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October 8th, 2022:

SCOTx to rule on the HISD takeover lawsuit

This feels like something from another era.

The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments on a yearslong case over whether the Texas Education Agency has the authority to remove all of the Houston school district’s board members and temporarily replace them with a state-appointed board. At the center of the hearing was the impact of a law that updated the education code last year and that TEA lawyers argued cleared the path to implement the agency’s plan.

The state’s highest court took the case nearly two years after the Third District Court of Appeals sided with the Houston Independent School District and upheld a temporary injunction barring TEA Commissioner Mike Morath from taking over the board in response to the continued low performance of HISD’s Phillis Wheatley High School as well as allegations of misconduct by trustees.

The current HISD board will remain in office as long as the injunction stands. If the court were to eventually side with the TEA and overturn the injunction, state education officials could install a new board, which in turn could vote to terminate the HISD lawsuit.

[…]

Appealing the decision during oral arguments Thursday, TEA’s attorney Kyle Highful said that factoring major updates to the Texas Education Code introduced by Senate Bill 1365, which was passed last year, would “greatly simplify” the case.

For instance, appeals court justices previously ruled that Delaney’s time overseeing Kashmere High School did not count toward her time as a district-level conservator, so the state had yet to meet the two-year requirement of having a district-level conservator to trigger state law. Highful said this new law has now removed the distinction between campus-level and district-level conservators.

He also noted that while Wheatley High School has recently earned a passing grade, the school had seen years of consecutive failures beforehand.

“The court should go ahead and take the opportunity to resolve this dispute now both for judicial economy because the case has been moving up and down through the courts for several years,” Highful said, “and because the HISD students are still in need of state intervention.”

In response, HISD’s attorney David Campbell said it would be appropriate to remand the case for a trial court to consider changes to the temporary injunction based on the new law.

But he stressed that the current temporary injunction had been in place for almost three years, adding that HISD was ready to “move expeditiously” and make a case for a permanent injunction in 2020. On the other hand, he said there has been limited ability to update their arguments to take into account the new law.

“We have not tried to delay things in any way. If we could have developed facts under the new law, we would have. We haven’t been given that opportunity, because the case has been on appeal,” Campbell said.

The original talk about taking over HISD began in 2017 and was accelerated by an ethics investigation into the actions of several HISD trustees, nearly all of whom are no longer on the Board. The lawsuit by HISD was filed in 2019 and it argued that the TEA did not follow the law in doing the takeover, as noted in the story. HISD won the injunction in state court after being denied in federal court, and last year the Supreme Court ruled that the appellate court had the power to impose the injunction for while the suit was being litigated. And so here we are.

The TEA is now arguing that because the law in question that the TEA didn’t follow correctly has been changed by the Legislature so that the TEA would meet its requirements now, the takeover can proceed. HISD is basically saying that there’s no longer a need for a takeover since the two schools in question are both meeting state standards, but if we have to consider the new law then the case should go back to the district court and be re-heard with the new facts. The questioning from SCOTx seems to indicate that this might be where they go with this. In addition, as the Chron story notes, there’s another factor to consider:

It’s also important for the justices to consider that it was a mostly different board and superintendent in charge when talks of a take over began, said Duncan Klussman, an assistant clinical professor with the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies department at University of Houston.

“The system has many new board members and completely new leadership is in place,” Klussmann said. “My feeling is that at this stage this is really about whether the commissioner really has the authority to do this.”

Yes, that’s the same Duncan Klussman who’s running for CD38. The argument that the Board is different now was also made by two then-newly elected Trustees, Judith Cruz and Dani Hernandez, who had just defeated the two main players in that ethics incident. Two more of the trustees involved were defeated in 2021; only one of the five named in the complaint is still on the Board. Other trustees are new since 2019 as well. If nothing else, if the TEA does get to step in, they should put the Trustees who weren’t on the Board then on their appointed Board. That would seem to be a reasonable compromise if it comes to that, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First the Supreme Court has to decide what to do with this appeal. After that, if it’s relevant, we can argue about what comes next.

We could maybe vote on a piece of the stupid revenue cap next year

Yippie.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he will ask voters in 2023 to amend the city’s cap on property tax revenue to allow for more public safety spending, as the council cut the city’s tax rate for the eighth time in nine years to get under that limit.

Turner said he would bring language to City Council shortly to put the measure on the November 2023 ballot, after At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh expressed concern about how the city will be able to afford the increasing police and fire budgets with strained resources.

“If there is strong sentiment on this council to at least allow the voters to decide, well, let’s put it this way: I’m willing to put it before you and then allow the voters to make that decision,” Turner said. “I will put it before you to be placed on the November ballot of next year.”

City Council voted unanimously to cut its property tax rate by about 3 percent, moving from 55.08 cents to 53.36 cents per $100 in valuation. The city accounts for about 20 to 25 percent of a standard Houston property tax bill, with about half going to the local school district.

The city’s cap on property taxes limits the growth in revenue to a formula that combines inflation and population increases, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower. The city hit the former mark this year, as is standard.

