Houston City Councilman Larry Green who died unexpectedly from a drug overdose in his home last month.

The special city council election comes amid more than 70 across the county, in which voters will decide on new school trustees, city council members, municipal utility and other special district representatives, as well as a handful of bond issues and at least one property tax increase.

It will be first of two election days in the month of May. Runoffs from the March primaries for Democrats and Republicans will be held May 22.

In Houston’s District K special election, nine candidates are vying to replace Green, who was the only person to ever hold the seat, which was one of two added after the 2010 Census. The district covers a slice of southwest Houston between Almeda Road in the east and Beltway 8 in the west, Brays Bayou in the North and Beltway 8 in the south, with a portion in Fort Bend County.

[…]

Other elections in the Houston area on Saturday include:

Clear Creek ISD
Deer Park ISD
Hedwig Village
Hilshire Village
Humble ISD
Jersey Village
Katy
Katy ISD
La Porte
New Caney ISD
Pearland
Pearland ISD
Spring Branch ISD
Galena Park

See here for previous information about the May 5 election. The two listed above that are in italics were added by me, the others (along with a brief description of each) were in the original story. Here’s the early vote report for District K in Harris County; there’s a piece of the district in Fort Bend, so there have been more votes cast than the 3,427 showing in that report. I don’t know about the other elections that are happening. Are you someone with a vote to cast? Leave a comment and let us know. I’ll report on results on Sunday.

What might the TEA do with HISD?

They have some options, the best of which is probably to put the decision off for a year.

A.J. Crabill knows what it’s like to close schools.

In 2010, Crabill, then a 30-year-old member of the Kansas City, Missouri, school board, cast a deciding vote to shutter nearly half of the district’s schools, devastating some members of the community.

Eight years later, Crabill is the deputy commissioner of governance for the Texas Education Agency, and he and his boss, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, likely will face a similar quandary with Houston ISD. A new state law is expected to force the agency to shut down several chronically underperforming schools or replace the district’s locally elected school board — with either choice inciting anger across Houston.

“The question becomes: Which actions can be least disruptive to students? And which actions can create the most benefits for students?” Crabill told a Houston gathering last month. “To be clear, there are only hard choices that are left on the table.”

[…]

Some advocates who oppose charter schools and conservative-aligned education policies also have expressed dismay that Morath, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, would have authority to make major decisions impacting HISD.

In addition, several HISD trustees have argued that the district is making progress at its lowest-performing schools, citing its Achieve 180 plans that pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into each campus.

To date, TEA leaders have been relatively tight-lipped about what they will choose for HISD if the district becomes subject to sanctions this year. However, a review of recent TEA actions, comments by Crabill and statements by local leaders shed light on how the coming months could play out.

Crabill, Morath’s top liaison in dealing with HISD the past few months, hinted at last month’s community meeting that school closures are not the best option for solving academic issues. Crabill said he had visited some of the 10 low-performing schools — all of which serve predominately black and Hispanic students in high-poverty neighborhoods — and found their struggles were not due to staff efforts.

“We have to look beyond state-mandated closure as a panacea in this particular instance,” Crabill said. “I don’t say that out of an unwillingness to use that as an option. I say that from someone who’s gone to the campuses and doesn’t see that it actually moves the ball forward for those students.”

[…]

Across the country, states have sought to get more involved in large, urban districts facing serious academic and financial issues. Gary Ritter, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas who has analyzed state takeover efforts, said intervention sometimes helps steady troubled districts, but there’s “not much evidence that, systematically, this can lead to clear academic benefits.” He also noted Houston is unique from other districts nationwide because only 10 of its 284 schools have been labeled chronically underperforming.

“That certainly seems like an unhelpful wrinkle in the takeover” threat in Houston, Ritter said. “For the most part, in places like Baltimore, Detroit, Newark, Cleveland (and) Philadelphia, they were done when the school district had been showing either poor performance or financial troubles for several years in a row.”

For that reason, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, wants to see Morath show leniency to HISD. Coleman, whose district includes two of the 10 schools, said HB1842 carries a penalty that is “not appropriate to the circumstance.”

Coleman said he plans to introduce a bill during the 2019 legislative session that would change or repeal the sanctions listed under HB1842, which passed with 85 percent support in the Legislature. He said he believes many lawmakers were not aware of the implications of the bill when it passed.

I think between Harvey, the fact that the schools in question are a tiny part of HISD, the lack of clarity over the intent of the law, and the TEA-approved improvement plan for the ten schools, the case for deferring the decision for a year is compelling. I’d also note that a majority of the HISD Board is new since December of 2016 – Santos, Lira, Deigaard, Sung, Vilaseca – so you can plausibly argue that they should be given a chance to get things fixed before the state comes in and installs a new group of trustees. I’ve also noted before that we now have an all-Democratic board, which may work against them politically when the chips are down. Last week’s chaos, between the seemingly unvetted charter plan and the melee at the Wednesday meeting followed by the vote to do nothing, didn’t do them any favors, either. I hope the schools show enough improvement to satisfy the TEA that things are at least on track, and I hope the TEA is in no rush to do anything drastic.

It’s hard being pregnant in Harris County

We need to figure this out.

Life-threatening, pregnancy-related complications — the iceberg beneath the surface of the U.S. maternal health crisis — are on the rise in Harris County, according to a new report.

The report not only confirmed the Harris County rate is worse than that of the state and nation, it found that it increased more than 50 percent between 2008 and 2015. Texas’ rate of life-threatening, pregnancy-related complications went up 15 percent in the same time period.

“In subtle and unintentional ways, women’s health in Harris County has been subjugated to the health of babies so profoundly that the health of women of childbearing age is often not prioritized,” says the report, a project of the Houston Endowment.

Dr. Lisa Hollier, a Houston obstetrician-gynecologist and a co-chair of the task force that produced the report, said Harris County’s high rates “point to the need for greater intervention to promote safety around the time of delivery. Such complications are 50 times more common than pregnancy-related deaths, but don’t get near the amount of attention.”

Hollier and Dr. Cecilia Cazaban, the report’s principal investigator, said it is unclear why Harris County’s rate is increasing at such a high rate. They said that analysis is next on tap for the task force.

[…]

The new report focuses on severe maternal morbidity, the term for conditions that require such treatment as a respirator or blood transfusions or hysterectomy during delivery or in the immediate hours thereafter. It can lead to maternal death, but even when the patient survives, it can cause damage, such as kidney or heart failure, sometimes requiring lifelong treatment. It also is costly to the patient and health care system.

Harris County’s rate of severe maternal morbidity in 2015 was 2.4 percent, meaning there were 238 cases for every 10,000 deliveries. The 2015 rate was 1.97 in Texas and 1.46 in the United States.

See here for some background. The task force website is here, though I don’t think this report is on there. I hope there’s no need for me to say anything more than we really need to understand this problem so we can solve it.

Count of firefighters’ pay parity petitions needs to be done by Friday

Or else. Not sure what follows the “or else”, but maybe we won’t have to find out.

City Secretary Anna Russell has one week to finish verifying a petition Houston firefighters submitted last summer seeking pay parity with police or risk being hauled into court, a state district judge said Friday.

