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Larry Marshall

Former HISD Trustee Marshall found liable in civil bribery lawsuit

Ouch.

A bribery lawsuit that kept a cloud of suspicion over the Houston school district for six years ended Wednesday with a jury finding that former board president Larry Marshall participated in a kickback scheme that caused millions of dollars in damages to a local construction contractor.

The civil jury decided in favor of the Gil Ramirez Group, an upstart firm that alleged it lost lucrative school district contracts because it did not offer bribes to Marshall through his political campaign treasurer and longtime friend, Joyce Moss-Clay.

The verdict, which may be appealed, deals a hit to Marshall’s legacy as one of the longest-serving and best-known Houston school trustees, who started as a teacher in 1955 and later worked to integrate the nation’s seventh-largest district.

“The culture of corruption at HISD took a serious blow today,” Kelly Greenwood Prather, an attorney for Gil Ramirez Jr., said after the verdict, which triggered tears of joy from her client.

The jury found that Marshall, Moss-Clay and two HISD construction contractors violated the civil racketeering law and awarded the Gil Ramirez Group about $451,500, an amount that is tripled to $1.4 million under law.

The jury also found the group interfered in contracts and awarded $3.4 million in punitive damages, plus $676,667 in actual damages.

The Houston Independent School District, dismissed as a defendant in the lawsuit in 2015, distanced itself from Marshall Wednesday, issuing a statement that the district is not responsible for paying damages on the former trustee’s behalf.

HISD’s response could complicate the payout to the Gil Ramirez Group if Marshall lacks the funds.

Attorney Chad Dunn, also representing Ramirez, said he believed the district is liable for the damages.

“The school district spent millions of dollars defending Larry Marshall and now it wants to avoid its own responsibility,” Dunn said. “If this is a sign of the district’s response to the jury’s message, it’s pathetic.”

This lawsuit had been dismissed by the trial judge in 2013, then reinstated on appeal two years later. It’s a bit unclear what happens next, whether Marshall will appeal or HISD will be ordered to cover some of the judgment against him; there’s also a federal criminal investigation that’s still out there. What I do know is that Marshall, who had a sterling career as an educator, threw all that away as a school board trustee, and the stain he left on HISD as a whole through this ordeal – and he was far from the only one with dirty hands – will take a long time to remove. The Press has more.

The Marshall legacy

The Chron has a story that looks back on the long career of outgoing HISD Trustee Larry Marshall. No question, Marshall was a star as an educator, and left an indelible mark on HISD thanks to the well-regarded magnet school program that he helped create. He should be riding off into the sunset amid hosannas and praise. The reason he’s not is captured here.

Larry Marshall

Larry Marshall

Questions about his consulting work surfaced early in his board tenure, when a former HISD administrator, Frank Watson, filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the district in 2000.

Watson, who oversaw employee benefits, alleged he lost his job because he refused to do a favor for one of Marshall’s health-care clients. The district ultimately settled the case with Watson.

Marshall’s past consulting work for Community Education Partners also has drawn scrutiny. HISD contracted with the company to run its alternative schools.

Marshall has said in court records that he stopped consulting for Community Education Partners after the school board passed a strict ethics policy in 2004. The new rules banned the district from doing business with companies that had financial ties to trustees and close relatives.

At a board meeting in June 2010, Marshall defended his past consulting work amid criticism from community activists.

Since I have been on this board, I have sacrificed over $500,000 of income that could have been generated, to put something back into a system that I got something from,” Marshall said, before voting with the board majority to renew HISD’s contract with Community Education Partners.

Emphasis mine. If the reason you stopped doing something is because a “strict ethics policy” was put in place that forbade from doing what you had been doing, you might want to take a moment and reflect on the nature of your past actions. Similarly, if you are upset that being in public service is preventing you from earning a wad of money, you really ought to consider resigning so you can go ahead and collect that payday you so obviously want. Unless, of course, the only reason that treasure trove exists is because of your power and connections as a public servant, in which case it just sucks to be you. But seriously, if you’d be rolling in the dough if it weren’t for you meddling kids those pesky ethics rules, then do everyone – including yourself – a favor and step down from your position so you can become a lobbyist. You’ll have all the earnings potential and far fewer enforceable ethical constraints.

Anyway. Perhaps this story was unfairly slanted against Larry Marshall – he refused to comment on it, so we don’t know what his side of the story would be. I’m sure I have a skewed impression of Larry Marshall because almost all of what I know about him stems from his ethical issues. I knew basically nothing about his early career as an educator, which really was stellar. But whose fault is that? Larry Marshall chose his path. For all the good work he did earlier in life, HISD is better off now that he is exiting from service to them. I wish him well in retirement, and I hope I never see his name in a news story relating to HISD purchasing or contracting processes again.

Rest of Larry Marshall lawsuit dismissed

That’s that.

The three-year legal drama involving HISD trustee Larry Marshall has ended after a federal judge again ruled against a construction contractor alleging it was harmed by a bribery scheme.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison agreed last week to dismiss two companies being sued along with Marshall. The decision essentially closes the case, barring an appeal.

An attorney for the Gil Ramirez Group, which filed the civil lawsuit, said his client is weighing the next move.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Houston Independent School District are considering seeking reimbursement for the roughly $1.5 million HISD spent on legal fees.

Ellison’s latest order dismissed the remaining claims against two former HISD contractors, Fort Bend Mechanical and RHJ-JOC. The judge found that, even if the companies tried to bribe Marshall, the Gil Ramirez Group did not prove it was harmed by them. The companies denied the bribery allegations.

“At most,” Ellison wrote, “the evidence … shows that, if the defendants did pay bribes, they intended to advance their own economic position and that any effects on (the Gil Ramirez Group’s) contracts were incidental.”

[…]

RHJ argued in court records that the company had nothing to do with HISD choosing not to rehire the Gil Ramirez Group in 2010 to do repairs and minor construction work as a so-called job-order contractor. The Gil Ramirez Group ranked toward the bottom in HISD’s bid process, records show.

RHJ and Fort Bend Mechanical, which won the 2010 bids, no longer have their job-order contracts with HISD. They expired earlier this year, according to the district.

In addition, HISD ousted RHJ from its larger construction projects this year after claiming the company failed to finish the work in time, according to copies of the settlement agreements between the district and RHJ’s insurance company.

See here for some background. There is still a possible FBI investigation into Marshall, though of course they would not and did not comment on that. Marshall is about to depart from the board of trustees, and none of these firms are doing any work for HISD. It’s fine by me if that remains the case for a good long time.

Federal lawsuit against HISD and Trustee Larry Marshall dismissed

Good, I guess.

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a three-year-old bribery lawsuit against the Houston school district and trustee Larry Marshall, ending the prospect of a high-profile jury trial.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ruled in part that the construction contractor that sued lacked standing because the company did not prove it suffered financially. The Gil Ramirez Group alleged in its lawsuit that it lost its contract with the state’s largest school district because it didn’t pay bribes to Marshall.

Ellison, in his order, did not determine whether Marshall received improper payments but found that the Ramirez Group fell short of several legal standards needed to prove its case.

“Indeed,” Ellison wrote, “from what evidence plaintiffs do provide… the most that can be said is that Marshall, if he did participate in a bribery scheme, did so to enrich himself, not as a way to discriminate against non-paying contractors.”

According to court records and deposition testimony, some school district vendors paid thousands of dollars to a business associate of Marshall, who gave him a cut of her earnings. Marshall did not deny a business relationship with Joyce Moss-Clay but said it did not influence which firms won district contracts.

See here, here, and here for some background. I’m glad that HISD, which spent $1.5 million defending itself against this suit (they may seek reimbursement from the plaintiffs), is not in any further financial danger from it. I’m also glad that Larry Marshall will become Former Trustee Larry Marshall as of January 2. And finally, I’m glad the HISD Board of Trustees voted to beef up its ethics policies. I hope this sort of thing never happens again. Hair Balls has more.

