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La Marque ISD lawsuit tossed

The end of the line for La Marque ISD.

A Texas appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit seeking to halt the annexation of the La Marque school district by Texas City ISD.

The 3rd Texas Court of Appeals on Friday dismissed the lawsuit, saying that it lacked jurisdiction and that the lower court erred in accepting the case.

“This is the end. It’s done,” said Terry Pettijohn, a member of the deposed La Marque school board that sued to prevent the Texas Education Agency from dissolving the district.

“It’s just hard to understand how a school district that had met TEA standards and was financially solvent could have been closed,” Pettijohn said.

Former Education Commissioner Michael Williams, replaced Jan. 1 by former Dallas ISD trustee Mike Morath, last year ordered La Marque ISD to merge with the Texas City Independent School District as of July 1. State officials said the district had failed to meet its financial marks.

Morath issued a statement saying, “Our primary focus at the Texas Education Agency is ensuring that students in La Marque have access to a high quality education. We continue our work as the transition to Texas City ISD moves forward.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I didn’t expect La Marque to prevail here, and we did need a resolution one way or the other to be prepared for the next school year. I just hope this works out as planned. I’d feel a lot better about it if there had ever been any statistics published about the effect of HISD taking over North Forest, but if there are it was done in a very low key fashion. We’ll see how this goes.

Not everyone likes the latest hurricane surge protection plan

Yet another obstacle.

A new proposal to protect the Houston area from hurricanes is reigniting controversy, and potentially diminishing the odds that a consensus will emerge anytime soon on the best plan to safeguard the nation’s fifth-largest metropolitan area.

Since Hurricane Ike in 2008, Texas scientists have pushed several different plans to shield the region, home to the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex, from devastating storm surge.

Some accord emerged in recent years around a $6 billion-to-$8 billion Dutch-inspired concept called the “coastal spine,” creating some hope that state and federal lawmakers may have a single proposal to champion before the next big hurricane hits. The concept — an expanded version of another, dubbed the “Ike Dike” — is designed to impede storm surge right at the coast with a 60-mile seawall along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula. A massive floodgate between the two landmasses would be closed ahead of a storm. Several dozen communities have endorsed the coastal spine — conceived at Texas A&M University at Galveston — along with some state lawmakers, the Texas Municipal League and at least one major industry group.

But a six-county coalition studying how best to proceed now says a 56-mile, mostly mainland levee system — several components of which have been proposed before by other entities — would provide a nearly equivalent level of protection while costing several billion dollars less. The catch: several Houston-area communities on the west side of Galveston Bay, including Kemah, La Porte, Seabrook, Morgan’s Point and San Leon, would be left outside the dike.

And officials from those communities say that is unacceptable.

“Just the fact that it’s mentioned — I take it as a serious threat,” Seabrook Mayor Glenn Royal said.

The $3.5 billion proposal by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, unveiled in a report last week, calls for expanding and extending an existing levee around Texas City northward along State Highway 146 and westward to the community of Santa Fe. The recovery district’s plan also calls for placing a “ring” levee around the entire city of Galveston to protect it from storm surge. (During hurricanes, the island gets hit by surge once from the front and a second time from the back when surge that reaches the mainland recedes.)

The part of the proposed levee closest to Texas City — home to three major refineries — sits right on Galveston Bay, but most of it is set back from the water, meaning the communities between it and the bay are left unprotected.

See here for the background, and be sure to read the whole thing. I’m not sufficiently informed to have an opinion about what the best option is, I’m just trying to stay on top of what’s out there.

New La Marque ISD trustees want to stop lawsuit against the TEA

Not sure about this.

Last month, the La Marque Independent School District’s board of trustees voted to mount a legal challenge to the state’s decision to close the troubled Galveston County district after years of academic and financial problems.

Now, a new controversy has added to tensions over the state’s plans to have the district annexed by the nearby Texas City ISD: the new board of managers appointed by the state to replace the La Marque ISD’s elected board of trustees is seeking to recoup $300,000 that the original trustees paid to attorneys to fight the closure.

The lead attorney says the fees are non-refundable, and vows to carry on the legal fight against the annexation.

Meanwhile the state education commissioner has asked Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on the conflict over the fee.

“They’re not going to get paid,” said Jack Christiana, the president of the new board of managers, of the attorneys suing the state. “We don’t want them to do anything on our behalf.”

Christiana said the board of managers will hire new attorneys at a meeting next week to find ways to recover the $300,000 in district funds.

[…]

Then-state Commissioner of Education Michael Williams sent a letter Dec. 31 asking Paxton whether the elected trustees’ move to pay $300,000 to the Houston-based law firm Tritico Rainey was an “unconstitutional gift of public funds,” in part because the board of trustees could not “direct the litigation” after the board of managers was put in place last month and that the attorney’s services would benefit the “individual board member plaintiffs rather than the district.”

In the letter, Williams also questioned whether the fee was unconstitutional because “there is no demonstrable public benefit to challenging closure of the district.”

Chris Tritico, who is representing four elected trustees and the school district in a lawsuit against Williams and the new state education commissioner Mike Morath, said the moves together represented an attempt by the state to muffle opposition to the district’s closure.

See here and here for the background. My personal opinion is that the new board should let the existing court case run its course. Most likely, as was the case with North Forest, they will lose and that will be that. Fighting over the fees could take longer than the fight to not close La Marque ISD in the first place, which would diminish the potential return if the new board prevailed. Letting it play out also mutes any future criticism that the dissenters were silenced. And not to put too fine a point on it, but the dissenters could win in court. I think it’s unlikely, but if they do win then it’s a good thing they fought. There will be a hearing on January 19 in Travis County, so we may get some indication of how this may play out at that time. Don;t short-circuit the process, that’s what I say.