Judge Dan Hinde had given Russell until Friday at 5 p.m. to verify whether the firefighters had reached the minimum threshold of 20,000 signatures needed for the item to appear before voters.

City attorneys asked the judge for an extension Friday morning, however, saying that, after a slow start, the count had reached 14,000 names and was proceeding briskly with the help of eight staffers who were assigned from other departments about two weeks ago and approved for overtime pay.

The judge denied the city’s request. However, he asked only that the firefighters’ attorneys submit a draft writ for him to issue by May 4, indicating that if he got word the count had finished before then, he would leave the paperwork unsigned.

“I understand the city has a variety of services and duties to its citizens. I don’t discount those,” Hinde said. “But it was not apparent that the city secretary was emphasizing enough the importance of the electoral franchise and referendum power, the legislative power, the citizens are entitled to.”

[…]

At the hearing Friday, Hinde asked why the count had not begun in earnest immediately after his March order was issued.

“Why didn’t she use the extra time I already gave her?” he asked Assistant City Attorney Brian Amis.

Amis said the secretary’s office began preparing the paperwork on which the formal count would be recorded on the day the judge’s order was issued, a process that includes individually numbering each signature line and stamping each page. Within a week of the order, Amis said, Russell asked Turner to approve money for overtime pay and to lend her additional staff.

Russell and her staff must verify that a sufficient number of the names on the petition are those of registered voters who live inside the city of Houston.

“With the diversion of resources from other departments, along with the expenditure of unbudgeted overtime, the city believes it can finish counting the petitions by or before next Friday,” mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said, adding it was unclear how much the effort would cost.

“We see no need for an extension,” said Troy Blakeney, an attorney for the firefighters. “We’re not standing before the court to ask that Ms. Russell be brought over here on a writ, but we think timing is really important.”

It is unclear when the petition, if validated, would appear before voters.

City attorneys have indicated that Mayor Sylvester Turner intends to schedule a vote on the petition, if it is validated, during the next municipal election cycle in November 2019. Blakeney has said, he expects to wind up in court again to accelerate the vote.

See here for the previous update. You know how I feel about this, so let me just say that if there are sufficient valid signatures to force a vote, it should happen this November. Enough is enough already, let’s get this over with so we can skip to the part that really matters, the litigation.

Smart Cities Collaborative

It’s a thing we are part of.

Houston will join 21 other cities in a national partnership aimed at addressing persistent transportation challenges as technology and mobility choices have planners rethinking how streets, sidewalks and private spaces interact.

The upcoming Smart Cities Collaborative, organized by the Transportation For America advocacy group, will last for a year and include four gatherings of the cities selected. They will focus on the topic areas of “ride-sourcing technology, curbside delivery, dockless bike and scooter systems, and the increasing desirability of sidewalk space and some of the hottest real estate in cities.”

[…]

Houston’s participation will involve its public works and parking management departments. The goal, officials said, is to build on current projects such as the city’s flood warning and traffic management systems, while readying Houston for increased transit and vehicles that drive themselves.

“The big matzo ball hanging out there is automated vehicles,” said Russell Brooks, director of Transportation For America’s Smart Cities Initiative.

To handle self-driving cars, cities will need to rethink how streets operate, with traffic devices that could relay information to vehicles and protect pedestrians. Autonomous cars also are expected to upend parking in job centers such as downtown Houston, the Texas Medical Center and Energy Corridor, while perhaps increasing the need for electric charging stations.

Here’s a report from the first meeting, which happened last week, and a Transportation for America blog post about the collaborative. The next meeting will be in July. I figure it’s never a bad idea to talk about transportation solutions, because we sure could use them.

Reinventing Jones Plaza

Big changes coming to downtown.

Jones Plaza, the often-empty, 1.5-acre public space at the heart of Houston’s Theater District, may finally become a true people magnet courtesy of the second face-lift in its 51-year history.

This time, Houston First Corporation, which operates the plaza for the city, hopes to create an event and dining area that reflects the artful vitality of the plaza’s prime location — a place that will be welcoming day and night for area employees as well as theater patrons and downtown residents.

[…]

Officials said the redevelopment will cost about $25 million, most of which will be raised privately. The Downtown Redevelopment Authority has contributed $5 million. Houston Astros owner Jim Crane and his wife Whitney, along with the Astros Foundation, have contributed $1 million and will spearhead a capital campaign to raise the remaining funds.

With construction slated to begin next month, the project could be complete by late 2020.

Mayor Sylvester Turner called the plaza project a “game-changer” for downtown.

A major initiative of the Theater District Master Plan adopted in 2015, this redevelopment may finally solve a conundrum that has dogged the plaza from since it opened in 1967, in spite of its location next to the Alley Theatre and Jones Hall. Jones Plaza has long been like a forgotten ornament in the city’s jewel box because it was built above the district’s parking garage. Its stepped plaza design, necessary to accommodate the structure below, made access difficult for some. And it’s always been a hard place to beautify with shade trees and plants, since there’s not much soil to work with.

The site was best utilized from the late 1980s through the 1990s as the venue for Thursday night Party on the Plaza concerts that were not a particularly good fit for the surrounding fine arts venues. The Party on the Plaza brand has since been revived and relocated to Avenida Houston in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center.

I have some fond memories of those old Party on the Plaza events. Sure would be nice to find a purpose for Jones Plaza again. I look forward to seeing how this turns out.

HISD nixes charter partnership

First there was this.

Houston ISD board members adjourned late Tuesday without voting on a controversial measure to give up control over 10 low-performing schools after the meeting turned physical and police escorted members of the public — nearly all of whom opposed the plan — out of the room.

Chanting “no more sellouts” and shouting at trustees, most of the roughly 100 community members in attendance watched angrily as officers began physically pulling disruptive residents out of the room. The skirmish came after HISD Board of Trustees President Rhonda Skillern-Jones declared a recess in the middle of the meeting and ordered the room cleared due to repeated public outbursts.

If trustees choose to meet again, they likely will not return until Saturday at the earliest. Trustees typically provide at least 72 hours advance notice of any public board meeting. The vote had been expected to be narrow, with several trustees already voicing support or opposition for the proposal.

The uproar reflects the heated nature of HISD’s proposal to allow Energized For STEM Academy Inc., which already runs four in-district charter schools, to take over operations of the 10 campuses for five years. Without the agreement, HISD would likely face forced campus closures or a state takeover of the district’s locally elected school board due to its failure to improve academics at the schools.

HISD Interim Police Chief Paul Cordova said one person was arrested on a misdemeanor criminal trespass charge, one person was arrested on a charge of interfering with duties of a public servant and one person was detained but not arrested.

[…]

In the district’s first public statement since Energized For STEM Academy was named Friday as the potential partner, Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the organization “will help our students to reach the level of achievement that we know is possible.”

“Data shows Energized for STEM Academy has successfully led students to high levels of academic achievement as well as prepared them for college and careers since first partnering with HISD 10 years ago,” Lathan said in a statement. She has not granted any interview requests in recent days.