The 2013 lineup

So many candidates.

He’s baaaaaaack…

More than 60 candidates have filed to run for city of Houston elective office this fall, many of them rushing in before the 5 p.m. Monday deadline.

[…]

Atop the ballot, [Mayor Annise] Parker is challenged by wealthy attorney Ben Hall, conservative Eric Dick, repeat Green Party candidate Don Cook, and six others. City Controller Ron Green is opposed by accountant Bill Frazer.

The ballot’s most crowded council race, with 11 contenders, will be for District D, the south Houston seat held by term-limited Wanda Adams, who has filed to run for a seat on the Houston ISD board.

Looking to succeed Adams are several candidates who have sought the seat or other council posts before, including Dwight Boykins, Larry McKinzie, Lana Edwards and Keith Caldwell. First-time contenders include Anthony Robinson, a businessman and lawyer who was exonerated after serving 10 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and Houston Housing Authority vice-chair Assata-Nicole Richards, who briefly was homeless and went on to earn a doctorate in sociology.

[…]

Other notable filings include Issa Dadoush, who formerly ran the facilities department for the city, then HISD. He will challenge incumbent Councilman C.O. Bradford. Perennial candidate Michael “Griff” Griffin – who said his 10th failed bid for City Council in 2011 would be his last – also filed, against At-Large 1 incumbent Councilman Stephen Costello.

So we will have Griff to kick around again. Whoop-de-doo. No, I will not be interviewing him. My to-do list is a little longer now, but it doesn’t include Griff. Life is too short.

I’m still working on my 2013 Election page, since there are some names that remain unknown to me. I’ll wait and see what the final list of candidates on the City Secretary page looks like before I declare the page finalized. Some races are no different – At Large #2, Districts A, C, and I. Apparently, neither Chris Carmona nor Al Edwards filed in At Large #3, leaving that field a bit smaller than I’d have expected. The Bradford/Dadoush race in At Large #4 is potentially interesting. I know of at least one more candidate in At Large #5, James “father of Noah” Horwitz. And my God, could we possibly have more Mayoral candidates?

The big non-city-race news is the retirement of HISD Trustee Larry Marshall.

Marshall, who turned 81 in June, first was elected to the board of the Houston Independent School District in 1997. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

The other four incumbents up for re-election are running, and two face opponents.

A civil lawsuit filed by a construction contractor in late 2010 put Marshall under intense scrutiny, accusing him of a bribery and kickback scheme with his political campaign treasurer to help certain construction firms land HISD contracts.

The Houston Chronicle also has reported that the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office had launched a criminal investigation tied to the lawsuit.

[…]

The candidates running for Marshall’s seat are: W. Clyde Lemon, who served on the board in the mid-1990s; City Councilwoman Wanda Adams; Anthony Madry, a former HISD assistant principal; and Coretta Mallet-Fontenot.

I need to update the District IX race on the 2013 Election page, but I have the other races right – Anna Eastman versus Hugo Mojica in I, Harvin Moore versus Anne Sung in VII, and nobody versus Mike Lunceford in V and Greg Meyers in VIII. At least these races are straightforward.

Not mentioned as far as I can tell are the HCC Trustee races. Five trustees are up for election, thanks to the two appointments. Two incumbents, Neeta Sane and Bruce Austin, have no opponents that I am aware of. Yolanda Navarro Flores, who in 2011 lost a defamation lawsuit against her colleagues, is opposed by educator Zeph Capo and civic activist Kevin Hoffman, who narrowly lost to Navarro Flores in 2007. Herlinda Garcia, a former trustee who was appointed to fill the seat vacated by State Rep. Mary Ann Perez in HCC 3, is opposed by Adriana Tamez and Dane Cook. Leila Feldman, appointed to replace Richard Schechter after he resigned, is opposed by Phil Kunetka. Among other things, this means that the tail end of my interviewing schedule will be fuller than I originally thought it would be. As I said, these are the races I’m aware of. If I’ve missed anything, let me know. Stace and Campos have more.

Election page updates

If you take a look at my 2013 Election page, you will see that I have added information about HISD and HCC races. I don’t have information about all candidates, mostly because I don’t think I’ve heard of everyone yet, and because I’m certain that some of the fields are not settled yet. The rumor mill is saying that long-term scandal-plagued HISD Trustee Lawrence Marshall is not running for re-election, but as yet there has been no announcement to that effect, so take it with an appropriate level of skepticism. I am aware of at least one well-known candidate that is preparing to jump into that race, but again as yet no public announcement has been made. The filing deadline is one week from today, so we’ll know for sure who’s in and who’s not at that time. In the meantime, if I’ve missed anyone, or if I’ve missed someone’s webpage, please let me know.

Please note again with endorsements that I only include information that comes from the source. Press releases from the endorsing organization, webpage or Facebook links from the endorsing organization, ideally listing all of their endorsed candidates, are the sort of thing I’m looking for to include it on that page. I will not link to a release or post from the candidate. If you aware of an announcement or link from an endorsing organization that I have not included, please send it to me, but please do not forward an email from a candidate touting an endorsement they have received.

Some organizations have made endorsements but have not sent out press releases on them yet. I’ve had communication with three such groups so far, and am expecting something from them in the next couple of weeks. Patience, please.

HCC finance reports for July are finally available on their website, but only for incumbent Trustees. Finance reports for non-incumbent candidates, in both HCC and HISD, are not readily available to me. As you know, this is something I believe they need to fix.

Finally, as you can see, interviews are proceeding along. I’ll be skipping most unopposed incumbents this time around due to constraints on my time, but should be able to get everything else in by around the start of early voting.

July campaign finance reports, HISD and HCC

Ericka Mellon did me the favor of the heavy lifting for HISD Trustees.

Anna Eastman

Anna Eastman

Campaign finance reports filed this week show at least two non-incumbents are entering races for the Houston school board this November, while contributions for most trustees generally were smaller following new board-imposed restrictions.

Board president Anna Eastman, who represents District I, which includes the Heights, faces a challenge from Hugo Mojica, executive director of the Greater Northside Chamber of Commerce. Eastman raised more than any other trustee or candidate this reporting period, bringing in nearly $18,300 since January. Mojica, who formerly worked for the Project GRAD nonprofit that contracted with HISD, raised more than $2,100.

In south Houston’s District IX, now represented by Larry Marshall, a former HISD trustee, W. Clyde Lemon, has filed to run. Marshall, entangled in a bribery lawsuit, canceled his fundraiser in late June and raised no money this reporting period, which ran from January through July 15.

It’s unclear if Marshall, first elected in 1997, is seeking re-election. Marshall could not be reached immediately for comment Wednesday.

Lemon, an attorney who represented District IX in the mid-1990s before Marshall’s election, raised $2,550 this reporting period. He has $923 on hand. Marshall has more than $18,000 on hand from prior fundraising.

The other seats on the ballot this November are District V (Mike Lunceford), District VI (Greg Meyers) and District VII (Harvin Moore). No other candidates have filed to run. They have until Aug. 26 to file.

I couldn’t have put it any better than that. Go see the full post for Mellon’s summaries. If you want to see the reports themselves, you have to go to the HISD Trustees webpage, then click the link for the trustee in question, and from there you’ll see a link for their finance reports. The downside to this is that there’s no easy way to find reports for a challenger like Hugo Mojica. To be honest, I’m not even sure where these reports get filed, so I don’t know where to look for them other than on the Trustees’ own pages, which obviously isn’t enough. If it’s HISD that gets the reports, then my request to HISD is this: Please make it possible to find all candidates’ reports online. If Larry Marshall doesn’t run again, there’s likely to be a multitude of candidates. We deserve to know what their funding sources are.

As for HCC, their campaign finance reports page does list one challenger, Kevin Hoffman, and since they have all the reports available via that page they can easily add others as needed or appropriate. However, as of this writing they don’t have the July reports available yet, just the January ones. I’ll check back again later and let you know when those are up.

