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Paula Harris

HISD considers charter partnership

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD and HCC finance reports

Here’s what we know, though it’s incomplete.

BagOfMoney

Fundraising among most HISD board members was slow during the first half of 2015.

Board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who plans to seek re-election to her District 2 seat this November, raised the most money this reporting period ($4,000) and has the most on hand ($8,195), according to the July campaign finance reports.

Three other board seats are on the ballot in November. Trustees Manuel Rodriguez Jr. (District 3) and Juliet Stipeche (District 8) have told me they plan to seek re-election. Trustee Paula Harris (District 4) has not returned messages, but she has raised no money and reports none on hand — a good sign she is not running again.

The first day to file the formal paperwork to be on the ballot was Saturday. Only one candidate, Ramiro Fonseca, who’s seeking the District 3 seat, had filed as of Monday morning. The last day to file is Aug. 24.

Three others have filed reports naming a campaign treasurer, indicating they were interested in running: Jolanda “Jo” Jones (District 4), Ann McCoy (District 4) and Darlene “Koffey” Smith (District 2).

July reports for all of the HISD and HCC Trustee candidates that I know of are now up on the 2015 Election page. Note that only reports for HISD incumbents are available through the HISD website. HCC posts non-incumbent candidate reports as well, and good on them for doing so. HISD, you need to do something about this.

Candidate Raised Spent Loans On Hand ================================================ Skillern-Jones 4,000 5,150 0 8,195 Rodriguez 3.325 808 0 2,856 Stipeche 0 5,733 0 9,884 Tamez 16,750 248 0 15,820 Evans-Shabazz 0 0 0 0 Hansen 200 1,826 5,000 3,374 Loredo 4,147 779 0 4,805 Aguilar 0 4,827 10,000 5,172

Compared to some of the other races we’ve seen, these are Dollar General to their Niemann Marcus. In HISD IV, everyone I’ve spoken to has told me that Paula Harris is not running for re-election. It’s annoying that the non-incumbent reports are not online, but they do exist in paper form, and Ericka Mellon was kind enough to track them down.

Former City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones has raised more than $8,100 in her run for the HISD school board, nearly twice as much as competitor Ann McCoy.

Jones’ contributions for the District 4 race include more than $2,800 from her council campaign. She served on the council from 2008 through 2011.

Community activist Larry McKinzie also has filed a campaign treasurer report to run for District 4 but did not submit the fund-raising report due July 15, indicating he had not raised money at that point.

[…]

In District 3, incumbent Manuel Rodriguez Jr. faces a rematch with Ramiro Fonseca. Rodriguez has more than $2,800 on hand. Fonseca has filed a treasurer report but said he has not raised funds yet.

In District 2, incumbent Rhonda Skillern-Jones, the board president, raised $4,000 during the last six-month reporting period. Darlene “Koffey” Smith, also running for District 2, has not raised any money but reports spending $1,800 that she intends to reimburse with donations. Youlette McCullough, who lists her nickname as “Baby Jane,” has filed a treasurer report for the District 2 seat, indicating her plans to run.

No word yet on whether HISD trustee Juliet Stipeche will face an opponent in the District 8 race.

There’s more at the link, so go check it out.

As for HCC, the only contested race so far is in my district, District 8, where first-termer Eva Loredo faces Art “brother-in-law of Abel Davila” Aguilar. John Hansen is running for the seat being vacated by Sandie Mullins Moger, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz was appointed to replace Carroll Robinson after he stepped down to run for Controller, and Adriana Tamez is running for a full term after winning the remainder of Mary Ann Perez’s term in 2013. I have heard that Dave Wilson plans to back some candidates for the Board, including Aguilar, but there are no other candidates as yet. His own finance report shows no funds raised or spent and nothing but an outstanding loan on hand; if he does play in any races I’m sure he’ll do it via a PAC, however, so don’t read too much into that. If you hear anything about that, let me know. Otherwise, not too much of interest here to report.

What now for Terry Grier?

The HISD Superintendent is in the last year of his contract, and it’s not clear whether it will get extended or not.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Kashmere has made limited strides as one of the schools in Superintendent Terry Grier’s signature reform effort, called Apollo. Students passed their first AP exams and the graduation rate rose, yet the school still ranks among the district’s worst academically, and it will have its fourth principal in six years next fall.

The Apollo program exemplifies much of Grier’s six-year tenure leading the Houston Independent School District. He launched the project quickly, ousted staff and demanded a “no excuses” attitude, drawing praise and criticism from the community and the school board.

That hard-driving style and his relentless agitation for change have made Grier a polarizing figure to some as he fights to raise student achievement in the nation’s seventh-largest school system.

HISD has performed well compared to big-city peers, winning the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2013. Dropout rates also have fallen under Grier, and voters approved the largest school building program in Texas history. Yet academic progress, particularly in reading, is stagnant.

Test scores released last week showed HISD mostly lost ground with the Texas average while the gap between Anglo students and their black and Hispanic classmates widened. The Apollo experiment likewise yielded mixed results, with bigger gains in math than in reading.

Grier defended the district’s results in a recent interview. HISD has held steady, he said, despite enrollment increasing to more than 215,000 students, including more deemed at risk of dropping out. (The major spike occurred in 2013, when HISD took over the low-performing North Forest district.)

“Having said that, we still need to be getting better, faster,” he said.

But the upcoming school year could be Grier’s last. The board has not extended his contract beyond June 30, 2016. For his part, Grier, 65, said his future in Houston, a city he and his wife have come to love, depends largely on his relationship with the board at the time. Four of nine trustees are up for re-election in November.

There’s a lot more to the story, which covers things Grier has done and the progress or lack of same that HISD has made in various areas. It’s worth your time to read. What it doesn’t cover that I think would have been worth including is what the potential changes on the Board of Trustees were and how they might affect Grier’s status. As noted, four Trustees are up for re-election: Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Manuel Rodriguez, Paula Harris, and Juliet Stipeche. Skillern-Jones and Stipeche, both of whom are often critical of Grier, seem likely to get by with at most token opposition. Rodriguez and Harris are both Grier allies, and both are rumored to not be running for re-election. I am not aware of a challenger for Rodriguez’s seat yet – his 2011 opponent, Ramiro Fonseca, who lost in a very close race, has not made any statement about this year that I have heard as yet – while former City Council member Jolanda Jones is running for Harris’ seat. I’m going to guess she will be more of a critic than Harris has been. Losing these two Board members would make things a lot less comfortable for Grier.

January campaign finance reports – HISD trustees

Four HISD Trustees are up for re-election this year. There are nine Trustees in all, and they serve four-year terms, so in a normal year either four or five are up for re-election. As things stand right now, all four incumbents would be running for re-election, which would be the first time there would be no open seat since at least 2001; Harris County Clerk election records only include HISD results as far back as that. Here’s a brief look at those incumbents, along with their January finance reports and a summary of their campaign balances.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, District 2

Skillern-Jones is serving her first term as HISD Trustee. She was the only candidate in 2011 to succeed Carol Mims Galloway. After serving as Board Secretary last year, she was elected to be Board President this year. Prior to the redrawing of Trustee district boundaries last year, hers was one of two districts to absorb schools and students from the former North Forest ISD. She officially announced her intent to run for another term a few weeks ago via email and Facebook. As far as I know, she was the first Trustee to make such an announcement, and is the only one whose plans are known so far.