The choice, however, faced immediate resistance. Multiple trustees said they lacked enough information to properly evaluate Energized For STEM Academy’s academic and governance history.

Several education advocates and leaders, including the Houston Federation of Teachers, also raised several questions about Energized For STEM Academy’s ethics. They’ve particularly focused on Energized For STEM Academy’s head of schools, Lois Bullock, who serves as both employee and landlord at another in-district HISD charter organization. It’s not immediately clear whether Bullock has improperly profited off the highly unusual arrangement.

All speakers at Tuesday’s school board meeting opposed the district’s plan. Many advocated for suing the state over the 2015 law that imposed sanctions. Several questioned whether Energized For STEM Academy is dedicated to special education students, noting that the organization has a disproportionately low special education population at its current schools. A few students implored trustees to maintain current operations at their schools.

See here for the background. I was going to tell you to go read Stace and Campos before getting into my own thoughts, but then this happened.

Houston ISD leaders will not turn over control of its 10 longest-struggling schools to any outside organizations, the district’s administration announced Wednesday, a decision that puts HISD at risk of forced campus closures or a state takeover of its locally elected school board.

[…]

In a statement Wednesday, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the district is “not bringing another partnership proposal to the board, nor will there be another meeting to consider partnerships for the 10 schools.” She said the district will continue to carry out its current plans for improving academic performance at the campuses.

Under a law passed in 2015, known as HB 1842, the Texas Education Agency must close schools or replace HISD’s school board if any of the district’s schools receive a fifth straight “improvement required” rating for poor academic performance this year. The 10 schools all risk triggering the law, and it’s unlikely all 10 will meet state academic standards this year.

With partnerships off the table, attention now will turn to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath, who has yet to announce whether any schools or districts will receive accountability rating waivers due to Hurricane Harvey. Agency officials have not said whether HISD still would be subject to sanctions if the 10 schools receive waivers that assure they are not rated “improvement required” this year.

“Any and all decisions by Commissioner Morath regarding accountability exemptions or waivers for campuses affected by Hurricane Harvey will be announced in June,” TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said in a statement.

[…]

In interviews prior to Tuesday’s scheduled vote, trustees Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sue Deigaard and Anne Sung said they were uncomfortable with the amount of information and time they had to vet Energized For STEM Academy. Two other board members, [Sergio] Lira and Jolanda Jones, said Wednesday that they would vote against charter partnership agreements. Trustee Elizabeth Santos had earlier said she opposed giving control of schools to charter organizations.

Many of the most vocal community members involved in the partnership debate have advocated litigation over HB 1842. To date, only one HISD trustee, Jones, has voiced support for a lawsuit. Board members have received legal advice surrounding potential litigation, though they’ve been reluctant to divulge details of those conversations because they took place in closed session.

“Suing TEA is more of a longshot at being successful,” Lira said. “From a historical precedent, there have been very few successful cases when the district files against TEA.”

The announcement that HISD would not pursue partnerships came about two hours after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he supports “HISD simply standing down.” Turner, who hinted at getting involved in partnership plans but ultimately opted against it, said he plans to contact Morath to ask for a one-year waiver.

I’m going to say the same thing I would have said if the Energized for STEM proposal had passed: I sure hope this works. It’s certainly possible that Energized for STEM could have been a successful partner, but it’s equally certain that there was precious little time to consider the idea, and not much community input. The community spoke loudly that they didn’t want that arrangement, and now they have gotten what they wanted. They had ample reason to not like that option, and to not give the HISD leadership the benefit of the doubt. Now we all need to send that same message to the Legislature, because that’s where this mess got started. The Press has more.

Ellis puts up money for city’s bike projects

I like this plan.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Monday announced a one-year $10 million commitment to bicycling projects in Houston, in the hopes of jump-starting the city’s transformation into a bike-friendly place.

“Working together, we can better leverage scarce resources from governmental entities and the private sector and share our collective expertise to serve the people in this region,” Ellis said.

A year after Houston leaders approved an ambitious plan for hundreds of miles of protected, safe bike trails, little progress has been made, something cycling supporters said Ellis’ pledge will change. Officials estimated the money would build at least 50 miles of protected bike lanes considered crucial to providing usable bike access to neighborhoods and jobs.

“​This really gives us a boost we needed,” Houston Planning Director Patrick Walsh said.

The money, along with city funds from its capital improvement plan, will go toward repainting bike lanes, developing safer intersections and other improvements aimed at making riding a bike in Houston easier and safer.

[…]

Projects will be chosen for their ability to start soon. Ellis stressed officials have one year to spend the money he committed, and any unspent funds will return to other priorities in his precinct.

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner said the funding, along with $1.1 million the city plans to spend in each of the next five years, will act as seed money for upcoming projects, including planned bike lanes along Austin and Caroline and new space for cyclists along Hardy and Elysian on the city’s Near Northside.

See here for some background. This is about putting up some money for projects that are already in the pipeline but have been delayed for a variety of reasons. Commissioner Ellis is an avid cyclist himself, so it’s not a surprise to see him make this a priority. Much of his precinct intersects with the city, and as you know I’m delighted to see some county investment in the not-unincorporated territories. I hope the city takes full advantage of this.

HISD considers charter partnership

They’ve got to do something to keep the TEA at bay.

Energized For STEM Academy Inc., an organization run by NAACP Houston Branch President James Douglas and former Houston ISD trustee Paula Harris, has been selected as the potential partner to run 10 long-struggling HISD schools at risk of triggering major state sanctions this year.

HISD trustees are scheduled to vote Tuesday on negotiating and executing a contract with Energized For STEM Academy, which already runs seven in-district charter schools in HISD, to take over operations of the 10 schools ahead of the 2018-19 school year, according to a public meeting notice posted Friday. District officials haven’t released terms of a contract, but it’s expected Energized For STEM Academy would be responsible for hiring, governance and operations at each school.

District officials have recommended temporarily surrendering control over the 10 schools as part of an effort to stave off sanctions due to chronically low academic performance. In exchange for relinquishing control, HISD would get a two-year reprieve from a potential state takeover of the district’s locally elected school board or forced campus closures.

[…]

Douglas, who has previously served as president of Texas Southern University and helped form Energized For STEM Academy’s governing board in 2008, said he’s been in discussion with HISD leaders about the arrangement for three weeks. A contract hasn’t been drawn up, and many details will be worked out in the coming days ahead of an April 30 deadline to submit partnership plans to the Texas Education Agency, Douglas said.

“We know we have to do in a few days what normally would take months to do,” Douglas said. “But that’s what has been handed to us, and that’s what we have to deal with. We can’t waste time worrying about what we need.”

There’s not a lot to go on here, but then it’s not like there are a ton of other great options out there. Reaction is mixed, as you might expect.

A long-awaited proposal from Houston ISD to temporarily surrender control over 10 of its lowest-performing schools is facing mixed reviews ahead of a crucial vote Tuesday.