More from the Larry Marshall files

This guy is a piece of work.

HISD trustee Larry Marshall, fresh off a two-day school board retreat, flew from Houston to Tampa, Fla., on a clear winter day to watch the 2009 Super Bowl in Raymond James Stadium.

Cheap seats for the match-up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals cost $500 each, but brokers were charging $2,000. The price, however, didn’t matter to Marshall, who paid nothing for his ticket, his airfare or his hotel that weekend.

The school district’s most senior trustee recently disclosed under oath that he accepted the free trip from the owners of Fort Bend Mechanical, a Stafford company that three months earlier had won an HISD construction contract potentially worth millions.

New deposition testimony reveals that the Super Bowl trip was just one example of Marshall’s social interactions with actual or prospective HISD contractors. He also forged relationships over meals at places like the Four Seasons and Fleming’s, with the contractors typically picking up his tab, he said.

These connections would not have been disclosed publicly save for an ongoing civil lawsuit alleging a bribery and money laundering scheme involving Marshall, Fort Bend Mechanical and another company, RHJ-JOC.

The gifts normally fall under a loophole in state law, which allows local elected officials to keep secret any meals, lodging, travel or tickets they receive from contractors so long as the contractor is present at the event. The “guest” rule meant Marshall did not have to file disclosure paperwork about the Super Bowl because he attended alongside the district vendors who paid the bill.

“Not only do we need more disclosure, we just need to ban that practice,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the watchdog group Public Citizen of Texas. “It’s a well-known psychological trick used by lobbyists at whatever level that if an elected official associates you with pleasurable events that they’re going to look favorable to any proposal you make to them.”

That loophole has since been closed, which is good if a bit late. What’s amazing to me is not just the extent of Marshall’s questionable behavior (I’m being generous here) but the extent to which he doesn’t see it as questionable. All I know is that Marshall is up for re-election this year, and I truly hope he gets challenged on this stuff. It has no place on the school board. K-12 Zone has more.

A first look at the 2013 elections

It is 2013, right? So while we have the SD06 special election and the new legislative session to worry about, it’s not too early to start talking about the 2013 elections. Let’s start with a peek at the campaign finance reports from last July of the Houston officeholders who will be on the ballot this November:

Dist Name Cash on hand ================================= Myr Parker 1,281,657 Ctrl R Green 9,983 AL 1 Costello 57,345 AL 2 Burks 3,160 AL 4 Bradford 20,590 AL 5 Christie 14,535 A Brown 22,641 B Davis 64,211 C Cohen 45,597 F Hoang 6,429 G Pennington 119,951 H Gonzalez 57,899 J Laster 31,816 K L Green 9,107

I omitted the three Council members who are term-limited out (Melissa Noriega, Wanda Adams, and James Rodriguez), as well as newly-elected Dave Martin, since his July report would not be relevant. Normally there would have been five open seats this year, but with Mike Sullivan stepping down due to his successful candidacy for Tax Assessor and Jolanda Jones losing in 2011, there are only three vacancies, and as such there will likely be a stampede for those seats. But we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s take a closer look at where the non-term limited incumbents are.

Mayor

As we know, Mayor Parker will probably by challenged by former City Attorney Ben Hall, will possibly be challenged by her former Housing Director James Noteware, may possibly be challenged by some yet unknown candidate or candidates, and will certainly have a few fringe challengers as well. It could be quite the crowded race at the top of the ticket. While Hall would certainly be a more serious opponent in terms of money, resume, and presumed base of support than the 2011 hopefuls were, with Noteware and the others also possibly having more juice, I have believed for some time now that Parker starts out in a stronger position this year than she was in two years ago. The much-improved economy and real estate market mean that the city’s budget is far healthier than it was, which means the Mayor can do positive things rather than negative things like layoffs and service reductions. Distractions like red light cameras and Renew Houston are in the past, while the overwhelming passage of the city’s bond referenda gives the Mayor some wind at her back and a nice accomplishment with which to begin the year. Anything can happen, and we’ll see who if anyone else emerges to run against her, but I believe we will look back and say that 2011 was the better chance to beat her.

How would one go about defeating Mayor Parker if one were inclined to do so? The conventional wisdom is to aim to replicate the 1991 campaign, in which State Rep. Sylvester Turner and eventual winner Bob Lanier squeezed then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire into a third place finish. This is the vaunted “pincer strategy”, combining African-Americans and Republicans to shrink the remaining voter pool for the white Democratic lady Mayor. I’m skeptical of this. For one thing, Whitmire – who garnered an incredibly low 20% of the vote in that election – was running for her sixth term in those pre-term limits days, at a time when the term limits movement was gaining steam. There was a strong case for change, or at least there was a more restless electorate that was going through an economic downturn that year. Whitmire was also coming off a bruising defeat, as her $1.2 billion monorail proposal was killed by Metro’s board chairman, who was none other than Bob Lanier. Lanier promised to spend that money on roads, which was much more popular. There isn’t an issue right now that could be used as a cudgel against Parker, which makes the argument to fire her that much more challenging.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t issues to be used against Parker, but they’re not issues that I think are likely to be used effectively by an establishment insider like Hall, or any Republican who may file. Given that Hall is who he is, I think a more potent strategy would be to pair him with an outspoken liberal, who can compete with Parker’s base voters in District C by attacking her for things like the homeless feeding ordinance, the lack of any effort to advance equality in Houston, and the Metro referendum if one believes the University Line is mortally wounded. Quantifying the irony of Whitmire losing for promoting a rail plan, and Parker losing for being perceived as insufficiently supportive of rail, is left as an exercise for the reader.

And as long as I’m giving out advice, my suggestion to Team Annise is to work on building its ground game and seeking to increase turnout. There were 160K ballots cast in the 2009 runoff, but only 123K in 2011. Neither of these are particularly high totals for a city election – indeed, the 2011 total failed to reach the puny 125K ballots cast in the sleepy 2007 election. There are plenty of people who have voted in city elections, certainly as recently as 2003, but haven’t done so in the past few cycles. I rather doubt that Parker versus Hall et al is likely on its own to draw any more voters than Parker/Locke/Brown/Morales did in 2009 (181K, in case you’re curious), but there’s no reason Parker shouldn’t be working to identify and bring out voters who have a less consistent history of voting in city elections. I think that offers a better path to 50% plus one than another dreary exercise in talking to only the same old hardcore voters. You know, like me. She has plenty of money, she’ll have plenty more after the curtain comes up on fundraising season. Target a bigger universe, I say.

Controller

I’m wondering if Ronald Green has a typo in his finance report. He reported $46K on hand last January, then his July report showed that he raised $26K and spent $13K, so I have no idea he could have had only $9,983 on hand. I guess we’ll see what this January’s report says. Beyond that, not much to see here. He’s still not a big fundraiser, and he still has no credible announced opposition despite his recent negative press.

Council At Large

Is it just me, or are those some anemic cash on hand totals? Six out of eight district Council members have larger campaign treasuries than three of the four At Large members. Bradford often reports a lot of in kind contributions – he has listed some things we might normally think of as expenditures as in kind contributions – which tends to reduce his COH figure. Burks, who raised $35K but had $34K in expenses, paid off a number of debts, including the $10K loan from his wife and two items dating from the 2009 campaign that totaled $4650. Christie also spent nearly as much as he raised – $66K raised, $63K in expenditures. This included $45K for “printing”, which I presume was a deferred expense from his runoff campaign.