Houston first hit the cap in the 2015 fiscal year, and its tax rate since has fallen about 16 percent, down from 63.88 cents per $100. The city has missed out on about $1.5 billion in revenue as a result of those cuts, according to Turner’s administration. The owner of the median Houston home in that time has saved about $946, or about $105 per year.

[…]

Voters tweaked the cap in 2006 to allow the city to raise an additional $90 million in revenue for public safety spending. It was not immediately clear whether the ballot language Turner is proposing would increase that number or seek to carve out public safety spending entirely. The police and fire departments account for $1.5 billion in spending in the city’s current budget.

You know how I feel about revenue caps. At least this will give all those who rail against “defunding the police” the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are. I expect there will be at least one lawsuit filed over this regardless, and given what we’ve seen with other litigation it will still be ongoing in 2033.

The wastewater is looking good now

In terms of COVID levels, anyway.

The COVID-19 viral load in Houston’s wastewater has sunk to its lowest point in seven months as the city puts the latest wave, driven by the highly contagious omicron subvariant BA.5, in the rear view.

The wastewater levels are 71 percent of what the Houston Health Department detected during the July 2020 wave, which the city uses as a benchmark, according to Texas Medical Center data published Tuesday. The COVID hospitalization rate and positivity rate also continue to decline steadily.

Harris County last week dropped its COVID community level from “medium” to “low,” which recommends staying up to date on vaccinations and testing if you have symptoms. Scientists are looking to other countries for signs of what comes next.

“Our history has typically been a winter surge,” said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, chief of infectious diseases with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. “So let’s enjoy it while we can.”

Several new omicron off-shoots have been detected in the United Kingdom, India, Singapore, Denmark and Australia, according to the journal Nature. BA.5 continues to dominate cases in the United States, though one subvariant, BA.4.6, has gained some traction and now makes up roughly 12 percent of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ostrosky urged people to get their updated booster shots, which better target omicron variants.

The dashboard is here, and you can see it as a graph here. COVID from the omicron wave peaked in the wastewater in July, but it was at almost ten times the level as it had been in July of 2020. It is now at 71% of the July 2020 levels, which is much better in so many respects. Get up to date on your boosters – I got my bivalent booster the other day – and get a flu shot (got one of those as well, at the same time), because there’s concern this could be a bad flu season. And even with these levels going down, hopefully for the foreseeable future, it’s still a good idea to wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces. Might help you avoid catching a winter cold, too.

Endorsement watch: I had totally forgotten who her opponent is

The Chron endorses Teneshia Hudspeth for a full term as Harris County Clerk.

Teneshia Hudspeth

As the parent of a young child, Teneshia Hudspeth is familiar with the back-to-school rush for documents, including birth certificates. For families without reliable internet access, that might be more of a challenge than usual. And a trip to the county clerk’s office often means taking off work. So, as Harris County Clerk, Hudspeth helped launch an event in 2021 that let parents and guardians come in on a Saturday to get birth certificates at select offices.

“There were hundreds and hundreds of families who needed this service,” she told the editorial board.

She’s continued the event this year, partnering with local organizations that helped cover the costs of the documents for families that needed it and supplied backpacks. Her office added a service that allows people to order a birth certificate online.

These are the small things that a county clerk’s office can do to improve life and ensure that people are getting their needs met by an office that few residents likely understand well.

[…]

With a full term, Hudspeth will be able to seamlessly continue her efforts to make the office more responsive and accessible to all of Harris County.

Under her watch, the office has digitized thousands of marriage license records, prepared an estate-planning virtual series launching this month, added digital monitors in the courts with information in Spanish and English and overseen upgrades to the annex offices, some of which were begun before her tenure.

Among future plans: an e-certification program, an update to marriage license that will allow couples to add their photographs, and more outreach efforts.

In between is a discussion of the former role that the County Clerk played in running elections. That includes a mention of Stan Stanart, the deservedly former Clerk who is running for his old job and wants to do the election-running thing again. However you judge Stanart as the elected official in charge of elections, know that it was Teneshia Hudspeth doing the real work behind the scenes while he was spending a bunch of money on iPads he never deployed. As the headline indicates, the fact that Stanart is on the ballot just doesn’t stick in my mind – I confront that fact when I do campaign finance roundups, and now as I read this endorsement piece, and in an hour or so it will have flitted right back out of my memory again. This is a happy place for me to be. Please don’t ruin it. Vote for Teneshia Hudspeth, for the betterment of the Clerk’s office and my peace of mind.

You can listen to my interview with Teneshia Hudspeth and hear all the reasons why she is a very fine County Clerk here. On the B-side, the Chron endorsed their first Republican of the cycle, giving the nod to Morgan Luttrell in CD08, a district that unlike some others can reasonably be described as “bright red”. As noted, it is somewhat less crimson now than it was before redistricting, but the voters to shore up Dan Crenshaw and Mike McCaul have to come from somewhere and it’s those “bright red” districts like CD08 that are the obvious source. If you’d prefer an alternative to hoping that Luttrell will “bring more substance with him” when he gets to Congress as the Chron does, you can listen to my interview with his Democratic opponent Laura Jones.