Case in point: the president of Houston’s largest teachers union, Zeph Capo, blasted the proposal to allow Energized For STEM Academy to run all 10 schools as ill-conceived and hastily arranged, saying he has “no confidence that this is in the best interest of children.” Meanwhile, Board of Trustees President Rhonda Skillern-Jones defended the arrangement as “the best choice of all the bad choices” available to HISD, which faces forced campus closures or a state takeover of its locally elected school board without a partnership.

[…]

Energized For STEM Academy currently operates middle and high schools with roughly 1,000 students combined. The campuses are overseen by Lois Bullock, who has operated in-district HISD charters since 1998. Its two high schools had graduation rates, state standardized test scores and SAT scores that were well above HISD averages in 2016-17. However, one of its middle schools was rated “improvement required” by the state in 2014 and 2016.

Douglas and Bullock oversee three additional in-district HISD charter schools with a similar name, Energized For Excellence Academy, but those campuses have a different governing board.

Capo, who heads the Houston Federation of Teachers, said he has deep concerns about Energized For STEM Academy’s ability to improve academic performance after conducting initial research. He questioned how an organization educating about 1,000 students can oversee an additional 6,000-plus students.

“What evidence do we have that says they can actually do the job?” Capo said.

Capo added that residents and local education advocates, including his union, haven’t had enough time to vet Energized For STEM Academy for possible improper ties to for-profit entities or other conflicts of interest. The organization has filed annual 990 tax forms, which detail many spending patterns, but they don’t post annual financial audits or governing board meeting minutes on their website.

“(Trustees) need to grow a backbone and pay deep, close attention to what’s happening before they vote,” Capo said. “There are far too many questions left unanswered before they vote on Tuesday.”

Skillern-Jones said she supports forming partnerships if it means keeping local control and avoiding campus closures, which she called “devastating” to neighborhoods that are predominately black and Hispanic. She said her constituents, who make up six of the 10 schools, wanted a partner with local ties. The only other organization under consideration for a partnership, Generation Schools Network, is based in New York.

“I’m still looking through all the information, but I know they have a good track record in the district for 20 years, which says to me that we’ve kept them around for a reason,” Skillern-Jones said.

See here for the last update. I get Zeph Capo’s concerns – this is all happening very fast, with not much public input, and while Energized For STEM seems to have a decent track record this is asking a lot from them with no guarantee that their methods will translate or scale to a larger group of students. On the other hand, the remaining options are to find a different charter operator, to close the affected schools and reconstitute them as smaller institutions (which is really unpopular with the affected communities), and hope for the best with this year’s STAAR results. Some activists are calling for HISD to sue the TEA; I’m not qualified to assess the merits of such a strategy, but if it works it would at least buy some time. Energized For STEM may well be the best of a bad lot, but that’s not the same as being good.

Early voting for the May 5 elections begins today

From the inbox:

EARLY VOTING BEGINS FOR HOUSTON COUNCIL DISTRICT K 

Local jurisdictions, including schools, emergency, and utility districts, also holding May 5 Elections

Houston, TX –Early Voting for the May 5, 2018 City of Houston Council Member District K Special Election begins Monday, April 23rd.  The Early Voting period for this election cycle runs thru Tuesday, May 1st.

In Harris County, four sites will be available for 86,000 District K registered voters to cast a ballot in person before Election Day.  The Early Voting locations include, the Harris County Administrative Bldg. (1001 Preston, 4th  Floor), Fiesta Mart (8130 Kirby Dr.), Hiram Clarke Multi-Service Center  (3810 W. Fuqua St.), and Platou Community Center (11655 Chimney Rock Rd.).

“The Harris County Early Voting locations are only available to individuals who are registered to vote in Harris County within Houston’s Council District K,” said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, the chief election officer of the County. The hours of operation for the Harris County Early Voting sites are as follows:

·         April 23 – 27: 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
·         April 28: 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
·         April 29: 1:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
·         April 30 – May 1: 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

The majority of Houston Council District K is located between Brays Bayou and Almeda in Southwest Harris County.  However, a portion of District K which comprises a fifth of the electorate is located in Fort Bend County.  District K registered voters residing in Fort Bend County must contact the Fort Bend County Election Office for information regarding the May 5th Election.

Aside from the City of Houston election, over 70 political entities in Harris County, including school, emergency, and utility districts, are conducting an election on May 5th.

“While my office is only conducting the City of Houston Council Member District K Special Election, all Harris County registered voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com to determine if they reside in one of the 70 jurisdictions that are holding an election on May 5th,” informed Stanart.

For more information about the May 5th City of Houston Council Member District K Special Election and the May 22nd Democratic and Republican Primary Runoff Elections voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.  Voters may also visit the website to determine if theyare eligible to vote in an upcoming election or review the list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the polls.

You can see the map and schedule for Harris County, which is to say District K, here. Fort Bend County voters, including those in District K, you can find your early voting information here.

The District K special election is the only election being conducted by the Harris County Clerk. There are some local elections being held in Harris County, including Deer Park ISD and Galena Park municipal elections. There’s just one race for Deer Park ISD, and you can find information about that here, including a nice profile of candidate Monique Rodriguez, who has the endorsement of both the Harris County AFL-CIO and the Area 5 Democrats. For Galena Park, that information can be found here. I know nothing about those candidates.

A little farther out, the city of Pearland and Pearland ISD have regularly scheduled elections. Here’s the information for the city of Pearland and for Pearland ISD. These elections are being conducted by the Brazoria County Clerk, so early voting information for each can be found here. One candidate in each race has been Texas Democratic Party: Dalia Kasseb for Pearland City Council Position 4 – she fell short in a runoff for Council last year – and Daniel Hernandez for Pearland ISD School Board Trustee Position 4. There are also elections in Friendswood – a list of candidates there and in Pearland is here – but as with Galena Park I know nothing about any of them.

There are other elections around the state, as well as the special election in HD13 featuring Cecil Webster. I suggest you check with your county clerk or elections administrator if you’re not sure if there’s a reason for you to vote. Hot on the heels of this are the primary runoffs, on May 22, so if you’re not voting now you’ll be able to soon.

Endorsement watch: District K special election

The Chron makes its choice in the District K special election.

Martha Castex Tatum

Larry Blackmon, 68, has spent decades serving on various boards and advisory committees under the leadership of three Houston mayors. Martha Castex-Tatum, 48, is the director of constituent services in the late Councilman Green’s office. Carl David Evans, 63, works for an accounting firm and serves as the president of a super neighborhood group. Pat Frazier, 58, is a politically active educator who ran for this office in 2011 and served on Mayor Sylvester Turner’s transition team. Anthony Freddie, 55, spent almost 30 years working in municipal government, including stints as an assistant to Mayor Lee Brown’s chief of staff and chairman of the Super Neighborhood Alliance committee. Elisabeth Johnson, 32, is a Texas Southern University graduate student who’s about to graduate with a master’s degree in public administration. Gerry Vander-Lyn, 68, is an accounting firm records management worker who’s been involved in Republican politics for at least 50 years.

Two candidates didn’t meet with the editorial board. Lawrence McGaffie, 30, is a disabled Army veteran who founded a nonprofit encouraging young people in low-income neighborhoods to become community leaders. Aisha Savoy, 40, works in the city’s floodplain management office.