Manuel Rodriguez, District 3

As noted, there are four Trustees that would be on the ballot this year if they all do run. Of the four, I’d gladly vote for three of them if I lived in their district. The fourth is Manuel Rodriguez, who disgraced himself in 2011 by sending an anti-gay mailer as an attack against his opponent, Ramiro Fonseca. (Fact I did not realize until I scanned through old election results in researching this post: Fonseca also opposed Rodriguez in 2003, when the seat was last open. He finished third in the field of four.) Rodriguez eventually offered a lame apology for his actions, which caused the Houston Chronicle to retract their endorsement of him, after winning an excruciatingly close vote. There was a bit of a hubbub initially, then everyone moved on to other things. I hope everyone remembers this, and that the voters hold Manuel Rodriguez responsible for his despicable behavior if he does choose to run this year.

Paula Harris, District 4

Paula Harris is serving her second term on the HISD board, having won an open seat race in 2007. A prominent supporter of HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, she served as Board President in 2011, during some of the more turbulent times of the Grier era. She was also the focal point of some conflict of interest allegations at that time, which eventually led to a revamp of the Board’s ethics policies. Despite that, she won re-election in 2011 easily over token opposition, and has had a much quieter second term. Harris is an engineer who has published a children’s book encouraging kids to explore engineering, and has been a booster of STEM education on the board.

Juliet Stipeche, District 8

Juliet Stipeche, who served as Board president last year, is finishing her first full term in office. She won a special election in 2010 to fill a seat left vacant by the resignation of then-Trustee Diana Davila. She was one of the driving forces behind that ethics policy revamp, which occurred in 2012, before the last bond referendum. She has also been one of the more active critics of Superintendent Grier, though as noted things have been quieter on that front of late. Her district also contains some former North Forest ISD territory. In my opinion, she’s one of the Board’s best members.

So that’s my brief overview of the incumbents who are up for re-election. As noted, so far there are no open seats. I am also not aware of any declared opponents as yet. Here are the January finance reports for these four:

Skillern-Jones
Rodriguez
Harris
Stipeche

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Skillern-Jones 18,215 12,119 0 9,345 Rodriguez 0 0 0 340 Harris 0 1,500 12,000 0 Stipeche 5,500 7,162 0 15,618

The HISD Board does not have a Council-like blackout period, so incumbents and candidates were able to raise money during 2014. Rhonda Skillern-Jones was the busiest of the four, but I wouldn’t read too much into any of this. We’re very early in the cycle, and the one thing I feel confident saying is that we don’t know what kind of Trustee races we’re going to get yet.

HISD proposes closing five schools

Not sure about this.

Houston ISD officials are proposing to close five small schools at the end of this academic year, a move likely to set off protests from parents and alumni.

Some on the school board – which ultimately must approve the plan – already are expressing concerns about the closures, which would affect more than 2,000 students.

The campuses slated to close are Jones High School, Fleming Middle School, and Dodson, N.Q. Henderson and Port Houston elementary schools, according to Houston Independent School District spokeswoman Sheleah Reed.

The district posted news of the potential closures on the schools’ websites Wednesday, saying that they were “part of a plan designed to address fluctuating enrollment and changing demographics across the city.”

The schools each enroll fewer than 500 students, according to 2013 district data. In many cases, numerous students who live in the neighborhood transfer to attend other HISD campuses or leave for charter schools.

Jones High School in southeast Houston, once a thriving campus that launched the district’s Vanguard program for gifted students, enrolled 440 students last year, according to district data. More than 900 students zoned to Jones, however, left to other HISD high schools, with about half attending Milby and Chavez, each about 7 miles away.

“Something needs to be offered at that school. If it can be offered at Chavez, it can be offered at Jones,” said Cheryl Diggs, a 1988 Jones graduate who owns property in the nearby South Park neighborhood. “Give the students a reason to stay. It makes no sense.”

See School Zone and Hair Balls for more; the latter provided this link to HISD’s campus demographic and enrollment report. I get the rationale behind this, but it’s not clear to me that having a few smaller schools in a huge and diverse district like HISD is a bad idea. Maybe offering some kind of specialized programming at these campuses is a superior alternative to closing them. Closing schools can have a profound effect on a neighborhood, which is probably why at least three trustees so far – Paula Harris, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, and Juliet Stipeche – have had negative reactions. Whether this proposal ultimately makes sense or not, this is going to be a tough sell for HISD. A press release panning the idea from Working America is beneath the fold.

(more…)

HISD board approves 3-cent tax increase

It was a close vote.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Property owners in the Houston Independent School District will see their tax bills rise after trustees Thursday narrowly approved the first tax rate increase for operations in a dozen years.

The board voted 4-3 to raise the tax rate by 3 cents to fund a budget that includes raises for employees and millions of dollars for a controversial school reform program.

“I know there are going to be a lot of people unhappy about the motion,” trustee Paula Harris said. “I know that if we didn’t raise taxes that we can’t afford to educate children.”

The rate increase was lower than expected. HISD’s financial chief, Ken Huewitt, had recommended a 4-cent increase to fund the budget the board approved in June.

That amount would have given the district a cushion of several million dollars.

The board instead approved a 3-cent increase and took $5 million from savings to balance the $1.6 billion operating budget for this school year.

Trustee Harvin Moore proposed the revised plan, questioning whether the 4-cent increase included “fluff.”

“I wouldn’t call it fluff. I would call it planning,” Huewitt said. “It costs to be great all over.”

HISD’s new tax rate is $1.1867 per $100 of taxable value.

That means the owner of a $200,000 home with the typical exemptions should pay $1,720 in HISD taxes this year. The owner of the same-priced home last year would have paid about $40 less.

See here and here for the background. There was some drama over whether or not the vote would be taken at all on Thursday or if it would be delayed – see School Zone for the details, but the short story is that Trustee Manuel Rodriguez, who would have voted for the increase, was absent. Trustee Greg Meyers, who said he would have voted against the increase, was also absent; it’s not clear if that’s what precipitated the vote going forward or if it was a matter of clarifying the whip count. Anyway, the increase will help fund a 2% pay raise for HISD employees, which is good and needed, and a continuation of the Apollo program, which let’s just say remains a source of dispute. HISD still has one of the lower tax rates around, and for most people the difference probably won’t really be noticed. But you know how it is with these things.

CompSci in the curriculum

HISD Trustee Paula Harris coauthors an op-ed in the Chron advocating computer science to be part of the standard school curriculum.

Paula Harris

While STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education is a hot topic in education circles these days, only math and science courses are required for graduation from high school. The few computer science courses that are offered are categorized as electives, not as core courses students need to graduate, so they do not receive the same emphasis as their higher profile STEM counterparts.

We need to start working with students at a young age to spark their interest in technology and computer science. Our children should not just know how to use apps and video games, they should know how to create apps and video games. Some very popular and very profitable apps have been designed by high school students.

We must elevate computer science classes to be part of our core curriculum. We need to train more teachers who are qualified to teach modern state-of-the-art computer science courses, and to find innovative ways to recruit and keep these teachers familiar with the latest technology.

According to Computing in the Core, a nonprofit coalition that advocates for K-12 computer science education, “By 2018, current government projections show that more than 800,000 high-end computing jobs will be created in the economy, making it one of the fastest growing occupational fields.”

We need the support, input and commitment from technology companies to help us educate technology-inspired, innovative thinkers to both fill available jobs and pioneer in the field of computer science.

I agree that computing should be a required part of the curriculum, but I’d like to see a proposal of what’s being required first. There’s a lot more to computing than programming – hardware, networking, mobile computing, security, etc etc etc – so my first question would be what exactly is it that we want to emphasize? What do we really think students need to know? Remember that unlike, say, math, what’s relevant and important in computer science changes rapidly, and sometimes radically. I mean, when I was in college, there was a debate over whether APL or Pascal was the right introductory language to use for programming concepts. How can you ensure that the curriculum you’re designing today will still be worth teaching by the time you’ve finished designing it? Sure, there are plenty of basic ideas in computing that are enduring, but if the idea is to prepare students for the job market, then being up to date on what’s in demand is critical. Are there other school districts already doing something like this? You get the idea. I like this idea and want to see discussion on it. What do you think?

