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Alief ISD

Some superintendents disagree about school opening delays

It takes all kinds.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Superintendents leading 10 Houston-area school districts penned a letter this week opposing Harris County’s recommendations for reopening campuses, arguing that face-to-face instruction should resume earlier than health officials suggest.

In their two-page letter, the superintendents say guidance released last week by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah will keep campuses closed too long, denying valuable in-person class time to students. Superintendents are not required to follow the county recommendations, though the guidance serves as a key document in the debate over when to restart in-person classes.

“It is clear that we all have the same goal, which is to return students to in-person instruction as safely as possible, the superintendents wrote to Shah on Monday. “We thank you for the continued efforts of your departments on behalf of Harris County. With that said, we believe that the metrics outlined in the plan you have provided are not attainable to resume in-person instruction in the foreseeable future.”

The superintendents represent Clear Creek, Cy-Fair, Deer Park, Huffman, Humble, Katy, Klein, Pasadena, Spring Branch and Tomball ISDs. Combined, the districts serve about 457,000 students.

In response to the letter, Harris County Public Health officials said in a statement that the organization “has made it abundantly clear that current indicators are not safe to resume in-person activities in Harris County due to COVID-19.”

As the new school year approached and superintendents debated when to resume in-person classes, some education leaders called on county health officials to offer guidance on reopening campuses.

Hidalgo and Shah followed through by producing several public health benchmarks that should be met before in-person classes resume at the lesser of 25 percent capacity or 500 people in a campus. The metrics included cutting the 14-day rolling average of new daily cases to under 400, bringing the test positivity rate under 5 percent and ensuring less than 15 percent of patients in ICU and general hospital beds are positive for COVID-19.

Harris County likely remains at least several weeks away from meeting those metrics. For example, the county recently reported a rolling daily average of about 1,250 new cases and a test positivity rate of 16 percent.

In their letter, the superintendents only mentioned two specific health benchmarks with which they disagreed. The school leaders wrote that the recommendations would “essentially require indefinite closure of schools to in-person instruction while awaiting a widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure or greater staffing capacity at Harris County Public Health for contact tracing.”

However, the guidance specifies that districts could start to reopen and ramp up to the lesser of 50 percent building capacity of 1,000 people on campus even without a “widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure.” County officials did not detail what qualifies as a medical countermeasure in their written guidance, and they did not respond to written questions Tuesday.

See here for the background. As a reminder, Judge Hidalgo and Harris County have limited authority here – ultimately, if these districts decide to open, they can. It’s only when outbreaks occur that the county will have more power to step in. Humble ISD has already opened, the others have plans to have at least some students back by September 16. As the story notes, other districts including HISD, Aldine, Alief, and Spring did not sign this letter, but it was not clear if they had been invited to sign it or not.

I get the concern from these districts, and there’s room for honest disagreement. I don’t have any particular quarrel with their approach, though I personally prefer the more cautious path. As Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter notes in these two Twitter threads, the county now meets three out of seven criteria for reopening, and is trending in the right direction for the others. There’s no accepted national standard for what is “safe” to reopen – that’s a whole ‘nother conversation, of course – so one could argue that Harris County is being overly restrictive. Of course, we’ve also seen plenty of schools and universities that brought in students and then immediately suffered outbreaks that forced closures. Bad things are going to happen until this thing is truly under control, and it is not going to be under control any time soon while Donald Trump is President. That’s the reality, and all the choices we have are bad. Which ones are the least bad is still an open question.

TEA updates its school-opening guidance

They heard the outcry.

Facing growing backlash from teachers, parents and health officials, Texas education officials Friday relaxed a previous order that would have given public schools just three weeks from the start of the fall semester to reopen their classrooms for in-person instruction.

School districts will be allowed to delay on-campus instruction for at least four weeks, and ask for waivers to continue remote instruction for up to four additional weeks in areas hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. During those second four weeks, districts must educate at least a small number of students on campus, and tell the state what public health conditions would allow them to bring more students into classrooms.

Local school boards in areas with a lot of community spread can also delay the start of the school year.

“Our objective is to get as many kids as possible on campus as long as it is safe,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on a call with school superintendents Friday afternoon.”But we know on-campus instruction is really the best instructional setting for the vast majority of our students in Texas. Please don’t feel compelled to use this transition period unless your local conditions deem it necessary.”

The revised guidance offers school districts more options on reopening their schools. Last week, the Texas Education Agency had released more stringent guidelines requiring all school districts to offer on-campus instruction daily for all students who want it, except for a transition period of three weeks at the start of the school year.

Educator associations still say Texas isn’t going far enough to protect educators and parents. The Association of Texas Professional Educators released a statement calling the revision “insufficient” and lacking in “science-based metrics,” since it still requires schools to offer in-person instruction to students who need and want it daily.

