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Mike Lunceford

HISD proposes to rebuild four schools damaged by Harvey

Seems reasonable.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

July 2017 campaign finance reports – HISD

We still don’t know what’s happening with city of Houston elections this fall, but there’s plenty of action with HISD Trustee races. You can see all of the candidates who have filed so far and their July finance reports here. I’ve got links to individual reports and summaries of them, so join me below for some highlights.

Elizabeth Santos
Gretchen Himsl
Monica Richart

Kara DeRocha
Sue Deigaard

Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca
Daniel Albert
Robert Lundin

Anne Sung
John Luman

Wanda Adams
Gerry Monroe
Karla Brown
Susan Schafer


Name        Raised    Spent    Loans   On Hand
==============================================
Santos      13,161    2,037        0     7,845
Himsl       17,685      832      500    17,352
Richart      5,565    5,996    6,197     5,765

DeRocha     17,676    2,006      355    15,669
Deigaard    22,716      769        0    20,381

Vilaseca    14,043      157        0    13,613
Albert           0        0   30,000         0
Lundin      13,480    1,565        0    11,915

Sung        31,660    1,673        0    29,208
Luman            0        0        0       456

Adams            0    6,484        0       421
Monroe           0        0        0         0
Brown            0        0        0         0
Schafer      4,690    2,543        0     2,026

So we have two open seats, in Districts I and V as Anna Eastman and Mike Lunceford are stepping down, one appointed incumbent running for a full term (Flynn Vilaseca), one incumbent who won a 2016 special election running for a full term (Sung), and one regular incumbent running for re-election (Adams). We could have a very different Board next year, or just a slightly different one. That includes all three of the traditionally Republican districts – V, VI, and VII. Interestingly, there is no Republican candidate in District V as yet, and the Republican runnerup in last year’s special election in District VII has apparently been idle so far this year. Daniel Albert is Chief of Staff for District F City Council member Steve Le, so I think it’s safe to say that he’s a Republican. Robert Lundin is a Rice faculty member who has been an HISD teacher and administrator and also opened YES Prep Southwest. I don’t have a guess as to what his politics may be. Whatever the case, I have to assume there will be more of a Republican presence in these races, but it’s starting to get a little late in the cycle.

The next most remarkable thing is Wanda Adams’ report. I’m not sure if it was filled out incorrectly or if she really did raise no money while spending her account almost empty. I don’t know what to make of that.

Otherwise, and putting the weirdness of the Sung/Luman situation aside, it looks like we have some competitive races shaping up. If you didn’t know anything but what is in this table, you might be hard-pressed to tell who’s an incumbent. I know there’s a lot of activity already for 2018, and I feel like we’re in a bit of a holding pattern until we know for sure what the deal is with city races. I suspect there’s a lot more to come in these races. Maybe we’ll see it in the 30-day reports.

Mike Lunceford announces he is not running for re-election

Two-term HISD Trustee in District V Mike Lunceford posted the following on Facebook yesterday:

Sometimes when you are passionate about something it is very hard to walk away from it. After 8 years on the Houston ISD School Board and over 25 years as an active participant in education in Houston I have decided not to run for a third term. I greatly appreciate all of those who have supported me in this, especially my wife Erin Lunceford, but I feel it is time for me to let someone else represent District V. I will really miss all of the great people in HISD that I have grown to know and care about while serving the past 8 years.

It’s been a somewhat confusing journey to this point. Lunceford announced his resignation from the Board last October, then changed his mind and said instead he would serve out his term but not run for re-election. Two candidates emerged early in the year to run in District V, Kara DeRocha and Sue Deigaard. At the same time, rumors started to circulate that Lunceford was not actually stepping down but was instead seeking to run for a third term. That may have kept other Republican types from getting in the race in this traditionally Republican district. I feel confident that at least one such candidate will now come forward.

In the meantime, I join with many people in thanking Lunceford for his service. He did a fine job, and I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about him. Enjoy your retirement from the Board, sir.

Two for HISD V

Mike Lunceford

In the past week or so, I have become aware of two candidates for HISD Board of Trustees, District V, which is the seat that is now held by Trustee Mike Lunceford but will be open in November as Lunceford will be stepping down at the end of his term. Both of them are Democrats. The first candidate I heard about is Kara DeRocha, whose website identifies her as an engineer and mother of three kids who attend HISD schools. I didn’t find a whole lot on her in Google, but she’s quoted in this news story about the January 21 Women’s March on Washington. She has a campaign kickoff event planned for this weekend, if you want to know more about her.

The other candidate, who announced via Facebook post on Sunday, is Sue Deigaard, who has been a vocal public education advocate for some time now. She was a 2015 New Leadership Council fellow who has multiple Chron op-ed credits to her name. She was a finalist to replace Jim Henley on the HCDE Board after his resignation in 2013, and has been discussed as a Democratic candidate for HD134 in recent years. She also has two kids in HISD schools. I’ve known Sue for awhile – I actually knew her a million years ago in my first in the MOB at Rice, but got to know her better more recently – and I know she’ll have a lot of support.

This is of course a Republican seat – I unfortunately don’t have any precinct data for it, but it is a Republican seat. I’d bet good money that Hillary Clinton carried HISD V in 2016, but other than maybe Kim Ogg it was Republican elsewhere. Basically, like HD134, which I believe has some overlap with it. For certain there will be one or more Republican candidates running for HISD V as well, though if any have already declared I don’t know who they are yet. As with Anne Sung in District VII and Holly Flynn Vilaseca in VI, this will be a race worth watching.

A look ahead to Houston’s 2017 elections

I want to return to something in that story about Mayor Turner’s 2017 agenda, which was near the bottom but which is a very big deal for the coming year:

A lawsuit over the ballot language used last year to extend terms to a maximum of two four-year terms, from three two-year terms, hovers in the background.

A state district judge ruled in March that the language was “inartful” but legal, and the case now is under appeal.

At stake in the near term is whether Turner and members of City Council must run for re-election in 2017 or wait until 2019.

See here for the background. Usually around this time I’m writing about the upcoming election year and what we have to look forward to. Thanks to this lawsuit, we could have a year with no city elections, or a year in which nobody knows we have city elections until April or May and everyone operates on an insanely accelerated schedule from there. With that in mind, let’s look at our Year of Elections 2017 with a frame of The Elections We Will Have, The Elections We May Have, and The Elections We Could Have.