As was the case in 2011, there’s only one open At Large seat, At Large #3, so once again I expect a cattle call in that race. I know Jenifer Pool, who ran in At Large #2 in 2011, is in for AL3 this year, and other names will surely emerge in the next few weeks. I have to think that it would be worthwhile for a Council wannabe who might be concerned about getting lost in that shuffle to consider taking on one of the incumbents instead, specifically Burks or Christie. Burks’ winning campaign in 2011 after however many previous tries was, to put it gently, atypical. The only policy item I can recall that he originated last year was a proposal to revamp Houston’s term limits ordinance, which never made it out of committee. He also drew scorn for suggesting that the propane tanks used by food trucks might potentially be used as weapons by terrorists. He doesn’t have much money, doesn’t have a history of fundraising, has generally run do-it-yourself campaigns, and his main asset is the name recognition that a dozen or more previous campaigns has earned him. You can make a similar case for Christie, who made an interesting proposal relating to shelters for homeless people that as far as I know went nowhere and who also said silly things during the food truck debate. Unlike Burks, Christie has been and should continue to be a good fundraiser, but also unlike Burks he has no natural constituency – he’s a moderate Republican who isn’t beloved by county GOP insiders. His win in 2011 could also reasonably be described as out of the ordinary. I’m not saying either would be easy to beat this year, I’m not even saying someone should run against them. I’m just suggesting that a multi-candidate open seat race where getting to the runoff is more crapshoot than anything else doesn’t necessarily offer the best odds of being sworn in next January.

District Council

Just so you know, former Council Member Brenda Stardig reported $26,574 on hand in July. If she aims for a rematch with Helena Brown, she starts out at parity in the money department. I’m not sure what’s up with CMs Hoang and Green, but I don’t expect either of them to have much difficulty this year. Everyone will be watching District A, probably even more than the two open seats, but I’d keep an eye on Jerry Davis in District B as well. Davis has worked hard, but doesn’t appear to have won over the insiders in the district, being a new resident of B himself. It would not shock me if he gets a serious opponent. Beyond that, Dwight Boykins appears to be in for the open seat in District D, and while other names will soon emerge we may have to get a judge’s opinion about whether Jolanda Jones can be among them. There are already two candidates for District I; if history holds, there likely won’t be too many more.

HISD and HCC

It’s a bit confusing because the County Clerk webpage doesn’t track uncontested Trustee races, but I’m pretty sure that the following people are up for election:

For HISD Trustee: Mike Lunceford, Anna Eastman, Greg Meyers, Lawrence Marshall, and Harvin Moore. Lunceford and Eastman are finishing their first terms; Moore and Meyers were unopposed in 2009; Marshall won in a runoff. I have not heard anything so far to indicate that any of them are not running for re-election. If Anna Eastman runs for and wins re-election she will be the first Trustee in District I to do so since at least 1997 – I can’t check any farther back than that. Gabe Vasquez was elected that year, followed by Karla Cisneros in 2001, Natasha Kamrani in 2005, and Eastman in 2009.

For HCC Trustee: Mary Ann Perez’s election to the Lege in HD144 means there will be a vacancy in HCC Trustee District III. The Board has appointed former Trustee Herlinda Garcia to replace her. Garcia, about whom you can learn more here, will need to run in a special election to be able to serve the remainder of Perez’s term, which expires in 2015. The three Trustees whose terms are up this year are Bruce Austin, Neeta Sane, whose district includes a piece of Fort Bend County, and Yolanda Navarro Flores. It’s fair to say that Trustee Navarro Flores’ current term in office has been rather eventful. She won a close race last time, and if she runs again I would expect her to get a strong challenger. Sane is completing her first term, while Austin, the longest-serving Trustee, was first elected in 1989. I am pleased to note that this year the Trustee candidates’ campaign finance statements are now available online. Sometimes, a little bitching and moaning goes a long way.

That’s all I’ve got for now. January finance reports are due next week, and a few will probably trickle in early. I’ll keep an eye out and will post a report when they’re all up, or at least at some point after they’re all supposed to be when I’ve run out of patience waiting for them. I’ll throw in the reports for County officeholders who are up in 2014 as well, just because. Please add your own speculation and rumormongering about who is or isn’t running for what in the comments.

Why the HISD Board of Trustees needed stricter ethics rules

Ladies and gentlemen, Trustee Larry Marshall.

HISD trustee Larry Marshall voted repeatedly to award taxpayer-funded contracts to companies that hired his longtime business associate – who gave him a cut of her earnings, according to court records, deposition testimony and interviews.

Marshall, the Houston Independent School District’s most senior trustee, has received tens of thousands of dollars through the arrangement with consultant Joyce Moss-Clay, who also is his political campaign treasurer, records show. The partnership dates back several years, and in 2009 alone netted the elected official more than $59,000.

The payments to Marshall are at the center of an ongoing civil lawsuit that alleges a bribery and kickback scheme tainted the bidding process in the nation’s seventh-largest school district. (Excerpts from a deposition the the case appear at the bottom of this story.)

“I think any taxpaying citizen would agree that it’s totally inappropriate for an HISD board member to receive thousands of dollars a month in income from contractors with business before the district,” said attorney Chad Dunn, representing the Gil Ramirez Group. The local construction company is suing Marshall, Moss-Clay, HISD and two competing firms after losing a bid for a contract.

Moss-Clay, who is a retired HISD facilities manager, testified in a recent deposition that she paid Marshall up to 75 percent of the fees she collected from clients because he helped with the consulting work and acted as a mentor and “familial brother.”

Marshall, first elected to the school board in 1997, has maintained in court filings that he provided legitimate consulting services. The retired HISD administrator denied that he tried to steer school district business to certain vendors.

“There is absolutely no evidence that Marshall has improperly influenced government contracts,” his attorney, Jarvis Hollingsworth, wrote in a late October filing. “From the outset of this lawsuit, it has been clear that Defendant Joyce Moss-Clay was doing nothing more than paying Marshall for the valuable consulting services that he was providing her.”

The story kind of makes my eyes glaze over due to all of the convoluted transactions. Marshall has always been surrounded by stories and allegations like these, but he’s always managed to survive them, possibly because other people’s eyes glaze over reading about them as well. As I said before, ethics and ethics reform would be easier if everyone involved would just take care not to do things that look and smell suspicious. As long as there are Larry Marshalls in office, it will never be easy.

The $25,000 question

What the hell?

A $25,000 campaign contribution to a Houston school board member normally would raise eyebrows for its size.

Add in the fact that the donation was not listed in the trustee’s financial disclosure forms, and the five-figure check becomes evidence in a lawsuit.

A Houston construction firm, the Gil Ramirez Group, alleged in new federal court filings this week that the check to HISD board member Larry Marshall’s campaign was part of a bribery and conspiracy scheme meant to benefit certain companies.

The check to Marshall’s campaign in November 2009 came from David Medford, who runs Fort Bend Mechanical. The Stafford company has received millions of dollars from the Houston Independent School District for construction work.

“Anytime you see a $25,000 contribution to a school board member from a company that does business with the school district – and that large contribution is not reported as required by law – one has to conclude undue influence is at play,” said Chad Dunn, a Houston attorney.

Dunn is representing the Gil Ramirez Group in the federal lawsuit against Marshall and HISD.

Can someone please explain to me why school board elections aren’t subject to campaign contribution limits like Houston municipal elections are? Because I sure can’t think of a legitimate reason for anyone to give $25K to a school board candidate, let alone an entity that does business with the school district. If this isn’t something that can be addressed by those new ethics rules HISD is considering then it really needs to be addressed by the Legislature in 2013. Campos has more.

HISD to hire back some teachers

More good news.

More than 300 teachers and other educators in the Houston Independent School District have been rehired since the massive round of layoffs in the spring, according to newly released data.

Additional HISD teachers could get their jobs back in coming weeks thanks to a better-than-expected budget outlook — though Superintendent Terry Grier warns that a shortfall next year could force another set of layoffs.

[…]

HISD ended up with an extra $18.5 million after state lawmakers decided at the last minute not to cut schools as deeply as they initially had proposed. HISD and other districts also received new federal funds pushed by President Barack Obama’s administration to save teaching jobs.

HISD plans to apply the federal funds to health-insurance costs, Garrett said, noting that the money will disappear after a year.