Specifically, the guidance says districts that limit in-person instruction must provide devices and WiFi hotspots to students who need them. Students who do not have reliable access to technology must be allowed to learn in school every day. And during the second four weeks of state-allowed remote learning, districts must educate at least some students on campus, though they can restrict that number as they see fit.

“We demand that Gov. Abbott issue a statewide order that all school buildings remain closed and all instruction be provided remotely until the pandemic has clearly begun to subside and it is safe to reopen school buildings under strict safety standards,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said in a statement Friday.

[…]

School districts may also, with permission from the state, choose high schools where students will receive part of their instruction on campus and part remotely at home for the entire school year. Students must learn on-campus for at least 40% of the days in each grading period, usually six or nine weeks long.

That option would be best for districts “if your health conditions are such where you really need to reduce the number of people on campus at any one time,” Morath said Friday. Some districts have already proposed bringing different groups of students into classrooms on alternating days or even weeks, and otherwise educating them remotely.

See here and here. The state is going to allocate more money for school districts to buy equipment for remote learning, which is a huge barrier for a lot of kids. Some counties like Dallas have issued local health advisories that would require schools to remain closed, which the TEA guidance is allowing for at this time. The AG’s office has released an opinion saying that local governments can’t force private religious schools to close. So there’s still a lot of moving parts.

The Chron covers the local angle.

In anticipation of a change in guidance, Houston ISD announced Wednesday that it plans to remain online-only for its first grading period, which lasts six weeks. District officials also said they plan to delay the start of school by two weeks, moving the first day of classes to Sept. 8.

HISD officials hope to reopen campuses Oct. 19, but Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said public health circumstances will dictate whether that happens.

Officials in Aldine and Alief ISDs said they would start in all-virtual classes for the first three weeks, while Fort Bend ISD leaders said they will stay online-only indefinitely, with exceptions for a small percentage of students.

Several other school districts have released plans for reopening campuses that, for now, do not include online-only plans in August. However, superintendents in Conroe, Humble and Spring Branch ISDs, among others, said they are monitoring public health conditions and could decide in the coming days to keep campuses closed.

Spring Branch Superintendent Jennifer Blaine, whose district released a reopening plan Wednesday, said she plans to make a closure decision no later than the end of the month. Blaine said she first wants to see results of a survey sent to parents this week asking whether they want in-person classes or online-only instruction for their children.

“We don’t want to string this out,” Blaine said. “People are anxious and nervous. People want to know what the plans are going to be for August.”

The about-face on hybrid models in high schools, however, likely will cause some districts to re-evaluate their plans.

We’ll see what happens with HISD. One criticism that has been levied by teachers’ organizations about the TEA plan at this time – and to be fair, I think the TEA plan is still a work in progress, they have already changed it in response to public feedback – is that there isn’t yet a set of objective, scientific metrics that will govern how and when schools will reopen. I agree that this is a major oversight, but I will also point out that having metrics isn’t enough. We had a set of objective, scientific metrics that most people thought were pretty decent that were supposed to guide how and when the state reopened, and look what happened there. It’s necessary to have these metrics, but it is very much not sufficient. You have to actually follow them, and to be willing to slow down, stop, or even reverse course if the metrics aren’t being met. And given the nature of this pandemic, and the by now completely well-known lag between the case rate, the hospitalization rate, and the death rate, you have to be willing to do those things before we get into a crisis situation. You have to be willing to do them at the first sign of trouble, not at the point where things have already gotten bad ans now you need to try to catch up. If we haven’t learned that lesson by now, then we really are a bunch of idiots who will let many people suffer and die for no good reason.

Anyway. If you want a broader perspective from teachers about the upcoming school year and what we can and should be doing, give a listen to this week’s Mom and Dad Are Fighting podcast, which is usually about parenting but this week talked to four teachers from different parts of the country. As one of them puts it, if we move ahead with opening schools before we have this virus under control, some number of kids, and some number of teachers – and I would add, some number of parents – are going to die as a result. Do we really want to do that?

The digital divide

Online learning is great, if you can get online.

The lack of access to technology among students — commonly referred to as the “digital divide” — has come into sharper focus in recent weeks as school districts across Houston transition to online-based learning amid widespread school shutdowns.

Districts throughout the region are scrambling to equip tens of thousands of children with computers and internet access, jockeying with each other to secure coveted devices in high demand during the pandemic. In the meantime, many districts are providing those students with rudimentary paper materials, asking families to return completed coursework to their schools or take pictures of completed worksheets and send them to teachers.