The Elections We Will Have

Whatever else happens with the term limits lawsuit, there will be elections in HISD and HCC. The following trustees for each board are up for election this year:

HISD – Anna Eastman (District I), Mike Lunceford (District V), Greg Meyers (District VI), Anne Sung (District VII), Wanda Adams (District IX)
HCC – Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District 4), Robert Glaser (District 5), Chris Oliver (District 9)

Mike Lunceford is not running for re-election, so his seat will be open. Greg Meyers has already submitted his resignation, and a replacement Trustee will be selected by the Board in January. It is not clear if the Board will prefer a caretaker who will not run for election in November or if the new member will try to stake a claim. Anne Sung of course won the special election to succeed Harvin Moore a couple of weeks ago. Whatever happens in November, the Board will have three different members in the traditionally Republican districts than it had at the start of 2016. That has some negative potential, as all three were devoted to public schools in a way that is not necessarily characteristic of modern Republicans, meaning that whoever wins in November could be more antagonistic than what we are used to seeing. We’ll have a better idea when we know who is selected to replace Meyers, and who emerges to run for these seats. As for Eastman, she is my Trustee and as far as I know she is in for another term, but I haven’t spoken to her in the last few weeks, and she has not made any formal announcements. I’m not aware of any reason why Adams would not run for another term.

In HCC, both Shabazz-Evans and Glaser won elections to complete the unexpired terms for trustees who had resigned following their 2011 campaigns. Evans-Shabazz was appointed to replace Carroll Robinson in District 4 in May of 2015, and then was unopposed for election. Glaser won a contested race to succeed Richard Schechter in 2013; appointed replacement Leila Feldman did not run for the seat. Oliver is a multi-term incumbent who easily defeated a challenger in 2011. Sometimes there are interesting things to say or look forward to in these races. This is not one of those times.

There will also be some number of constitutional amendments on the ballot in November, but we won’t know what they are until May or so when the Legislature finishes its business. If the term limits lawsuit goes down, preserving the new four-year terms for city officeholders, these referenda will be the only guaranteed items on your ballot this year.

The most interesting race in the area that is not in Houston will be in Pasadena, where Mayor Johnny Isbell is term-limited out and where the City Council lines may or may not be redrawn, pending the ruling in the voting rights lawsuit that is currently in the judge’s hands. That election will be in May. Other area cities such as Bellaire, West U, Sugar Land, and Rosenberg, also have elections in May. I hope to have some more information about some of these races in a subsequent post. Also of interest in May will be the San Antonio elections, where Mayor Ivy Taylor has some competition for a second full term. I’m sure I’ll do some writing about that as well.

The Elections We May Have

In addition to the statewide ballot propositions, there are two local ones that could be on your November eSlate machine, both of which could be quite contentious. Mayor Turner has stated his intention to put a referendum about the revenue cap on the ballot this year, though one presumes that could change if his pension reform bills do not pass. You can be sure that the opposition to this, mostly from the likes of Paul Bettencourt and no doubt with the help of the statewide Republican cabal, will be ferocious and very well-funded. Which in a way will be good for Mayor Turner, because if he can successfully cast this as a partisan issue, especially a “statewide Republicans meddling in our business AGAIN” issue, he ought to at least begin with the larger share of the vote. Getting those people to vote, whether or not there are other city elections to draw them out, will be the challenge. I suspect Mayor Turner doesn’t do anything without planning out how it will go, so I sure hope he has a plan for this one.

The other possible ballot item we might have is an updated Metro Solutions plan, which may include more rail construction projects, possibly including another shot at the Universities Line. This has been floated as an option by Metro Chair Carrin Patman, but it is not yet clear that it would be on the ballot, and if it would be there this year if so, and it is not yet clear what the scope of it would be. Needless to say, any rail component would generate some opposition, with a new Universities Line plan bringing out the usual suspects, some of whom would already be fully engaged in a revenue cap fight. It’s an interesting question whether you’d rather have this item on the ballot by itself, or in the same space as a revenue cap item. I’m glad that’s not my call to make.

The Elections We Could Have

This is the one that is entirely contingent on the Supreme Court, which as we know has not hesitated to stick its collective nose in our electoral business. If the 2015 term limits referendum is thrown out for having insufficiently clear wording, then the people who will be the most affected are the Council members who are in their last terms: Brenda Stardig, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, Larry Green, and Jack Christie. Cohen’s District C and Laster’s District J represent challenges for Democrats, as Bill King carried both districts in the 2015 Mayoral runoff. The ideal District C candidate is in the Anne Clutterbuck-Ellen Cohen spectrum, while the low turnout District J will always be a bit of a wild card. Against that, Dems will have opportunities in both Christie’s At Large #5 and first-term CM Mike Knox’s AL #1, though as we have discussed before, cattle call races with lots of similarly-profiled Democrats have benefited Republican citywide candidates in the recent past. The ideal here is for a candidate who begins with a lot of backing to get in and largely hoover up all the support – think Melissa Noriega in 2007, or Amanda Edwards in 2015.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, as it’s even more speculative than usual, but I do want to at least put a marker on it, since if these elections do happen they may happen all at once, with little warning and not much time to prepare. I’ll be keeping an eye on this, and will be ready for either a busier or more relaxed interview season this fall.

HISD: Meyers resigns, Lunceford un-resigns

Round and round we go.

Greg Meyers

Greg Meyers

HISD Trustee Greg Meyers, who has served on the school board since 2004, has resigned.

Meyers, who represents District VI for HISD and also served as board president in 2010, announced Thursday that he will vacate his position at the end of the year because he plans to move to a new house outside his current district.

“Every single day, every opportunity I try to commit myself to focus on kids first,” Meyers said. “While I may not be here physically, I will always be here to serve HISD.”

His term serving on the board was set to expire at the end of 2017. HISD Superintendent Manuel Rodriguez Jr. also announced that District V Trustee Michael Lunceford has decided to serve the remainder of his term through 2017, after previously considering resignation.

See here for the announcement that Lunceford was going to resign. As would have been the case with him, I expect the Board will choose an interim Trustee to fill the remainder of Meyers’ term, which expires at the end of next year. He wasn’t in any competitive elections since I began interviewing candidates, so I’ve never spoken to Meyers. Like Lunceford and the also-outgoing Harvin Moore, he represents a Republican district, so look for Republicans to line up to try to succeed him. Given recent trends, perhaps that will be a former City Council member. I’m sure people will begin making their interest known soon enough. In the meantime, I thank Meyers for his service and wish him the best in whatever comes next. The Press has more.