Austin ISD recently announced that it was hiring some teachers back, too. Again, this is because the final state budget was less draconian than the original House budget, which would have cut $8 billion from education and which is what many school districts, whose own budgets needed to be approved in the spring, acted on. (And just as a reminder, every Republican State Rep voted for that budget.) As the story notes, the extra funding equates to about $85 per student, or one extra teacher at a campus of 600. This makes the net funding cut in HISD $190 per student.

HISD sent layoff notices to 724 employees on teaching contracts in the spring to meet the state’s pink slip deadline. But the district since has been able to rehire 312 of those employees as other staff members resigned or retired and the budget numbers became more definite.

Previous coverage had said “about 730” teachers would be getting pink-slipped. The total number of teachers that had to be let go came down when other teachers decided to retire or resign, but that’s still a net loss of 724 teaching spots, and that doesn’t count the 277 non-teaching jobs that were also eliminated. This announcement reduces by a bit more than half the total number of teaching positions lost, and brings the net job loss number down from a hair over 1000 to about 600. Which is better but still nothing to celebrate, especially since there may be more cuts coming next year. Hair Balls has more.

Having done that, perhaps now the HISD Board can get its own house in order.

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier said Monday he would engage a nonprofit education group and outside financial auditors to review the district’s procurement processes following reports of close relationships between some trustees and vendors.

School board vice president Anna Eastman called for an outside audit last week after news reports about board president Paula Harris and Trustee Larry Marshall contacting Grier and other top administrators on behalf of vendors.

Eastman said she did not know details of Grier’s proposed audit. In an email last week to supporters, she said she hoped an audit would find no wrongdoing and bring about suggestions for “better standards and ethical practices to regain the public trust that I sense is waning.”

On Monday, Houston Independent School District Trustee Greg Meyers confirmed he had contact with Grier related to an impending deal with the University of St. Thomas, where Meyers works.

I’ve included Eastman’s email beneath the fold. This is a step in the right direction, but as the story notes the nonprofit group that Grier wants to engage for this is one that does business with HISD, which would seem to be less than optimal for these purposes. It would also help if there were more competitive elections for HISD Trustee – so far, as far as I know, none of the four Trustees up for election have opponents – and if people paid more attention in general to these elections. That’s not something an outside entity can fix, however.

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HISD redistricting on the horizon

This is likely to be a lot less contentious than other map-drawing exercises we’ve seen, but no redistricting exercise is ever completely bloodless.

Gene Locke of Andrews Kurth told [HISD] trustees they should have a plan to submit to the Justice Department by this July.

Redistricting is called for whenever there’s more than a 10 percent change in the population of a district, Locke said. While several of HISD’s districts remain about the same, [Richard] Murray said there’s been a large increase in District 9 (Larry Marshall’s area) and a decline in population in the north and east parts of the city since the 2000 census.

HISD is going to have to balance the demands of the Voting Rights Act which call for it to be cognizant of race and the Shaw v. Reno case of the 1990s which drawing on the 14th Amendment prohibits anyone from being included or excluded from a voting area based on race.

“You’re caught in a dilemma,” Locke said. “The Voting Rights Act says you have to recognize minority groups [in Houston that’s been identified as Vietnamese, Hispanics and African American, he said] but the 14th amendment says you can’t draw lines on race.”

According to Murray, census figures show Anglos declined by 30,000 overall, but increased by 20,000 in the inner city. African Americans dropped by 7,000 overall, he said. Asians increased by 41 percent, from 50,000 to 70,000 and are concentrated mostly in the Medical Center and Midtown areas.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of Hispanic residents in Marshall’s district, Murray said. But the Hispanic population is declining in the east end and the Heights, he added.

Greg was on this in January, and he has a document from that time that outlined the process. I’ll be very interested to see what HISD does.

HISD cuts 277 jobs

There will be more of this to follow.

The Houston school district will have fewer bus drivers, construction workers, finance employees and other staff next year under budget cuts the board approved on Thursday.

Trustees, expecting a severe shortfall in state funding, unanimously agreed to eliminate 277 positions, representing about 12 percent of the central office, according to chief financial officer Melinda Garrett.

The number of layoffs will be fewer, with about one-third of the positions vacant at last count, Garrett said.

Trustee Mike Lunceford suggested that employees earning at least $100,000, including Superintendent Terry Grier, take a pay cut. The move, he said, would send “a very strong symbol that shows everyone’s in this together.”

The Houston Independent School District has 155 employees earning at least $100,000, according to a salary database from September. Of those, two-thirds work in the central office, and the others are school principals.

A 3 percent pay cut for those central office employees — Lunceford’s proposal – would save HISD about $400,000, a fraction of the district’s $1.6 billion budget.

I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other about Lunceford’s suggestion. It looks good, it’s not an unreasonable thing to ask when others are getting fired and furloughed, and it will save a few bucks. But let’s keep some perspective – the total savings are 0.6% of the remaining gap that HISD currently projects that it needs to fill.

The board so far has agreed to cut $106 million from the district’s budget, leaving an estimated $65 shortfall.

Trustee Larry Marshall said Thursday that he was pleased the board hadn’t raised the property tax rate or reduced a special tax discount known as the optional homestead exemption.

“Not at this point,” responded Garrett, who has said raising taxes and dipping into the district’s $84 million rainy-day fund are options for balancing the budget.

Remember, HISD has room to raise the tax rate without requiring a public vote on it because their tax rate is below the state-mandated limit. I know I’ve seen a figure cited somewhere of how much a tax rate increase would bring in for HISD, but I can’t find it now. My recollection is that a four-cent increase, which is what has been mentioned, would not bring in enough to bridge that $65 million gap. There will still be cuts to come, and bear in mind that we are still using the numbers from HISD’s optimistic scenario, which assumes about $2.8 billion more in public school funds than what is in HB1. All these numbers are very much subject to change.

Trustees still dithering about replacing Davila

Still no action from the HISD Board of Trustees regarding Diana Davila’s open seat.

Trustee Larry Marshall called for holding an election in November but his motion failed 3-5, mostly along racial lines. The board plans to screen possible appointees during a public meeting Tuesday and might still decide to call a November election.

Three of the four minority board members — Marshall, Carol Mims Galloway and Manuel Rodriguez Jr. – voted for the election.

The five trustees voting against the election, at least for now, were Harvin Moore, Greg Meyers, Anna Eastman, Mike Lunceford and Paula Harris. Harris is black, and the others are Anglo.

[…]

The trustees voting against the election did not say they had ruled out the idea but said they wanted to meet with possible appointees first. The board must decide whether to call an election by Aug. 24 to meet candidate filing deadlines.

Moore said that he supports elections and pointed out that an election will happen in November 2011. He characterized the board’s decision as whether to call an “extra” election.

Eastman echoed Moore’s suggestion for a public forum to meet possible appointees.

Marshall had tried to make this same motion at Monday’s meeting but wasn’t permitted to do.

Trustee Larry Marshall tried to make a motion to act Monday, but board president Greg Meyers stopped him. Marshall was the only trustee during the public discussion to hint what the board planned to do. “I thought the sentiment was that we would vote to hold an election,” Marshall said.

Trustee Manuel Rodríguez Jr. responded than an election was Dávila’s preference, but said trustees really hadn’t discussed it. Marshall disagreed. “I thought we had considerable discussion,” he replied.

If the Board thinks it’s best to appoint someone, then get a process going already. I don’t know what’s taking so long. Yes, any appointee will have to face the voters next year, but he or she will have the advantage of doing so as the incumbent. I honestly don’t see the downside to letting the voters decide this year as well. The Chron agrees.

Given the unanswered questions surrounding the multiple resignations, it would be best to put HISD’s District VIII seat on the November ballot.

The Chronicle editorialized in 1993 that “a vote of the people is almost always preferable to an appointment. An election is a great leveler in that it avoids a situation of a few people anointing one unelected candidate with the advantages of incumbency when the four-year term ends.”