“This has been on the education docket for, gosh, probably at least 20 years,” said Alice Owen, executive director of the Texas K-12 CTO Council, an association that supports school district chief technology officers. “It’s been a struggle for people to realize that this is an important piece of learning for students if we want to keep them competitive on a global scale.”

Educators and advocates long have warned about the digital divide facing American children, with the nation’s most impoverished children suffering most. The ubiquity and declining cost of computers and internet access has helped shrink the gap, but stark disparities remain.

In the Houston area’s 10 largest school districts, about 9 percent of households — nearly 142,650 — do not have a computer, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates. Nearly twice that number — about 267,250 households — lack broadband internet access.

Three of the region’s largest and most impoverished districts — Alief, Aldine and Houston ISDs — face the greatest shortages, according to Census data and estimates from district leaders.

[…]

Despite extensive warnings about the digital divide, state and federal legislators have not allocated nearly enough funding to schools to cover costs associated with providing laptops, wireless internet devices and broadband services to all students at home.

Districts can obtain some technology and internet access at steep discounts through a federal program known as E-Rate, but the benefit does not extend to take-home computers or wireless hotspots for students.

“If we want our kids to be competitive and stay up-to-date with tech, we need to be investing in our students for the future,” Owen said. “We’ve got to get over the way school used to be run, and we need to think about the ways that schools are run in the future.”

In a letter sent last week to the top four ranking members of Congress, 35 Democratic senators called for providing $2 billion in E-Rate funds that would allow schools and libraries to deliver wireless internet devices to students without connectivity at home.

“Children without connectivity are at risk of not only being unable to complete their homework during this pandemic, but being unable to continue their overall education,” the senators wrote. “Congress must address this issue by providing financial support specifically dedicated to expanding home Internet access in the next emergency relief package so that no child falls behind in their education.”

Maybe addressing this could be part of Infrastructure Week, or maybe it can be its own item. As the story notes, HISD and some other districts issue laptops to high school students – my daughter has one – which helps with those students, but obviously only goes so far. Charters are not exempt – KIPP reports a similar issue with its students. This is, plain and simple, an issue of poverty. If fixing the underlying issue is too hard, then maybe we can agree that all students need to have the equipment required for an education, and provide them all with laptops and Internet access. The choice is ours – are we going to learn from this crisis, or are we going to face the same problems the next time, without the excuse that we didn’t know any better?

The children will count us

Great idea for something that shouldn’t have to be the case.

Teresa Flores knows the costs of a census undercount as well as anyone.

As the executive director of the Hidalgo County Head Start Program, one of the area’s most underfunded services, she watched low funding after a 2010 undercount cap the program’s maximum enrollment around 3,600 students.

More than 14,000 other children could qualify for the program, Flores estimates, but she barely has enough money to maintain the current level of enrollment — even with additional state grants.

Many of her students come from immigrant and non-English speaking households, two groups that are among the hardest to count in Texas. Though the efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form failed, she’s spoken with families who still fear inquires into their citizenship. But as someone with a long-established role in the community, Flores said she’s been able to relieve anxieties about sending information to the government and correct misinformation. By herself though, she can’t do that for everyone.

In looking for new approaches to census engagement — ones that residents can trust — the Hidalgo County committee focused on getting a complete count of the area’s population is increasingly targeting its outreach toward an unconventional group of residents: children and teenagers.

“When parents come and sign their children in and out, we’re able to speak with them about their participation,” Flores said. “Children could be the best people to continue those conversations all night long once they get home, and ease those concerns on a long-term basis.”

[…]

Victoria Le isn’t sure whether her parents filled out census forms in 2010. But after working on a complete count campaign at her school, the 18-year-old said she’s making sure they do this time.

Le is a recent graduate of Alief Early College High School in southwest Houston, where she and 15 other students spent months researching new approaches to fighting an undercount and marketing those plans to hard to count residents. Their work was initially regarded by other students as nothing more than a minor passion project, Le said.

Then the group threw its first major event last spring, where students competed for prizes as they learned more about the census and ways to get their families engaged.

“It was just an insane success,” said Jordan Carswell, the program’s director. “When people see half the student body showing up and going completely crazy over census games, they start asking questions. They knew how to get their peers energized, and when you see how passionate they are about it, it’s hard to not to feel the same way.”

Carswell said the campaign came together when Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner asked him to get students involved with census engagement. Alief ISD is part of Houston and Harris County’s joint $4 million effort to achieve an accurate count. There’s also a coalition of more than 50 local nonprofits and organizations working with them to mobilize communities.

I think this is both great and awful. It’s great that there’s such creativity and commitment to getting as full and accurate a Census count as possible. It’s awful that our Legislature refused to offer any help to cities to achieve that. That has left cities like Houston and others to their own devices, because what else can they do? There was a time when everyone agreed that the Census was important, and getting it right was vital to all of our interests. The only way forward from here is to elect more people who still think that way.