HISD Trustee Mike Lunceford to resign

This came as a surprise.

Mike Lunceford

Mike Lunceford

Mike Lunceford — who has represented Bellaire on the Houston ISD Board of Education for seven years — made a surprise announcement at Thursday night’s board meeting that he is resigning, effective immediately.

He had just assumed blame for some trustees’ concerns over communication about a proposed $7.5 million gift to the district’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts from the Kinder Foundation, in exchange for naming rights.

The donation was approved by a vote of 7-2, with Trustees Jolanda Jones and Diana Davila voting nay.

Lunceford wasn’t immediately available for comment about his resignation. Although he lives in the trustee district, he has commuted to West Texas for his job as vice president of Pedernales Energy in recent months. He was also frequently in the minority in board votes with the seating of new members in January, and the confrontational, name-calling personalities that have emerged in board debates are antithetical to Lunceford’s quiet but firm, reasoned style.

The Chron story about the HSPVA grant/renaming mentioned Lunceford’s announcement in passing. Lunceford is a well-regarded member of the Board and I’m sorry to see him go, but I can certainly understand it given his travel schedule. According to fellow Trustee Anna Eastman on Facebook, the resignation would be effective on December 31. Assuming nothing changes, the Board would then appoint a replacement, and there would be an election for a full term next November, which is when Lunceford’s current term is up anyway. I wish Trustee Lunceford all the best, and I thank him for his service.

KHSPVA

That will be the new acronym for the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

After impassioned debate, the Houston school board voted 7-2 Thursday to accept a $7.5 million gift for the district’s renowned arts high school and to rename the campus after the donors in an unprecedented move.

The Kinder Foundation, run by billionaire couple Richard and Nancy Kinder, offered the donation in exchange for calling the campus the Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The money is supposed to help with rebuilding the school downtown, funding theater lighting and seats, a sound system, a specialized dance floor and more.

“We hope these joint and cooperative efforts preserve the long-term future of one of Houston’s most acclaimed and diverse schools and forges a new path through public/private partnership to support future HISD schools,” Rich Kinder said in a statement after the vote.

Board approval of the deal was in doubt just hours before the board meeting. Several trustees expressed frustration over the private negotiations that took place concerning the deal and questioned the fairness to other campuses in the Houston Independent School District. Board member Mike Lunceford, whose trustee district includes the arts school in its current Montrose-area location, had brought forward the proposal.

[…]

Houston school board member Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who said Monday that she was conflicted about the proposal, said Thursday that, although she thought the renaming policy needed to be strengthened, she believed the students at the arts school deserved the funding.

“I do not believe you deprive our high-performing schools of what they need to get to equity,” Skillern-Jones, who has a son attending the arts high school, said before voting with the majority to support the proposal.

Houston board member Jolanda Jones, who opposed the deal along with trustee Diana Davila, described the gift negotiations as “sneaky.”

“I find it offensive that people say if you don’t vote for this, that you don’t care about the kids. Actually I care about all the kids in HISD,” Jones said.

“It seems like HISD is like a pimp, and the schools are what they sell,” Jones added. “That was the nicest way I could think to say it.

Here’s an earlier story, from when the grant was announced, and a Chron editorial in favor of taking the cash. I’ve advocated selling ad space on school buses and school rooftops, as well as naming rights to stadiums, so I’m hardly in a position to turn my nose up at this. I’m fine with reviewing the board policy to ensure we get what we want and not what we don’t, and I absolutely want to see grants like this going to poorer and less prestigious schools, which need the money more, but neither of those concerns should have an effect on this, so I’m glad the Board voted to accept. Maybe someday when we finally fund our schools at an appropriate level this sort of thing won’t be needed, but until then, I say bring it on. The Press has more.

Hey, here’s an idea: Increase funding for public education

That’s just crazy talk.

Texas House budget and public education leaders said Wednesday that the best way to overhaul the state’s school finance system is to increase the base amount of money it gives to each district per student.

While costly, boosting the “basic allotment” — currently $5,140 per student — would help ease systemic funding inequities among the state’s 1,200 school districts and reduce the growing number of wealthier districts that are required to send money to the state to help buoy poorer ones, according to state Reps. John Otto of Dayton and Jimmie Don Aycock of Killeen. The two Republicans, who are both retiring before the 2017 legislative session, chair the House Appropriations and Public Education committees, respectively.

The panels are meeting jointly Wednesday and Thursday to hear from various experts, organizations and the public on how to fix key provisions of the state’s complex, patchwork method of funding public schools. The assignment came from House Speaker Joe Straus in early June, weeks after a momentous Texas Supreme Court decision that upheld the system as minimally constitutional while also deeming it “undeniably imperfect” and urging lawmakers to make improvements.

Otto and Aycock added that the benefits of increasing the basic allotment could go beyond reducing the number of districts that must make “recapture” payments under the state’s Robin Hood plan.

They said the move could also lower the amount of money the state is required to send to a small share of school districts every year since the state forced them to cut property taxes. (Long-held opposition to the Robin Hood plan has gained some momentum recently with Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, facing its first recapture payment.)

[…]

Rising property values have saved the state about $14 billion over the past decade, Otto told the panels Wednesday, citing calculations from the Legislative Budget Board. Local revenue has made up an increasing share of public education spending during that time.

“Essentially the burden is shifting to the locals, and the state is benefiting from that,” Otto said.

If the state were investing more, school property tax rates would be much lower, officials from state agencies and schools said Wednesday.

Nicole Conley, chief financial officer for Austin schools, told the panels the district would be able to slash its tax rate by 35 cents per $100 valuation if it didn’t have to pay recapture. That would save the average Austin homeowner $1,400 annually, she said, urging a “complete overhaul” of the system while acknowledging that is unlikely.

“I do think that a complete overhaul will be something that is going to require a substantial investment from the state; I’m not quite sure about your temperament and readiness to get there,” she said, adding that lawmakers have become “over-reliant” on recapture.

She suggested capping the number of districts required to pay recapture and providing transportation funding to those that still have to, which the state doesn’t currently do.

It’s nice to see these things discussed, but don’t get your hopes up. Both Reps. Aycock and Otto are retiring, and even if they were coming back there’s no way that any legislation to address public ed funding or school finance in this way would make it through Dan Patrick’s Senate. I’m glad that the concerns of school disitricts (not just HISD) that are being affected by recapture are being heard, but it doesn’t make the strategy of voting down that HISD referendum this fall any less chancy. The Chron has more.