That sentiment remains equally valid today.

I don’t understand the Board’s reluctance on this. Hair Balls and the School Zone liveblog of Thursday’s meeting has more.

UPDATE: There will be a public forum on Tuesday at 11 AM at Furr High School for people who are interested in being appointed to Davila’s seat and for people interested in meeting those people.

HISD Trustee runoff overview

Here’s the Chron story on the two runoffs for HISD Trustee. It echoes a theme from that Examiner story we saw yesterday.

The outcome of the races could reshape several board debates — particularly over wages for construction workers, efforts to hold weak teachers more accountable and the role of magnet schools. Early voting runs through Tuesday, and Election Day is Dec. 12.

Both Lara and Collins support paying contractors higher wages based on standard federal rates. They argue that bigger paychecks will draw more-qualified workers and prevent shoddy construction.

The Harris County AFL-CIO, which endorsed Lara and Collins, pushed the board to adopt the wages this year. Marshall, who has had crucial support from unions in past campaigns, agreed with the majority of the board in rejecting the idea as too costly.

“This is insulting in a way, that as hard as times are that any organization could even make this an issue,” said Marshall, who estimated that paying the federal rates for the 2007 bond projects would cost an extra $75 million.

Lots riding on the line for several organizations in these races. I noticed that of the four runoff candidates, the Chron did not say where Anna Eastman stood on the issue of prevailing wages. So I sent her a Facebook message to ask, and this is the answer she sent me:

Thanks for asking me about this issue. It never came up in my interview with [Chron reporter Ericka Mellon]. My understanding of the recent argument between the AFL-CIO and the Board of Trustees is tied to some promises that were made by the former superintendent and HISD school bond program administrator Dick Lindsey during the 2007 bond campaign, but not agreed upon by the board.

As a board member I would hope that any negotiations of this sort would involve all parties. I believe when we are spending public dollars there should be accountability on both sides and we should be hiring licensed workers at a fair wage and insure that we are following policy guidelines for inclusion of minority contractors.

Our dollars should be spent to effectively serve and benefit the most children possible, not to fund adult interests. As a board member of a public institution charged with educating children, my decisions will be guided first and foremost by what benefits children and their education.

So there you have it.

Meet the HISD Parent Visionaries

I’ve mentioned the group HISD Parent Visionaries a couple of times in this space. Here’s an article about them from the Examiner.

Parent Visionaries was spawned after HISD’s former superintendent, Dr. Abelardo Saavedra, voiced an interest in eliminating or reducing magnet school transportation. The parent group, largely from District V, became vocal in opposition and since, has spread support to parents in other districts in HISD.

“Our goal is to have memberships from all districts,” says Mary Nesbitt, one of the group’s driving forces.

Parent Visionaries now claims a list of about 350 members who communicate in person and online.

As noted in the story, HISD Parent Visionaries was active in the Trustee elections, with two of their three endorsed candidates – Mike Lunceford in V and Anna Eastman in I – either winning or making it to the runoffl. They have now endorsed Trustee Larry Marshall in his race in IX, and in each case – Marshall versus Adrian Collins, Eastman versus Alma Lara – they are opposed by candidates who are backed by the Houston Federation of Teachers. It’ll be very interesting to see who wins this particular fight.

Trustee Marshall endorsed by former opponents

In the runoff for HISD Trustee in District IX, incumbent Trustee Larry Marshall received the endorsement of the third and fourth-place finishers, George Davis and Michael Williams. I find that a little odd, since one presumes when they ran to unseat Marshall they thought a change was needed, but I guess they decided they didn’t want Adrian Collins to be that change. Marshall has also been endorsed by the HISD Parent Visionaries group, who backed Trustee-elect Mike Lunceford and runoff candidate Anna Eastman. You can read their runoff analysis and recommendation here. Note the difference between Marshall and Collins’ positions on paying prevailing wages for capital improvement projects in HISD. Labor unions are upset with Marshall for breaking promises made to them about prevailing wages in return for their support of the 2007 bond referendum, which is why they are strongly backing Collins. We’ll see if that can be a difference-maker here.

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HISD Trustee IX overview

One more Chron overview of an HISD Trustee race, this one in District IX where three candidates are challenging incumbent and Board President Larry Marshall.

During the last several months, Marshall has had a tumultuous stint as board president. The 77-year-old has lashed out at his fellow trustees — once saying they had “an overly inflated” view of themselves — and sparked criticism for not allowing some items onto meeting agendas.

Marshall, though, points to his success at leading the board through an intense search for a superintendent — a process that ended with a unanimous vote to hire Terry Grier. Marshall also notes that HISD has won praise for its healthy finances during his tenure on the board.

“I’ve made a difference,” said Marshall, who runs an education and management consulting business.

Marshall has had some electoral challenges before – he was forced into a runoff in 2005 by Daisy Maura, who has endorsed Adrian Collins in this race. Collins also has the support of the Houston Federation of Teachers, who had backed Marshall in 2005. And of course, he has his former boss, State Sen. Rodney Ellis, in his corner as well, plus the Chron’s endorsement. You can listen to my interview with Adrian Collins here. The HISD Parent Visionaries is backing George Davis. I don’t know if Marshall will survive again, but I think it’s safe to say we’ll have another runoff this year.

Interview with Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins

I know, I said I was finished with interviews. Turns out that wasn’t quite the case, and so today we have a conversation with Adrian Collins, who is running for HISD Trustee in District IX against incumbent Larry Marshall. Collins is a veteran of the Army and of the Texas Legislator, where he spent a decade working for State Rep. Scott Hochberg and State Sen. Rodney Ellis, most recently as his Deputy District Director. Collins is currently a member of the White House Advance Staff, having served that role on the Obama campaign as well. His wife Lena is an HISD teacher, and their two sons attend HISD schools.

Download the MP3 file

PREVIOUSLY:

Karen Derr, At Large #1
Brad Bradford, At Large #4
Stephen Costello, At Large #1
Lane Lewis, District A
Lonnie Allsbrooks, At Large #1
Noel Freeman, At Large #4
Brenda Stardig, District A
Oliver Pennington, District G
Amy Peck, District A
Herman Litt, At Large #1
Natasha Kamrani, HISD Trustee in District I, not running for re-election
Alex Wathen, District A
Robert Kane, District F
Council Member Melissa Noriega, At Large #3
Jeff Downing, District A
Mike Laster, District F
Council Member Jolanda Jones, At Large #5
Mills Worsham, District G
Rick Rodriguez, At Large #1
Council Member Sue Lovell, At Large #2
Carlos Obando, At Large #5
Richard Sedita, District G
Jack Christie, At Large #5
Dexter Handy, District G
George Foulard, District G
Alma Lara, HISD Trustee District I
Anna Eastman, HISD Trustee District I
Linda Toyota, HISD Trustee District I
Council Member Ed Gonzalez, District H
Council Member Wanda Adams, District D
Council Member Anne Clutterbuck, District C
Progressive Coalition candidates
Council Member Mike Sullivan, District E
Council Member James Rodriguez, District I
Council Member Jarvis Johnson, District B
Mike Lunceford, HISD Trustee District V
Ray Reiner, HISD Trustee District V
Council Member Ronald Green, candidate for Controller
Council Member MJ Khan, candidate for Controller
Council Member Pam Holm, candidate for Controller
Gene Locke, candidate for Mayor
Council Member Peter Brown, candidate for Mayor
City Controller Annise Parker, candidate for Mayor

The HISD Trustee candidates speak

These are short videos – I think Art Rascon’s intros of the candidates take as much time as they get to speak for themselves – but if you’ve not met the HISD Trustee candidates or listened to any of my interviews, here’s a chance to see and hear them from KTRK. First, in District I:

District V:

District IX, where three candidates are challenging incumbent Larry Marshall:

According to School Zone, there will be a full length candidate forum aired on KTRK on Sunday at 11 AM. The forum was sponsored by Parents for Public Schools, and you can read a few highlights at that link. Check ’em out.