Castex-Tatum and Frazier are the stand-out candidates. Both of them have deep roots in the area, and they’re passionately familiar with the district. But Castex-Tatum’s breadth of experience makes her the better candidate for City Council.

As a top level aide to Green, Castex-Tatum can hit the ground running. Nobody will need to brief her on any of the arcane issues and myriad capital improvement projects Green worked on until his untimely death. Unlike any of the other candidates in this race, she already commands a detailed knowledge not only of what’s happening in the district but also what city government is doing about it. For example, while other candidates offered our editorial board only vague notions about tackling flooding problems, Castex-Tatum specifically cited how improvements to a parking lot in the district made it more permeable for soaking up floodwaters.

What’s more, Castex-Tatum will bring to the council table a unique credential: She’s already served on a city council. She not only earned a master’s degree in public administration at Texas State University in San Marcos, she also unseated a 12-year incumbent to become the first African-American woman elected to the San Marcos City Council.

As a reminder, here are all the interviews I did for this race:

Anthony Freddie
Lawrence McGaffie
Martha Castex-Tatum
Larry Blackmon
Elisabeth Johnson
Pat Frazier
Aisha Savoy

Early voting begins today. This feels like a single-digit-turnout kind of race, which means that if you live in the district your vote really counts. Don’t miss your chance to make it.

Interview with Aisha Savoy

Aisha Savoy

As you know, I have published a series of interviews with candidates in the special election for Houston City Council District K, to fill the vacancy left by the untimely death of CM Larry Green. As you also know, sometimes when I am done with these I hear from a candidate that I had not heard from earlier, and when that happens I do my best to accommodate them. Such is the case here with Aisha Savoy, who reached out to me later in the week. Savoy is a first-time candidate and graduate of Texas Southern. She is an employee of the city of Houston in the Public Works department, in Flood Plain Management. She told me she has a campaign Facebook page, but I have been unable to find it – if I get any further information about that, I’ll update this post. (UPDATE: Here’s the campaign Facebook page.) In the meantime, here’s the interview:

PREVIOUSLY:

Anthony Freddie
Lawrence McGaffie
Martha Castex-Tatum
Larry Blackmon
Elisabeth Johnson
Pat Frazier

I will have some interviews with primary runoff candidates next.

Houston Youth Walkout

Good work, y’all.

Chanting for gun-law reform and reduced firearm violence, an estimated 2,000-plus students marched to City Hall Friday morning as part of nationwide school walkouts.

The Houston Youth Walkout, believed to be the largest local out-of-class gathering to mark the April 20 protests, attracted students from across the region for a 1.2-mile march. They joined thousands of students from Greater Houston who demonstrated at their schools Friday morning, advocating for changes to gun laws and honoring victims of gun violence.

“To see so many students from different high schools come together brought tears to my eyes,” said Elena Margolin, a march organizer and senior at Houston ISD’s High School For The Performing And Visual Arts. “We realize we’re all in it together and all fighting for the same cause.”

School districts across the area prepared for demonstrations Friday, with many campus principals coordinating plans with students. They sought to balance free-speech rights with student safety and orderly continuation of classes.

Several demonstrations remained indoors, with students leading assemblies or rallies in gymnasiums, while others stayed confined to school grounds.

In recent days, students and campus principals across the region have been coordinating walkout events, as school districts try to minmize disruptions and safety concerns associated with walkouts. Several districts said they had empowered principals to allow events on campus grounds, encouraging them to speak with student organizers in advance.

See here for the group’s webpage, and here for their Instagram feed. There were similar events elsewhere in the state – see the Trib and the Rivard Report for other stories. April 20 was the 19th anniversary of the Columbine massacre, in case you were wondering what significance there was to the date. I appreciate the approach that school administrators took to this – no one appears to have overreacted in some ridiculous way – and hope that’s a model for events like this going forward. Next up, registering and voting for candidates that will listen to what these students are saying, and against those who won’t. Keep it going, kids.

No Houston-HISD partnership

Probably just as well.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner has ruled out any partnership with Houston ISD to turn around 10 chronically under-performing schools, saying Wednesday he will not be part of the school district’s forthcoming proposal aimed at avoiding a state takeover.

HISD administrators have recommended temporarily giving up power over governance, hiring and other operations at the 10 campuses to an outside organization in an attempt to stave off school closures or replacement of the district’s school board. The district’s proposal is due to the Texas Education Agency by April 30. Administrators have not named any potential partners that would take control, and trustees are not expected to vote on proposals until next week.

Turner said last month that he had been asked to get “very, very, very involved” in the district’s efforts, and he did not rule out the possibility of some kind of partnership with HISD. On Wednesday, he said after the City Council meeting that neither he nor the city would be partnering with HISD.

“I will not be in that proposal,” the mayor said of the plan due this month. “Depending on whether or not schools remain in IR status after this academic year will in large part determine what will be the extent of my role.”

[…]

HISD administrators have released little information about their recommendations for the 10 schools as the April 30 deadline nears. Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan verbally has recommended forming three-year partnerships, though terms of any potential contracts have not been released. HISD did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday on its partnership plans.

Turner said he has been speaking weekly with Education Commissioner Mike Morath, whose agency is expected to approve or reject partnership contracts by early June.

See here for the background. We don’t really know much about HISD’s intentions here, which is a bit alarming considering the deadline they’re facing. Surely there was room for more public engagement on this. Be that as it may, I do hope they get this right.

Happy tenth birthday, Discovery Green

What a great addition it has been.

Discovery Green opened a decade ago this weekend, drawing 25,000 people to the long-dormant east side of downtown to gawk at parading Clydesdales, dogs in costumes, a puppet show, a magician, musicians and dancers.

Skeptics said the 12-acre green space in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center would become a homeless encampment, that no suburbanite would drive all the way downtown to see a park, that the $125 million the city and philanthropists had jointly invested would prove to be a waste.

They were wrong.

Visitor counts immediately outstripped consultants’ projections, which leaders had worried might be too optimistic. Today, more than 1.2 million people visit the park’s 1-acre lake, its playground and interactive water feature, its restaurants, amphitheater, dog runs and public art installations, its summer putting green and winter ice rink.

Many visitors are drawn by the 600-some free activities the park hosts annually — from regular yoga, Zumba and salsa classes to film, beer and margarita festivals, 5K runs and even a contemporary circus. Others are out-of-towners meeting Houston for the first time with a stroll through the park, the organizers of the event they’re attending having seen Discovery Green as a key part of city boosters’ pitches for major conventions, Final Fours, All-Star games and Super Bowls.

Bob Eury, executive director of the Downtown Management District, said the space has succeeded by functioning as both the city’s backyard and its front door, drawing Houstonians and conventioneers alike.