Strange HISD referendum to be on the ballot

This will be weird.

BagOfMoney

Because of the state’s byzantine financing system, HISD will have to either send almost $162 million in local taxpayers’ money to the state or stand by to see some of the district’s most valuable properties assigned to other school districts by the Texas Education Agency. (Local businesses aren’t too wild about the idea either; HISD has some of the lowest tax rates around.)

In addition, as trustee Mike Lunceford pointed out, losing those properties would just pile on the debt for HISD taxpayers. “We have bonds we have sold based on some of those assets, and [without them] we’re going to have to raise taxes again,” he said.

The board could decide to do nothing and hope it could lobby the upcoming session of the Legislature to change its mind — although attempts to change the school financing system in this state have failed for years — but as Lunceford put it: “If we vote it down, we’re betting that the Legislature will do something right.”

The other sticking point was that if trustees don’t adopt one of the options offered by state law, they can’t set a tax rate. The only way to get the measure before voters was for trustees to vote to send the money to the state, which gives taxpayers a chance to say yes or no to that in the general election on November 8.

So after much gnashing of teeth that the state could do this to a district that has so many kids on free- or reduced-price lunches, school board members passed the measure on a 6-0 vote (by that time three trustees had left) calling for voters to decide the issue. The measure, with admittedly confusing language (set by the state), asks voters to give the district permission to purchase $162 million in tax credits from the state. As trustee Greg Meyers pointed out, the word “credits” sounds great and voters may completely misinterpret what they’re being asked to do.

See here, here, and here for some background. This Chron story from last week adds some details.

If voters say “no” to sending money to the state, the Texas education commissioner then has the power to detach the Houston Independent School District’s highest-value properties and to assign them to property-poor districts. That means the owners of these properties – likely downtown high-rises – would be paying taxes to another school district.

The detachment, however, would not be immediate. The commissioner’s actions would not take effect until July 3, 2017, according to a timeline spelled out in a Texas Education Agency manual.

The Houston school board’s attorney, David Thompson, said during a board meeting Monday that the state Legislature reconvenes in January, before the education commissioner would act. That timeline would give lawmakers the opportunity to adjust the school-finance system if they wanted to do so, Thompson said.

[…]

The district would have to start paying the state in February, if voters approve the recapture measure.

Houston-area districts that paid recapture last year include Galveston, Spring Branch, Deer Park and Sheldon. Galveston ISD paid the most among those, totaling $12.3 million.

HISD officials argue that while the district has significant property wealth, about three-quarters of the students in the public school system come from low-income families.

HISD board member Greg Meyers called a funding system that punishes the state’s largest district “criminal.”

“You can count on it that I will speak my mind,” Meyers said, adding later that he is conflicted about how people should vote. He said he has “serious angst” about having to send money to the state but is concerned that the district could lose property for taxing purposes to repay bonds if the commissioner is forced to act.

Just remember, this is the Legislature’s fault, with a big assist from our gutless Supreme Court. The thought of doing an interview about this ballot item is already giving me a nosebleed. I can’t wait to see what organizations form to support and/or oppose this.

HISD postpones redrawing school boundaries

This stuff is hard, y’all.

HISD School Map

The school board [had planned] to vote Thursday on the district’s biggest rezoning plan in recent years, involving more than two dozen campuses.

The proposal mostly would redraw attendance boundaries to shift homes from more crowded schools to campuses with space. The major impact may not be immediate, however. As a nod to surprised parents, the district plans to allow current students and those entering kindergarten this fall to stay at their old schools if they choose.

Superintendent Terry Grier and his staff said in January that the rezoning plan was driven by concerns from the Texas Education Agency that HISD had too many elementary school classes over the state’s cap of 22 students.

Grier told the school board Monday, however, that he spoke recently with Education Commissioner Michael Williams and does not expect the state to crack down on the district. This fall, HISD requested size waivers for 1,499 classes – far more than the 80 sought by Dallas ISD, the state’s second-largest district.

Still, Grier said, he thought most board members wanted fewer waivers, and rezoning is a common way for districts to even out enrollment.

“It’s frustrating to my staff to do what you asked us to do and then get called out publicly and go to meetings and get pounded on,” Grier told the board.

Parents, particularly on the city’s west side, have packed recent meetings about the rezoning.

In response, Grier’s administration has revised the plan. The biggest change involves removing fewer homes from the Bush Elementary zone and turning Shadowbriar Elementary, about 4 miles away, into a magnet school that would take overflow from Bush, Ashford, Askew and Daily.

The hope is that Shadowbriar’s specialty program – the theme has not been picked – would reduce crowding by drawing students voluntarily from nearby campuses.

The plan also calls for reducing crowding or expected enrollment growth at Lyons, Smith, Tinsley and Young Elementary schools. Their attendance boundaries would shrink, with students rezoned to other schools.

See here for the background. The Board ultimately tabled the proposal and will ask for a more comprehensive plan, one that will presumably draw fewer complaints from parents who are no longer in the zone they wanted to be in. I notice on the Chron’s interactive map that the two popular schools in my neighborhood, Travis and Harvard Elementary Schools, are both affected by this plan, but only in a minor way in that no current students would be zoned out. People looking to move into the Heights in the future, however, would be wise to stay on top of this.

Three of five schools escape closure

For now, at least. The other two are still on the block.

Juliet Stipeche

Juliet Stipeche

Three small schools will be spared from closure at the urging of Houston school board president Juliet Stipeche, but Jones High and Dodson Elementary remain on the potential chopping block.

Facing mounting community pressure against Superintendent Terry Grier’s closure proposal, Stipeche eliminated Fleming Middle School, Port Houston Elementary and N.Q. Henderson Elementary from the closure list.

The board is set to decide the fate of Jones and Dodson next Thursday. Grier has said the two buildings are needed to house students whose campuses are being rebuilt under the 2012 voter-approved bond program.

“I respect our board president’s request to remove these schools from consideration,” Grier said in a statement. “I also appreciate her input, the input of all trustees and the community-at-large in this process.”

[…]

Stipeche said she thought N.Q. Henderson Elementary and Fleming Middle School, both in northeast Houston, deserved more time to try to improve and recruit more students.

“They serve communities in transition,” she said. “They should have the opportunity to work on increasing their enrollment.”

