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November 18th, 2019:

Interview with Abbie Kamin

Abbie Kamin

As you know, I limited the interviews I did this cycle because there were just too many candidates in too many races for me to even try to cover them all fairly. As you also know, I said I’d try to come back to some of these races for the runoffs. The time for that is now, and the first race to revisit is District C, where Abbie Kamin led the pack on Election Day. Kamin is a civil rights attorney who has served the Associate Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Southwest Regional Office. She has also served as a member of the Mayor’s Commission Against Gun Violence, as Committee Director and Clerk for the Texas House Human Services Committee, and founded the Emma Project in Houston to raise awareness of the plight of Syrian refugees. Here’s what we talked about:

You can still refer to the Erik Manning spreadsheet for your race and candidate information. The July finance reports that include District C are here, and the 30 day finance reports are here.

The state of the county 2019

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has a lot of accomplishments to tout.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County in the past year has made significant progress on flood control, criminal justice and improving public health, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in her first State of the County address Friday.

The county executive also announced her administration would make significant investments in early childhood development in the coming year.

Hidalgo said the Houston area continues to enjoy a bustling economy and low unemployment, but said business and government leaders must not be complacent.

“To a veteran coming home ill-prepared for the 21st century job market, a low unemployment rate doesn’t mean much,” Hidalgo said at the annual luncheon, held this year at the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel downtown. “To a family who struggles, a great medical center can’t help them if they don’t have health insurance.”

[…]

She lauded a historic settlement to reform the county’s bail system for misdemeanor defendants, which a federal judge had declared unconstitutional. Hidalgo thanked Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has long been an advocate on criminal justice issues.

She noted that in response to a series of chemical fires in east Harris County, Commissioners Court significantly increased the size of the pollution control and fire marshal’s offices, as well as purchased new air monitors.

“We’ve established the most robust environmental policy that Harris County has seen in at least 30 years,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo thanked the county’s flood control district and engineering department for speeding up work on the $2.5 billion flood infrastructure program and fast-tracking drainage projects in 105 subdivisions.

She also said her office has made county government more transparent by holding a series of town halls, developing a 311 call system and making a greater effort to include the public at more open, albeit lengthy, Commissioners Court meetings. Hidalgo said to date, four times as many residents have participated than last year.

You can see a copy of Judge Hidalgo’s prepared remarks here. I like the way she addressed the “concerns” some people had about her age, noting that the legendary Judge Roy Hofheinz was three years younger than she was when he was first elected. I think she has a lot to be proud of, and there’s clearly a lot more she has in mind to do. I’m looking forward to it. The Texas Signal has more.

So how are those TEA public meetings going?

About as you’d expect.

Residents of Houston ISD peppered state officials with questions Wednesday night about the potential replacement of the district’s elected school board, voicing frustration about the lack of immediate plans for students and staff during the Texas Education Agency’s first community meeting about the looming intervention.

Uncertainty about the state’s intentions with Texas’ largest school district simmered throughout the two-hour meeting at Pershing Middle School, where nearly 100 people gathered one week after Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced his intention to appoint a replacement school board. Morath’s decision is the result of Wheatley High School receiving a seventh consecutive failing grade and state investigators substantiating several allegations of misconduct by HISD trustees.

State officials offered relatively few answers about potential changes to the state’s largest school district, telling attendees that the agency is listening to residents before appointing managers who ultimately would dictate HISD’s future. While Morath has the final authority to appoint and remove board members, the chosen managers are responsible for crafting and carrying out plans for the district in coordination with the superintendent.

“This can be a frustrating part of the process, and I think that’s a reasonable place to be right now, because there’s more unknown than known,” said AJ Crabill, who serves as special adviser to Morath and previously worked as the TEA’s deputy commissioner of governance.

[…]

Crabill told the crowd that an appointed board likely would be charged with addressing one to five specific issues in HISD, emphasizing that the chosen board wouldn’t be expected to solve all of the district’s challenges.

“If our stance is that the board of managers stay in place until every single issue in HISD is solved, when will the board of managers exit? Never,” Crabill said.

Crabill shed slightly more light on the process and timeline of the state’s board selection, which agency officials first publicized last week. He said the names of applicants might be released in late December, cautioning that the agency’s lawyers must still sign off on the publication. He added that the earliest to expect an appointed board’s selection is March 2020.

That much at least is useful information. Here’s a subsequent story from the second meeting.

A crowd of roughly 75 people gathered at Wheatley High School, whose chronically low student performance has triggered the potential board takeover, frequently voiced skepticism that TEA officials understand the needs of Houston’s diverse community and come into the district with good intentions. Residents in attendance were decidedly more critical of the looming intervention than those at the TEA’s first community meeting, held Wednesday at Pershing Middle School.

Several implored the TEA to stay out of the state’s largest district and allow a newly-chosen school board to rectify issues — even as state law mandates that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath must close Wheatley or temporarily replace elected trustees after the historic campus received its seventh consecutive failing grade.

Morath announced last week that he plans to employ the latter option. The appointed board would be responsible for creating and implementing plans for HISD in conjunction with the district’s superintendent.

One of the most impassioned pleas Thursday came from Tori Presley, the mother of a senior at Wheatley, who told TEA officials that negative perceptions of the campus perpetuated by the state’s accountability system are holding back the near-northeast side school. Presley encouraged Morath to visit HISD — he hasn’t publicly met in recent months with community members, instead dispatching a top lieutenant — and hear directly from the city’s residents.

“I want (Morath) to know that these kids’ education is important, to know that the kids here have a future,” Presley said after addressing questions to state officials. “The TEA just has to back off and let our community raise our schools. We have everything we need to keep our schools going.”

[…]

Opponents, including many of those in attendance Thursday, believe the board’s removal disenfranchises voters in a predominantly black and Hispanic district and unfairly places power in the hands of a Republican-led state bureaucracy. Pamela Boveland, an education advocate and HISD resident, said voters made the necessary course corrections at the polls earlier this month, when they ensured four new trustees will take seats on the nine-member board in January 2020.

“I know there has been a dramatic change in the decision-making of the board in the right direction,” Boveland said.

Ultimately, TEA officials say lawmakers have made their intentions clear: they want change in districts with chronically low-performing schools. About 85 percent of legislators voted in 2015 to pass the law mandating campus closures or replacement of the school board in any district with a school receiving five consecutive failing grades.

AJ Crabill, a special adviser to Morath and the TEA’s former deputy commissioner of governance, told the crowd Thursday that closing Wheatley is “not how we get justice for children in this campus.” In response to criticism that prior state takeovers of school boards have not resulted in improved academic results, Crabill noted that earlier interventions typically followed financial turmoil or major leadership issues.

“What the community here expects is that (an appointed board) is actually focused on student performance, and it’s not just a conversation about money or other ancillary things,” Crabill said.

I think there is definitely something to be said for the election results, where thanks to two retirements and two incumbents being defeated, there will be four new people on the nine-member Board. I’m pretty sure Commissioner Mike Morath would say that the law as written does not allow him to take that into account, though there may be an argument that one or more of the new members could be appointed to the board of managers. Again, that may be a question of what the law does and does not allow, and that would be a question for the courts to answer, if it comes up in the current litigation or if a new lawsuit is filed. As for the student performance question, I would think the TEA would not want to make that a significant part of the board of managers’ mission, because it’s not at all clear they’d be able to do much, and because overall HISD grades out very well. The potential for them to make little to no progress in their time in charge is non-trivial, and would be embarrassing for the state. At this point, we just don’t know how they will define their mission. There are two more meetings this week, so if you want to ask them about it, those are your best chances.