More on uniform start times and other options HISD is considering

As we know, HISD is contemplating uniform start times as a way to save a few bucks for the next fiscal year. They do have some other ideas going, as well as a possible property tax rate hike, and they would like some input from you. From the inbox, from HISD Trustee Paula Harris:

Paula Harris

Implementing uniform schedules across the Houston Independent School District’s 279 campuses would free up $1.2 million while giving the average student an extra 19 minutes in the classroom, according to a budget-cutting option presented to the HISD Board of Education today.

HISD is looking for more ways to reduce spending as the district seeks to address a projected $34 million deficit for the 2012-2013 school year. The loss in revenue is a result of last year’s decision by the Texas Legislature to reduce public education funding by $5.3 billion.

Streamlining HISD’s bell schedule was among many potential spending reduction options discussed during Thursday’s Board of Education meeting. Under this plan, every HISD school would have an instructional day that is 7 ½ hours long. This represents a 19-minute increase for the average HISD school, or a total of seven full days of extra instruction time over the course of the year.

Currently, HISD schools have about 20 different start and end times. Under the option presented today, schools would operate on the following bell schedule:

  •          Approximately half of all elementary schools would operate from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  •          Approximately half of all elementary schools would operate from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  •          All middle schools would operate from 7:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.
  •          All high schools would operate from 8:45 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

The cost savings in this plan would come from a much more efficient school bus operation that would allow each bus to drive more routes than is currently possible.

Starting high school classes later in the day is supported by scientific research that shows teens learn better when they’re able to sleep later in the morning. The 19 HISD schools that currently operate for more than 7 ½ hours per day would be allowed to continue offering the same amount of instructional time, said Chief Operating Officer Leo Bobadilla.

In the coming weeks, HISD will be gathering community input on the streamlined bell schedule option. A detailed description of the plan and a survey will be posted to the district’s website, www.houstonisd.org. A series of community meetings will be held in locations throughout the district, and principals will be asked to meet with their communities to gather even more input. HISD administration plans to analyze all of this feedback before making a formal proposal for the Board of Education’s consideration by May 17.

Other options considered for addressing $34 million deficit

HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett so far has identified about $12 million in possible budget cuts for addressing the anticipated $34 million deficit. Those options include:

  •          A $5 million reduction in the amount of ASPIRE Awards paid to teachers and other campus employees for raising student achievement
  •          A $1.5 million cut in general departmental spending
  •          A $1.3 million reduction in special education spending that corresponds with a decline in the number of special education students in HISD
  •          A $615,000 savings by closing these three HISD administrative offices currently housed in old school buildings and relocating staff elsewhere:

o   The Langston facility

o   The Chatham facility

o   The Holden facility

  •          A $600,000 savings from the removal of 153 under-utilized temporary buildings located at schools through HISD

Garrett said her staff will continue searching for potential budget cuts. She also briefed the Board of Education on the possibility of addressing some of the funding shortfall with a property tax rate increase. HISD currently offers the lowest tax rate of any school district in Harris County, plus an additional 20 percent homestead exemption that is rare among Texas school districts.

Texas’ current school finance formula penalizes school districts such as HISD with low tax rates. That penalty currently costs HISD schools about $5 million per year. Raising HISD’s tax rate by 1.5 cents per $100 of a property’s taxable value would restore that $5 million in state funding and generate a approximately $15 million in local tax revenue, Garrett said. A 1.5-cent tax rate increase would cost the owner of the average HISD home valued at $197,408 about $21.44 per year.

HISD has posted an online survey to gauge opinion on the possibility of adopting a new bus schedule that increases the average school’s class time by 19 minutes per day. You can find the link here:

http://www.houstonisd.org/HISDConnectDS/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=f54f52646a1b5310VgnVCM10000028147fa6RCRD&vgnextchannel=051bdfb83de94310VgnVCM10000028147fa6RCRD

Whatever you think about the different choices, or if you think there are other choices that should be on the table, here’s your chance to tell them about it.

HISD to take over North Forest ISD

This is going to be a challenge, assuming it does go forward.

The North Forest Independent School District is nearing the end of its appeals to stay open, paving the way for Houston ISD to take over.

State education commissioner Robert Scott notified the North Forest administration in a letter released Friday that he was officially revoking the district’s accreditation after years of academic and financial woes.

Scott gave notice in July of his intent to close the district, but some in North Forest have remained optimistic that it wasn’t a done deal.

The district can appeal the ruling to Scott, but the commissioner had held strong that the 7,500 North Forest ISD students would be better served in neighboring HISD. The takeover is set to take place at the start of next school year, though HISD officials have said students can start enrolling in the district now.

The U.S. Justice Department still must approve the deal. But if prior rulings involving North Forest are an indication, the federal agency will sign off.

Here’s HISD’s official statement.

Scott has assigned Kay Karr, who is now serving as the Commissioner’s appointed conservator in North Forest, to oversee the district’s closure and annexation.

“It will be the role of the conservator to facilitate the annexation process in conjunction with the Houston ISD to ensure a smooth transition and transfer for the district and its students,” Scott wrote in his letter addressed to North Forest ISD officials.

HISD Board President Paula Harris and Superintendent Terry Grier said they are committed to working with North Forest leaders, parents, students, staff, and Ms. Karr to prepare for the upcoming school year.

“While HISD did not seek this annexation, we stand ready to welcome the entire North Forest community into the HISD family,” Harris said. “We believe all children have the ability to excel in the classroom. We will hold ourselves accountable for making sure that happens.”

Working in partnership with the North Forest community, HISD’s first priority will be to improve the level of academic rigor in North Forest’s neighborhood schools, Grier said.

“Strong neighborhood schools are the foundation of strong communities,” Grier said. “The work that is underway in HISD to place a great teacher in every classroom and an effective principal in every school will benefit the children of North Forest, just as it has in HISD.”

You can see Commissioner Scott’s letter here. The magnitude of the challenge for HISD can be fairly succinctly summed up by Wikipedia:

NFISD is the poorest district in Harris County. During a period NFISD made $1,711 per student in property taxes. Despite having a higher tax rate than Deer Park Independent School District, that district made $7,021 per student in property taxes. As of 2003 the NFISD attendance zone had very little industry.

In 2006 the area within NFISD had the lowest property value per student ratio in Harris County. Its property value per student ratio was less than half of the average ratio in the State of Texas. Within the district, in 2006 the typical single family house was appraised to be worth $51,106. 42 of the 15,637 houses within the NFISD boundaries had an appraised value greater than $200,000.

You want a good example of why local property taxes are a poor way to fund public schools, there you have it. How can anyone claim that the kids in NFISD get the same opportunity as kids in other districts given the vast difference in tax revenues? Obviously, they get support from the state that evens things out a bit, but come on. There’s no way they’re getting what they need.

You can see a map of the NFISD territory here; you may need to zoom in a little. My initial thoughts are that this ought to be a good deal for the children and parents of NFISD, as they will now have all of HISD’s schools to choose from, and that I wonder how the addition of NFISD will affect HISD’s Trustee districts. I sense that we may have some mid-decade redistricting in our future. At least, I’m assuming that NFISD’s Board would be dissolved, and the new territory would be worked into HISD with the existing districts adjusted as needed. That may also mean special elections, but I’m just guessing here. Anyone know what precedents there may be?

UPDATE: North Forest isn’t going without a fight.