“Port Houston is an interesting set of circumstances because it’s an exemplary school in a small building,” she added.

Board member Mike Lunceford said the trustees need to review their policy on closures to perhaps distinguish between schools like Port Houston that are small because the neighborhood has few students, and those like Jones High where students are choosing to enroll elsewhere.

“We need to sit down as a board and decide what to do,” he said. “Are we going to continue supporting small schools? If the board’s not going to vote, we need to not put the communities through all of this.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I think Stipeche and Lunceford’s logic here is sound. For some neighborhoods it may make more sense, and be more cost-effective, to maintain a smaller school than to have to provide transportation elsewhere for all the affected students. Reviewing the policy to draw distinctions between schools in less-populated areas and schools that aren’t drawing in as many students as they could is a good idea, too. Hair Balls and Stace have more.

HISD budgets for teacher pay raise and more Apollo

Whether that will mean a tax hike, and if so how much, remains undetermined.

Houston ISD employees will see a 2 percent pay raise and many schools will receive more money to help struggling students under the budget that trustees approved on a 6-3 vote Monday.

Left unsettled was whether property owners will face an increase in the tax rate next year. The school board won’t adopt the rate until October.

The district’s financial chief, Ken Huewitt, said after the board meeting that the budget will require a 4-cent increase in the tax rate unless circumstances change. Property values may rise more than expected, for example, or the board could agree to cut programs or dip into savings.

“We’re talking 4 cents if nothing changes,” Huewitt said.

[…]

Trustees Juliet Stipeche and Mike Lunceford, who voted against the budget, expressed concerns about the effectiveness of Grier’s reform program called Apollo. The spending plan continues the program at 20 schools while giving another 126 campuses with low test scores extra money to spend on tutoring or other efforts to boost achievement.

Board president Anna Eastman, who also opposed the budget, said she disagreed with distributing money based on overall school results rather than tying funds to needy students at any campus.

See here for the background. There won’t need to be an increase to cover the construction bonds that were issued last year, thanks to rising property values, so any increase will be driven by these items. The pay raise was a must – among other things, some nearby school districts have bumped their teachers’ pay, so HISD needed to keep up or risk losing talent. Sure is nice when a job market operates like that, isn’t it? As for Apollo, it remains controversial. There’s a lot more one can say about it, but that about sums it up.

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.

HISD takes another crack at ethics reform

Good luck.

Houston school trustees on Thursday renewed serious talks about tightening their ethics rules after failing to agree on new policies late last year.

The proposed changes, meant to restore public confidence that the Houston Independent School District is hiring the best contractors without undue influence, also could affect trustees’ political campaign coffers.

Trustees would have to abstain from voting on deals involving vendors who had contributed more than $500 to their campaigns the prior year. They also would have to disclose and abstain if they have a close relationship with a vendor.

Board president Mike Lunceford pledged that trustees would take a preliminary vote on the new policies in September. The changes would be in place before November, when the board is asking voters to approved a $1.9 billion bond issue that would result in the district awarding numerous lucrative construction contracts.

“This is something that should have happened a long time ago,” trustee Juliet Stipeche said of adopting stricter rules. “We need to have higher ethical standards.”

This is true, and pushing for stronger ethics rules before rolling out the pro-bond referendum campaign makes a lot of sense and ought to help satisfy those who want to be supportive of the bonds but have qualms about some of the trustees’ behavior. Still, any set of rules can be circumvented – as Campos suggests, what happens if a vendor donates to a PAC that then attacks or supports a given candidate? I wouldn’t mind seeing publicly funded campaigns for school boards as I’ve suggested for judicial races, but in a post-Citizens United world, I don’t see a viable path towards that end. Honestly, what we really need are more voters that are willing to hold accountable trustees that don’t act in an ethical manner. If we had Board whose members all instinctively acted correctly in these matters, we wouldn’t have to sweat the details nearly as much.

How much would you pay for that high school?

Some cost more than others, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth it.

Supporters of Houston’s nationally recognized High School for the Performing and Visual Arts have lobbied for 15 years for a larger, more modern building.

They could get their wish soon. But sticker shock over the $80.2 million price tag – for a school built to hold 750 students – may have to subside first.

The new campus, planned for downtown Houston instead of the current Montrose site, would cost $107,000 per student. That amounts to two or three times the per-pupil price for the other new high schools in HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s proposal for a November bond referendum.

“What I don’t know is, what are we getting for $80 million? We have not sat down and gone over all those costs,” HISD board president Mike Lunceford said Friday. “We know there are special needs for that school. We need schools that are going to hold up, but we’re not trying to build Taj Mahals.”

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, HSPVA is one of the crown jewels of HISD, and as a school that offers specialized programming – performing and visual arts – it has special needs, and that adds to the price tag. As the story notes, outside of HSPVA, the per-student cost for the other high schools is right around the national average. By all means, do the due diligence and make sure we’re getting full value for the dollar, but let’s not lose the forest for the trees here. HSPVA is going to cost more than other schools.

HISD will not raise the tax rate

Instead, they will dip into their reserves to balance their $1.5 billion budget for this year.

The amount is about the same as last year, when the district reduced spending by approximately 5 percent to offset unprecedented state cuts.

Instead of seeking a tax increase – which the school board has been reluctant to embrace – [Superintendent Terry] Grier has recommended spending $9 million, or 3.5 percent, from savings next year.

“I would hate to arbitrarily raise taxes at this point when we don’t know what’s going to happen down the road,” said Mike Lunceford, president of the Houston Independent School District board.

HISD is one of about 600 districts suing the state, claiming funding is inadequate. Lunceford said he is hopeful that lawmakers will revise the school finance system next session.

[…]

[HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda] Garrett said the district cannot continue to spend its fund balance. The account contains $257 million, about two months’ worth of operating expenses. HISD also plans to use $18 million from one-time federal jobs funding to close the budget shortfall.

“The district and the board will have to address how to balance this budget next year,” Garrett said.

The budget was adopted Thursday night. I’m sure the improved real estate market, which has led to higher property tax revenues and thus greatly eased the budget situation for entities like the city of Houston, enabled HISD to get close enough to balance to take this approach. A lot of the cost cutting they did last year – i.e., staff reductions – carry over as well. Still, as Garrett says, they can only go to their reserves for so much. Especially with a big bond package on the table for this year, they will need a healthy amount of reserves to ensure good bond ratings.

