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Rhonda Skillern-Jones

No decision on Carranza replacement yet

Tabled for now, but likely not for long.

Houston ISD trustees on Thursday opted not to appoint an interim superintendent at a school board meeting, leaving it unclear who will run the district after Superintendent Richard Carranza’s anticipated departure later this month.

Board members did not discuss potential candidates or options for moving forward during closed or open session Thursday because one trustee was absent. They are expected to consider options for appointing a temporary district leader at a March 22 meeting.

Trustees faced a relatively subdued crowd given Carranza’s abrupt announcement Monday that he plans to leave the district after 18 months to become chancellor of New York City public schools. They never referred to Carranza by name during the meeting or commented at length about his decision to leave, making only glancing references to his departure.

“The sky is not falling around replacing our superintendent,” HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said. “We do have some heavy lifts, but we’ve had to do some heavy lifts before.”


Skillern-Jones said board members discussed some legal matters surrounding Carranza’s departure during closed session, including their ability to re-hire the search firm that helped them land Carranza, who formerly presided over San Francisco Unified School District. Trustees expect they will be able to use the search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, free of charge because Carranza remained in HISD for less than two years.

See here for the background. The main question, as outlined in this this earlier story, is whether to “name a short-term interim superintendent and immediately begin a search for a more permanent replacement; name a long-term interim superintendent and postpone a superintendent search for a couple months; or post the position and hire a new permanent superintendent immediately”. I assume the third choice is basically a promotion from within the existing HISD hierarchy, while the other two would be a national search. The indication that the board could re-use the search firm that recommended Carranza suggests the board may be leaning towards one of those options. There’s a case to be made for hiring someone local – as one person in the story suggests, a local person may be less likely to be wooed away. I don’t know that I buy that – there isn’t a long history of HISD superintendents being poached, and the non-local Terry Grier stayed through the end of his contract – but it’s a point to debate. All I really care about is that they find someone who is up to the job.

Looking ahead to 2019

Yes, yes, I know. We’ve barely begun the 2018 cycle. Who in their right mind is thinking about 2019? I plead guilty to political insanity, but the beginning of the year is always the best time to look forward, and just as 2018 will be unlike any election year we’ve seen before, I think 2019 will be unusual, too. Let’s just take a moment to contemplate what lies ahead.

I’ve posted this list before, but just to review here are the Council members who are term-limited going into 2019:

Brenda Stardig – District A
Jerry Davis – District B
Ellen Cohen – District C
Mike Laster – District J
Larry Green – District K
Jack Christie – At Large #5

There is an opportunity for progressives to elect a candidate more favorable to them with CM Christie’s departure, and his At Large colleagues Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh will also draw attention. Against that, I would remind everyone that Bill King carried Districts C and J in 2015, so we’re going to have to play defense, too.

It is too early to start speculating about who might run where, but keep two things in mind. One is that there’s likely some pent-up demand for city offices, since there won’t have been an election since 2015, and two is that some number of people who are currently running for something in 2018 will find themselves on the sidelines by March or May, and some of them may decide to shift their focus to a more local race. The point I’m making here is expect there to be a lot of candidates, and not just for the term-limited offices. I don’t expect Mayor Turner to be seriously challenged, but I do expect the firefighters to find someone to support against him. Finally, I expect Pasadena to be a hotbed of action again for their May elections, as Democrats missed by seven votes in District B winning a majority on Pasadena City Council.

The following HISD Trustees are up for election in 2019:

Rhonda Skillern-Jones – District II
Sergio Lira – District III
Jolanda Jones – District IV
Diana Davila – District VIII

Skillern-Jones was forced into a runoff in 2015, but she then won that easily. Lira was elected this year to finish Manuel Rodriguez’s term. Jolanda is Jolanda, and no election that includes her will ever be boring. Davila sued to get on the Democratic primary ballot for Justice of the Peace, but was not successful. I have to assume whoever runs against her will make an issue of the fact that she was job-hopping in the interim.

The following HCC Trustees are up for election in 2019:

Zeph Capo – District 1
Dave Wilson – District 2
Neeta Sane – District 7

It is too early to think about who might be running for what in Houston and HISD. It is very much NOT too early to find and begin building support for a good candidate to run against Dave Wilson and kick his homophobic ass out of office. That is all.

Recapture re-vote will happen

Mark your calendars for May 6.

On Thursday, the board voted 5-3, with one abstention, to put another referendum on recapture on the May 6 ballot. Placing a second referendum on the May ballot will cost the district $800,000, according to an HISD spokesman

Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who campaigned in favor of not paying recapture with the first referendum, said HISD called the state’s bluff, and, in turn, the state called HISD’s bluff, but the state has the upper hand.

“The TEA offered this; the TEA is the same agency that has the power to take this district over. If they take over, do you think they’ll send people who care about equity or our kids? Their whole agenda is not about our kids,” said Skillern-Jones, who voted in favor of the second referendum.

But Trustee Jolanda Jones, who spearheaded the effort to reject paying recapture, said the whole reason for the first referendum was to get the Texas Legislature to move on overhauling school finance.

She said if the district pays recapture this year, the recapture fees will keep going up each year, essentially robbing the district of more and more money.

“The only reason they’re paying attention is not because we have a great lobbying team, it’s because we voted no,” Jones said.

About 10 speakers at Thursday’s meeting lambasted the idea of the board reversing its stance on paying the recapture money. Ken Davis, principal of Yates High School, said the TEA’s lessening HISD’s recapture bill is not a favor.

“That’s not a gift -they’re still taking money from our schools,” Davis said. “Push back on that. You are all standing at a time where you set a standard for what the rest of the state does. Stand up and take a step forward.”

See here and here for the background. According to the HISD News Blog, Wanda Adams, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Anna Eastman, Mike Lunceford, and Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca voted for the approval of election, while Diana Dávila, Jolanda Jones, and Manuel Rodriguez voted No, with Anne Sung abstaining. I know Eastman was a Yes vote on recapture back in November; she is the only Trustee that I’m certain favored it at that time. I appreciate what Jolanda Jones is saying here, but I lean more towards what Rhonda Skillern-Jones is saying. I think this reduced bill for recapture, which came about after the TEA reinterpreted existing law to give HISD and other districts a break for allowing a larger homestead exemption, is the best we’re going to get without the Legislature getting involved, and I would not bet on that happening. This isn’t the outcome we really wanted, but it’s a lot better than where we began. I think we should declare victory, take the half-a-loaf being offered to us, and make an extra push for a genuine legislative fix in 2019. KUHF and Swamplot have more.


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.

HISD board members against the HISD ballot item

I missed this when it first appeared.

Three Houston school board members on Thursday evening publicly urged voters to oppose a measure that would authorize the district to forfeit $162 million to the state.

Trustees Jolanda Jones, Harvin Moore and Rhonda Skillern-Jones went on the offensive at the live-streamed board meeting, asking voters to join them in voting “no” on the Nov. 8 ballot measure required under the state’s school-finance system.

The board members are taking a gamble, calling on state lawmakers to revamp the funding system to relieve the Houston Independent School District when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“We are King Kong in this state,” Jones said, noting that the Houston school system is the largest district in Texas and should have influence.


Here’s the rub: If the ballot measure fails and the education commissioner detaches property from HISD — an unprecedented move — the district will not be able to tax those properties to fund the repayment of debt. And the district has significant debt, including the ongoing $1.9 billion construction bond program approved by voters in 2012.

The district overall cannot take a position on the measure. However, it has launched an educational campaign, focused on the confusing state-mandated ballot language that will ask voters whether they approve purchasing attendance credits from the state. A “yes” vote to the credits means the district sends the $162 million.

If the funding system does not change, the Houston school district estimates that its “recapture” payment will rise to $257 million in 2017-18, $308 million in 2018-19 and $386 million the following year.

See here for the background. As the story notes, former HISD board member and current “education czar” for Mayor Turner Juliet Stipeche is also opposed to the referendum. I get where they’re coming from, and the escalating recapture payments are daunting, if not crippling. There is definitely an urgency in trying to get the Legislature to do something to avert the problem, or at least to mitigate it. The problem is that there’s no sign that the Legislature, or Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, have any interest in lifting a finger for HISD. Indeed, it’s quite clear that at least on the Senate side, all the energy in 2017 is going to be on making things worse for public education in general. I get the idea, and I don’t think approving the issue does any good. I’m just not sure that defeating it isn’t worse, even if it does have the potential for an upside. See here for the official HISD page on recapture. What do you think about this?

Three more HISD schools to be renamed

I have three things to say about this.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

The new campuses to be renamed, joining four others approved on split votes in January, are Albert Sidney Johnston and Sidney Lanier middle schools and Jefferson Davis High School. Johnston was a high-ranking Confederate general, Lanier was a Confederate soldier and poet, and Davis was president of the Confederacy.

Nearly all the votes were along racial lines, with the black and Hispanic board members voting in favor of the name changes.

Committees at each school now are charged with proposing new names by May.

Supportive of the changes, James Douglas, president of the NAACP of Houston, told the school board about a recent conversation he had with a younger African-American about the Confederacy and the naming debate.

“Where would you be today if they had won?” Douglas asked. “I said, ‘Do you feel proud having to go into a school that honors a person who intended to keep you in slavery?'”

A few dozen speakers – parents, students and community members – expressed mixed views. Some agreed the names sent the wrong message, while those supportive of keeping Lanier’s name said he was a young, low-level soldier who redeemed himself as a writer. Others questioned the price tag as the district faces a projected $107 million budget shortfall.

Renaming all eight campuses – Reagan High School is expected to come before the board again – would cost an estimated $2 million, based on district figures.

“I’ll take dignity over dollars,” said trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who led the effort last year to change the district’s policy to allow the board to order renaming. The move followed the shooting deaths last June at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.