What about those constitutional amendments?

Would you like someone to explain to you what those seven Constitutional amendments are about, in painstaking detail, with a recommendation for how to vote on each? Daniel Williams is here for you.

It’s that time of the biennium again! Time for voters to consider constitutional amendments on small minutia of public policy. Texas has the longest state constitution in the nation. It’s so detailed and specific that many ordinary and noncontroversial provisions of the law must be submitted to the voters for approval. That means that we the voters have a responsibility to educate ourselves on all that ordinary and noncontroversial minutia and do our best to vote in an informed and thoughtful way.

I’ve included the text of each proposed constitutional amendment, along with an attempt to briefly explain what the amendment is trying to do and how I’ll be voting when early voting starts tomorrow. I’ve also included information on how various advocacy groups and media outlets on all sides of the political spectrum have endorsed. If I’ve left off a group you think should be included let me know in the comments and I’ll add it.

Click over to read said painstakingly detailed explanations, the TL;dr version of which is “vote FOR props 1, 3, 5, and 7, and AGAINST props 2, 4, and 6”.

If you want further reading on the amendments, the League of Women Voters 2017 guide has you covered, though they don’t make recommendations. They do have information about the city of Houston bond referenda, and a brief Q&A with the HISD and HCC candidates; all but two of them provided answers. Finally, the Texas AFL-CIO has a guide to the amendments as well, along with their recommendations. You may find this exercise exasperating, but you can’t say you don’t have sufficient information to make good decisions.

On the matter of other elections, Instant News Bellaire has coverage on the elections for Bellaire’s Mayor and City Council. And if you live in Alief ISD, Stace has a slate for you. Now get out there and vote!

More on HISD IX, and a little on HISD VII Alief ISD

Wanda Adams

As noted before, I did not do interviews in HISD Trustee races in districts VII and IX. In VII, I did interview now-incumbent Anne Sung and challenger John Luman last year when they were running in the special election to fill the vacancy left by Harvin Moore. You can listen to those again if you want a refresher on those two candidates.

As for IX, I just could not get to it. Life is like that sometimes, I’m afraid. Thankfully, there is an opportunity for you to hear from the candidates in that race – Trustee Wanda Adams and challengers Karla Brown and Gerry Monroe – if you want. There was a debate sponsored by the Forward Times on October 4, and audio of it is available here. In addition, there were articles written about each candidate in the aftermath of the debate by debate moderator Durrel Douglas:

Part 1: Wanda Adams
Part 2: Karla Brown
Part 3: Gerry Monroe

There’s also a recap of the debate, with video embedded from the event. It’s not the same as individual interviews, but it’s a chance to see how the candidates interact with each other. Go take a look or give a listen – the audio should be available as a podcast in the 610 News feed – and see what you think.

Finally, Stace rounds up the candidates in Alief ISD. I wish I had more time to follow races in other ISDs, but alas, I don’t. These elections – for school board and for city council – will have more effect on your daily life than elections for Congress and Senate do. The latter have more power, but the former have more impact. Know who you’re voting for and why you’re voting for them.

Precinct analysis: HISD and HCC

I was reasonably confident that the HISD bond referendum would be successful, mostly because there wasn’t any real opposition from officials or constituencies that would normally be expected to support it. It had a much smoother path than the 2007 referendum, which still managed to pass, so it wasn’t hard to see this one making it. I was still a little surprised at how easily it passed, but not that much. Here’s the breakdown by State Rep district:

Dist Yes No =================== 131 21,902 7,238 133 19,766 13,904 134 46,367 24,987 137 9,044 4,189 139 9,001 4,505 140 4,765 1,928 141 950 290 142 8,580 2,434 143 6,030 2,053 144 1,358 590 145 10,489 4,065 146 28,756 10,212 147 28,879 10,192 148 19,889 10,252 149 1,044 764

There are many school districts within Harris County, so there are a lot of State Rep districts that do not overlap HISD’s turf. Still, as you can see support was broad and across the board. One thing to note is that there were more Yes votes cast in just the six African-American State Rep districts (98,068) than there were No votes cast all together (97,604). You can see why the specter of people like Dave Wilson and his cohort opposing the referendum wasn’t a credible threat. There aren’t enough people like him within HISD’s boundaries to make a difference.

The HCC referendum naturally got much less attention, but it passed just as easily.