More on the HISD candidates

The Bellaire Examiner looks at the contested HISD Trustee races, two of which weren’t hadn’t been contested before the day of the filing deadline.

HISD Board President Lawrence Marshall appeared to be one of three incumbent trustees unopposed in the upcoming board election. Instead, three last-minute entries will make Marshall’s attempt to retain his District IX seat more difficult than he expected.

George Davis, Adrian Collins and Michael Williams filed for candidacy Wednesday, the last day for election filing.

Marshall, who has been at the center of the superintendent transition and who has recently been target of some internal board unrest, expected late challengers.

“It’s amazing how certain communities of interest work,” said Marshall. “Some communities of interest see incumbency as an asset, that it represents leadership that they don’t want to replace. Other communities sometimes respond differently.”

“I run year-round,” added Marshall. “That’s the way I’ve been doing it for twelve years. I wasn’t worried about any element of surprise, because we’ve already geared up our campaign.”

[…]

Davis has received backing from the advocacy group HISD Parent Visionaries. Davis, who oversees business programs for continuing education at Houston Community College, is a Lanier High School graduate who has extensive experience with Workforce Solutions.

“I just think it’s time for a new generation of leadership,” said Davis. “People have shared with me their desire for a need for new leadership and a fresh perspective.”

Collins, a community liaison for State Sen. Rodney Ellis, has also been a consultant to the White House and President Barack Obama on community and education issues.

“Over the last decade we have seen a decline in the quality of education the students of District IX have received compared to other parts of the districts,” Collins wrote in a prepared statement.

Williams, a 1980 graduate of Worthing High School, is a businessman in auto sales. Williams has a fourth-grader in private school, though he has been a member of the Worthing PTO.

“There’s no school in our area I can think of sending my kids to,” said Williams, who is a resident of Sunnyside.

“As of late we haven’t seen any changes in our area.” said Williams. “Money seems to come up missing in our area and nobody can tell us where it is. I just think it’s time for a change.”

That’s some pretty serious competition for Marshall, who has certainly drawn the ire of the HISD Parent Visionaries group. Marshall is no stranger to tough races – he was forced into a runoff in 2005, and won a runoff in 1997 after finishing second on Election Day. In other words, don’t count him out. Just so we’re clear, I’m a member of the HISD Visionaries group, though all I’ve done is receive their messages. (I don’t remember who invited me to join the group, for what it’s worth.) I don’t know George Davis, but I do know Adrian Collins.

Moving over to the open District V race, in which Mike Lunceford picked up an opponent, Ray Reiner:

The race between Lunceford and Reiner represents a surprising and intriguing challenge. Lunceford submitted his candidate paperwork with the district immediately when the filing period opened; Reiner declared his candidacy Wednesday.

Reiner, highly regarded for his 40-year tenure as an administrator with the district, retired in 2005 and has remained active in various consultancy and mediation roles. Reiner was mentioned by various HISD sources when the school board began the search to replace former superintendent Dr. Abelardo Saavedra.

“I look at this as a really golden opportunity to come back into communities and help students, help parents, and help their communities,” said Reiner. “Over the last four or five years there’s been a lack of sensitivity in various communities within the larger community itself. I think I can not only address those concerns but also be an advocate for change.”

“I look forward to the opportunity to continue to serve,” added Reiner.

Lunceford, a petroleum engineer, has had longtime committee involvement in District V under former trustee Don McAdams, and has served on HISD bond committees. Lunceford has drawn praise from Johnson and his candidacy has been backed by various HISD parent groups.

“Everybody’s been very supportive,” said Lunceford. “It’s a very interesting time with a new superintendent coming in, with the views that he has.”

Lunceford added: “If you look at the history of District V, people who run for the board or become trustees rarely have any aspirations of higher office, and that’s kind of what I’ve focused on. I have no further aspirations after this—my goal is to get our schools going.”

According to HISD Parent Visionaries founder Mary Nesbitt, that group is supporting Davis, Lunceford, and Anna Eastman in District I. Should be interesting to see what kind of an effect they can have, especially in what may be a low-turnout election. I will have interviews from all three District I candidates on the blog the week after Labor Day.

Parents get their vote on HISD school construction projects

The battle between a parents group and some HISD trustees had been waging with HISD Board President Larry Marshall over getting a vote for some school construction projects that the parents said had been promised during the 2007 bond referendum campaign is over, and the projects will go forward. Most of them, anyway.

The Houston school board voted Thursday to spend an extra $121 million — divided equally among each of the nine trustees’ districts — to cover pet construction projects not funded in previous building programs.

The vote, following days of fighting among the trustees, earmarked money specifically for six campuses considered to be in severe disrepair: Worthing High, Bellaire High, Sam Houston High, Grady Middle, Lockhart Elementary and Bellfort Academy.

Left out of the deal, however, was a new campus for the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which angered parents who believe they had been promised a new school. Money for that work, which would cost roughly $40 million, would need to come from another source, HISD officials said.

Nearly 100 parents turned out for Thursday’s board meeting to plea for money for neglected campuses. Board President Larry Marshall had only three schools — Lockhart, Bellfort and Worthing — on the agenda, much to the chagrin of trustees representing other parts of town.

Parents pressed for the vote now because they said outgoing Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra had promised to recommend the projects in return for their votes for the $805 million bond referendum that narrowly passed in 2007. Saavedra is leaving at the end of the month.

Board member Manuel Rodriguez Jr. made the last-minute suggestion to give each trustee’s district $13.5 million to fund repairs at campuses that he says were not adequately addressed in the bond program. Some of the schools have been promised money for more than a decade, parents said.

“We are looking for the district to keep its promises,” said Mary Nesbitt, vice president of Parents for Public Schools.

Hair Balls has more. Marshall complained about the fact that some of the funding comes from savings in the general fund. I can appreciate that, but if this is what HISD promised, then HISD should be prepared to deliver on it.

No vote from HISD on several school upgrades

Last week, I noted that a parents group and some HISD trustees were complaining about there not being a vote on three school construction projects that were promised as part of the 2007 bond referendum. Even though we now have a new Superintendent in tow, which was supposedly the holdup on these items, they’re still not getting any action.

Parents trying to get facilities upgrades at several Houston ISD campuses said Monday that Board President Larry Marshall has once again thwarted efforts to bring the matter to a vote this week.

Saying she is in a “complete state of shock” after the posting of the board’s workshop schedule for Thursday morning, which contains only three of seven schools, education activist Mary Nesbitt is calling on parents and others to come to the workshop to get the board to honor commitments by Supterintendent Abe Saavedra to correct facilities deficits at Bellaire High School, Grady Middle School, Sam Houston High and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

Nesbitt called Marshall’s actions “completely unprecedented and without regard for the wishes of the other board members who made a formal request to put forward the package of seven schools.”

Nesbit sent out another message to the Facebook group HISD Parent Visionaries about this, which I’ve reproduced beneath the fold. Trustee Harvin Moore said on Twitter that this was “The most bizarre power play I have witnessed in six years on the HISD board”. The workshop will be held at 7:30 a.m. Thursday in the Board Services Conference Room at district headquarters, 4400 W. 18th St., and I daresay it will be contentious. Be there if you can.

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Meet the new HISD boss

Here’s more on Terry Grier, the new HISD Superintendent-to-be.

Grier, 59, has been at the helm of the 135,000-student San Diego Unified School District since March 2008. He’s won support for his efforts to boost student achievement and curb dropouts, but his relationship with the teachers’ union and the labor-friendly school board has been rocky.

“Throughout his career Dr. Grier has built a strong reputation for innovation and school reform,” HISD school board President Larry Marshall said in a written statement. “The entire board was impressed with his innovative approach and passion to reform schools and improve student achievement.”