Back to magnet schools

It’s Magent Awareness Week in HISD, and the Board of Trustees will be reviewing a new magnet school policy along the way.

A proposed new policy, released by HISD last week, calls for the creation of a new funding model for magnet schools and an accountability system that would give under-performing programs three years to improve before losing their status.

“It is not going to lay dormant for the entire year,” [HISD Board President Paula] Harris said of the proposed policy. “We are moving forward on magnets.”

While the district has some nationally renowned magnet campuses such as Carnegie Vanguard High School and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, others draw few applicants and are rated “academically unacceptable” by the state.

The proposed policy keeps with the current practice regarding entrance requirements. Elementary schools would admit students based on available space, although the magnet programs for gifted students, called Vanguard, still would have admissions standards. Middle and high schools could continue to have entrance requirements – a sticking point for some who believe the programs should be more open.

Lupita Hinojosa, HISD’s assistant superintendent of school choice, estimated that 2,000 parents attended the magnet fair Saturday, a good turnout that she attributes to better marketing and increased confidence in the school-choices model.

“Parents were very apprehensive last year because of the review going on,” Hinojosa said. “We know our board has to make changes and improvements, but our schools are continuing with their focus on instruction. I’ve had parents that are bringing their 1- and 2-year-olds ready to put them on a wait list. Unfortunately, we don’t start that early.”

See here, here, here, here, and here for some background. School Zone has a copy of the draft proposal. I agree with the basic principles that I see here. There should be enough space to accommodate everyone who qualifies. Programs should be spread around the district so that everyone has at least one choice near them. No magnet school should ever be rated unacceptable. Magnet schools are a success story for HISD. They need to get this right.

2011 Houston results

Let’s go through the races…

– Mayor Parker won with a shade under 51%, with none of her opponents cracking 15% on their own. Obviously, this is not a position a Mayor with no serious opposition wants to be in, and it won’t surprise anyone if one or more potential opponents for 2013 are on the phone already calling potential financial backers. It’s certainly possible, perhaps likely, that she will face a much tougher challenge in two years. It’s also possible, given a better economy, a less dire budget, and fewer externally-driven issues like a red light camera referendum, that she could be in a stronger position for re-election in two years and that the time to have beaten her was now. Many people thought Rick Perry looked vulnerable after winning with 39% of the vote in 2006, but things don’t always go as you think they will. Often uncertain the future is, that’s all I’m saying.

– Brenda Stardig trailed Helena Brown in District A by 479 votes. She and Jolanda Jones, who led Jack Christie by about 6700 votes, will be headed to a runoff. All other incumbents won majorities, with CM Stephen Costello having the closest race but winning with 51.2%. So much for the anti-Renew Houston slate.

– Only two of the five open seats will feature runoffs. Ellen Cohen in C (53.62%), Mike Laster in J (67.27%), and Larry Green in District K (67.23%) all won. Alvin Byrd (25.11%) and Jerry Davis (24.38%) head to overtime in District B, while the perennially perennial Andrew Burks led the field in At Large #2, garnering 17.33%. Kristi Thibaut came in second, with 15.65%, followed by Elizabeth Perez and David Robinson. This is at least the third time Burks has made it to a city election runoff – he lost to Sue Lovell in overtime in 2009 – and I wonder if he will get any official support. Being in a runoff with Jolanda Jones and a District B race also on the ballot will help him, but beyond that it’s hard to see him doing much of anything. You have to wonder what Michael P. Williams is thinking this morning. Oh, and Eric Dick finished seventh out of ten. Apparently, it takes more than spreading campaign signs like grass seed and putting out puerile press releases to win public office. Good to know.

– Paula Harris and Juliet Stipeche easily won re-election in HISD, as did Chris Oliver in HCC. Carroll Robinson defeated Jew Don Boney by a 55-45 margin to succeed Williams as the District IV Trustee. The closest race of the election, one that will have people gnashing their teeth all winter, was in HISD III, where Manuel Rodriguez barely held on. I’m a staunch advocate of early voting, but you have to wonder how many early-goers to the ballot box may have regretted pushing the button for Rodriguez before his shameful gay-baiting mailer came out.

– There were 123,047 city of Houston votes cast in Harris and Fort Bend Counties, making this election a near exact duplicate of 2007 turnout-wise. There were 164,283 votes cast in Harris County, of which 120,931 were Houston votes, for a Houston share of 73.6%. The final early vote total for Harris County was 60,122, almost exactly what I hypothesized it would be, and the early vote total was 36.6% of the overall tally in Harris. There were 920,172 registered voters in Houston, about 15,000 fewer than in 2009 but 7000 more than in 2007. City turnout was 13.14% in Harris County.

I have my second tour of jury duty today, this time in the municipal courts, so that’s all from me for now. I may have some deeper thoughts later. What do you think of how the election went? PDiddie has more.

UPDATE: Robert Miller offers his perspective.

UPDATE: Nancy Sims weighs in.

Endorsement watch: HISD incumbents

The Chron sticks with the incumbents in the three contested HISD Trustee races.

For HISD Trustee in District III: Manuel Rodriguez Elected to the board in 2003, he was its president in 2007, when the district successfully passed an important bond to build 21 new schools and repair and remodel more than 100 others. He consistently supports Grier and Apollo 20.

For HISD Trustee in District IV: Paula Harris. Harris, currently board president, has been a forceful advocate for her district, and as board president, has pushed a consistent program of reforms to improve school performance. She has been a staunch ally of Grier and an advocate of Apollo 20. We have been seriously concerned by reports of fat HISD contracts awarded to her friends. But Harris says that she’s played by the rules, welcomes new, tighter ethics standards, and promises to avoid murky areas in the future.

For HISD Trustee in District VIII: Juliet Stipeche Elected in November 2010 to complete an unfinished term, Stipeche quickly proved herself a strong board member. She’s supported tighter ethics rules and a truly independent audit of HISD’s procurement system. An alumna of the district’s High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, she’s a strong supporter of high-performing magnet programs and in-district charter schools. We appreciate her diplomatic, thoughtful criticism of Grier and Apollo 20.

Based on their own reporting, that strongly suggests they want to see Superintendent Terry Grier’s contract extended after it expires next December. Be that as it may, Harris and Stipeche are clearly better qualified candidates than their opponents, while the Rodriguez/Fonseca matchup is closer to even. I thought Fonseca might have had the edge here since he won almost all of the endorsements from other organizations, but apparently not. (Campos, not surprisingly, vehemently disagrees with the Chron.) My interview with Paula Harris is here, with Juliet Stipeche is here, with Manuel Rodriguez is here, and with Ramiro Fonseca is here. What do you think?

HISD tightens ethics rules

Good.

The Houston school board agreed Thursday to tighten its ethics rules to prevent trustees from meeting with vendors and from accepting certain campaign donations during open bids.

[…]

Board members would not be able to attend meetings with vendors and the district’s administration under the policy change.

HISD board president Paula Harris, who has acknowledged contacting the district’s chief financial officer on behalf of a friend’s company, said the staff has “committed to me that we are not going back to the old days with only some folks having access.”

[…]

The policy would bar board members and candidates from accepting campaign donations from vendors while the district is soliciting proposals or bids in their area of business.

As noted before, this makes HISD’s rules more like City Council’s and the Legislature’s. It’s a step in the right direction, though obviously enforcement will be a key issue as well. Now that this has been done, let’s see a proposal for capping contributions to Board candidates.