Dist Yes No =================== 131 24,797 8,582 133 18,409 14,514 134 41,702 27,900 137 13,029 5,695 139 7,984 5,016 140 4,631 1,972 141 7,724 2,695 142 9,550 2,813 143 5,715 2,119 144 1,280 611 145 9,837 4,393 146 27,998 10,756 147 27,070 10,895 148 17,825 11,498 149 17,911 7,302

HCC’s turf is HISD plus Alief and North Forest ISDs, which is why there are more votes in this election in HDs 137, 141, and 149 than the HISD referendum. Again, it passed easily everywhere, though with some slightly smaller margins than the HISD referendum. It also passed easily in Alief despite some early grumbling on the part of Alief ISD’s Board of Trustees. Anyway, not much to see here, just another easy day at the office for the people whose job it was to get these bonds passed.

Interview with Richard Schechter

Richard Schechter

The last bond referendum I’ll be discussing is the one that’s received the least attention so far, and that’s the HCC bond referendum. This isn’t terribly surprising, since HCC Trustee elections tend to be low-profile as well, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Indeed, given how much the HCC system has grown in recent years, this issue deserves a lot more attention than it’s been getting. You can find all of HCC’s information on the bonds and the plan for them here, and you can listen to my interview with HCC Trustee and past Board Chair Richard Schechter about the referendum:

Richard Schechter MP3

You can still find a list of all interviews I did for this primary cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page and my 2012 Texas Primary Elections page, which I now need to update to include fall candidate information. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

HCC board approves its bond package

More bonds for your consideration this fall.

Houston Community College trustees voted Thursday to placea $425 million bond referendum on the November ballot.

If approved by voters on Nov. 6, the bond would help update classroom technology, build a new medical center facility, expand campuses and boost workforce development programs. It would also phase in a 2 cent to 3 cent property tax increase. The former translates to about $37 annually for the owner of a $150,000 house.

The bonds are needed to cope with enrollment that has jumped from 50,000 to 75,000 in the last five years, leaving the system “bursting at the seams,” said HCC trustee Richard Schechter.

There would be funds allocated to build a new health care education center in the Medical Center, plus renovations and new construction at all six HCC campuses, with an emphasis on workforce development in energy and the STEM fields. Typically, this has had a much lower profile than the other referenda, but that doesn’t mean it has been without contention.

The proposed allocation for westside construction does not sit well with some groups in Alief, which was annexed by HCC’s taxing district four years ago.

The Alief ISD board of trustees and the Alief Super Neighborhood Council passed resolutions opposing the bond proposal, saying HCC has failed to complete projects promised under the annexation agreement. The groups said the $10 million allocated for the Alief campus in the bond proposal is insufficient.

Only one floor of a four-story Hayes Road building on the Alief campus has been completed. That building, which is used by the Alief ISD Early College High School, also lacks a library and science labs, according to Sarah Winkler, an Alief school trustee.

“I don’t see how that (the westside campus) should be a priority compared to existing facilities that should be finished,” said Winkler, who noted that the first Early College class may graduate next year without having had access to a library or science labs. “We’ve never had campuses without a library. That’s just not acceptable to me.”

The lack of services and classes on the Alief campus forces many area residents enrolled at HCC to travel to other campuses for classes, Winkler said.

The first story above notes that the board “pledged to use the bond money first to complete construction of the Hayes Road building”, which is a new campus in Alief. Not clear whether that addressed the concerns or not, however. See here and here for more.

Interview with Sarah Winkler

Sarah Winkler

Wrapping up a week of conversations with candidates who hope to succeed Rep. Scott Hochberg in HD137, today we have Sarah Winkler. Winkler has served on the Alief ISD Board of Trustees since 1997 and on the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) Board of Directors since 2001; she was TASB President in 2009-10. She is a longtime neighborhood activist and also serves on the SPARK Park Board of Directors. I interviewed her for the 2009 election Alief ISD election here. Oh, and she’s a Rice grad as well, which I am constitutionally required to mention. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

HCC redistricting

Turns out that the HCC Trustees have done some work on redistricting for themselves. Their meeting agenda for May 19 lists “Resolution Accepting Draft Plans for Redistricting of HCCS Board of Trustees Districts and Confirming Public Hearings” as the fourth item under the Consent Agenda. You can see a copy of the draft plans here. There are three drafts, all of which looks pretty similar to me. If you’re wondering what North Forest and Alief ISDs have to do with anything, the answer is that they were annexed into the HCC system, in 2009 for North Forest and 2008 for Alief. That has the effect of enlarging HCC’s territory, so those areas must be incorporated into the new map.

There will be three public meetings to solicit feedback on the redistricting plans. Details about these hearings are here. I would presume, though I cannot say for sure, that some variant on one of these maps will be adopted at the next Board meeting on June 16. That’s all I know – if I hear any more, I’ll let you know.