That bond package was unveiled Thursday as well, and unlike this year’s budget it will mean higher taxes down the line. Most of the focus will be on the high schools. You can see the details in School Zone and Hair Balls. The Board has not yet voted on Grier’s bond proposal, but there is some early opposition.

Trustee Juliet Stipeche criticized the plan for not including a new High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, her alma mater. Grier acknowledged the facility is lacking but said he wants to sell the valuable property on Dickson and find a new site.

Stipeche said she opposed changing the location, which is convenient to internships at downtown law firms and to students who transfer in from across the city.

State Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, made a special appearance at the board meeting Thursday night to tell trustees he did not support the bond proposal as is, particularly the slight to Law Enforcement.

You can’t have everything. I don’t think that’s sufficient reason to oppose the entire package, but by all means until such time as the board has voted on it anyone who is unhappy with some part of Grier’s proposal go ahead and fight to make it better as they see fit.

Bonds, school bonds

Another thing that may be on your ballot this year.

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier said Thursday it was time to start discussing a possible bond referendum to update the district’s aging campuses.

In his annual state of the schools speech, Grier said the Houston Independent School District had completed many of the projects in the 2007 bond package but still has building needs, particularly at the high school level.

Grier did not specifically mention a bond election before the crowd of about 2,000, but said in a follow-up interview that the idea needed to be discussed.

The school board could take a key step next Thursday. Board president Mike Lunceford said the meeting agenda includes an item asking trustees to approve a study of the district’s building needs.

Lunceford said it’s possible the district could place a referendum on the ballot as soon as November.

“Bond costs are the lowest they’ve ever been, but you still have to raise taxes to pay for it,” said Lunceford. “We have to really look at the state of the schools.”

The interest rate argument is absolutely correct, and I’m sure HISD has facility needs, even after the 2007 referendum. Putting a couple hundred million bucks into construction projects would be nice for the local economy as well. But as Campos notes, the 2007 election was needlessly close thanks to communication issues, among other things. HISD does need to do a better job explaining what is needed and what they intend to do about it, and there’s not a whole lot of time for that. I think they can get this passed anyway, but I’d hate to roll the dice with what should be a sure thing.

HISD to contemplate uniform start times again

They’re back.

This is already my life

Bleary-eyed teenagers in Houston ISD could sleep later, but not everyone is cheering a budget-cutting proposal that would change school hours and bus schedules next year.

The school board last year rejected a plan to tinker with the times after parents complained. But with the Houston Independent School District facing another multimillion-dollar deficit, Superintendent Terry Grier’s administration said Thursday it was trying again with a revised plan that addresses some concerns while fueling others.

High schools would start at 8:45 a.m. – an hour later than what was proposed last year – and end at 4:15 p.m.

[…]

The proposal last year failed by one vote, with trustees influenced by parents and skeptical of the cost savings. Grier plans to make a formal recommendation to the board in May after holding several community meetings.

Under the new plan, middle schools would run from 7:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. The proposal last year started them an hour later.

Elementary schools would run from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., or 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Several other Houston area districts already have standardized school hours.

An upside of the proposal, [HISD Chief Operating Officer Leo] Bobadilla said, is that students would be in school for seven hours and 30 minutes a day – an increase on average of 19 minutes daily, or seven days per year.

See here, here, and here for some background. This proposal is somewhat better from my perspective, in that elementary and middle schools would no longer have start times more than an hour apart, but it’s still not desirable. Getting out the door for an 8 AM start is enough of a challenge. Adjusting to a 7:30 start would mean getting up a half hour earlier. I get up early enough already, thanks. If we got an 8:30 start time instead, that would be even worse, especially when Olivia goes to middle school. Our work day won’t start any later, so the kids would spend that much more time at school waiting to get into their classes. I realize HISD has to do something about the continued underfunding of public education in Texas, since Rick Perry and the Republicans won’t, but this is still not an idea I support.

All things considered, I’d prefer this:

HISD officials estimate a shortfall of $34.7 million next school year after the Legislature reduced education funding statewide.

To balance the budget, Grier’s staff offered the board several options Thursday: raising the tax rate, dipping into savings, and cutting programs and costs such as busing.

“I’m considering everything this year because we’re in a bind,” said board president Mike Lunceford, who opposed the schedule change last year.

Raising the tax rate by 1.5 cents, to $1.17 per $100 of assessed value, would net the district an extra $20 million next year, according to the chief financial officer, Melinda Garrett. The owner of an average-priced home (about $200,000) would pay an extra $21 a year.

You can only cut so much. HISD’s rate is low enough that it can do this without a public vote. I’d go all the way to a 2 cent hike, which would generate nearly $27 million, thus making the remaining shortfall a lot more manageable. HISD can always reduce the rate later, after Texas either regains its decency or is forced to do so by the courts. Until then, I say enough is enough with the cuts. Hair Balls has more.

Audit says HISD isn’t cost sensitive enough

An audit of HISD’s procurement process says the district could be paying too much for some things.

The audit, conducted by the nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools, found that the district’s purchasing standards “under-value” a vendor’s proposed price in some cases, which means the district could be paying more than it should.

Last year, HISD spent $530 million on classroom supplies, equipment, travel and various services.

When selecting vendors, the district rates them on various factors, which can vary depending on the project. Construction projects give the greatest weight to price, between 55 and 100 percent, the audit found. However, in other cases that were not identified, the district weights price as low as 12.5 percent.

Texas law does not require school districts to use the lowest bidder.

Trustee Mike Lunceford, chairman of the HISD board’s audit committee, said he wants the administration to start providing reasons why it did not select the vendor with the lowest price.

“When we’re voting, it should be very clear, if it’s not the low bid, why,” Lunceford said. “We should be going with the low bid.”

HISD also was knocked in the audit for not disclosing the evaluation criteria in most of its requests for proposals, except for those in the construction area, and for changing the standards in the middle of the process in some cases.

See here for some background. Price isn’t everything, and there are good reasons to consider other factors – hiring practices, environmental issues, a preference for local businesses, and so forth – but these things need to be clearly spelled out and agreed upon, and there needs to be consistency in applying the standard. I’m glad to see these issues brought to light, and I trust the Board will now take the appropriate steps to address them.

HISD considers revamping ethics rules

This all seems like a good idea.

Houston school trustees, who now may accept campaign cash from anyone at any time, would face new restrictions under a proposal meant to curb improper influence in the school district’s business deals.

The new rules, slated for board consideration next week, would bar a trustee from taking contributions from vendors while the district is soliciting bids in their area of business.