In Houston, Grier will face a larger district with a stubborn dropout problem and a board friendlier to some of his reform ideas, such as performance pay for teachers. The board’s announcement today marks the end of an intense five-month search cloaked in secrecy. The search, which cost taxpayers more than $100,000, intensified in recent weeks with the board interviewing about a dozen people behind closed doors.

[…]

Grier has the misfortune of being hired by a board in San Diego that underwent significant turnover after he signed his contract.

“It’s a different board than the board that hired him,” said San Diego board President Shelia Jackson. “I think he’s used to a board that kind of accepts what he says as gospel, and that’s not particularly true of this board.”

Grier could be walking into a similar situation in Houston, where five of nine school board positions will be on the November ballot. Some of those seats will be occupied by newcomers who won’t have been involved in Grier’s selection. Two incumbents — Natasha Kamrani and Dianne Johnson — have already announced they won’t seek re-election.

Grier’s supporters in San Diego acknowledge his rift with the board and the union, but they praise his leadership and focus on student achievement. Test scores released this week for San Diego rose to an all-time high, although it’s difficult to say how much of that is a result of Grier’s efforts during his short tenure, which covers just one full academic year.

[…]

Camille Zombro, president of the teachers’ union, the San Diego Education Association, said Grier has a “short-attention-span reform style.”

“I’m really sad for Houston,” Zombro said. “It’s not about the particular initiatives or programs he’s put into place or supported. It’s about who he is and his ineffectiveness as a manager.”

One of Grier’s more divisive ideas in San Diego mirrors an ongoing debate in Houston: whether to include student test score data in teachers’ evaluations.

Gayle Fallon, the Houston Federation of Teachers president, reserved judgment.

“I don’t know the man, and we give every superintendent a chance to establish his own relationship with us,” she said. “It’s up to a superintendent to determine whether they want a positive relationship or whether they want to fight.”

Like Gayle Fallon, I’ll reserve judgment for now. I think it’s a good move to hire someone who has had success in lowering dropout rates. If he can do that here, he’ll be a success pretty much no matter what. Hair Balls, School Zone, and Marc Campos have more.

Parents call on HISD to keep promises Saavedra made

With the revelation that HISD may have chosen its new superintendent, this Chron story from yesterday about how parent groups who were promised certain specific actions from outgoing Superintendent Abe Saavedra relating to the bond referendum, and the Board of Trustees’ apparent reluctance to act on them until they have a new super in place, may now be moot. But it’s still an interesting look at how the Board can operate, and why folks feel frustration about them.

Board President Larry Marshall denied a request by Trustees Manuel Rodriguez Jr., Harvin Moore and Dianne Johnson — who wanted the board to move forward with several construction projects at a meeting this Thursday.

Saavedra’s administration was prepared to recommend $56 million in upgrades to Lockhart Elementary School, Bellfort Academy, Grady Middle School, and Bellaire, Sam Houston and Worthing high schools. Saavedra, who declined to comment on the proposal, also was seeking a $40 million new High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, pending private sector help in finding a downtown location.

Marshall said he would not consider the trustees’ request until after the board selects a new superintendent — which could happen as soon as Thursday.

“It is most inappropriate to allow such distractions to interfere with the search process,” Marshall wrote in a letter to his fellow trustees.

Some parents have questioned Marshall’s response, [Mary Nesbitt, vice president of Parents for Public Schools] said, because he is allowing trustees to a discuss another divisive topic Thursday: paying higher wages to construction workers. Saavedra promised to push for higher wages during the 2007 bond campaign in exchange for support from labor unions.

It would seem that distraction is no longer present. We’ll see how the Board reacts to it. A message from Nesbitt to a Facebook group called HISD Visionaries regarding this is reproduced below.

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Eight candidates for HISD Superintendent

We don’t know who the candidates are for HISD Superintendent, but at least we know how many of them there are. There’s a Heisenberg joke in there somewhere, I’m just not certain how to find it.

The Houston school board president said Thursday that trustees could possibly hire a new superintendent in the new few weeks.

The board interviewed three candidates for the job Thursday, bringing the total number to eight.

Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra plans to step down Aug. 31.

“Our goal would be to have someone in place on or before Aug. 31,” school board President Larry Marshall said.

Asked if that was likely, he said, “It seems achievable.”

The board plans to conduct more closed-door interviews next week, perhaps as early as Monday, said Les Csorba, one of the board’s search consultants. Csorba and Marshall would not say whether the upcoming interviews will be with new candidates or follow-ups with ones interviewed already.

“I can’t tell you whether it’s round two, three, four, five or six,” Marshall said. “We’re still in the ring.”

Csorba, a partner with Heidrick & Struggles, said the search still is open for last-minute applicants who wanted to lead the Houston Independent School District.

“It’s starting to get late,” he said. “The window’s closing.”

Well, whoever it is will have to deal with this.

Nearly 90 percent of Houston ISD schools meet federal accountability standards, state officials announced today, but the school district itself faces possible sanctions for failing to meet the mark, as do a handful of chronically under-performing campuses.

The preliminary federal ratings come one week after HISD celebrated a record number of schools — 77 percent — achieved top ratings under the state system.

Although both rating systems are based largely on students’ scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, they often produce conflicting results.

Twenty-nine HISD campuses — including Challenge Early College High School and T.H. Rogers Elementary School, both rated exemplary by the state last week — failed to meet the federal mark.

HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra lamented the conflicting accountability measures.

“The results are extremely confusing,” he said. “It does not make sense when schools that receive the state’s highest rating receive the federal government’s lowest rating and schools that receive the state’s lowest rating receive the federal government’s highest rating. We have long maintained that these two systems need to be aligned so that there is just one, clearly understood method for determining accountability.”

Good luck with that, whoever you are. And please note, the problem here may be with the state standards, or at least the way they’re computed, not the federal standards.

Search openly

Is there really a debate about whether or not we should conduct a search for a new HISD Superintendent in an open manner? Because I think the choice is clear.

The Greater Houston Partnership, which represents the business community, is lobbying the school board to introduce a few leading contenders to the public — something the board hasn’t done in a search in nearly two decades.

“There are challenges to transparency, but the payout is huge,” said Jeff Moseley, president and chief executive of the business partnership.

[HISD President] Marshall said he supports naming multiple finalists — perhaps three — but not all his colleagues have been as quick to embrace the idea. Some worry fewer people will apply for the job if word of their job search will get back to their current school boards.

“I just think we need to stop using that as an excuse if we really and truly believe in transparency,” Marshall said. “Good superintendents can sit down with their boards and say, ‘Here’s an opportunity.’ I don’t think they add value to their candidacy by insisting on secrecy.”

Trustee Manuel Rodriguez Jr., on the other hand, prefers naming only one finalist.

“If the Greater Houston Partnership wants to know the candidates, they ought to run for school board,” he said. “By releasing the names of candidates, we put those candidates in jeopardy of losing their own jobs.”

Sorry, but I am unimpressed by Trustee Rodriguez’s argument here. Hell, college and pro coaches get vetted for other jobs all the time, usually with the knowledge and blessing of their current employer. Smaller programs generally consider it to be a positive when the bigger ones interview their coaches, because it’s a sign that they’re doing something right, and because being a place that provides opportunities for advancement is in itself a lure for good employees. I just don’t see the downside here.

And if that wasn’t enough, this would more than clinch it for me:

During the 2004 search that resulted in [Superintendent Abe] Saavedra’s hiring, board members conducted late-night interviews that ended with the candidates being hurried out of the administration building and into waiting cars. Extra HISD police officers were brought in to help keep track of reporters trying to catch a glimpse of the contenders.

In Florida, one of the most open states when it comes to superintendent searches, the names of all applicants are public record, and the community is allowed to attend meetings where school boards interview candidates.

Which one of these processes sounds healthier and more likely to produce a positive result? Seriously, this is an easy call.