Lawsuit over grading policies

A number of school districts, mostly in the Houston area, have a policy of not giving kids a grade lower than 50 in any grading period. The idea is that by setting a floor on grades, it gives kids the chance to still eventually pass the class, which in turn gives them a reason to keep trying. A law passed in the last legislative session has been interpreted by the Texas Education Agency to disallow that practice. The school districts have filed suit to be able to keep doing it their way.

Minimum-grading policies, according to the school districts, are part of a strategy to prevent dropouts because they give students a mathematical shot at passing a course — if they earn high enough marks in other grading periods. For example, a student who received a 30 grade for the first six weeks but passed the next five grading periods with 75s, still would fail the course, with a 68. But if the school gave the student a 50, instead of a 30, the cumulative grade would be passing.

“We’re not giving passing grades. A 50 is way below failing,” Alief school board member Sarah Winkler said in defense of her district’s policy. “All we’re doing is giving them a grade that if they put forth significant effort they would be able to pass. What would be the point of a student making any effort if they cannot pass?”

[State Education Commissioner Robert] Scott, in his response to the lawsuit, characterizes the districts’ claims as illogical.

“Under the districts’ interpretation, a student could complete no assignments and still get a 50 on his or her report card,” the response says. “This interpretation would render the entire statute meaningless … and there would be no purpose to requiring actual grades on assignments and examinations.”

From the testimony given, it seems the school districts have a legitimate gripe.

According to the school districts’ attorney, David Feldman, Scott “totally jumped the gun” by sending a memo to every superintendent in the state in October 2009 explaining that the grading law applies to all types of grades.

David Anderson, the general counsel of the Texas Education Agency, which Scott runs, testified that Scott was simply explaining his understanding of the law, not overstepping his bounds by creating a new rule.

But when questioned about the actual language of the law, he conceded it did not specifically refer to report card grades or cumulative grades.

“That phrase is not in the statute,” Anderson said repeatedly.

Strictly from a policy perspective, I can see both sides on this. I don’t have a firm opinion one way or the other as to which is preferable. But based on what was reported here, it does sound like Commissioner Scott overreached. The Trib has more.

The coming train wreck

Two local school superintendents – HD Chambers from the Stafford Municipal School District and Louis Stoerner from the Alief Independent School District – wrote an op-ed for the Chron about the financial catastrophe that school districts are facing.

With a few exceptions, districts are faced with one option — asking voters to approve a tax increase through a tax-ratification election. However, most taxpayers are struggling and cannot support an increase. (It is interesting to note that locally elected school boards are the only elected entities in Texas not allowed to set their own maintenance and operations tax rate without an election.)

School district leaders are responsible for ensuring that our children graduate prepared for college or a career, and we must be good stewards of our taxpayers’ dollars. However, the state also must provide adequate funding to support continually rising state and federal standards and requirements. Removing or suspending various unfunded or underfunded mandates is not a long-term solution for the school funding crisis but could help us get through these difficult economic times. However, a long-term fix must be found since school districts throughout the state are facing financial challenges that threaten the very core of public education and, in some cases, the future viability of public schools. No one is ready for the possible train wreck that lies ahead.

Basically, school districts’ funding is inadequate to cover rising costs. Many districts, especially the faster-growing ones, have responded by laying off employees, which is both unsustainable and just plain undesirable. Only the state can fix this for the long term. Given the way things work around here, you know what that means: Another school finance lawsuit is on the horizon. It’s a matter of when, not if. I’m sure the subject will come up tonight on Houston Have Your Say, whose topic is “Education Crisis”. Tune in tonight at 6 PM on KUHT (Comcast channel eight) to see a distinguished group of experts discuss the matter.

The school district squeeze

Everywhere you look there’s bad budget news.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Fort Bend ISD Chief Financial Officer Tracy Hoke, who’s worked in school finance for two decades. “I could turn out every light, and we’d still have a deficit.”

Hoke isn’t exaggerating about the lights. The Fort Bend Independent School District is facing a $20 million deficit for the coming academic year. The district’s annual utility bill is expected to top $18 million, a $1 million increase over this year.

The district’s other expenses also are rising — staffing three new schools will cost $2.3 million, for example — but its revenues are staying essentially flat under Texas’ school funding system. In 2006, state lawmakers slashed property tax rates and capped districts’ revenue at a certain amount per child. That amount varied widely and tended to penalize school systems with booming student enrollment. Fort Bend, for example, got $4,871 per student, while Tomball ISD earned $5,783.

Three things to note here. One is that any school finance system that cannot keep up with the needs of the fastest growing districts is a system that is built for failure, in every sense of the word. My thesaurus isn’t big enough to adequately describe the magnitude of the catastrophe that is brewing.