Trustees also are considering banning themselves from calling meetings with prospective vendors and district staff – a practice that has come under scrutiny in recent months.

“We just don’t want any appearance that trustees are trying to put any undue influence on the administration to pick one vendor over another,” said Trustee Mike Lunceford.

[…]

Under the proposal, trustees of the Houston Independent School District would face tighter restrictions on campaign contributions than other local school boards, according to a survey of the area’s largest school districts.

The city of Houston has a blackout period on campaign donations from vendors but the rules are looser than those that HISD is considering.

Texas Watchdog has more on this. I approve of the direction the HISD Board is going, and I’m glad to see they’ll be conducting an audit of their current procurement practices. Let’s get a handle on the scope of this issue, and get all of the relevant data into the open for discussion. You’re never going to eliminate the temptation to break the rules, but you can make it easier to get caught. Another suggestion I’ve heard is to require Trustees to submit financial disclosure statements, as Council members and legislators do. All of this would also be a good idea for the HCC Board of Trustees. We’ll see how these proposals fare at the Board meeting.

The HISD/charter school “talent war”

This sounds more alarming than it should be.

KIPP, in competition with HISD for students, increasingly is wooing high-level staff, too. Mike Feinberg, cofounder and superintendent of KIPP Houston, calls the contest for administrators “a talent war.”

Since last year, at least 13 principals, administrators and central office workers have left HISD for KIPP, with some getting raises and promotions and others taking pay cuts. One has returned to the district, and another exited KIPP after a year.

Another popular charter school, YES Prep, has hired two HISD principals. HISD has poached at least one administrator from KIPP.

The turnover has some HISD trustees worried about morale under Grier, at the helm nearly two years.

“People leaving are young people who we’ve grown. They speak of their real regret about leaving,” said Trustee Anna Eastman. “I think it’s telling. We need to be listening to our employees and be aware if they are not satisfied, challenged or feeling valued in their jobs.”

[…]

HISD officials, reluctant to talk about specific employees, said privately that some who left for the charter schools weren’t top performers, and one who asked to return was denied. Two worked at campuses that Grier tapped for his reform program, Apollo.

“While I hate to lose good people, and we have lost several to the charter organizations,” Grier wrote in a memo to principals in May, “I believe that our best principals continue to work in HISD and I want to keep it that way.”

At that time, HISD board member Mike Lunceford was expressing concern about the departure of principals from two top-rated schools in his district, Twain Elementary and Johnston Middle.

“HISD does not need to become the farm club for KIPP,” Lunceford said.

On the one hand, HISD should note that it must be doing something right if charters like KIPP want to hire its employees. On the other hand, HISD shouldn’t delude itself about why KIPP has been successful at doing so. It needs to understand why these employees choose to leave, and what if anything it ought to do about it. Some things – better pay, better opportunities for advancement, better working conditions – can and should be addressed where possible and appropriate. Others, like differences in philosophy, should perhaps be left as they are. If HISD doesn’t know or is unwilling to find out where all this is coming from, it can’t possibly respond to it. That would be a shame. The idea of charter schools was that a little competition would be good for the ISDs. This is a chance to test that theory.

All this is happening, by the way, as KIPP and other charter schools deal with their own legislative budget cuts. One effect of such cuts is a fairly significant departure from norms for KIPP:

There will be no more Saturday classes for students at the Knowledge is Power Program.

The extended school week — one of the trademarks of the popular charter school system — is going by the wayside, along with out-of-Houston field trips and pay raises for employees.

[…]

With its fiscal year starting July 1, KIPP Houston had to decide on cuts prior to the end of the special session that cost them $4.8 million in state funding for 2011-12.

Formal Saturday class for middle-schoolers is being replaced with independent study projects, a move that will save KIPP Houston at least $350,000 and, Feinberg says, might even help students develop better time management skills.

As Martha points out, having that extra time for remediation has been a key advantage for KIPP. It will be very interesting to see how this affects them.

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.

HISD Trustee District V profile

The Chron has another HISD Trustee race profile, this one for the open District V seat.

A retired school administrator and an energy company executive are vying to fill the school board seat held by Dianne Johnson, who is stepping down after eight years as a Houston Independent School District trustee.

Both challengers — Ray Reiner, 67, and Michael Lunceford, 52 — pledged to continue Johnson’s efforts to lure more District V families back into the public school system. Too many families in the area — which stretches west from Rice University to Bellaire — are opting to pay private school tuition, they said.

You can listen to my interview with Lunceford here and my interview with Reiner here. The School Zone blog also has a Q&A with each of these candidates here; it also has Q&As with the District I candidates here and the District IX candidates here. It’s great to see all this information about the school board races, which are usually shrouded in obscurity, but I’m now wondering when we’ll see the profiles of the various Council races. There’s a reason I started doing candidate interviews way back in July – there’s a lot of races to cover, and the time gets away from you a lot faster than you think it will.

Endorsement watch: HISD Trustee

The Chron finishes up their work for this election by making its endorsements in the HISD Trustee races.

For HISD Trustee in District I, an open seat, we recommend Anna Eastman. As the president of the Travis Elementary PTA, Eastman was known for fighting hard for her school, and she’s likely to be just as persistent in attacking HISD’s dropout rate. As a former social worker, she understands the complex problems facing Houston’s least-privileged kids. She’s a strong proponent of school choice, magnet-school busing, and of holding HISD employees accountable for students’ performance.

For HISD Trustee in District V, also an open seat, we recommend Mike Lunceford, a petroleum engineer and member of HISD’s bond oversight committee. He notes that as a parent he’s seen the best that HISD has to offer — his daughter graduated from Bellaire with 42 hours of AP credits — but he states strongly that we must fix the system’s worst. Our “horrible” dropout rate, he says, can be mitigated with early-childhood programs and by assigning strong teachers to students when they begin to fall behind.

For HISD Trustee in District IX, we believe that Adrian Collins is the best choice. District IX is home to several of HISD’s most troubled schools. Incumbent Larry Marshall has served for more than a decade, but we believe that, for the sake of the district’s students, it’s time for change.

Once again, I’m pleased that they managed to get all this done before the start of Early Voting. That’s not how it had been in recent elections. I hope this is the new normal.

You can listen to my interview with Eastman here, my interview with Lunceford here, and of course my interview with Collins is just beneath this post. You can also find interviews with the other candidates in Districts I and V on my 2009 Election page. Today is also the day that the Chron has its overview of District I, which notes that Eastman is endorsed by outgoing Trustee Natasha Kamrani.