New school board for La Marque selected

Another step in the process.

The Texas education commissioner on Friday announced the appointments of a new superintendent and a board of managers for the troubled La Marque school district, replacing a board that is legally challenging an order for the district to be annexed next year by the Texas City ISD.

The appointments were followed by an order essentially disbanding the La Marque school board and transferring authority to the Texas City school board, although the board of managers will handle affairs until Texas City takes over July 1. The order formalized Education Commissioner Michael Williams’ decision in November to dissolve La Marque ISD.

Although the school met its academic goals, the old school board had signed an agreement stating it would lose is accreditation if it also failed to meet financial standards. Members of that board argue that the rules were changed after the district submitted its financial report to the Education Agency. The agency says that the district knew about the rule change.

The deposed but defiant La Marque school board members vowed to pursue a lawsuit challenging William’s authority to disband the school district.

“The short of it is that the Texas City folks … they wanted our tax base and they are in cahoots with the commissioner,” said Richard Hooker, a member of the school board dissolved Friday who taught education at the University of Houston for 30 years and handled state school reform under former Gov. Dolph Briscoe, in the 1970s.

“We were doing everything they asked us to do,” said Hooker, who accused Williams of being anti-public education.

See here and here for the background. The names of the folks appointed to head up La marque ISD in the interim are listed later in the story. The locals have already promised to fight the order, though the track record of school districts that have been given this sentence is not encouraging. I can’t comment on the allegation about Texas City, it’s the first I’ve heard of it. Can anyone in the area or who knows more about this history weigh in?

La Marque ISD to fight closure

Good luck.

The La Marque school board Monday voted to wage a legal battle to keep the state from dissolving the school district, the Texas Education Agency said.

La Marque officials could not be reached for comment, but a spokeswoman for the Education Agency said that the board voted to hire an attorney to contest the decision by Commissioner of Education Michael Williams to disband the school district.

“La Marque ISD has chosen a costly course of action,” the agency said in a statement. “The hundreds of thousands of dollars committed to this effort is funding that will not go into any LMISD classroom or toward educating one student.”

See here and here for the background. North Forest also fought against being shut down, but in the end they lost. I honestly don’t know if any ISD that has been targeted for closure by the TEA has managed to stave it off and retain its independence. My guess is that by the start of the 2017 school year, if not the 2016 school year, the students who today are in La Marque ISD will be in another district. And now we know which one: Texas City ISD:

“We respect the Commissioner’s decision and we are prepared to move forward with the annexation process in a way that benefits both communities and all students,” Texas City Superintendent Cynthia Lusignolo said in a statement posted on the school district web site.

Texas City ISD spokeswoman Melissa Tortorici said that it was too early to know what kind of impact the absorption of La Marque schools would have on her neighboring district.

Tortorici said it was unlikely that students would be moved to new schools. “We want to assure both communities that it’s important for kids to go to school where they live,” she said.

Texas City ISD was the 565th ranked district out of 950 total last year. By comparison, La Marque was ranked #840. HISD was #683, in case you were wondering, but it’s a big district with a lot of good schools as well as some underperforming ones. La Marque has 2,528 students, compared to 6,133 for TCISD. That’s quite a bit different than HISD absorbing North Forest. I wish TCISD and the students of the soon-to-be-former La Marque ISD all the best with this transition.

Tough times for local governments

It’s gonna be a bad year.

They’re not feeling the economic storm quite yet, but local governments across the Houston region are hunkering down anyway. Some have frozen hiring, others have stopped filling potholes. Planned purchases of police cars, golf course mowers, Tasers and sewage equipment have been halted.

The caution infecting budget offices is universal, whether down south, where Galveston County is anticipating shrinking its budget by $5 million, or up north, where Montgomery County continues to rake in the tax dollars from growth. All are playing it safe, waiting for property reassessments and 2009 sales tax figures to come in before making any major decisions.

“We need to be watching every dollar that we spend,” said Cheryl Hunter, Texas City’s director of finance. The recession may have come to Southeast Texas late, but it has come. Public finance officers fear a future double-punch: lower tax revenues from a slower economy, combined with Hurricane Ike’s destructive effect on tax rolls in coastal towns, counties, and school districts. After years of growth and decreasing tax rates, budget officers now just want to hold on.

Texas City lowered tax rates for two years, but probably will not this year. The overall budget will stay flat. On hold: a $1 million renovation of the Texas City Museum, and a $5 million expansion of Moore Memorial Library.

Baytown, Freeport, Sugar Land, Katy and Metro already have declared hiring freezes. In Pearland, there is no official freeze, but officials have postponed filling 10 positions – four of them police officers.

“So far, from the recession we’re not seeing any (revenue) impacts yet,” said Pearland’s finance director, Claire Bogard. Rebuilding after Ike even gave sales taxes a boost, as did the opening of two new retail centers in Pearland. Nevertheless, Bogard ordered department heads to identify ways to trim 6 percent from the next budget, just in case.

Guess that means Bill King won’t be running for office in any of those places, either. All I can say is that I hope none of these local officials are counting on any help from Rick Perry. If he thinks the feds shouldn’t be helping state governments make ends meet, he’s unlikely to think any differently about the state helping the cities and counties. At least there’s a chance that the Lege could bypass him and share the largess, such as it may be.