Two, education and health care are the biggest parts of the budget. As was recently pointed out to me, you could zero out the criminal justice article of the budget – shut down the prisons, set all the inmates free, close the courts – and you still wouldn’t cover even half of the revenue shortfall. (Don’t believe me – see for yourself. Schools are covered in Article 3, health and Human services in Article 2, with the biggest piece (Medicaid) being under the Health and Human Services Commission, and criminal justice is in Article 5, under Department of Criminal Justice.) We basically froze school spending in the 2006 special session where that giant unaffordable property tax cut originated, and the Lege is going to be forced to cut school spending further in 2011. Did I mention this was a giant disaster about to happen? Which leads to point three:

David Thompson is a Houston attorney who represented districts in a school finance lawsuit that was decided by the Texas Supreme Court in 2005. The court ruled for the districts, noting that they no longer had “meaningful discretion” over their property tax rates. The Legislature responded with revisions to the funding system in 2006.

Thompson said the changes provided “temporary relief,” but schools now are struggling under their fourth year of the so-called target revenue system. He wouldn’t say whether school boards are considering suing again.

“I will say that the trends to me are disturbingly looking like they looked prior to 2006,” Thompson said. “We have funding for schools that is arbitrary and not rational and not related to the standards we’re trying to accomplish. We have growing equity gaps in some places.”

You want to make a sure-fire bet on something? Bet on there being another school finance-related lawsuit in the coming decade, quite possibly in the early part of it. And before you say “well, maybe we can do more cuts on the health and human services side”, let me say three words to you: Frew v. Hawkins. It’s lawsuits all the way down. Fixing the revenue side of the equation is the only way out.

Runoff rules

Council Member Mike Sullivan sheds some light on my confusion about runoffs in school board elections.

As a former school board member, I know the answer well.

In short, in the state of Texas, a candidate for school board has to only achieve a plurality to win. It is not necessary to win by the conventional “50% + 1″ to win an election. You only have to receive more than one vote that everyone else in the race to win.

While this may seem like a strange, or archaic method, it has served this state well. There almost 1100 school districts in the state, and as they say, “you do the math”. It would be expensive, time consuming, and certainly a financial burden for almost school districts if the election law was written any other way.

I appreciate the feedback. I assumed Alief ISD would have a runoff because HISD has them. Checking the statutes, however, makes it clear that HISD is the exception and not the rule:

Sec. 2.001. PLURALITY VOTE REQUIRED. Except as otherwise provided by law, to be elected to a public office, a candidate must receive more votes than any other candidate for the office.

So there must be a provision elsewhere that allows for or requires HISD elections to need a majority. And I believe this is it in the Education code.

Sec. 11.057. DETERMINATION OF RESULTS; OPTIONAL MAJORITY VOTE REQUIREMENT. (a) Except as provided by Subsection (c), in an independent school district in which the positions of trustees are designated by number as provided by Section 11.058 or in which the trustees are elected from single-member trustee districts as provided by Section 11.052, the candidate receiving the highest number of votes for each respective position voted on is elected.

(b) In a district in which the positions of trustees are not designated by number or in which the trustees are not elected from single-member trustee districts, the candidates receiving the highest number of votes shall fill the positions the terms of which are normally expiring.

(c) The board of trustees of an independent school district in which the positions of trustees are designated by number or in which the trustees are elected from single-member trustee districts as provided by Section 11.052 may provide by resolution, not later than the 180th day before the date of an election, that a candidate must receive a majority of the votes cast for a position or in a trustee district, as applicable, to be elected. A resolution adopted under this subsection is effective until rescinded by a subsequent resolution adopted not later than the 180th day before the date of the first election to which the rescission applies.

So the default is “most votes wins”, but a district may make its own rule that requires a majority. Which is I presume what HISD has done. I looked around but didn’t find such a resolution for HISD, so if anyone happens to know where to look for one, I’d appreciate it.

So there you have it. Note also that for city elections, you apparently need a majority to win in Bellaire, even though state law does not require that of them. Days like this make me think I should have gone to law school, if only so I could have a better understanding of how stuff like this works.

HISD candidate spending

After all I’ve done detailing how city candidates are spending their campaign money, I’d love to be able to tell how how candidates for HISD Trustee are spending theirs. I’d love to, but unfortunately I can’t, because that information isn’t available online, and I just don’t have the time to tromp over to HISD headquarters and request printed copies to peruse. Fortunately, Ericka Mellon did do that, and she reports on it. Not as detailed as I’d have liked, but much better than nothing. And with that, I resolve to ask every HISD candidate I’ll interview in 2011 whether they support a requirement that these reports be made available online, as it is with the city, county, state, and feds. That really shouldn’t be an issue this far into the 21st century, but there you have it.

On a related note, you should also read this article about what the Houston Federation of Teachers is doing in the HISD Trustee races.