Interview with Paula Harris

Paula Harris

We close the week with HISD Board President and District IV Trustee Paula Harris, who is service her first term on the Board. Harris has a degree in petroleum engineering from Texas A&M and has worked as an engineer and project manager for over 20 year. She is on the Board of Directors for Space Center Houston and has served on other boards such as the Buffalo Bayou Partnership and The Ensemble Theater. She was elected HISD Board President this year. She has been at the center of some controversy concerning HISD’s procurement policies and ethics rules; at the time I did this interview, the Board was scheduled to vote on changes to its ethics rules but had not yet taken that vote. (See also School Zone‘s Q&A with Harris and her opponent, Davetta Daniels.) Here’s what we discussed:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2011 Elections page.

Your 2011 electoral lineup

There are many candidates running for office this year. Some of them have a better rationale for running than others, but thankfully for them that’s not a requirement.

A flurry of late filings to run for city office Wednesday filled out an election ballot that left only two Houston officials unopposed for re-election in November.

The city’s second-highest elected official, Controller Ronald Green, will run unopposed for a second two-year term as the city’s chief financial officer. Two-term District E Councilman Mike Sullivan also is unopposed.

Mayor Annise Parker has five challengers, but their combined campaign bank accounts total less than $5,000, compared with the $2.3 million Parker reported as of June 30.

You can see the full lineup here. There are a few oddities. The story list an Avery Ayers for District B and a Terence Jewett for District D, but the City Secretary does not. Similarly, the Chron only has Brad Batteau challenging CM Melissa Noriega in At Large #3, but the City Secretary has had Chris Carmona listed since early in the day yesterday. Also, there had been a candidate named Sergio Leal on the City Secretary’s page in At Large #4 before yesterday, but he has apparently dropped out. For that matter, I thought I had seen Jewett listed earlier, but at this point I couldn’t swear to it. Anyone know anything about these discrepancies?

There are two additions to the Mayor’s race: Jack O’Connor, who had previously been in At Large #5, and Dave Wilson – yes, that Dave Wilson – who presumably didn’t feel that the rest of the field hated gay people enough. I have no idea what made O’Connor decide to switch races. From what I can see, politically speaking he’s an Anglo Fernando Herrera, without the firefighters’ endorsement. There’s an anti-Parker vote out there, but I don’t see how the entrance of O’Connor or Wilson expands it in any way. They’re all fighting for the same 30% ± ε that was always going to vote against the Mayor. Had someone from the other end of the political spectrum jumped in, that might have made things more interesting. Wait till 2013, I guess. Speaking of which, now that both Ben Hall and Paul Bettencourt are officially non-candidates, can we please declare a moratorium on quoting them in any election-related story until after this election is over? Thank you.

What last minute surprises there were took place in the HISD races. First, we had a last minute dropout:

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, a mother of five who is active in the advocacy group HISD Parent Visionaries, confirms that she has filed to run for the District II seat now held by Carol Mims Galloway.

Galloway, who praised Skillern-Jones at a recent HISD board meeting, is expected to withdraw her application for re-election.

And withdraw she did. I respect Carole Mims Galloway, but I do not like this kind of placeholding. Handing your seat off like that to someone who will not be subject to any kind of scrutiny is not democratic. The voters deserve a choice. Even having a crackpot candidate in opposition would be preferable.

Another candidate discovered that he didn’t live in the district that he thought he lived in.

The Houston school board manager today notified Arturo “Art” Huerta, who had filed last month to run against trustee and board president Paula Harris, that he may not run for that seat because he does not live in the boundaries of the redrawn district.

The surprise came on the last day to file to run for the board. Like those of other governmental entities, the redistricting was done as a result of the new U.S. census data.

“I wanted to inform you that due to recent redistricting of HISD trustee boundaries, I have confirmed that your residential address of […] Vermont Street is in precinct 38,” board manager Suzanne Harrison emailed Huerta this morning, “and although precinct 38 is ‘split,’ your street falls within HISD Trustee District 8, not District 4 as we had originally discussed. I had this confirmed with the Harris County Voter Registrar this morning. Therefore, you will now be running against incumbent trustee Juliet Stipeche, Trustee for HISD District 8.”

[…]

Huerta said he will not seek election in District VIII, so he is out of the school board races for good this year.

“I have no interest in running against Juliet Stipeche,” Huerta said. “Her track record’s not the one that motivated me to run for this office.”

[…]

HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said the district’s legal consultant on school board boundaries, Gene Locke, confirmed that Huerta lives in District VIII — and the recent redistricting did not change that. The problem, Spencer said was the color-coded map that Harrison used. Huerta’s address looked like it was in District IV based on the color coding, which didn’t account for the precinct being divided into different school board districts.

I have sympathy for Huerta, who says he spent a bunch of his own money on signs, but I wonder if he was at that same address four years ago. If so, perhaps he remembers who he voted for in the Trustee race that year. For what it’s worth, I tried to find Huerta’s voter registration information so I could see what the Tax Assessor’s office thinks his HISD precinct is, but I could not find a registration for him. I don’t know what to make of that. Texas Watchdog has more on this.

In any event, Paula Harris will have an opponent, one who is familiar to her.

• In District IV, retired HISD principal Davetta Daniels is challenging Paula Harris, the school board president. Harris defeated Daniels four years ago. As we reported earlier today, Arturo “Art” Huerta, who had filed to run for the seat, was notified this morning that he didn’t live in that district and couldn’t run, despite being told by an HISD official last month that he did live in District IV.

• Juliet Stipeche, who represents District VIII, faces a challenge from Dorothy Olmos, who lost to Stipeche last year in a special election for the seat.

• Ramiro Fonseca, a Houston Community College financial aid associate, is running against incumbent Manuel Rodriguez Jr. for the District III seat.

Harris easily defeated Daniels in 2007 (page 19), garnering over 66% of the vote. Harris’ ethics issues may make this race closer, but I don’t really see Daniels, who also ran for At Large #5 in 2009 and received 8% of the vote, getting much traction. As for Olmos, she has run for numerous offices in recent years, and finished third (page 41) in the six-candidate special election for District VIII; as a multiple-time Republican candidate for office, I daresay she was bolstered by the makeup of that particular electorate. I don’t expect Stipeche will have much to worry about this time around. Fonseca, who has racked up a couple of nice endorsements since his entry into the race, looks to be the most interesting challenger.

Oh yeah, there’s also the HCC Trustee races. I have no idea who’s running for what beyond what I’ve said before, I will only list endorsements on my 2011 Election page if I can find a link to them. If an endorsing organization can’t or won’t list their supported candidates on a web page, I don’t see any reason to bother with them. I am listing the Houston Professional Fire Fighters’ endorsements because they were listed in this Houston Politics post, and that does count even if it is a technicality. The other endorsements mentioned in that post have no such luck. Whether you’re an endorsing organization or a candidate, if you want me to list your endorsements, show me the link.

UPDATE: I sent an email to story author Chris Moran to ask about Carmona in At Large 3, and was informed that his exclusion in the story was an error; there should be a correction in the online edition by now. CM Noriega does indeed have two opponents.

We have a contested HISD election

School Zone:

Houston ISD school board president Paula Harris is the first incumbent to draw an opponent in the November elections.

Arturo “Art” Huerta — who, according to the board office, is a parent of a child at Lanier Middle School — has filed to run to represent District IV, which includes parts of central and south Houston. Huerta listed his occupation as a project manager. He has lived in District IV for two years and in Texas for 10.

So far, that’s all I know about Mr. Huerta. The Bellaire Examiner and the anti-Paula Harris group Educators for a Better District IV mentioned this news as well (the latter in an email), but neither of them had any further details. I’ve found at least one Arturo Huerta in Houston on Facebook, but without knowing something like his occupation I can’t say if it’s the same person. Anyone out there know anything about this guy?