See here for the background. My thoughts:

1. As I’ve said before, having something named after you – school, street, park, whatever – is a privilege, not a right. Names may change to reflect changing sentiments, populations, priorities, something else. Having something renamed doesn’t necessarily mean we no longer like or approve of the person for whom it had been named before. It may just mean it was time for a change.

2. That said, I have zero sympathy for anyone associated with the Confederacy. Maybe it’s just the Yankee in me, but people who took up arms against the United States are in no way worthy of honor. Renaming a school that had borne the moniker of a Confederate figure doesn’t mean we’re “burying” our history – frankly, the discussion we’ve had this past year about who we have named various things after and why those names were chosen, especially at that time, has been more illuminating of our history than any class I’ve ever taken – it means we’re renaming a school.

3. And having said that, I do have sympathy for those who have tried to draw a distinction between the likes of Sidney Lanier, who was a soldier but not a leader in the Confederacy and who came to be known for much more than his time in the Confederate army, and the likes of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Perhaps part of the issue here is that the discussion we haven’t had is what our standards are for naming (in this case) schools after various figures, and what the disqualifying factors may be. Among other things, that may force us to come to terms with other people who have highly questionable legacies but were not a part of this discussion, such as Mirabeau Lamar. I doubt there’s an objective standard that we could use, and even if there were I’m sure there would still be cases that would generate controversy, but this would at least address the criticism that the HISD Board has acted in a haphazard manner.

HISD board moves to change some school names

There may be more to come at a later date.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

The five-trustee majority also voted to rename Henry Grady, Richard Dowling and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson middle schools and Robert E. Lee High School.

Now, a committee at each school, including a teacher, student, parent and alumnus, will be charged with proposing a new name to the district administration. The policy then calls for the superintendent to make recommendations to the board for a vote – expected to take place in May, according to the meeting agenda.

[Outgoing Board President Rhonda] Skillern-Jones had included eight schools on the renaming list, but trustees agreed to remove four – Lanier and Johnston middle schools and Davis and Reagan high schools – to allow for more discussion.

[New Trustee Jolanda] Jones, who represents Lanier, posted Wednesday on Twitter that she supported changing the school’s name. However, on Thursday she proposed removing the campus from the immediate renaming list to host a meeting at the school.

“Sidney Lanier was a confederate soldier despite what some say,” Jones posted on social media. “I would vote 2 change an anti-Semitic name if asked 2.”

Numerous parents and students from Lanier dressed in the school’s purple color and urged the board to keep the name. Sidney Lanier, they said, is better known as a poet than as a soldier in the Confederate army.

“This is clearly a very important question, and it brings out a lot of emotion on both sides of the issue,” Adriane Arnold, president of the Lanier parent group, told the board. “It is something our kids will be discussing at Lanier moving forward.”

Trustee Harvin Moore tried to postpone the renaming item “indefinitely,” but it failed on a 4-5 vote. He and Eastman said their votes on the board-driven items were not statements on the merits but on the process.

“I don’t think my vote represents pro-celebration of the Confederacy at all,” Eastman said.

Skillern-Jones backed the idea of renaming schools after the shooting deaths of nine black church worshippers in Charleston, S.C.

Skillern-Jones, who is black, said later that her colleagues should not have been surprised that she packed the agenda.

“I decided to stop listening to all the reasons why we can kick the can down the road and become more proactive about stopping that inequity that has persisted in this district since I came here in kindergarten,” she said.

See here, here, and here for some background. Skillern-Jones discussed her plans to push this issue in the interview she did with me last year; she described it as something she was proud to do. The specific list of schools to be renamed generated a lot of discussion, mostly having to do with Sidney Lanier. Texas Monthly wrote a piece sympathetic to Lanier, mostly expressing the viewpoint of former Lanier teacher and champion debate coach Jim Henley. Henley and Mike Bordelon, writing in Gray Matters, expanded on that. Andrea Greer pushed back. I support the overall move to rename these schools, though I’m still thinking about the Lanier case, but I will note two things. One, having a school named for oneself is a privilege, not a right. Two, however one feels about the particulars, having this discussion has been a very good thing. I’ve sure learned a lot from it. It’s easy to go through life without giving much if any thought as to why certain places are named the way they are, and what those names may mean to people. I know this because I’ve done it. Talking about these names, and hearing about what others think about them, has been enlightening, to say the least. If this conversation and the possibility of changing some names makes anyone uncomfortable or upset, consider that not talking about it and leaving things as they are because no one is interested in talking about it also makes people uncomfortable and upset. The Press has more.

HISD Trustee runoff overview

There are other races on the ballot this Saturday.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, the board president, faces pastor Larry Williams in the District 2 race to represent north Houston.

In southeast Houston’s District 3, Jose Leal, a former HISD administrator, is challenging Manuel Rodriguez Jr., the board’s first vice president.

The contests have the potential to shake up a board that will see at least two new faces in January. District 4 trustee Paula Harris did not seek re-election, and District 8 trustee Juliet Stipeche lost in the November general election to Diana Davila, a former board member.

Political consultant Marc Campos said he doubts Skillern-Jones and Rodriguez are at serious risk, even though the other incumbent on the November ballot was ousted and they both failed to garner more than 50 percent of the vote to win outright.

“I think Stipeche was just out-campaigned,” Campos said. “It wasn’t so much, ‘Throw out the bums.’ ”


Jose Leal

Leal, a political novice, mostly funded his own campaign with no major endorsements. For the runoff, he has secured the backing of the Houston Federation of Teachers union and the Texas Organizing Project, an advocacy group for the poor.

The union hopes a victory by Leal will ensure enough votes on the board to overhaul the Houston Independent School District’s bonus program and teacher evaluation system. Both hold teachers accountable for students’ test scores using a statistical formula.

Leal said he, like the union, opposes the formula.

“You have people that are not teachers, and they’re writing an equation that does not make sense to the people that are teaching,” he said.

However, Leal said, he thinks test scores can be useful. For example, he said, when he was a school counselor, he would review the results and schedule teachers who were strongest in certain subjects to work with struggling students.

Leal, 57, started in HISD as a janitor and retired in 2011 as a dean at Johnston Middle School. He now works as an assistant principal for the Houston Can Academies charter school.

Here’s the interview I did with Rhonda Skillern-Jones; she’s the only one of the four I talked to, though I did interview Rodriguez in 2011. Jose Leal’s webpage is here and Larry Williams’ is here. I tend to agree with Campos that both incumbents are good bets to win, though Leal has picked up some support and may give Rodriguez a run for his money. Skillern-Jones ran unopposed for the then-open seat in District II (this is a point of contention in this race; Williams had previously run against the prior Trustee, Carol Mims Galloway) so this is her first real race. If you live in one of these districts, what if anything are you seeing in the runoffs?

A roundup of interviews with runoff candidates


For your convenience, as you try to decide whom to support in the runoffs:


Sylvester Turner
Bill King


Chris Brown
Bill Frazer

At Large #1

Georgia Provost – 2013 election, District D
Mike Knox – 2013 election, District A

At Large #2

David Robinson
Willie Davis – No interview

At Large #4

Amanda Edwards
Roy Morales – 2013 election, At Large #3

At Large #5

Jack Christie
Sharon Moses

District F

Richard Nguyen
Steve Le

District H

Karla Cisneros
Jason Cisneroz

District J

Mike Laster
Jim Bigham

HISD District II

Rhonda Skillern-Jones
Larry Williams – No interview

HISD District III

Manuel Rodriguez – 2011 election
Jose Leal – No interview

Notice that for many of these candidates, there were interviews or Q&As published elsewhere that you may find useful (and that you can read instead of listening to). I’ve got links to them on my Election 2015 page, which will also remind you of who was endorsed by whom. There have been some other endorsements issued in recent days – Sylvester Turner received the American Council of Engineering Companies of Houston and 80-20 PAC endorsements, while Bill King received nods from the Homebuilders Association and the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, for example – but I haven’t tracked them. The eight day finance reports for the runoff are due now and I will put them up as I see them. Early voting starts tomorrow, and an awful lot of our city government for the next four years is still to be determined. Get informed and make good choices between now and December 12.

Endorsement watch: Bell for King

As the headline notes, this came as a surprise to many.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

Former Congressman Chris Bell publicly backed fiscal conservative Bill King in the Houston mayoral runoff Tuesday, a move that could bolster King’s efforts to make inroads with progressive voters.

Bell’s endorsement came as a surprise to many political insiders expecting the progressive former mayoral candidate to support King’s rival, Democrat Sylvester Turner.

Bell cited King’s focus on pension reform, public safety, road repair and flooding as reasons for his endorsement, as well as the businessman’s thoughtful approach to policy issues.

“It might come as a surprise to some because of my political persuasion, but it really shouldn’t,” Bell said alongside King in Meyerland. “Truth be told, we agree much more than we disagree. As far as the major principles of his campaign, we’re in complete agreement.”

If you say so, Chris. From my perspective, the main area of overlap between the two campaigns was an enthusiasm for bashing Adrian Garcia. On a number of issues I can think of, from HERO to the revenue cap to ReBuild Houston to (yes) pensions, there seemed to be little in common. It’s easier for me to see agreement between Steve Costello and Sylvester Turner than it is for me to see concurrence between Bell and King. Perhaps it’s in the eye of the beholder, I don’t know. But really, on a broader level, it’s that Bell positioned himself quite purposefully to Sylvester Turner’s left, with his greater purity on LGBT equality being a main point of differentiation. Though he missed out on getting the Houston GLBT Political Caucus’ endorsement – amid a fair amount of grumbling about Turner buying the recommendation via a slew of last-minute memberships – Bell had a lot of support in the LGBT community; a couple of his fervent supporters courted my vote at the West Gray Multi-Service Center by reminding me of an old Turner legislative vote against same sex foster parenting. This is why it’s hard to believe his claims about there being so much in common between him and King, and why this announcement was met with such an explosion of outrage and cries of betrayal. It’s not a partisan matter so much as it is a strong suspicion that either the prior assertions about being the real champion of equality were lies or that this endorsement had to come with a prize. If Chris Bell honestly believes that Bill King will be the best Mayor, that’s his right and his choice. But no one should be surprised by the reaction to it.