“It’s really performing every bit the way the founders intended, in that it was this civic lawn that was just a great urban park that people who live in the neighborhood can use, but it’s also something that people from the entire city and region can enjoy,” Eury said. “That was the vision, and it really has achieved that.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but some of that skepticism of Discovery Green was rooted in political dislike for then-Mayor Bill White. Not all of it – this was a new and untested thing being done downtown, where many previous attempts at luring in people outside of business hours faltered – but some of it was. My kids are older now so we haven’t found many reasons to visit lately, but we went there a lot when they were little. It was a great place for the young ones – the playground was super, and there was just lots of room to run around and have fun. It really has been a game-changer for Houston – can you imagine downtown without Discovery Green now? – and I’m so glad Mayor White had the foresight to push for it. May there be many more happy years to come.

Interview with Pat Frazier

Pat Frazier

We wrap up our interview series in District K with Pat Frazier, who is the one person in this race that has run for this seat before, back in 2011. Frazier is an educator and community activist with a long history of participation in civics and politics. A member of the transition team for Mayor Turner, Frazier has served as Executive Secretary for the SDEC in Senate District 13, and she has been Secretary and Finance Committee Chair for the Boy Scouts district in which her son was an Eagle Scout. Here’s what we talked about:

PREVIOUSLY:

Anthony Freddie
Lawrence McGaffie
Martha Castex-Tatum
Larry Blackmon
Elisabeth Johnson

Interview with Elisabeth Johnson

Elisabeth Johnson

Elisabeth Johnson has a long background in politics and community activism, having worked on the Bill White for Governor campaign in 2010 as a field organizer in Dallas and with the Texas Organizing Project and Working America to help pass Houston’s Wage Theft Ordinance in 2013. She is currently a graduate student at Texas Southern University obtaining her Executive Master of Public Administration, and she is the author of “Wake Up: A Despairing Cry to the Black Community”. Here’s what we talked about:

PREVIOUSLY:

Anthony Freddie
Lawrence McGaffie
Martha Castex-Tatum
Larry Blackmon

RIP, Barbara Bush

Former First Lady and mother of President George W. Bush has passed away.

Barbara Bush

Barbara Pierce Bush, matriarch of an American political dynasty that has produced presidents, governors and other high officials, has died in Houston. She was 92.

Bush was an outspoken public figure, often putting into words the thoughts that the elected men in her family were too cautious to utter. She did practically everything in politics short of running for office herself, organizing campaigns and “women’s groups” in the parlance of the day, riding herd on political friendships and organizations critical to electing her husband, George H.W. Bush, to the U.S. House, the vice presidency and ultimately, to the presidency itself. Her oldest son, George W. Bush, was the 43rd president after twice winning election as governor of Texas. His younger brother, Jeb Bush, was governor of Florida and, later, an unsuccessful candidate for president. And one of her grandsons, George. P. Bush, is currently the land commissioner of Texas.

Barbara Bush was the second American who was both the wife and mother of presidents; the other was Abigail Adams. She and George Bush, married 73 years ago in January 1945, had the longest-lasting marriage of any first couple. Both were from political families. Her grandfather, James Robinson, was on Ohio’s first Supreme Court, according to Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes.” Her father, Marvin Pierce, was a distant descendant of President Franklin Pierce. George H.W. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. senator from Connecticut.

The family had put out a statement earlier this week saying that Mrs. Bush had stopped taking treatment and was going to go into palliative care. She was loved and respected by many – see the bottom of the story for some of the statements that came out following the announcement of her passing – and she will be missed. My condolences to her family and friends. RG Ratcliffe and the Chron have more.

Interview with Larry Blackmon

Larry Blackmon

We return now to the interviews for the special election in District K. Most of the nine candidates in this race are first-timers, but two are not. Larry Blackmon is one of those two, having run in the open At Large #4 race in 2015, finishing sixth in field of seven. (He also has this campaign Facebook page, which you find if you search his name in Facebook.) Blackmon is a retired educator, and he was making the issue of flooding his main priority during his 2015 campaign. There’s not a whole lot more you can find out about him via the Internet (this Defender story has a bit more), so you’ll need to listen to the interview:

PREVIOUSLY:

Anthony Freddie
Lawrence McGaffie
Martha Castex-Tatum

More accusers against Paul Pressler

So often the case when there is one accusation of abuse against a powerful person, more victims come forward with their own stories.

The list of men accusing a former Texas state judge and leading figure of the Southern Baptist Convention of sexual misconduct continues to grow.

In separate court affidavits filed this month, two men say Paul Pressler molested or solicited them for sex in a pair of incidents that span nearly 40 years. Those accusations were filed as part of a lawsuit filed last year by another man who says he was regularly raped by Pressler.

Pressler’s newest accusers are another former member of a church youth group and a lawyer who worked for Pressler’s former law firm until 2017.

Toby Twining, 59, now a New York musician, was a teenager in 1977 when he says Pressler grabbed his penis in a sauna at River Oaks Country Club, according to an affidavit filed in federal court. At that time, Pressler was a youth pastor at Bethel Church in Houston; he was ousted from that position in 1978 after church officials received information about “an alleged incident,” according to a letter introduced into the court file.

Brooks Schott, 27, now a lawyer in Washington state, says in an affidavit that he resigned his position at Pressler’s former law firm after Pressler in 2016 invited Schott to get into a hot tub with him naked. He also accuses Jared Woodfill, Pressler’s longtime law partner and the head of the Harris County Republican Party until 2014, of failing to prevent Pressler’s sexual advances toward him and others, which Schott says were well-known among the firm, the documents state.

Documents recently made public show that in 2004, Pressler agreed to pay $450,000 to another former youth group member for physical assault. That man, Duane Rollins, filed a new suit last year in which he demands more than $1 million for decades of alleged rapes that a psychiatrist recently confirmed had been suppressed from Rollins’ memory. Rollins also claims the trauma pushed him to the drugs and alcohol that resulted in multiple prison sentences.

[…]

Brooks Schott states in the documents that he met Pressler in 2016, after Schott was hired as a lawyer at the firm Pressler co-founded with Woodfill.

Schott says he was invited to lunch by Pressler in December 2016. He arrived at Pressler’s home, he says, where he was greeted by Pressler, who was not wearing pants. After dressing, Pressler gave Schott a tour of his office and mentioned a 10-person hot tub at his ranch.

“Pressler then told me that ‘when the ladies are not around, us boys all go in the hot tub completely naked,’ ” Schott’s affidavit states. “He then invited me to go hot tubbing with him at his ranch. This invitation was clearly made in anticipation that I would engage in sexual activity.”

Upon returning to the firm, Schott said an office manager told him that Pressler had previously solicited young men at the firm. Schott then complained to Woodfill, according to emails that were filed with his affidavit.

“If (the office manager) knew of Pressler’s past inappropriate sexual behavior, I find it hard to believe that you did not know about it,” he wrote in a Dec. 9, 2016 email to Woodfill, court records show.

Woodfill responded that Pressler was no longer his law partner and that “this 85-year-old man has never made any inappropriate comments or actions toward me or any one I know of,” court records show. In a subsequent email, Woodfill said that the conduct Schott described “is unacceptable” and said he would address it with Pressler.

In an email on Thursday, Woodfill responded to Schott’s assertion, writing that “the person described in Mr. Schott’s affidavit doesn’t match up with the Judge Pressler I know” and that Pressler “has not been associated with my law firm for over a decade.”