Speaking of Educators for a Better District IV, they sent out another email yesterday saying that Lana Edwards will be joining the race against Harris as well. Edwards is a name I’ve heard before – she ran for District D in 2007 and finished fourth in the field of seven, garnering 11.84% of the vote. According to this Chron overview of the 2007 race, she is also the ex-wife of former State Rep. Al Edwards. I will note that the Educators for a Better District IV group had previously claimed to have an opponent for Harris lined up only to rescind that claim later, so I would not consider this a done deal until Edwards actually files.

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.

(more…)

The other races

In addition to the city of Houston races, I am trying to follow the HISD and HCC Trustee elections as well. I say “trying” because there’s just no information out there that I can find. For one thing, though there are seven such races this year – four in HISD, three in HCC, including one open seat – I am unaware of a second candidate in any race. HISD Trustees Paula Harris, Carol Mims Galloway, Manuel Rodriguez, and Juliet Stipeche are up for election. None have opponents that I know of, though there’s a group calling itself “Educators For A Better District IV” that has been attacking Harris and claimed to have a candidate for that race at one point, though that fell through. As for HCC, it’s not at all easy to figure out who’s doing what. You just can’t easily tell from the biographies or from the past election results on Harris Votes whose terms are up. I know Richard Schechter will be on the ballot, and I know that Carroll Robinson is running to fill the slot that Michael P. Williams is leaving behind in his run for City Council, and somewhere along the line I managed to determine that Christopher Oliver was the third one in. At least, I think so – I was unable to duplicate whatever method I used back then to draw that conclusion. There’s got to be a better way than this.

And campaign finance reports, forget it. Google “HISD Trustee Campaign Finance Reports” and you’ll find this page, which contains exactly two reports, Juliet Stipeche’s from January and July. Google “HCCS Trustee Campaign Finance Reports” and you get a Carroll Robinson press release from January and a few links about Jay Aiyer. In other words, a whole lot of nothing.

So I’ll ask you. What do you know about any of these elections? Are there candidates out there, even rumors of candidates, that I’m not hearing about? Leave a comment and let me know. Thanks.

HISD adopts its budget

No tax increase, at least not at this time.

Students in the Houston Independent School District can expect to see larger class sizes and fewer teachers, librarians and elective courses next year under the spending plan that trustees approved Thursday.

The $1.6 billion budget reflects a state funding shortfall affecting districts across Texas, although for HISD, the financial picture ended up better than predicted.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier and board president Paula Harris had suggested over the last several months that raising the property tax rate was a possibility to balance the district’s budget.

But in the end, district officials decided to leave the tax rate alone and not dip into savings despite pleas from the district’s largest teachers association that more revenue could save hundreds of jobs and programs.

“We have an option to get more money. We’ve chosen not to do it,” Andy Dewey, the vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said.

Due to the way the Legislature will be distributing the budget cuts to school districts, HISD will take a bigger hit for the school year starting in 2012 than it will for this year. As such, the trustees voted to bank the extra money they now have from cutting more than they needed to this year until then. As I said before, I think that’s a reasonable position to take, though I certainly won’t criticize anyone who thinks we should be spending it now to keep more people employed. I would suggest that if we are going to hold on to this cash and lay off more people than perhaps we really needed to, the goal for the next year should be to balance the budget without any further job losses. If that means a tax rate hike, then so be it. Hair Balls has more.

HISD contemplates a tax increase

They’re not saying it explicitly yet, but the inference is clear.

Houston ISD board president Paula Harris said today that raising property taxes, dipping into the district’s savings account and suing the state over school finance inequities are all possibilities.

Harris noted twice that HISD has the lowest tax rate of all school districts in Harris County ($1.1567 per $100 of assessed value). The district also offers a special tax break known as an optional homestead exemption, which reduces the taxable value of homes by 20 percent.

Under a legislative budget proposal, districts with lower tax efforts get cut the deepest.

During a news conference at Pin Oak Middle School this morning, Harris echoed comments she made in February that a local tax increase was a possibility.

“Everything is still on the table,” said Harris, who spoke at the news conference with Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon and an HISD parent activist, Sue Deigaard.

Hair Balls noted this as well. Of course, this is what Rick Perry wants the school districts to do. If they all raise their tax rates – quite a few are already at the maximum level, but many of them are like HISD and still have room for a hike – the end result will be that the state will be on the hook for less money. HISD Trustee Harvin Moore has been writing about this and other aspects of the legislative shortchanging of public education, and it’s worth your time to read what he’s been saying. You should also read this op-ed by parent/activist Sue Deigaard.

There’s one other thing that’s on the table as well: Litigation.

Under the legislative budget proposal, HISD officials say the district faces a loss of $78 million in the upcoming school year and $126 million in 2012-13.

HISD officials had been planning for a state funding shortfall of $160 million in the upcoming year, so the proposal is better than expected. Still, Harris said, that’s no reason to celebrate.

“That’s like someone punching you in the face twice and saying, ‘Be glad we didn’t punch you three times.’”

Asked if HISD would consider joining an expected lawsuit against the state over the school finance system, Harris noted that the district participated in a similar suit years ago.

“I cannot say we would sit this one out,” Harris said.

Pretty much everyone expects there to be a lawsuit. Rick Casey’s column, linked in the excerpt above, spells it out. The only question at this point is how long till the suit is filed. The question of what the State Supreme Court will do with it this time is another matter. I don’t know how much having the facts on our side will count for.

HISD does its redistricting

Doesn’t get much easier than this.

Houston ISD trustees today approved a preliminary plan to redistrict their positions in response to changing demographics.

The plan, now available for public comment, generated no controversy among the Houston Independent School District board members, unlike the redistricting proposals for City Council and the state Legislature.

“There’s no radical change to any of the districts,” Gene Locke, the attorney hired by HISD to help draft the plan, told the school board at a meeting this morning.

HISD board president Paula Harris described the process as “painless.”

A review of the nine trustee district boundaries was necessary in response to the 2010 census, to ensure the district complies with minority voting rights.

Three of the nine trustee districts lost population since the 2000 census. Those districts are positions 1 and 2 on the north side — represented by Anna Eastman and Carol Mims Galloway, respectively — and position 3, represented by Manuel Rodriguez Jr., in the southeast.

The biggest growth occurred on the south side in district 9, represented by Larry Marshall.

The link above is to a PowerPoint presentation that shows the current and revised districts as well as the population data for each. You can also see the proposed map at the School Zone post. Or you can go to Greg‘s place for a Google map, which will give you street level information. I’m pleased to note that after all was said and done I will remain in the same district as before. Anyway, there’s a series of public meetings about the new map – see either School Zone or Greg for the details – so be there and let them know what you think.

HISD’s budget and magnet meeting

A whole lot happened on Thursday evening with HISD.

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier proposed a major shake-up Thursday night to the district’s popular magnet program, calling for 25 schools to lose the special status and for funding increases or reductions in others.

“This stands to change the landscape of the entire Houston Independent School District,” Trustee Anna Eastman said at a meeting packed with more than 300 parents, students and teachers who showed up to lobby for their schools.

In a three-hour presentation, Grier’s administration also laid out several controversial cost-cutting moves, such as changing bus schedules, closing four small schools and ending the college-readiness program Project GRAD.

McDade, Grimes, Rhoads and Love elementary schools would have to close their doors this fall under the plan.

Grier’s proposal to end the magnet programs at 25 schools scales back the massive cuts recommended in January by consultants hired by the school board. The $269,000 audit by Magnet Schools of America proposed eliminating 55 of the 113 magnet programs.

Trustee Harvin Moore called Grier’s magnet plan “way better” than the audit but expressed concerns about proposed funding reductions to many of the Vanguard schools, which serve gifted children. Moore and a few other trustees asked that final decisions about the magnet schools not be rushed at a meeting set for next week.