Does this help King? Well, he needs to get some Anglo Dem support to win, and that was Bell’s base. Of course, speaking as someone in that demographic, I’ve seen very little evidence that any of his erstwhile supporters were impressed by this. Quite the reverse, as noted above. I guess it can’t hurt, I just wouldn’t expect it to do much.

In the meantime, various organizations have been issuing new and updated endorsements for the runoffs. A few highlights:

– As previously noted, the HCDP endorsed all Democratic candidates with Republican opponents. That means Sylvester Turner for Mayor, Chris Brown for Controller, Georgia Provost, David Robinson, Amanda Edwards, Sharon Moses, Richard Nguyen, and Mike Laster for Council, and Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Jose Leal for HISD Trustee.

– The Houston GLBT Political Caucus added Georgia Provost and Karla Cisneros to their list of endorsed candidates. Turner, Brown, Edwards, and the incumbents were already on there. They did not take action on Moses and Leal.

– The Meyerland Democrats made their first endorsements in a city election: Turner, Brown, Provost, Robinson, Edwards, Nguyen, and Laster.

– Controller candidate Chris Brown sent out another email touting endorsements, this time from five previous Controllers – Ronald Green, Annise Parker, Sylvia Garcia, George Greanias, and Kathy Whitmire. As you know, I’m glad to see Green support him.

– As noted here, the Harris County GOP Executive Committee endorsed Willie Davis in AL2, though it wasn’t exactly unanimous.

– The Log Cabin Republicans transferred their endorsements to Bill King and Mike Knox, and reiterated their support for David Robinson, Jack Christie, and Steve Le. Guess being staunchly anti-HERO has its drawbacks.

– A group called the Texas Conservative View endorsed the candidates you’d expect them to – King, Frazer, Knox, Davis, Roy Morales, Christie, Steve Le, Jim Bigham – and one I didn’t, Jason Cisneroz. All of them were repeats from November except for Morales; they had previously endorsed Jonathan Hansen.

– Finally, the Houston Association of Realtors gave Bill King an endorsement that does mean something and makes sense, along with Amanda Edwards.

I think that catches me up. I’m sure there will be more to come – in particular, the Chron has a few races to revisit. They need to pick a finalist between Brown and Frazer, and make a new choice in AL1 and AL5. I’ll let you know when they do.

UPDATE: The line I deleted above about “being staunchly anti-HERO” was a reference to Willie Davis not getting the LCR endorsement in At Large #2. It made sense in my head when I wrote it, but I can see now that I didn’t make that clear at all. And given that the LCRs endorsed David Robinson in November, it doesn’t make sense even when I clarify who I intended that to be about. So, I take it back. Sorry for the confusion.

Initial day-after-election thoughts

– We now have two cycles’ worth of data to suggest that having more good candidates in a Council race does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. Following in the footsteps of At Large #3 in 2013, a handful of Democratic candidates in At Large #1 split the vote with sufficient closeness to keep them all out of the runoff. The votes were there, they just went too many places. Lane Lewis + Tom McCasland = candidate in the runoff, pretty close to Mike Knox in total. Lane Lewis + Tom McCasland + Jenifer Pool = leading candidate going into the runoff. I have no idea what, if anything, there is to be done about this. There is no secret cabal that meets in a back room to decide who does and doesn’t get to file for a race, and we wouldn’t want there to be one if there were. I’ll just put this out there for candidates who are already looking at 2019, when the terms will be double and the stakes will be concurrently higher: If there’s already a candidate in a race – especially an open seat race – that would would be happy to vote for in a runoff scenario, then maybe supporting them in November rather than throwing your own hat in the ring is the better choice. I realize that framing the choice this way turns this decision-making process into a multi-level Prisoner’s Dilemma, but one can’t help but wonder What Might Have Been.

– On the plus side, the runoffs have given us some clarity:

Mayor – Turner
Controller – Brown

At Large 2 – Robinson
At Large 4 – Edwards

In AL 4, Amanda Edwards faces Roy Morales, who caught and passed Laurie Robinson by less than 900 votes by the end of the evening. As for ALs 1 and 5, I’m still deciding. I said “some” clarity, not complete clarity.

– Speaking of CM Christie, if he loses then there will be no open citywide offices in the next election, which is now 2019. That won’t stop challengers from running in some or all of the other AL races, but it would change the dynamics.

– In District Council runoffs, it’s Cisneros versus Cisneroz in District H, which is going to make that race hard to talk about. Roland Chavez finished 202 votes behind Jason Cisneroz, who got a boost from late-reporting precincts; he had been leading Chavez by less than 40 votes much of the evening. Jim Bigham finished all of 28 votes ahead of Manny Barrera for the right to face CM Mike Laster in December, while CM Richard Nguyen trailed challenger Steve Le but will get another shot in five weeks. I’m concerned about Laster and Nguyen, but at least their opponents pass my minimum standards test for a Council member. That would not have been the case if either third-place finisher (Barrera and Kendall Baker) had made the cut.

– Moving to HISD, if I had a vote it would go to Rhonda Skillern-Jones in II. I would not vote for Manuel Rodriguez in III, but I’d need to get to know Jose Leal better before I could recommend a vote for him.

– Your “Every Vote Matters” reminder for this cycle:

Aldine I.S.D., Trustee, Position 1
Tony Diaz                  5,813 49.98%
Patricia "Pat" Bourgeois   5,818 50.02%

Yep, five votes. There were 3,742 undervotes in this race. I have since been forwarded a press release from the Diaz campaign noting that provisional and overseas ballots have not yet been counted, and hinting at a request for a recount down the line. I’d certainly be preparing to ask for one.

– Speaking of undervoting, one prediction I made came true. Here are the undervote rates in At Large Council elections:

AL1 = 28.56%
AL2 = 31.02%
AL3 = 33.09%
AL4 = 28.35%
AL5 = 32.34%

That’s a lot of no-voting. Contrast with the contested district Council races, where the (still high) undervote rates ranged from 15.97% to 22.49%. See here for a comparison to past years.

– Meanwhile, over in San Antonio:

In a stunning outcome, Republican John Lujan and Democrat Tomás Uresti were leading a six-candidate field for Texas House District 118 in nearly complete results late Tuesday.

In his second run for the office, Lujan, 53, showed strength in a district long held by Democrats, narrowly outpolling members of two prominent political families.

“I’m still on pins and needles. It’s not a done deal,” Lujan said with many votes still uncounted.

In his low-key campaign, the retired firefighter, who works in sales for a tech company, emphasized tech training to prepare students for the workforce. His backers included some firefighters and Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC.

Uresti, 55, a legal assistant, is vice chairman of the Harlandale Independent School District. With 35 years of community involvement as a coach, mentor and tutor, Uresti capitalized on his network of friends and family name — his brothers are state Sen. Carlos Uresti of San Antonio and Tax Assessor-Collector Albert Uresti.

“Democrats are going to pull together again to win this one,” Tomás Uresti said of the impending runoff.

A runoff between Lujan and Uresti would be Jan. 19.

Gabe Farias, son of outgoing Rep. Joe Farias, came in third, less than 300 votes behind Uresti. Three Democratic candidates combined for 53.3% of the vote, so I see no reason to panic. Even if Lujan winds up winning the runoff, he’d only have the seat through the end of next year – the real election, which may produce an entirely different set of candidates, is next year, and Democrats should have a clear advantage. Nonetheless, one should never take anything for granted.

– Waller County goes wet:

Waller County voters overwhelmingly passed a proposition Tuesday to legalize the sale of all alcoholic beverages, including mixed drinks.

Though Waller County is not dry everywhere to all types of alcohol, various parts of it have operated under distinct alcohol policies passed in the decades following Prohibition. The change will apply to unincorporated areas of the county.

“I’m ecstatic with the numbers,” said Waller County Judge Carbett “Trey” Duhon III, who had publicly supported the proposition. “… It’s a good result for the county and for all the citizens here.”

Supporters like Duhon have said the measure was needed to smooth over confusing, overlapping rules and to help attract restaurants to a county poised to benefit from Houston’s sprawling growth.

See here for more details. And drink ’em if you got ’em.

– I’m still processing the HERO referendum, and will be sure to dive into precinct data when I get it. (I have a very early subset of precinct data for just the Mayor’s race and the two propositions. I may do some preliminaries with it, but this data is incomplete so I may wait till the official canvass comes out.) One clear lesson to take from this campaign is that lying is a very effective tactic. It also helps when lies are reported uncritically, as if it was just another he said/she said situation. Blaming the media is the world’s oldest trick, and I’m not going to claim that lazy reporting was a deciding factor, but for a group of people that considers itself to be objective truth-seekers, they sure can be trusting and unprepared for for being lied to. As with item 1 above, I don’t know what if anything can be done about this.

– Bond elections and miscellaneous other things are noted elsewhere. Have I missed anything you wanted to see me discuss?

Omnibus election results post

I’m going to take the easy way out here, because it’s been a long day/week/month and I’m hoping to get some sleep tonight, and just hit the highlights. There will be plenty of time for deeper analysis later, and of course we are now officially in runoff season. There’s absolutely no rest for the political junkie.

– Obviously, the HERO result is deeply disappointing. I’ll leave the Monday morning quarterbacking to others, but I will say this: Whatever you think about this issue, get ready for Jared Woodfill to be the public face of Houston for a few days. There’s no way this is good for anyone.

– It’s Sylvester versus King in the Mayoral runoff. The runoff will basically be the campaign we should have had in November, which will be dominated by the Mayor’s race and not the HERO campaign and the avalanche of lies that accompanied it. Don’t expect the same crowd to show up in December – if I had to guess it would be turnout in the 150K range, as it was in 2009.

– The Controller’s race was reasonably according to form, with Bill Frazer and Chris Brown in the runoff.