See here and here for the background. Copies of the affidavits are embedded in the story. And remember, when he’s not defending the character of Paul Pressler, Jared Woodfill is busy fighting to take away spousal benefits from LGBT city employees because he thinks gay people are icky and perverted. Stay tuned, I’m sure there will be more to this story.

Anti-same sex employee benefits lawsuit moved back to state court

On and on we go.

Nearly three years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, the city of Houston continues to battle for the rights of its gay workers.

On Tuesday, a judge struck down Houston’s attempts to defend its city benefits policy in federal court. The case will be remanded back to state court, and the city will have to pay the legal fees of the two men suing to overturn the policy, which extends spousal benefits to same-sex marriages.

The outcome of this case will be limited to the city of Houston. Dallas has a similar policy that has not been challenged.

But the fight is a good example of the war waged to erase, erode or at least stop the expansion of LGBT rights since since the 2015 marriage ruling, Noel Freeman said.

“These are people who are never, ever going to give up. They are going to go to their grave hating us,” Freeman, the first city of Houston employee to receive spousal benefits for his husband, told The Dallas Morning News on Wednesday. “And there is no court case … that’s going to change their minds.

“That’s just the way it is.”

[…]

In a last-ditch effort to shift the fight to federal court, Houston asked to move the case to the Southern District Court earlier this year. On Tuesday, Judge Kenneth Hoyt ruled the city did not prove federal court was the proper venue and ordered it to pay Pidgeon and Hicks’ legal fees.

The case will be remanded to Harris County District Court. Married gay city employees will continue to receive benefits for their spouses until a final ruling.

See here for previous coverage of this atrocity, which is still a thing because our feckless State Supreme Court allowed itself to be pressured into giving the case a second chance after previously refusing to consider it. Noel Freeman, who’s a friend of mine, is quite right that the people pursuing this action (including Jared Woodfill) will never give up – if this suit is ultimately ruled against them, they’ll find some other pretext to keep LGBT folks from being treated as full and equal members of society. We all need to oppose the politicians who enable these haters, and support those who favor equality. It’s the only way this will get better.

A clean separation

Well done.

Richard Carranza

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Martha Castex-Tatum

Martha Castex Tatum

We continue on with interviews in the District K special election, to succeed the late Council Member Larry Green. Today we have Martha Castex-Tatum, who has served in CM Green’s office as the Director of Constituent Services since 2015. She has previous experience as an elected official, having been a member of San Marcos’ City Council after her graduation from Texas State. She also served on the San Marcos Economic Development Council and the Convention and Visitor Bureau and has worked as a realtor. Here’s the interview:

PREVIOUSLY:

Anthony Freddie
Lawrence McGaffie

Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium report

From the inbox:

“Strategies for Flood Mitigation in Greater Houston, Edition 1”, a report released today by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, calls for accelerating the paradigm shift underway in how the Houston area plans for and recovers from flooding and its consequences. While eliminating flooding in Houston is not possible, there are practical opportunities for reducing the effect flooding has on people’s lives. This initial report, which is based on current information from multiple local agencies and experts, draws a number of key conclusions on Addicks and Barker reservoirs, including the important considerations about the proposed “third reservoir,” and flood mitigation tactics such as regulations, local drainage, and buyouts.

According to Consortium Project Manager Christof Spieler, “When the consortium was formed, its philanthropic funders intended to make Houston a more resilient city and ensure that all communities benefit from flood mitigation efforts. We’ve brought together experts on flooding, the environment, and urban planning, and, together, we are presenting our conclusions thus far. We hope they are useful to decision-makers as the region figures out how to respond through funding, policies, and projects.”

The philanthropic funders include Houston EndowmentKinder Foundation, and the Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation with additional support from the Walton Family FoundationCullen Foundation, and Harte Charitable Foundation.

 

Among the key conclusions within the report:

Flood Mitigation Infrastructure:

 

v  There is no publicly available information that clearly proves or disproves the structural integrity of Addicks and Barker reservoirs. Rather than continue to subjectively debate this topic, there is a call for a clear report on the condition of the dams, including public transparency on risks and any required structural improvements that may be needed.

v  The “third reservoir” as currently proposed is primarily intended to mitigate new development. It is not designed to reduce flooding in Buffalo Bayou nor does it solve issues with the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. The “Plan 5” reservoir defined by the Cypress Creek Overflow Study creates a scenario that allows future development of the Katy Prairie, land that currently absorbs a considerable amount of stormwater.

v  A new reservoir in northwest Harris County, specifically designed to address the Cypress Creek watershed, could significantly help mitigate repeated flooding of Cypress. A “third reservoir” in the same general area studied in the Cypress Creek Overflow Study, that targets reducing flooding in the badly damaged Cypress Creek watershed, could be very effective in addressing repeated flooding in the downstream areas of that watershed.

v  Where watersheds remain undeveloped, acquisition of land along the bayous and creeks is a cost-effective flood mitigation tool. Whether in the upper undeveloped watershed or downstream along the channel and its tributaries, undeveloped land gives the water room to spread out in a flood event, to prevent the impacts that new development on that land would have, and to preserve these green spaces for flood mitigation.

Regulations:

 

v  Under current detention regulations, new development, especially in previously undeveloped areas, still increases downstream flooding. Natural ecosystems and agricultural areas absorb some water, hold some water through ponding, and release the rest slowly. While current detention regulations limit the rate of water, the assumed conditions in these calculations overestimate pre-development runoff rate and thus underestimate the increase in runoff. The regulations also do not limit total runoff volume, which is critical in multi-day storms.

 

v  The existing regulatory system overseen by multiple jurisdictions is confusing at best and possibly counter-productive. The current patchwork approach, with platting, detention, floodplain management, infrastructure requirements, and building regulations handled by multiple entities, makes it difficult to address watersheds, and as a whole, can allow harmful projects to slip through the gaps.

Buyouts:

 

v  Buyouts studied alongside flood control infrastructure allow for determining the most effective and least expensive solutions. This proactive approach is a departure from a system that is currently reactive, only buying homes that are hopelessly deep in a floodplain.Benefits can include preventing future flood damage, providing land for better flood control infrastructure, new parks and open space, and improved housing stock.

v  Extensive buyouts without a coordinated housing plan will worsen the affordable housing shortage already confronting the region. A countywide housing plan could anticipate future housing needs, particularly after a flood event and identify locations with access to work, schools, and social services.

v  Flexible funding from non-federal sources allows more properties to be included in buyout programs and encourages property owners to participate, avoiding the “checkerboard effect.” Federal funding comes with limitations while local funding can be flexible, addressing properties within a buyout area that don’t meet federal requirements and offering compensation and relocation assistance that makes moving feasible for residents.

Public Engagement:

v  An educated public is fundamental to building and sustaining support for the long work of mitigating flood impacts. Robust engagement through the decision-making process will not only improve results but ensure equitable outcomes.