“I don’t think one week is enough time for the board or the public, who we report to, to look at this,” Moore said, prompting applause from the audience.

I recommend you read Ericka Mellon’s liveblog of the proceedings for a more comprehensive blow-by-blow account of what happened. There’s a whole lot to digest, and it’s hard to say how much of it will get modified or dropped as a result of a changing budget picture – the operating assumption was that the state would cut public education by $5 billion for the biennium, not $10 billion, so the assumptions made in their budget are more likely to be too optimistic than too pessimistic – or pushback from parents and trustees. And as Hair Balls makes clear, to a large degree what the Board can do is constrained by what the Legislature may or may not do.

Throughout the recommendation, Moore reiterated to the audience that the budget cuts were being made because of a failure of the state to shore up money for HISD, not because of money mismanagement at the school district level.

“Whatever we come up with, we want to make sure we convey to the state what will happen if they don’t act,” he said. Melinda Garrett agreed. “We have to wait. If we don’t, everyone in Austin will think we just rolled over,” she said. The school board said they are lobbying in Austin for more funding.

Other ways to scrounge for HISD include increasing taxes and reducing the homestead exemption, which could create $23 million by cutting it five percent. But Moore warned that once homeowners and taxpayers agreed to take on the state’s financial responsibility, there would be no going back. Another way would be to temporarily cut the salaries of teachers, but such a measure is illegal in Texas.

“You can’t touch any teacher salaries, and that’s the bulk of the money in this district,” Garrett said.

All the more reason to get involved now, and make sure your voice is heard.

Beyond that, the main thing that concerns me is the proposed change to school start times, which would greatly affect our morning routine along with everybody else’s. Take a look at the liveblog and the documents it contains to see how you and your school may be affected, and give feedback to your trustee. The West U Examiner has a good writeup as well. What do you think about all this?

The state of HISD

HISD SUperintendent Terry Grier gave his state of the school district speech this week.

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier announced plans Thursday to toughen the district’s curriculum and to expand access to college-caliber courses despite tight financial times.

Grier, in his second-annual State of the Schools speech, said slowing down academic reforms — when less than 20 percent of the district’s students are deemed ready for college – would be “morally unacceptable” and “economically irresponsible.”

“We must understand that the challenge ahead of us is monumental,” Grier said, noting looming cuts in state funding. “And, yes, we may have to do more with less, but frankly we can’t demand a no-excuses attitude from our students if we adults aren’t willing to embrace that philosophy as well.”

Grier, who has focused heavily on low-performing schools in his first 18 months on the job, said the entire district needs a more challenging, engaging curriculum that goes beyond Texas’ requirements and reflects national and international standards.

The story quoted Rice sociologist Stephen Klineberg, who said that Grier “gets it” about the importance of educating kids from low income families. Some other folks such as Margaret Downing of the Houston Press were less impressed.

In a State of the Schools luncheon speech that started about an hour later than predicted, Grier unveiled nothing especially new, at least not to people who work for the district and/or follow the school board and district news. He reflected on the usual glories of the past year (national recognition for some HISD schools and students), named the challenges (massive budget cuts, students not performing on grade level) and rallied the troops to avoid “the path of low expectations.”

You can see more about the speech, including a link to the full text and a statement from HISD Board President Paula Harris here. Beyond that, there are no other opinions of the speech, so not having seen him deliver it myself I don’t know how well it was received. Regardless of how much new ground he broke in the address, it’s still the case that Grier will ultimately be judged by results. If a few years from now it’s the consensus that performance is up, Grier will be lauded as a success. If not, it could get ugly. Anyone want to place a bet?

Still more on magnet schools

So what do we know about HISD’s magnet schools and that consultant’s report that recommended some hefty changes to them? Well, other than the consultants themselves, no one likes the report very much.

The message was clear at Lamar High School [Tuesday] night: remove the magnet designation from high performing schools in the district and Houston ISD will not only be destroying dreams and futures, but it will lose a lot of money as its best and brightest go elsewhere.

Trustee Harvin Moore, whose district includes Lamar and who has a child in a magnet school program, didn’t seem inclined to disagree.

“The board of education seemed rather frustrated by the contents of the report. I think it didn’t stand up that well, frankly,” he told the crowd that filled the auditorium. “Many of my colleagues are inclined to think there is very little in that report that we will support.”

Similar meetings were held in each of HISD’s trustee districts last night. At Lee, HISD Human Resources Director Ann Best made a brief presentation of the Magnet Schools of America recommendations — which call for removing the magnet designation from 53 of the district’s 133 magnet schools and the millions of dollars in funding along with it — stressing that in no way were the proposals board policy.

In fact, the evening seemed to be one of stepping away from the report, which cost the district $260,000. If so, that would make those in attendance very happy.

But HISD still believes that something must be done about the existing program.

[HISD Superintendent Terry] Grier and board members have said repeatedly they don’t want to dismantle the magnet program and have distanced themselves from some recommendations in the report.

But these officials also have noted discrepancies in the funding and academic performance among magnet campuses.

“It’s not going to be, ‘We get to keep ours because it’s excellent,’ ‘We get to keep ours because we have poor kids,’ ‘We get to keep ours because it’s the only one that does this or does that,’” said HISD board president Paula Harris, speaking to about 400 people at Sterling High School. “There actually have to be some parameters around it.”

Brainstorming aloud, Harris suggested such parameters could include preserving only those magnets with exceptional academics and a fifth or more of their students enrolled in the school’s magnet program, among other criteria.

May I suggest creating a task force with parents, teachers, principals, a couple of school board members, and an outside expert or two to come up with the next round of recommendations, instead of hiring more consultants to produce a report that wasn’t worth the time to read? I agree that there needs to be some criteria or benchmarks that magnets need to meet, and that we should strive to protect and hopefully try to replicate the successful ones. I still think there’s some merit to the idea of creating more magnet schools, perhaps by combining a few programs from various schools, but I have no empirical evidence for this, just my own opinion. It’s clear that everyone believes that the magnet programs are beneficial to HISD in many ways and should be supported, and I certainly agree with that. From reading these stories, though, it seems to me we also need to ensure that neighborhood schools are as good as they can be as well. Not everyone wants to specialize, and it’s probably better if fewer students are traveling across town to go to school. Having magnet programs that will attract students is great, but having schools that will attract them is better. See this op-ed by the HISD Parent Visionaries group for more.

More on the magnet schools report

I guess it’s just as well that I never made it all the way through that audit on HISD’s magnet schools, because it seems that neither Superintendent Terry Grier nor the Board of Trustees are all that wedded to it.

Grier and the trustees have yet to release a counterproposal, saying they first want to hear from parents. But in interviews and public meetings last week, they dropped hints about the ideas they do — and don’t — support. Grier also has acknowledged that some of the popular schools deemed too crowded to continue their magnet programs might not be too full after all, according to the principals.

This much is clear: The proposal from Magnet Schools of America, released a week ago, will not become HISD’s new master plan.

“From the very beginning, we said that we can either adopt some, all or none of it,” said outgoing school board president Greg Meyers. “Clearly, after seeing it, we’re not going to adopt all of it.”

But that’s not a guarantee the magnet schools will be spared budget cuts.

“I’m not trying to take away success,” said newly elected board president Paula Harris. “But could people lose money? I think the opportunity to lose money is definitely there.”

The report is here, in case you missed it. As long as HISD makes good use of the feedback it’s going to get at the public hearings and adopts practices that help control cost while making successful programs available to as many kids as possible, I’ll be happy. Many of these meetings will take place on Tuesday the 25th at 6:30 – see here for times and locations.

Will HISD close low-enrollment schools?