– Four out of five At Large races will go to runoffs, with CM Michael Kubosh being the only candidate who can take November off. I suggested there might be some goofy results in these races, and we have them, in ALs 1 and 5, where candidates who didn’t do much if any campaigning are in the runoffs. The single best result of the night is Amanda Edwards’ big lead. She will face Roy Morales, who sneaked past Laurie Robinson into second place, in December.

– And the single worst result from last night, even worse than the HERO result, is Juliet Stipeche losing her race to Diana Davila. A terrible blow for the HISD Board. Jolanda Jones won easily, Rhonda Skillern-Jones leads but is in a runoff, and Manuel Rodriguez also leads but is in a runoff, with Jose Leal and nor Ramiro Fonseca. What a weird night. On the plus side, both Adriana Tamez and Eva Loredo won re-election to the HCC board easily.

– Mike Laster and Richard Nguyen are both in runoffs, in J and F. I feel pretty good about Laster’s chances, less so about Nguyen’s. Greg Travis is a close winner in G, and Karla Cisneros leads in H, Jason Cisneroz holding off Roland Chavez for second place; the difference between the two was in double digits most of the night. If there’s one race on the ballot where someone calls for a recount, it’ll be this one.

– I guess if you really wanted to change Houston’s term limits law, this was the election to do it. There was absolutely no campaign either way, and for all the shouting about “ballot language” in the HERO and Renew Houston elections, I’ll bet a large chunk of the people who voted for Prop 2 had no idea what they were voting for.

– All the county bond issues passed, as did all the state props, and Montgomery County finally got a road bond to pass. Hope it’s all you want it to be, MontCo.

I will have more to say later. For now, this is all the energy I have. I’m going to be looking for national reaction stories to the HERO referendum. I strongly suspect it will be ugly, and I expect the likes of Dan Patrick and Jared Woodfill to keep lying about it in the face of such blowback. But we’ll see. Thanks for reading, and I’ll post precinct analyses as soon as I can get my hands on the canvass. On to the runoffs!

Chron overview of HISD Trustee races

Little late in the game for this sort of thing, but better late than never.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

With Superintendent Terry Grier leaving in March, the HISD board faces a big decision in choosing his replacement.

Voters can help to determine who makes that decision, with four of nine trustee seats on the Nov. 3 ballot.

At least one trustee will be new, as Paula Harris is not seeking re-election. Yet some familiar faces – a former trustee, a past city councilwoman and three repeat candidates – are vying to help govern the nation’s seventh-largest school district.

Grier, by announcing in September that he would resign six months later, removed his future in the district as the top campaign issue. However, his rapid rollout of programs and high staff turnover loom on the trail with candidates calling for more stability in the Houston Independent School District.

HISD’s reliance on student test scores to award bonuses and to evaluate teachers also could be at risk. Several candidates said they oppose the statistical measure used in both, and the board’s decision last week to continue the $10 million bonus program was narrowly split – a 5-4 vote.

At a recent forum sponsored by the research and advocacy group Children at Risk, chief executive Bob Sanborn noted that HISD won the top prize for urban school districts under Grier and asked whether the candidates would rehire him if they could. None of the candidates in attendance said they would do so.

You can see the interviews I did with several of the candidates here. I asked all of them if they would vote to give Grier a new contract or not – all these interviews were done before Grier announced his intent to step down – and with the exception of Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who declined to discuss the matter, they all said No. If I’d have known that Grier was not coming back, I would have asked what qualities they were looking for in a new Superintendent. That’s the question, and the challenge, for the next Board.

Endorsement watch: Four for HISD

Here are the Chron endorsements for HISD Board of Trustees. The endorsements of incumbents Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Juliet Stipeche were expected and easily justified, so not particularly remarkable. The other two are worth comment.

Manuel Rodriguez

District III: Manuel Rodriguez

Our choice for this important position, Manuel Rodriguez, was first elected in 2003 and then re-elected in 2007. His school district in East Houston includes Milby and Cesar E. Chavez high schools. A Stephen F. Austin High School graduate, Rodriguez has been involved for more than 30 years in HISD schools and knows the district well. Even so, longtime district observers say his aloof style and lack of consistent physical presence in District III make it difficult to ascertain where he stands on issues. Ideally, members of the HISD community should make the effort to attend school board meetings, but they also have every right to expect school board members to take the initiative to disseminate important information to the communities they represent. Rodriguez’s challengers, Ramiro Fonseca and Jose Leal, bring a refreshing passion to the race. Still, Rodriguez appears more knowledgeable on the issues and better able than his opponents to respond to the challenges that HISD is facing at this time. Our advice to Rodriguez: Don’t take this position for granted. Our advice to the challengers: Participate in district issues and run again.

District IV: Ann R. McCoy

Voters should cast their ballots for Ann R. McCoy, a research director at the University of Houston, to fill this seat being vacated by Paula Harris. The area she would represent includes Debakey, Sterling and Yates high schools. A graduate of Bellaire High School, McCoy went on to earn a doctorate in counseling and a post-doctorate in mental health research. McCoy has spent her career evaluating the effectiveness of educational programs, and the board stands to gain muchfrom her analytical skills. She has also taught in area universities. During a District IV candidates’ meeting with the Chronicle editorial board, McCoy displayed the thoughtful and deliberative approach that is needed to tackle the issues facing the district. Her deep experience in education and collaborative temperament earn our endorsement over her opponents: attorney and former City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones, retired HISD principal Davetta Mills Daniels, and community activist Larry McKinzie.

The Rodriguez endorsement…I mean, look, if you really think he’s the best candidate, then fine. I disagree, but whatever. What I can’t understand is how you can not mention at all the endorsement that was retracted in 2011 after a bunch of homophobic mailers attacking Ramiro Fonseca were sent out, which Rodriguez shrugged at. It’s part of his record, and with Fonseca running again it’s a pretty important part. How do you not even mention it?

As for District IV, I predicted the McCoy endorsement – I was three for four in this group – so no surprise here. Honestly, I think both McCoy and Jolanda Jones would make good trustees, they’d just make very different trustees. Pick the style you prefer and go from there.

No decision on interim Superintendent

The HISD Board of Trustees is still deciding how to proceed in the wake of Superintendent Terry Grier’s resignation.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Trustee Anna Eastman said after [Tuesday’s board] meeting that she continues to have a lot of questions about how the job-order contracts have been administered. Among other things the audit showed that the district’s Construction and Facilities Service Department wasn’t asking for detailed information about costs before writing big checks to contractors and that it was cutting up the same project into different pieces so that it could come in under the $500,000 state-mandated threshold and grant contracts without having to ask permission from that pesky school board.

“Someone’s got to be held accountable for it. There’s been too many ‘oops.’” Eastman said. “I have concerns about people with less authority in the organization taking all the responsibility. I think leadership has to take responsibility for anyone in the organization thinking that was ok or that was the right thing to do.”

As for the interim question:

“The board cannot name an interim unless we officially reassign the superintendent to other duties which he has to agree upon,” said Eastman. “It would have to be a negotiated agreement, or we would agree on a quicker termination of his contract and I don’t think the board is interested in that or the superintendent.”

Eastman said she thinks the board should concentrate on finding a new superintendent and wait till after Grier’s March 1 departure to appoint an interim. “I’d like to see a person [new superintendent] in place before the next school year. Dr. Grier started in September so basically the organization that was in place was his predecessor’s organization.” Eastman also said it was important for any new board members to be part of the process, as well as the community.

Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones thinks the board should work quickly in moving along the process for a new superintendent, but not so fast that they don’t get input from all aspects of the community to make sure that person is a good match for HISD and its demands.

As for the interim spot, Skillern-Jones said, “I don’t think it’s unanimous around the board that we not appoint one now. We have a superintendent who is out on leave. He has an acting deputy superintendent which is in place [Don Huewitt] I have some trouble with that situation as it exists. We suspect that the superintendent may be out on medical leave for a long period of time. And I have some concern about where responsibility rests in that situation.

“Does it rest with the superintendent who is physically absent or does it rest with the deputy superintendent and who gets to decide where that responsibility rests is the board? So until we have a clear cut picture of who’s responsible, who’s actually at the helm, and who we hold accountable then I’m uncomfortable with that as a situation. So I think that should be temporary. It may not be popular opinion. We’re looking at six months out of a nine-month school year. A lot of things can happen. Who do we hold accountable and in what way? “

See here and here for the background. Both Eastman and Skillern-Jones make good points, and I’m not sure myself what the best course of action is. I think it’s all right to keep Huewitt in place to run things, but the chain of command – and of accountability – needs to be established and agreed upon by all. It would also be nice to have a new Superintendent in place well before the start of the 2016 school year, for the reasons Eastman identified. Frankly, the sooner the Board can get the job search going, the better.

Interview with Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

We move over to HISD Trustee races, which I’ll be running this week. There are four Trustee seats that are up for election this cycle, and I have interviews with a total of five candidates in them. First up is Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who currently serves as Board President and who is running for her first re-election. A mother of five children who have all attended HISD schools, Skillern-Jones was a longtime volunteer and activist in the schools, having served as PTA President and on various HISD committees such as the Superintendent’s Parents Advisory Committee and Budget Advisory Committee. She led the push to rename HISD schools that were named for Confederate soldiers and leaders. Please note that there is an addendum to the interview that appears below, so be sure to click on it after you listen to my conversation with Rhonda Skillern-Jones:

All interviews from this point forward have been conducted after the Supreme Court ruling on HERO, and I have been asking everyone about their position on it. As noted above, after the interview was concluded, Ms. Skillern-Jones called me to say she would like to add to her answer to my question regarding HERO. She sent me an audio file, which you should be able to listen to here, with her additional remarks. The file itself is here in case there’s any problem with the link above.

(Note: All HISD candidate interviews took place before Superintendent Terry Grier announced his resignation.)

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2015 Election page.