In a letter to union leaders this month, HFT President Gayle Fallon campaigned for a “pro-employee board” that won’t push for teachers to be fired or put on improvement plans if their students perform poorly on state tests.

For the last three years, the Houston Independent School District has ranked teachers based on their students’ performance and paid bonuses to those at the top of the pack. Some trustees have been calling on the administration to focus now on those teachers ranked near the bottom.

“If our candidates win … the balance of power shifts,” Fallon wrote to her union stewards. “You get a pro-employee board and we end the threats and begin to restore some sanity to HISD.”

HFT is backing Alma Lara, whom they’ve been supporting since before Natasha Kamrani decided not to run for re-election, in District I, and Adrian Collins in District IX. They did not endorse in District V. I certainly sympathize with what the HFT is doing – it’s their purpose to protect the interests of their members, after all – but I also think there’s merit to what HISD wants to do, and by Fallon’s admission later in the article, the threat of which she warns has been overstated.

And finally, if you’re in the Alief ISD, you should read this story about a candidate forum for the Alief ISD contestants.

School board candidates who are campaigning for reform in Alief ISD had few specifics about where they would cut spending. The group includes [Sarah] Winkler’s opponent for Position 6, Baltazar Gutierrez, sales representative for an industrial casting company, along with incumbent Nghi Ho, Tammi Sturm, mother, and business owner, and Marilyn Swick, co-owner with her husband of The Houston Sleep Center.

Graduate student Gary Floyd, who is in the race for Position 7 with Swick and incumbent Gary Cook, did not participate in the forum.

Gutierrez denied he’s aligned with Improve Alief Schools Political Action Committee created by affluent homeowners, but he’s pictured on the group’s flyer, which advocates for a line-by-line budget review to trim 2 percent, about $9 million, from the current budget and give taxpayers relief.

Ho’s competition is for the Position 5 seat by Grace Parmer, 19, a Hastings High graduate currently enrolled in the Honors College at Houston Baptist University. She has aligned with Winkler, Cook, who is a hospital administrator, and retired teacher Ella Jefferson in a campaign to protect and further academic gains the district has made in the past few years. Budget cuts can’t occur without having an impact on personnel and school programs, they say.

You know how I feel about the “tax cuts above all else” philosophy, especially when it’s those who would benefit the most that are pushing it. My interview with Sarah Winkler is here.

Interview with Sarah Winkler

Sarah Winkler

Sarah Winkler

For what truly will be my last interview of the 2009 cycle, I bring you a conversation with Alief ISD Trustee Sarah Winkler, who serves District 6 and is also the President of the AISD board. She has been in office since 1997, and is a 28-year resident of Alief whose five sons all attended Alief schools. She also now serves as the President of the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB). Alief is having its school board election in November for the first time, and also for the first time, a majority of the seven-member board is up for election. This year, there is a concerted effort by a group of tax cut uber alles types to run a slate of candidates on a slash-and-burn platform in an effort to take over the board, which is what attracted my attention to this race. I hope this helps shine a little light on it.

Download the MP3 file

PREVIOUSLY:

Karen Derr, At Large #1
Brad Bradford, At Large #4
Stephen Costello, At Large #1
Lane Lewis, District A
Lonnie Allsbrooks, At Large #1
Noel Freeman, At Large #4
Brenda Stardig, District A
Oliver Pennington, District G
Amy Peck, District A
Herman Litt, At Large #1
Natasha Kamrani, HISD Trustee in District I, not running for re-election
Alex Wathen, District A
Robert Kane, District F
Council Member Melissa Noriega, At Large #3
Jeff Downing, District A
Mike Laster, District F
Council Member Jolanda Jones, At Large #5
Mills Worsham, District G
Rick Rodriguez, At Large #1
Council Member Sue Lovell, At Large #2
Carlos Obando, At Large #5
Richard Sedita, District G
Jack Christie, At Large #5
Dexter Handy, District G
George Foulard, District G
Alma Lara, HISD Trustee District I
Anna Eastman, HISD Trustee District I
Linda Toyota, HISD Trustee District I
Council Member Ed Gonzalez, District H
Council Member Wanda Adams, District D
Council Member Anne Clutterbuck, District C
Progressive Coalition candidates
Council Member Mike Sullivan, District E
Council Member James Rodriguez, District I
Council Member Jarvis Johnson, District B
Mike Lunceford, HISD Trustee District V
Ray Reiner, HISD Trustee District V
Council Member Ronald Green, candidate for Controller
Council Member MJ Khan, candidate for Controller
Council Member Pam Holm, candidate for Controller
Gene Locke, candidate for Mayor
Council Member Peter Brown, candidate for Mayor
City Controller Annise Parker, candidate for Mayor
Adrian Collins, HISD Trustee District IX
Otis Jordan, District D