As if there weren’t enough politically charged agenda items out there for next year.

Like dozens of campuses in the Houston Independent School District, Jones is losing students and brimming with empty seats. HISD trustees must make politically tough choices about such campuses: Should they be closed, merged, left alone or overhauled with more popular programs?

Superintendent Terry Grier’s administration last week released a list of 66 campuses with low student enrollments. They’re not all expected to be closed — that would mean shutting down one-fifth of the district’s 300 schools — but they’re under review.

“We’re not closing 66 schools,” Grier said. “We are trying to look at, do we have school buildings that are underutilized, and how can we either encourage parents to send their children to school there or, if not, does it make financial sense to merge those schools with others nearby?”

HISD Trustee Paula Harris was more blunt.

“We know we can’t keep all 66 of these schools,” she said. “Everyone’s not going to be happy, including myself, because it’s going to be tough.”

Texas Watchdog has a list of the schools in question. I note with some interest that Hogg Middle School, to which we are zoned, is on that list. Let’s stipulate right off that even if closure and consolidation were the only possible outcomes, only a fraction of these schools would be wiped out. The students have to go somewhere, and given that HISD thinks the remaining campuses have “enough” students on them, they’d mostly likely be divvied up among these same schools, much like a disbursement draft in a sports league after a franchise has folded. Presuming that some schools will be impractical to close for historic or geographic reasons, and given that some of them on this list are already working on attracting new students to them, I’d guess that a max of about 12 to 15 campuses are truly in peril. That’s still a lot of potential pain.

HISD spends about $10 million a year to boost the budgets of most of the 66 low-enrollment schools plus 21 others it considers small. Because HISD funds its schools on a per-pupil basis, those with low enrollments struggle to afford extras such as art and music teachers.

Hector Mireles, who represents HISD employees, said he worries the district will target high-minority schools for closure.

“I’m against closing any schools,” said Mireles, the president of Texas Support Personnel Employees Local 1. “If we’re in the interest of trying to save the children, we feel other budget cuts could be made.”

Arguably, consolidation is a better outcome for the kids, since it would allow them to go to schools that have more programs. All things being equal, consolidation is a much more efficient allocation of resources. Given that support personnel would surely be axed as a result of that – teachers would generally get reassigned, to ensure that classroom size limits are met, but there’s only so much space available for secretaries, librarians, counselors, custodians, and so forth – I can certainly understand Mr. Mireles’ position. As Trustee Harris says, this is going to suck for everyone.

Who’s using electronic textbooks?

According to this DMN story, the electronic textbook revolution hasn’t exactly taken hold just yet, at least not in the Metroplex.

The [Texas Education Agency] has budgeted more than $800 million for textbooks in 2010-11, but it’s not clear how much of the money districts will use on digital materials. Many schools simply don’t know the extent of what’s available, [John Lopez, the agency’s director of instructional materials and educational technology] said.

Dallas ISD officials say they have no plans yet to use online textbooks in their classrooms. Virginia Cotten, McKinney ISD’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said her district supports technological development but is in an “exploratory” position when it comes to incorporating digital materials into curriculum.

Jim Hirsch, Plano ISD’s associate superintendent for academic and technology services, said that district will make its first “large foray” into electronic textbooks next year by giving secondary students online access to English language arts texts.

Irving ISD, which has provided laptops to all high school students for almost a decade, is one of the strongest advocates for online textbooks. But even the region’s technological vanguard is hesitant about the transition.

I haven’t heard as much as a peep about electronic textbooks here, either. After production for Houston Have Your Say finished up on Tuesday evening, I found HISD Trustee Paula Harris, who was one of the panelists for the show, and asked her what HISD’s plans were. She told me this will be coming, but there aren’t any plans for the electronic textbooks just yet. HISD obviously has a lot on its plate right now, so it wouldn’t surprise me if this remains on the back burner for a year or more. My advice if you want to see this happen sooner than that would be to contact your own trustee and ask him or her the same question.

HISD set to hire Grier

But not without some drama first.

The Houston school board is expected to officially hire Terry Grier as superintendent Thursday and offer him a multiyear contract that is likely to top $400,000 a year in salary and perks over time.

Three weeks of intense negotiations on the deal dragged into Wednesday evening, with trustees trying to ensure they didn’t end up repeating the costly deal they had with Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, who stepped down last month.

Saavedra’s exit package cost taxpayers $978,967, according to the district. Much of the payout was for unused time off he had accrued over his career, plus extra vacation days the board granted him.

HISD Trustee Paula Harris said Saavedra’s contract served as a “lesson learned,” and this time around the board paid “a lot more attention to detail.”

“It’s a fair contract,” Harris said. “Both sides should be quite pleased.”

Harris said she expects the board to unanimously appoint Grier at its 5 p.m. meeting today — though state Sen. Mario Gallegos is threatening to derail the process.

Gallegos, D-Houston, said he is prepared to ask Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos’ office to investigate the school board for possible violations of the state’s open-meetings law.

He said he believes trustees unlawfully deliberated about Grier’s contract before naming him the lone finalist for superintendent last month, and he has requested documents from the district to try to prove his case.

“I’m serious about this,” said Gallegos, who sent a letter with his demands Tuesday to HISD’s outside counsel, Chris Gilbert. “I believe the public was shut out.”

I doubt Sen. Gallegos will get any joy out of this, but as one who’s on record opposing the secret superintendent search, I am interested in seeing what he finds out. I do think the Board should have been more open, and if they say that makes their job of finding superintendents too hard, then it’s on them to lobby the Lege to write a new law that explicitly allows them to do it their way. I hope in the end that Dr. Grier will be such a success that all of this will some day be looked back on as a mere trifle, but in the meantime we ought to know if all the rules were followed in hiring him.

Terry and Abe

Here’s another get-to-know-Terry Grier story, focusing on his time in San Diego. The most interesting bit to me is right here:

Abelardo Saavedra, the man Grier is in line to replace in Houston, endured more than his share of criticism for making big decisions without public input during nearly five years on the job. And many of Saavedra’s biggest proposals — courting outside groups to take over troubled high schools and scaling back busing for HISD’s popular magnet school program, for instance — failed after meeting swift and powerful opposition. His $805 million bond referendum in 2007 almost died because of intense lobbying from some of Houston’s most powerful black politicians and activists, who felt left out of the process.

But HISD school trustee Paula Harris, who was part of the unanimous vote to name Grier as the sole superintendent finalist, said Grier has the political skill to succeed where the less charismatic Saavedra stumbled.

While the two men may have some similarities, Harris said, “Terry’s going to be able to sell his ideas better.”

I can believe that Grier will be a better politician than Saavedra, and that he will have less trouble selling some of his ideas as a result. But part of Saavedra’s problem wasn’t so much the sales job as it was the lack of public input before the sales pitch. If Grier repeats that pattern he’ll have trouble no matter how good his political skills are. Get people on board beforehand, especially when making changes, and the rest follows a lot more easily. We’ll see how good he is at that.

Jones gets another opponent

In the wake of her comments about Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Jeff Caynon, Council Member Jolanda Jones has drawn a new challenger for her seat.

On Friday, retired HISD administrator Davetta Daniels filed to challenge Jones in November.

Daniels says Jones has been an embarrassment.

Bellaire native Carlos Obando also announced for the seat back in January.

Daniels ran for HISD Trustee in District IV in 2007, losing to Paula Harris by a 66-34 margin; click on Page 19 here to see the result. She represents a much more serious threat than Obando, whose campaign finance report is still not up, as she’s likely to draw from Jones’ existing base of support. Jones had a decent fundraising haul and has $54K on hand, but that’s not that much of an advantage. If Daniels gets some traction, she could be in real trouble.