Time to guess the Chronicle’s endorsements


We are a bit more than a month out from the start of early voting, and as such we are getting close to the start of Chronicle endorsement season. I know from doing candidate interviews that the Chron has been holding screenings in recent days, so it shouldn’t be long now. So while we wait for that, why not take a crack at guessing what their endorsements will be?

I want to stress up front that these are not my endorsements. I’m not making any endorsements, here or elsewhere. Nor are these necessarily the candidates I think the Chronicle should endorse. I’m not making any value judgments. These are my best guesses at who the Chron will endorse, based on past history and my read on what they are looking for this year.

What are they looking for this year? I don’t think that’s any mystery. They’re looking for candidates who support HERO and who are sufficiently “serious” about pension reform. That doesn’t mean these are their only criteria, nor does it mean that they can’t or won’t endorse a candidate who doesn’t agree with them on one or both of them. I’m not there in the screenings, I don’t know what else might be on their minds. I’m just making what I hope are reasonable guesses. None of this should be taken seriously. Consider this the political nerd’s equivalent of Sean Pendergast predicting the Texans’ season, with fewer references to the WWE and Game of Thrones.

So with all of that said, let’s begin.


At first glance, you’d think this would be a tough one to guess, but looking back at what I wrote above, it jumps right out at you: I believe the Chron will endorse Steve Costello. He checks all their boxes, and he has the most experience in city government to boot. King and Hall are both anti-HERO. McVey is an extreme longshot. I think they will be too critical of the recent issues with the jail to go with Garcia. Bell and Turner are possible, I guess, but I don’t think the Chron would consider them “serious” enough on pensions; the Chron did not care for the agreement that Turner helped broker with the firefighters earlier this year. The more I think about it, the clearer it seems. I’ll be surprised if it’s not Costello.


This one is murkier. Chris Brown is possible, but I think they will ding him for being Ronald Green’s second in command, and it’s not like they were ever big fans of his father. They endorsed Bill Frazer in 2013 and could endorse him again, but I think that was at least partly about Green’s baggage. I also think that if I’m right about Costello, they may be reluctant to endorse two Anglo Republicans for the top offices of a city that is not particularly Anglo nor Republican. I believe they will view Carroll Robinson’s tenure with the HCC Board as a negative. Honestly, I think the favorite at this point is Dwight Jefferson, who was part of the best Metro board in recent memory and who has no obvious negatives about him. I’ll say Jefferson 60%, Frazer 25%, Brown 15%.

At Large incumbents

With incumbents there’s an extra factor to consider, namely whether the incumbent in question has done anything to disqualify himself or herself. There are no Helena Browns this year, so the main question is how big a strike against someone is a vote against HERO? I’ll get to that in a minute. In At Large #2, I think David Robinson is an easy call. He checks the boxes, and none of his opponents are anyone I’d expect the Chron to consider seriously. Kubosh and Christie are the tougher ones to guess. How much will their opposition to HERO be held against them? My guess is “some”, but unless the screening goes badly for them or I’ve underestimated the commitment the Chron has to HERO, I figure they’re both favorites. I’ll make it 80% for Kubosh and 65% for Christie, with the difference being that Christie made some goofy statements about vaccines in his first term, and Philippe Nassif is compelling enough that the Chron might take a flyer on him as a “breath of fresh air” candidate.

At Large open seats

I’m going to go with Tom McCasland in AL1 and Amanda Edwards in AL4. Edwards feels like the safer choice. It would have been a harder call if Laurie Robinson hadn’t flipflopped on HERO, but if my conviction about this means anything, it means it in this race. In AL1, I could see the Chron supporting Lane Lewis or Jenifer Pool – as with Carroll Robinson, I think the Chron will not consider Chris Oliver’s time with HCC to be a positive – but I think McCasland’s resume will carry the day. Let’s say 60% McCasland, 30% Lewis, 10% Pool.

District seats

All district incumbents will be endorsed. This is easy, as there are no disqualifiers and outside of F and J no challengers that are likely to be considered. The cases worth examining are the open seats in G and H. G is a two-candidate race, and you can make an argument for or against either – both candidates are sufficiently qualified, and both are against HERO in a district where that would be expected. The main negative for Sandie Mullins Moger is being on the HCC board – yeah, there’s a theme here – and the main negative for Greg Travis is that he recently announced an endorsement by Helena Brown. I make it 55-45 for Travis. As for H, I can see any of Jason Cisneroz, Roland Chavez, and Karla Cisneros getting the nod. For no reason I can easily explain, I think Karla Cisneros is a slight favorite – let’s say 40-30-30. Have I mentioned that I’m guessing?


For HISD, they’ll stick with incumbents Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Juliet Stipeche, and they’ll reverse themselves from 2011 and go with Ramiro Fonseca over Manuel Rodriguez. In the open District 4 seat, I don’t seem the picking Jolanda Jones, so I’ll say they’ll endorse Ann McCoy. The only contested races in HCC involve the two incumbents running for re-election, Adriana Tamez and Eva Loredo. I’ll be surprised if they don’t endorse those two.


Obviously, they’ll endorse HERO. I think they’ll be as “meh” on the term limits item as I am, and will either give it a lukewarm thumbs up or they’ll advocate a No. Same for the Harris County bond issue, with a slightly better chance of a Yes. I have no idea on the state constitutional amendments, if they bother with them. There were none that excited me one way or the other, though there are a few I’m likely to vote against.

So that’s how I see it. Go ahead and tell me where I’m wrong in the comments. I’ll check back in a few weeks and see how good a job I did trying to read their mind.

HISD will begin process of renaming schools with Confederate ties


Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

[HISD] trustees plan to start the process with a vote to revise the district’s policy to state explicitly that names should be non-discriminatory. The revised policy also details how the board can initiate renaming schools.

Board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones said this week that after the policy gains approval, she will propose renaming at least six schools named after Confederate leaders or loyalists.

In June, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, called on the Houston Independent School District to rename six campuses following the shooting deaths of nine black churchgoers by an alleged white supremacist in Charleston, S.C. Ellis mentioned campuses including Davis, Lee and Reagan high schools and Dowling, Jackson and Johnston middle schools.

Alumni have expressed mixed reactions.

Renaming is expected to come with a cost – for new logos, school uniforms, marquees. The estimated price tag was $250,000 in 2013 when HISD changed the Confederate-linked Rebels mascot and three others deemed offensive to Native Americans.


“I’m pleased to see the HISD board move in this direction,” Ellis said in a statement Wednesday. “As an extremely diverse school district in the most diverse city in the nation, the names of our community schools should not lionize men who dedicated themselves to maintaining the ability of one human to own another.”

See here and here for the background. That story was published Thursday morning, before the board meeting, at which Superintendent Terry Grier announced his imminent departure. I didn’t see any followup story, so I’m presuming this went ahead; if not, I’m sure it will be picked up at the next meeting. I’ve said before that I support this. Having a school named after you is a privilege, not a right. I have no idea why anyone would think it controversial to reserve that privilege for people who didn’t take up arms against the United States, but maybe that’s just the Yankee in me talking. I’ve never known a school named for Benedict Arnold, so I don’t know why there should be a school named for Jefferson Davis. The fact that there is such a school here in Houston, and that the board of trustees is seeking to change it isn’t an insult to anyone. The insult is that it was named for Jefferson Davis in the first place.

What next for HISD?

The board ponders its options for Superintendent while they prepare to search for a successor to Dr. Terry Grier.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

The Houston Independent School District board is set to meet Tuesday morning to discuss the district’s next steps after Superintendent Terry Grier’s surprise announcement Thursday that he was stepping down effective March 1.

Board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones said Friday that trustees would consider when to appoint an interim superintendent. She said the interim likely would not start until Grier’s exit but could start to transition into the role.

The interim, she said, could come from inside or outside the Houston Independent School District.

“We’re not ruling anyone out,” she said. “I think the goal should be to find someone who can continue the work that we’re doing while bringing a sense of calm and stability, and creating an environment that is inviting to a new superintendent.”

Ken Huewitt, the district’s deputy superintendent and chief financial officer, sat in for Grier at the school board meeting Thursday night. Grier promoted Huewitt in July to serve as his deputy, saying he would handle day-to-day operations in Grier’s absence. Grier underwent a knee replacement in August and has a second surgery set for November.

“Dr. Grier is still the superintendent, and he will be the superintendent until such time that his resignation is effective,” Skillern-Jones said. “He has been courteous enough to give us six months’ preparation. During this time, we can prepare for the transition. We can find the person, and they can be prepared to take the helm when Dr. Grier steps down.”

The school board and Grier still have to discuss a possible exit package. It’s possible they could negotiate different terms based on any unused leave time or other factors.

Skillern-Jones and other trustees said a permanent superintendent would not be hired until next year, based on the timeline and board elections taking place in November. The newly elected trustees – four seats are on the ballot – will take office in January.


Trustee Juliet Stipeche, who has been one of Grier’s strongest critics, said she thinks the timing of his announcement was based on his tenuous relationship with the board and possible newly elected trustees. Several candidates had called for Grier’s ouster.

“The writing was on the wall that he didn’t have the support for an extension,” Stipeche, who chairs the board’s audit committee, said Friday. “And I believe that people whose opinion he trusts and relies upon strongly encouraged him to leave at this point, so the district could get a new leader who can be devoted to trying to solve many of the problems that currently exist.”

Stipeche described Grier’s tenure as “painful.”

“He is a it’s-my-way or no-other-way (leader),” she said. “He’s not a consensus builder. He’s a firebrand.”

In an interim superintendent, Stipeche said, she would like someone experienced who can oversee financial problems with the district’s $1.9 billion construction bond program. Grier’s administration has estimated a $211 million shortfall, though Huewitt has said he has a plan to borrow funds to fill most of the gap.

See here for the background. Ken Huewitt seems like the obvious choice for interim Superintendent, but I’m sure the board will want to consider all its options. One of those options might be to ask Grier to serve in a different role until he officially departs.