Kamrani pushed for the Houston Independent School District to more aggressively weed out weak teachers based, in part, on low student test scores — an idea that drew fighting words from HFT President Gayle Fallon.

Even before Kamrani announced she would not seek re-election, Fallon lent support to candidate Alma Lara, a retired HISD principal.

[…]

All three District I candidates said HISD should continue rewarding performance bonuses to top teachers based on student test scores, and they agreed that teachers who fall short need more training.

“If there is no change in students’ success, career adjustments and growth plans need to be in place and enforced,” Toyota said.

Eastman agreed that struggling teachers should be put on improvement plans.

“Kids only have one chance,” she said. “We must insist that we have teachers who can achieve academic growth in their classrooms.”

Lara said the district has a process for documenting poor-performing teachers, and it should use student data to improve teacher training.

I fully expect this race to go to a runoff, just as Kamrani won election in 2005 in a runoff. Just over 3,000 votes ultimately decided the winner in December. If you’re in District I, please pay attention to this race. Your vote really matters.

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.

Interview with Mike Lunceford

Mike Lunceford

Mike Lunceford

One last time into the HISD races with Mike Lunceford, running for the open Trustee seat in District V. Lunceford is a petroleum engineer and longtime HISD volunteer who has served as a member of the HISD Bond Oversight Committee since 2003. He and his wife have two children that graduated from 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

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.

Here’s your lineup

Martha has your final filings for City of Houston elections. Executive summary: No surprise last minute entrants, but everyone except for Council Members Melissa Noriega (At Large #3), Ed Gonzalez (H), and James Rodriguez (I) has at least one opponent. Time to start handicapping the races and guessing who makes it to what runoff.

Meanwhile, the HISD Board of Trustee elections got more competitive as Mike Lunceford drew Ray Reiner, retired HISD principal and executive director of the Houston Association of School Administrators, for the open District V seat, and Board President Larry Marshall wound up with three opponents for District IX. District I remained a three-candidate race, while incumbents Harvin Moore and Greg Meyers went unopposed.

Finally, the one strange turn occurred in the HCC Board of Trustees universe, where Trustee Abel Davila reportedly did not file for re-election. If I heard correctly, it sounds like his brother-in-law (!) filed at the last minute and will have the field to himself. I gather some people are not happy about this, and I expect there will be some fallout as a result. Stay tuned.

Filing deadline

Today at 5 PM is the filing deadline for city elections. Martha has her usual roundup of who has filed. So far, the only bit of suspense is in the Mayor’s race, where Roy Morales has yet to do his paperwork. I presume he’s just taking his time, but you never know what can happen. And whatever does happen, be sure to come by Cafe Adobe at 5:30 to have a drink and talk about it.

Meanwhile, the only contested HISD Trustee race is in the District I seat that Natasha Kamrani is leaving open. Oddly, the open District V still has only one candidate. Mike Lunceford may be the luckiest guy of the cycle. We’ll know soon enough. Of interest to me since I brought it up yesterday is this:

On Monday, in his last day on the job, now-retired HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra suggested in an interview that the structure of the Houston school board be changed so that four of the nine members are elected at-large by the entire community — rather than by a smaller geographic district.

In most Texas school districts, the board members are elected at-large, said Thompson and Kelly Frels, another longtime school attorney.

HISD’s system of single-member districts is the result of a 1975 state statute designed to increase minority representation specifically on the Houston school board, the attorneys said.

If Houston wanted to change to at-large board members, the Legislature would have to act and the Justice Department would have to sign off, Frels said.

The Dallas school board is set up similar to Houston’s, while Austin has a hybrid board, with two of the nine trustees elected at-large.

Laurie Bricker, a former HISD board member, said she agrees with Saavedra’s suggestion of a hybrid board.

“I think it would bring a nice blend,” Bricker said. “This is not a criticism of single-member district board members. But they have to be mindful. There is a group that elected them. They have special interests.”

I guess I figured that there would be a Justice Department issue. I’m still not sure what the allure of a hybrid system is, though.

One more thing: According to a sidebar on the story, this is the filing situation for the Houston Community College Board of Trustees:

HCC CANDIDATES

Like HISD, the Houston Community College board election has drawn few candidates so far. The filing deadline is today. HCC board candidates as of Tuesday:

• District 3: Diane Olmos Guzman (incumbent), Mary Ann Perez

• District 6: Sandra Meyers

• District 8: No candidates

The District 6 incumbent is Mills Worsham, who as we know is running for City Council. The District 8 incumbent is Abel Davila, who I presume is running for re-election. I’m just curious, though: What happens if Davila somehow manages to screw up his filing (think Ray Jones), and no one else files? Anybody know the answer offhand?

The HISD Trustee races

Most of the electoral action this fall will be for City of Houston races, but there are also five HISD Trustee seats on the ballot, one of which will be open. School Zone reports on the two races that will be the highest profile.

District I: Natasha Kamrani, who is wrapping up her first term, has not announced whether she will seek re-election. Expect word soon. Alma Lara, a former principal in HISD, is planning to run for Kamrani’s seat. She’s filed paperwork naming a campaign treasurer and has a Web site. Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers who had a public spat with Kamrani last year over holding bad teachers accountable, is praising Lara. “She’s a great principal,” Fallon told me. “We had a great relationship with her. I think she has a really good chance. She’s so wired into the community.” Fallon also supported Kamrani’s opponent four years ago.

District V: Dianne Johnson, elected in 2001, is not seeking re-election. “I think eight years is enough,” Johnson told me. “If that’s enough for the president, it ought to be enough time for a board member. It’s probably time to give other people other opportunities. It’s probably time for Dianne to look for other opportunities.” Michael Lunceford, a parent whose children have graduated from HISD, is running to replace her. No one else has filed paperwork yet.

Greg Meyers, Harvin Moore, and Larry Marshall are all running for re-election, and likely won’t face much of a challenge. I live in District I and am friends with Kamrani, but it’s fair to say her time in office has been rather tumultuous. That race will be one to watch whether or not she runs again. Be sure to read the comments on that School Zone post, as Gayle Fallon mixes it up with some of the usual anonymous gripers. As for Dianne Johnson’s to-be-open seat, I know nothing at this point about Michael Lunceford, and found nothing of use via Google. All I can say at this point is I’m sure there will be more candidates.