General:

 

v  The level of flood protection across watersheds is not equitable. Addicks and Barker reservoirs are already able to handle the current 1 percent design storm. Even with the federal projects, Brays Bayou, Clear Creek, Hunting Bayou, White Oak Bayou and Greens Bayou will not be able to handle the 1 percent storm, and tributaries of those bayous, and well as several other major bayous like Cypress Creek and Vince Bayou have not been studied in detail or had projects identified.

v  Most flood control assessments, including the federal government’s cost-benefit ratio, calculate benefits through economic value, not impact on human lives. We can measure projects by the number of people who benefit or use more sophisticated tools like Social Impact Assessment.

A link to the full report can be found houstonconsortium.org.

In the coming months, watershed analyses will be completed, which will allow for more detailed conclusions and Edition II will include these findings.

See here for a bit of background, and here to find the report. It’s one thing to come up with good and constructive ideas, it’s another to get them implemented. You can start out with the support of political leaders, you can persuade them to adopt your ideas, and you can elect people who campaign on the promise of pursuing those ideas. I look forward to the next step in this process, because we’re going to need one. The Trib has more.

Interview with Lawrence McGaffie

Lawrence McGaffie

We continue with interviews in the special election for District K to succeed the late CM Larry Green. Today I am talking with Lawrence McGaffie, an ordained minister and Army veteran who is the founder of the Inspire the Lead, a non profit movement designed to inspire young people from low income communities to become leaders. A graduate of the Art Institute of Houston, McGaffie was medically discharged from the Army after being injured while training for the 101st Airborne division at Ft. Campbell. He volunteers at God’s Food Pantry and has also served as Director of Community Engagement for the MLK Association of Houston. Here’s the interview:

PREVIOUSLY: Anthony Freddie

Interview with Anthony Freddie

Anthony Freddie

As we know, the special election to succeed the late Council Member Larry Green in District K is on May 5. Early voting for this election begins April 23, which is to say two weeks from now. In those two weeks, I’ll be publishing interviews with candidates from this election. We begin with Anthony Freddie, who worked for the city for 29 years. Freddie worked in multiple departments within the city, including Building Services, Finance and Administration, and Aviation, and served as assistant to Mayor Lee Brown’s Chief of Staff. He has served on a number of non-profits and boards, as well as with the Greater Houston Partnership. Here’s what we talked about:

As I said, I’ll have more of these this week and next.

It’s not easy being green

I have mixed feelings about this.

The “Blue Trees” artist has stirred up a hive of trouble for Houston’s parks and recreation department, complaining that the city plagiarized an installation he created five years ago by re-painting the same grove of crepe myrtles. This time, the trees are a vivid green.

Konstantin Dimopolous, who engaged dozens of volunteers to help make “Blue Trees Houston” in 2013, said the harmless paint formula he shared was developed over many years and is his intellectual property.

Parks department officials beg to differ, pointing out that trees have been painted for centuries, across cultures.

“We thought we did our homework,” said Abel Gonzales, the parks department’s deputy director of greenspace management. He said he cleared the green paint project last October with parks department planners who told him there were no other active agreements for art among the crepe myrtle groves within the traffic cloverleafs at Waugh Drive and Allen Parkway.

He chose the same area Dimopolous had used because it’s a high-profile location, he said, and also because crepe myrtles have smooth trunks that make them easier to paint than, say, oak trees.

[…]

Dimopolous said he was not after money or a lawsuit, but he did want an apology — and he wants the green paint removed, because people think the new work is his.

“It looks horrible, and it really has no relevance anymore here,” said Dimopolous, who is in Houston working on a large commercial commission. He is building “Windgrass,” a tall, stick-like kinetic sculpture for Bridgeland, next to entrance signage for the 11,400-acre, master-planned community along the Grand Parkway near Cypress.

Gonzales and others in the parks department aren’t likely to concede that they’ve done anything wrong. “We’re sorry he’s upset, but no one even thought about him,” Gonzales said.

One of the Parks people, who wasn’t in Houston when Dimopoulos did his installation in 2013, said she came up with the paint for this work on her own via trial and error. On the one hand, I agree that painting trees isn’t a new or unique idea, and the fact that an artist once did this doesn’t preclude anyone else from ever doing it. On the other hand, it would have been nice to give the guy a heads-up, especially since it’s the same location and he’s back in town on another project. Beyond that, I say I was glad to see the new painted trees when I first spotted them a few weeks ago, and I hope to see more art like this elsewhere in the city. Glasstire and It’s Not Hou It’s Me have more.

Council approves new floodplain regulations

We’ve been waiting for this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Starting this fall, all new homes built in Houston’s floodplains must be elevated higher off the ground after a contentious debate and narrow vote by City Council on Wednesday to adopt the Bayou City’s first major regulatory response to the widespread flooding Hurricane Harvey unleashed last August.

The vote marks a shift away from Houston’s longtime aversion to constraining development, and means all new construction in the city’s floodplains will have to be built two feet above the projected water level in a 500-year storm.

The unusually tight 9-7 vote, which fell largely along party lines, came at the end of more than three hours of sometimes combative debate.

“This is a defining moment,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in his final pitch to the council. “Can we undo what was done with Harvey? No. But can we build looking forward? Yes. Does it mean it may cost more financially? Yes. But if it has the probability of saving lives, and if it has the probability of letting people know in our city and those who are looking to come to our city that we are taking measures to be stronger, to be more resilient, then that’s positive for the city of Houston.”

Democratic council members Karla Cisneros, David Robinson, Dwight Boykins, Ellen Cohen, Jerry Davis, Robert Gallegos and Amanda Edwards — along with Republican Dave Martin — joined Turner in backing the changes. Republicans Mike Knox, Jack Christie, Brenda Stardig, Michael Kubosh, Steve Le and Greg Travis, and Democrat Mike Laster opposed the regulations.

The new rules take effect Sept. 1 and apply to all new buildings within the 500-year floodplain, which is deemed to have a 0.2 percent chance of being inundated in any given year. Additions larger than a third of the home’s original footprint also will need to be elevated.

Current regulations mandate that buildings be constructed one foot above the flood level in a less severe 100-year storm and apply only within the 100-year floodplain, where properties are considered to have a 1 percent chance of being inundated in a given year. Wednesday’s vote marks the first time Houston is imposing minimum elevation requirements within the 500-year floodplain.

The new rules are similar to, but more stringent than those Harris County put into effect Jan. 1. There, new homes built in neighborhoods developed before 2009 must be built one foot above either the ground or the crown of the adjacent street, whichever is higher. The county’s regulations change little for homes to be built in subdivisions developed more recently.

See here and here for more on the county’s new floodplain regulations, here for a bit of background on the proposal that was passed, and here for an earlier Chron story that gets into some of the No-voting members’ resistance. No regulation is ever perfect, and I’m sure there’s debate to be had about what approach would have been best, but it sure seems a bit odd to me that at this point in Houston’s history that this kind of regulation wouldn’t be more broadly supported by Council. For those members who will be on the ballot next year – Knox, Kubosh, Le, and Travis – I’ll be very interested to see how this vote is received on the campaign trail.

HISD will not change its funding mechanism

Not this year, at least.

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

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

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

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

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

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