Will Terry Grier get to serve out the rest of his superintendency or will he be moved to another position while an interim superintendent runs the Houston ISD?

That’s one of the things that’s going to be discussed next Tuesday when the school board meets at 7:30 a.m. Trustee Juliet Stipeche said this afternoon that there are some questions about whether Grier, who faces another round of knee surgery in November (and who’s having apparently a tough recovery from the first surgery) would be available to run the district during the time he is out following surgery.

On Thursday Grier abruptly resigned but pledged to keep working until March 1, 2016, three months before his contract was set to expire.

“You can’t have two acting superintendents,” Stipeche said. “So the question is, can Dr. Grier assume a different role?”

Good question. I have no idea. Should make for a fascinating discussion.

Beyond that, the interesting decision is for the successor. The first thing the board needs to do is decide what exactly they want in a new super. I wish all this had happened before I went and did HISD candidate interviews, because that would have been a great question to ask, but that’s the way it goes. Be sure to ask your Trustee and/or the candidates running for Trustee in your district what they want to see in the next Superintendent.

HISD bond concerns

It’s always something.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

A key Houston ISD school board member called Sunday for audits of the district’s 2012 bond program amid estimates of a $211 million shortfall and concerns about breaking promises to voters.

Juliet Stipeche, chair of HISD’s audit committee, submitted her request for internal and external audits after a Davis High School teacher expressed outrage on Facebook that the district’s $1.9 billion bond program may be so short on funds that her campus will only be renovated, rather than rebuilt as promised. Meanwhile, the teacher wrote, rats fall from a hole in her classroom ceiling, the restrooms smell like a prison and fires have started, apparently because of shoddy wiring.

Board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones responded on Facebook that she would ask Superintendent Terry Grier’s administration to “halt the (bond) work until we can develop a plan to deliver exactly what we promised and what the taxpayers voted for.”

Grier replied in an email to trustees that he was open to an audit, but he said the financial problems boil down to unusually high inflation in the construction market, a concern he expressed months ago. He also revealed Sunday that his staff was working with financial advisers to try to add another $200 million into the bond program to cover most of the projected shortfall.

The district’s 2012 bond referendum – with the largest price tag in Texas school history – called for rebuilding and renovating 40 schools, renovating middle school restrooms and upgrading technology, athletic facilities and security.

“My recommendation, if our plan to add dollars to the bond does not work out, is to prioritize the projects and build what we promised,” Grier wrote board members Sunday. “When the money runs out, we stop construction – even if some projects are delayed until a future bond.”

There’s a discussion in the story about higher-than-expected inflation of construction costs, which is not too surprising given the (up till recently) red hot real estate market in town. There’s also some finger-pointing about who knew what when and who informed whom about it, which I’m just going to glide past. The main thing is keeping promises to the schools and their communities that were made in the referendum. I am confident it can be done, and we need to make sure that it does get done.

UPDATE: And then there’s this:

Houston ISD overpaid contractors and may have violated state law by exceeding construction contract limits without required school board approval, according to a newly released audit.

The auditors found that the district appeared to skirt a $500,000 contracting cap multiple times by improperly submitting separate work orders tied to the same project. The auditors also noted that the district failed to catch inaccurate and inappropriate charges and at times asked the school board to sign off on work after it had been done.

“State law and district policies were at the very least ignored, but more likely knowingly circumvented,” HISD trustee Anna Eastman, a member of the board’s audit committee, said Wednesday. “I’m not satisfied with the administrative response of ignorance and, ‘We’ll do it differently next time.’ Someone needs to be held accountable for this.”

In a written response, HISD’s construction and facilities department said the district would seek repayments from the contractors that appear to have been overpaid. One example cited shows the district is due $16,179, but auditors did not calculate the total amount due for other questionable invoices.

The construction department said that the approval process was skewed because the district was trying to complete projects over the summer. In one 2014 case, the department said, it attempted to comply with requirements “in a manner consistent with the time constraints of the project.”

Clearly, there’s more work to be done here.

On cellphones and school zones

I guess I need to talk about this.

Six years ago, state lawmakers hoping to protect students banned drivers from texting and talking on hand-held cellphones in school zones.

The ban, however, has never been enforced in Houston. City and school district officials have opted not to install the warning signs needed to issue tickets, citing a lack of funds.

The city puts the cost at roughly $2.34 million for about 7,800 signs. Based on estimates from the Texas Department of Transportation, however, the price tag should be significantly lower.

Houston lags behind the state’s other major cities and several of its neighbors, including Bellaire, Conroe and West University Place, which installed the signs years ago and enforce the law. With school back in session after summer break, police in some jurisdictions have started issuing tickets for a seventh straight school year.


About two years ago, Mock said, the city clarified that HISD could take on the task. HISD, however, hasn’t budgeted funding, either. Mock estimated that the district would need about 2,000 signs to cover all the school zones.

Price estimates differ. Using the city’s figures of about $300 each, including anti-graffiti coating and mounts, the HISD signs would cost about $600,000.

The Texas Department of Transportation estimates the tab at $100 each, assuming the cellphone notice can be added to an existing school zone sign. The price tag for installing independent signs is $450 to $600.

In Dallas, spokesman Richard Hill said the city’s public works department funded the installation of more than 2,360 signs in 2010. He said the material cost was less than $22,700 – or about $10 each.

“The cost has been the concern,” said Janice Evans, spokeswoman for Mayor Parker, who was unavailable for comment.

Let’s put the cost question aside for a moment. If this law was passed in 2009, then it took effect in September of 2009, in the latter days of the Bill White administration at a time when he was gearing up to run statewide, and at a time when Annise Parker was in the midst of a hot Mayoral race. I follow this stuff pretty closely as you know, and I have no memory of this bill passing. My guess is that no one in either the outgoing White administration or the incoming Parker administration had this on their to-do list, and it fell through the cracks. Had there not been a story in the Chronicle calling attention to it, my guess is no one would have realized it was on the books and that the city was not in compliance. These things happen. The people who are now making a fuss about it could have been making a fuss about it a week or a month or a year or five ago, they just didn’t know it was there to be fussed about. I say all this not to make excuses – surely this should be done now that we all know about it – but to suggest that we try to maintain a little perspective.

HISD’s Mock said the law would not be easy to enforce – officers have to catch drivers typing or holding their phones to their ears – but he still wants the signs up.

“It would be helpful – not so much because that allows you to write citations … really just to create awareness,” Mock said.

That’s pretty much the debate over banning texting while driving in a nutshell. The vast majority of people who text while driving are never going to get caught at it, but the act of making something illegal, and publicizing that it’s illegal will cause some number of people – probably a lot of them – who currently engage in it to stop doing it. You may not write a lot of tickets for texting while driving, but you’ll make it less common, and that will have a beneficial effect.

Houston City Councilman C.O. “Brad” Bradford, a former Houston police chief, said the signs should be funded.

“What is a child’s life worth?” he asked. “We do a lot of things at City Hall that cost a lot more money. We have a $5 billion operating budget, and to say we cannot find money to erect signs in school zones to help protect children, that’s unconscionable.”

All due respect, but you can use this exact line of reasoning to justify any individual expenditure. Budgets always involve choices, and different choices can always be made. I’m always amused to hear self-styled budget hawks talk like this. Their priorities are obvious and self-explanatory. It’s those other priorities that need to be scrutinized and justified.

The Conroe department, which monitors about 20 school zones, issued 14 cellphone citations last year, [Sgt. Robert Engel of the Conroe Police Department] said.

In Spring Branch ISD, the ban applies only to a handful of schools that fall outside the Houston city limits. In those areas, the local villages have installed the signs, according to school district police Chief Charles Brawner.

The Hedwig Village Police Department, for example, has issued 741 citations for school zone cellphone use since 2009, according to Police Chief David Gott. He said he was surprised by the large number – more than 100 a year on average – but his staff spot-checked the data for accuracy.

“It’s important for people to pay attention in school zones,” Gott said. “It can be very dangerous.”

Bellaire, which has schools in HISD, has issued about 100 citations in six years.

Auto collisions involving distracted drivers – whether on a cellphone or fumbling with the radio – result in roughly 424,000 injuries nationwide annually, according to the latest federal data from 2013. More than 3,150 were killed that year.

My guess is that the Hedqig Village PD doesn’t have a whole lot else to do during the day. A ban on texting while driving is right in their wheelhouse.

Getting back to the matter of cost:

“It comes down to the cost of installing the signs – who bears that cost and whether there’s enough of a benefit to make it worthwhile,” Parker said. “Clearly if it saved one child’s life, it would be a worthwhile investment.

“But we don’t believe that putting up a bunch of signs stops anybody from doing anything. Because if they don’t already know it’s dangerous to do … I don’t think there’s any education we can do to stop people from being stupid. It’s an enforcement issue.”

Houston school board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones said Wednesday that she planned to discuss the issue with her fellow trustees.

“I would like to see there be some cooperation between the school district and the city,” she said. “The safety of our students should be a collaboration between the two entities.”

Marney Sims, general counsel for Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, said she was surprised to find out that the district’s three schools under city jurisdiction did not have the cellphone signs. She said she planned to verify that the district had the authority to install them. “If we do,” she said, “then we will pay to add those.”

Look, we’re most likely talking about a couple hundred grand, which despite my earlier snark really isn’t that much in the context of the city’s budget. In addition, the cost can surely be split to some extent with the big ISDs within Houston – HISD, Cy-Fair, Alief, et cetera. In the name of dropping one annoying little thing from the list of things that the Mayoral candidates can grandstand about, can we please get this done? Thanks. Campos has more.

Endorsement watch: Houston GLBT Political Caucus 2015

Congrats to all the endorsees.

A raucous municipal endorsement meeting brought mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner the coveted backing of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus on Saturday, positioning the 26-year state representative to broaden his coalition to include the city’s progressive voting bloc.

Caucus members voted 142-85 to endorse Turner after more than an hour of insult-laden discussion in which they rejected the recommendation of the group’s screening committee to endorse former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

Turner also beat out former Congressman Chris Bell, a longtime ally of the gay community who had been considered a likely pick for the group’s endorsement.

Once-shunned, the caucus’ supprt is now highly sought-after by candidates aiming to win over left-wing voters, known for reliably showing up at the polls.

“This is a major step to the finish line,” said Turner, seen as a frontrunner in the crowded mayor’s race. “This is a race about the future of the city versus its past, and this group represents a vital component of Houston’s family.”


Of the five mayoral candidates angling for caucus support, Turner, Garcia and City Councilman Stephen Costello received the highest ratings from the group’s four-member screening committee.

Committee members said concerns about Bell’s viability landed him a lower rank.

Bell closed out the first half of the year with less money in the bank than any of the other top-tier candidates.

“He’s in a tough position, because absent resources, financial resources, he would need key endorsements like this one to bolster his candidacy,” [consultant Keir] Murray said. “It just makes what was already a tough road even tougher.”

Bell, for his part, remained optimistic after the endorsement vote.

“Obviously not everyone participates in the caucus endorsement process,” Bell said. “I still think I am going to have tremendous support in the progressive voting bloc.”

See here for some background. I followed the action on Facebook and Twitter – it was spirited and lengthy, but everyone got a chance to make their case and to be heard. Here’s the full list of endorsed candidates:

Mayor – Sylvester Turner

City Council
District B – Jerry Davis
District C – Ellen Cohen
District F – Richard A. Nguyen
District H – Roland Chavez
District I – Robert Gallegos
District J – Mike Laster
District K – Larry Green
At Large 1 – Lane Lewis
At Large 2 – David Robinson
At Large 3 – Doug Peterson
At Large 4 – Amanda K. Edwards
At Large 5 – Phillipe Nassif

Controller – Chris Brown

HISD District 2 – Rhonda Skillern Jones
HISD District 3 – Ramiro Fonseca
HISD District 4 – Jolanda Jones
HISD District 8 – Juliet Katherine Stipeche

HCCS District 3 – Adriana Tamez
HCCS District 8 – Eva Loredo

None of these come as a surprise. Several could have gone another way, thanks to the presence of multiple qualified and viable candidates. I look forward to seeing this slate – and the near-misses – do very well in November.

HISD and HCC finance reports

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


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.

The debate over changing Confederate-named schools in HISD

Predictably, not everybody likes the idea of rechristening HISD schools that were named for Confederate generals.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Houston ISD board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones has said she wants her fellow trustees to consider renaming six campuses, following the June shooting deaths of nine black worshipers by an alleged white supremacist at a church in South Carolina. In that state, the Confederate flag hangs on statehouse grounds.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and James Douglas, president of the NAACP of Houston, are among those requesting new names. Superintendent Terry Grier said he is seriously considering asking the board to approve changes.

A consensus is far from clear.

A Facebook page called “Reagan High School Houston – Save the Name” has received more than 1,200 “likes” since it launched June 28. Former Lee students mostly came to the moniker’s defense on an alumni page.


School officials stopped using the full name, Robert E. Lee High School, in 2001, though a district spokeswoman could not confirm whether the board formally approved the shorter version. The mascot remains the Generals, but the revised logo looks more like a silhouetted cowboy holding a school flag.

Marla Morrow, a U.S. history teacher at Lee and a 1980 graduate, recalled her classmates proudly waving the Confederate flag at football games. Then, the student demographics of the southwest Houston school were different. According to data from 1988, the earliest year readily available, Lee’s enrollment was 46 percent Anglo, 31 percent Hispanic, 17 percent black and 6 percent other. Last year, Lee was 4 percent Anglo, 74 percent Hispanic, 15 percent black, and 8 percent Asian and other.

With HISD rebuilding the aging Lee campus, Morrow said the time is right to rename the school without reference to the top Confederate general.

“I was raised to believe he was this great mythical hero,” she said. “With my study of the Civil War and of U.S. history, I think he was an admirable man in many ways, but he was fighting for the wrong side. I know people say the South was fighting for states’ rights, but the right they were fighting to defend was slavery.”

Melanie Hauser, a 1971 Lee graduate who chaired the spirit committee and helped start the alumni association, countered that the school name should endure. She noted that Lee graduated from West Point and served as president of Virginia’s Washington College (now Washington and Lee University, named after him).

“He was an educator first and foremost,” said Hauser, a sportswriter. “Lee moved on and helped heal the country. There’s more to the narrative than just screaming one way.”

Houston City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a 1987 Lee graduate, said he leans toward changing the name but wants a community dialogue first.

“It’s not to say we castigate our history forever,” he said, “but should it be prominent with every graduating class going forward when there’s an opportunity to pivot and change?”

See here for the background. I’ll say again, as a damn Yankee I’m woefully ignorant of the Confederate iconography that we are inescapably steeped in around here, and completely indifferent to any appeal to history or “heritage” in favor of keeping it in place, unless that place is a museum or the like. It’s fine by me to change these names, but if we don’t get there at least we’re talking about what those names represent. Campos has more.

HISD Board President backs changing Confederate school names

Fine by me.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Amid a growing move to shed symbols of the old, slave-owning South, the Houston school board president said Thursday that she supports renaming six campuses named after Confederate loyalists.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones said she plans to discuss the issue with her fellow trustees at an upcoming meeting. Superintendent Terry Grier added that he is “strongly considering” recommending that the board change the names.

The nation’s seventh-largest school district would join a mounting list of agencies and businesses taking steps to shun reminders of the Confederacy following the June 17 shooting deaths of nine black church worshippers by an alleged white supremacist in Charleston, S.C.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, sent a letter to the Houston Independent School District Wednesday urging the renaming of six campuses named after Confederate army officers or others tied to the Confederacy: Dowling, Jackson and Johnston middle schools and Davis, Lee and Reagan high schools.

“Remembering our past is important, especially if you want to avoid making the same mistakes,” Ellis wrote. “But we can teach our students about the evils of the past without endorsing the actions of those who fought to uphold them. When we honor hate at our schools, we teach hate to our children.”

Ellis previously urged HISD to eradicate certain mascots. In 2013, the school board, at Grier’s recommendation, agreed to abandon the Rebels mascot, a symbol tied to the Confederacy, and three others considered offensive to Native Americans.

“Just as we engaged in the important work around changing the inappropriate mascots,” Skillern-Jones said, “we should also engage in that equally important work around making sure that our schools are named after individuals that wholeheartedly represent what our district stands for and the diversity in the district.”

Here are the op-ed and letter that Sen. Ellis wrote. This conversation isn’t just happening in Houston, as cities like Austin and San Antonio have Robert E. Lee schools as well. Lee is a legitimately important historical figure with ties to Texas that predate the Civil War, but that doesn’t mean he – or any other figure – deserves to have schools named after him. As with the school mascots that got renamed last year, I see no reason not to take this seriously. And as with the mascots, I expect there will be some heated dissent, from current and former students of these schools as well as other folks with various motives, and if the decision is made to make a change then a year or two from now hardly anyone will remember any of it.

You may ask, why now? These schools have been around with these names for a long time. As with the mascots and with the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage, the time is right. The horrible mass shooting in South Carolina and the stated reasons for it by the shooter have opened the door for this conversation, and many people who would not have been amenable to it for whatever the reason a month or a year or a decade ago now are. Why not now?

And if we start this conversation about Confederate generals, what then?

I wonder if they are going to include slave owners from the past. How about those that supported segregation or opposed civil rights and voting rights. How about some of the folks that help found the state of Texas and nearly succeeded in making Native-Americans an extinct people. These same folks also made Texas a slave-owning state. How does one define hate? I wonder where they will draw the line. I am glad Board President Skillern-Jones and Sen. Ellis are the deciders and not me. Go for it!

I’m sure plenty of people will be making “slippery slope” arguments now that this can of worms has been opened. I get that, but you know what? I do not and will not accept such arguments as a reason to end the conversation. Nothing in the Constitution says that once a school – or park, or bridge, or street, or courthouse, or whatever – has been named for someone, it must remain named for that person forevermore. Let’s have this conversation, in full and in public. I welcome it, and I welcome the awkwardness that a lot of people, including myself, will feel about it. You want to move past the symbolism of a handful of governors lowering the Confederate flag in their states? This would be a fine place to start. Let’s get it all out there. What are we afraid of?

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.

HISD mostly declines to rezone its schools

Lots of noise, not nearly as much action.

HISD School Map

A divided Houston school board on Thursday rejected most of the rezoning proposals designed to reduce class sizes after dozens of parents expressed concerns about families having to send their children to different campuses.

Only two of the six proposals passed, with parents and board members in those areas generally supportive of the changes.

In the booming Energy Corridor, the attendance zone for the popular Bush Elementary School will shrink, and Shadowbriar Elementary in the area will become a specialty school designed to relieve overcrowding for nearby campuses.

In southwest Houston, the Tinsley Elementary boundaries will decrease, with homes rezoned to Anderson Elementary.

Current students and incoming kindergarten students will be grandfathered and can stay.


Superintendent Terry Grier said the proposals were an attempt to cut the number of waivers that the district receives from the Texas Education Agency to exceed the state’s cap of 22 students per class in elementary schools. The district requested about 1,500 waivers this fall, more than double the number five years ago.

Hair Balls details who was and wasn’t shuffled around.

Schools that won’t see their lines redrawn include Rice, Roberts, Twain and West U elementaries in one group. Another group that won’t be reconfigured includes Smith, Crockett, Love, Memorial Sinclair, Steven, Harvard and Travis elementaries – mostly on arguments from Sinclair supporters who said they’d built something special and didn’t want to see it diminished and trustees who agreed with that.

A third group including Hartsfield, Bastian, Kelso and Young elementaries will stay as they are. It’ll be status quo for Kennedy, Burbank, Lyons and Northline elementaries. Lyons in particular was pointed out as a school that has done well and shouldn’t be disturbed.

The schools that will see their boundary lines change include the Anderson, Tinsley and Halpin group as well as the Shadowbriar, Ashford, Bush, Askew, Daily, Emerson and Walnut Bend group. In the second case, there were several parents supporting the change as well as those who criticized it.

This was brought up in January and then put on hold in March, as it proved to be as challenging and contentious as any other form of redistricting is. The main reason why parents argued for the status quo is that they were willing to trade a few fuller classes for not messing with something that was working, as it was generally highly-rated schools that were overpopulated. Ultimately, what we need is for more neighborhood schools to be doing as well as their most-crowded peers. Lot easier said than done, I know.

Mostly positive reviews for the Aycock school finance plan

So far, so good.

Jimmie Don Aycock

A plan from a top House lawmaker to overhaul the state’s public education funding system received largely favorable reviews from school districts during a marathon legislative hearing that ended late Tuesday night.

“While this bill, some consider it not to be perfect, for us fortunately it is a significant step in the right direction,” Houston Independent School District Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones said during a meeting of the House Committee on Public Education.

Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, has argued since the legislative session began that lawmakers shouldn’t wait for the outcome of a school finance lawsuit to consider changes to the school finance system.


Aycock’s proposal removes multiple provisions in the current school finance system.

It drops the number of districts that must send money back to the state under “recapture,” or what’s commonly known as Robin Hood. The nickname comes from the practice of taking property tax revenue from richer districts and redistributing it to poorer districts in an attempt to equalize school funding throughout Texas.

That adjustment, Skillern-Jones said, was a life raft for school districts that are “property rich, but poor in students,” like Houston. The district faces sending $200 million back to the state in the 2016-2017 school year.

(See how individual school districts would fare under Aycock’s plan here.)

It also eliminates the “Cost of Education Index,” which gives districts extra money based on characteristics like size, teacher salaries in neighboring districts and percentage of low-income students. Under Aycock’s proposal, that money would instead go to overall per-student funding.

That change that generated the most discussion Tuesday. Both smaller school districts that would lose money meant to help them account for economies of scale and districts with high numbers of the low-income and English-language learning students that the index is supposed to help raised caution about the effects of such a shift.

“While I never say no to money… I would ask that it would be looked at in the way that it is distributed,” said Alief ISD Superintendent H.D. Chambers. “I believe that our most needy students … are perhaps are going to get left out.”

See here for the background. The Observer notes the points where there is still work to be done.

But the biggest change Aycock proposes is the elimination of the Cost of Education Index (CEI), which steers more funding to urban and high-poverty districts to pay for higher teacher salaries. In the last few weeks, Aycock has stressed that the index is hopelessly outdated—it was created in 1991 and hasn’t been updated since—and nobody argued that point Tuesday night. But many weren’t willing to simply let it go.

“The underlying premise of the CEI is undeniably sound,” said Lori Taylor of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, who has conducted a series of studies since 2000 on how the Legislature could update the index to reflect current costs.

Former state Rep. Paul Colbert (D-Houston), a school finance leader in the ‘80s and ‘90s, agreed that while the index is flawed, its purpose—steering more money to urban and high-poverty districts that must pay higher salaries—is still vital. “You can’t just do away with it and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. You’re merely not addressing an uncontrollable cost,” Colbert said. “And that’s not equitable.”

Aycock agreed the change would affect districts unevenly; changing any piece of the school finance system creates winners and losers. Aycock has said he’s trying to minimize the pain of simplifying the system. “The party that gets hit the worst removing the CEI is the Valley area,” he noted at one point last night.

“How do we fix that?” wondered Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston).

“I don’t know that I can,” Aycock told her. “I’ve done everything I think I can to fix that.”


Aycock has suggested his bill would improve equity by moving more districts closer to the state average of per-student funding. But it would also enrich wealthy districts more than poor districts, which some analysts last night noted was basically the opposite of equity. San Antonio’s Edgewood ISD, with 96 percent students are from low-income families, would gain $171 per student under Aycock’s bill, while nearby Alamo Heights—with 22 percent low-income students—would gain $469. In South Texas, Los Fresnos CISD would gain $54 per student while the wealthier Point Isabel ISD. which includes South Padre Island, would gain $289.

Analysts outside the Capitol realm have noted these disparities too. Bellwether Education Partners analyst Jennifer Schiess recently told Education Week that Aycock’s bill “isn’t negative on equity. It just doesn’t move very far.” Schiess wonders whether such modest improvement is truly worth the fight.

Representatives from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Center for Public Policy Priorities and the Intercultural Development Research Association urged the committee to focus on steering money to students who need it most, and to follow Travis County District Judge John Dietz’s suggestion last year by updating the adjustments for poor students and those with limited English. Like the CEI, those weights have been untouched for decades.

None of these problems are going to get solved until there’s more money allocated to public education. That ain’t gonna happen until the Supreme Court says so.

Aycock’s bill has not yet been voted on in committee, and while I expect it will eventually pass who knows what will happen when it hits the Senate, which has shown little appetite so far for anything positive for public education. Even if this does get signed into law, there will still be questions of adequacy of school funding for the Supreme Court to rule on, as well as to decide whether or not this satisfies the equity issue. There’s still a long way to go.

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.

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:


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 passes its budget

They restored a lot of funding, but it’s the changes to magnet school funding that everyone is talking about.


Bouncing back from recent cash-strapped years, the Houston school board Thursday approved a bigger budget that gives raises to all employees, provides more money to campuses and may require a tax rate increase.

The board, over complaints from passionate parents, also voted 5-4 to overhaul the system for funding the district’s beloved magnet schools. Superintendent Terry Grier’s plan to standardize the haphazard funding for the specialty programs will slash some schools’ budgets and boost others over the next three years.

The board will not set the tax rate until October, but the district’s financial chief, Ken Huewitt, said he estimates needing a 1-cent or 2-cent hike, depending on the final tally of property values. The increase is tied to the district’s voter-approved 2012 bond program.

Any rate increase would come on top of the 3 cents the board added last year to fund operating expenses, which put the rate at $1.1867 per $100 of assessed value. With property values rising across the city, many taxpayers would feel an even bigger hit if the rate goes up as expected.


Grier’s plan to standardize magnet school funding drew the most controversy, bringing roughly 60 parents, students and community members to the board meeting to speak in opposition. The proposal funds programs with the same theme – such as fine arts or engineering – by the same amount per pupil, instead of the current arbitrary system.

Critics say the new formula does not take into account what the programs need to thrive and could cripple some of the district’s best schools.

“It is 40 years of inequity, and it is time we do something,” Skillern-Jones said, speaking for the narrow board majority, which also included Wanda Adams, Paula Harris, Greg Meyers and Manuel Rodriguez Jr.

Opposing the measure were Anna Eastman, Mike Lunceford, Harvin Moore and Juliet Stipeche.

See here and here for the background. I still don’t know what to think about the magnet funding changes because I’m still not clear on what the formula is and what it’s supposed to achieve. I’m not necessarily opposed to this change, and I recognize that any essentially zero-sum alteration will have winners and losers, I just don’t feel like HISD had communicated this well enough to objectively evaluate it. At this point all I can say is that I hope the schools that lost money aren’t adversely affected, and that if there are negative effects that the Board revisits the issue as soon as possible. Hair Balls and School Zone have more.

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.


TEA insists North Forest closure moving ahead

TEA Commissioner Michael Williams says don’t listen to the noise, North Forest ISD will be assimilated into HISD as planned on July 1.

Williams said the Texas Education Agency, which he oversees, has followed state law and has the necessary approval to proceed with shutting down North Forest ISD, which has a long history of academic and financial problems. His order calls for neighboring HISD to assume control of the 7,000-student North Forest district on July 1.

“This is going to happen,” Williams said.

The top lawyers for the TEA and HISD had a conference call with Justice Department staff on Wednesday.

According to a memo from HISD general counsel Elneita Hutchins-Taylor, she is proposing that the HISD board approve a redistricting item at its June 13 meeting.

She said the initial recommendation is for North Forest to be assigned to District II, represented by Rhonda Skillern-Jones, with some residents possibly assigned to District VIII, represented by Juliet Stipeche. Neither seat is on the ballot in November, so the Justice Department doesn’t have to issue a ruling in the near future, Hutchins-Taylor wrote.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said North Forest officials are not fully cooperating, withholding basic information like test data and students’ addresses, needed to help plan bus routes.

See here for the background. Yesterday, North Forest’s proponents got a boost when a judge granted a temporary restraining order temporarily halting the takeover.

The order by Judge Jon Wisser means the Texas Education Agency cannot proceed with shutting down the long-troubled North Forest school district at least until a court hearing on June 13.

North Forest supporters saw the temporary restraining order as a victory in their fight against closure, but a TEA spokeswoman said the judge’s order was routine and agency officials were “absolutely confident” the takeover will take place.

“There have been illegal actions by the (TEA) Commissioner and his appointees throughout this process,” North Forest attorney Chris Tritico said in a statement. “The law does not permit the government to manipulate the law to accomplish its own ends. Today is a major step in ensuring the continuation of the North Forest school district.”

I think in the end North Forest is going to lose the fight and the closure will go ahead, but I’m not quite ready to believe it will happen on schedule. We’ll see how big a bump in the road this is.

Interview with Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

We now shift to HISD and HCC Trustee races, which will take us through the end of the interview series. To start off, I bring you a conversation with Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who will succeed Carole Mims Galloway as the Trustee in District II. Skillern-Jones is a mother of five children, all of whom have attended HISD schools, and a longtime volunteer/activist who has been PTA president, member of HISD Parent Visionaries, and has served on various HISD committees such as the Superintendent’s Parents Advisory Committee and Budget Advisory Committee. (School Zone has more about Ms. Skillern-Jones.) 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.