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Angie Chesnut

HCDE happenings

The Chron paints an unflattering portrait of the Harris County Department of Education.

HCDE has operated in relative obscurity for decades, fighting off lawmakers’ occasional efforts to eliminate it by bankrolling lobbyists and political consultants.

Advocates for the agency say it provides indispensable support services to the 25 independent school districts in Harris County. But a prominent Senate Republican is leading a push for a state-led Sunset Advisory Commission Review of HCDE, saying its finances need to be scrutinized and its programs streamlined to avoid duplication with other agencies. And he has plenty of ammunition.

The Houston Chronicle requested to review HCDE’s financial records in January and found a reticent agency that had violated its own spending rules and declined to explain why its former superintendent, John Sawyer, stepped down three months into a new contract – and received a buyout.

Records show that Sawyer had doled out stipends to employees without notifying the Board of Trustees or seeking its approval, a policy violation.

He also had hired lobbyists and political consultants, including a convicted felon, for amounts just under limits that would have required the board’s OK.

Records also show that HCDE paid more than $1.5 million during the past decade to a nonprofit educational foundation accused of endorsing political candidates for HCDE’s board. The nonprofit’s president, its lone full-time employee, has received more than $1.5 million in salary and benefits since 2005, tax records show. His annual compensation has averaged about $182,000 – more than Harris County’s chief executive officer.

Board President Angie Chesnut said trustees took swift action after they learned in June about the stipends, which were paid for extra work. The total payments to 60 employees came to about $450,000 over the past decade, according to the agency’s records.

Chesnut said the board stopped pending payments, tightened the policy and meted out discipline. She would not disclose who was punished or exactly what action was taken.

The new superintendent can only approve cellphone and travel allowances without board approval. All political contracts – regardless of cost – now must go before the board.

“Do we make mistakes? Of course we do. Every organization makes mistakes,” Chesnut said. “The key to me, as a business manager, is that when you find those, you act to correct them, and that’s what we do.”

There’s more, so go read it. One always wonders what the genesis of such stories is. In this case, given that it opens with an anecdote from Trustee Michael Wolfe, who was ousted in 2012 but re-elected in 2014, and that much of the story focuses on now-former Superintendent John Sawyer, that would be my guess. There’s no shortage of bad blood between Wolfe and Sawyer, so if there was an opportunity for a bit of retribution on Wolfe’s part, I’m sure he grabbed it with both hands. It might have been nice to mention Wolfe’s tumultuous tenure on the HCDE board instead of just quoting him and moving on, but bygones are bygones, I suppose.

As for the substance of the story, I received the following email from former Trustee Debra Kerner, which she also sent to the Chron as a letter to the editor. I’ll let it speak for itself:

Dear Houston Chronicle Editorial Page Editor,

Regarding “HCDE draws sharp look” (Sunday, May 24, 2015, pg.1), I served as a countywide elected Trustee for the Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) from January 2009 to January 2015. During that time, I held various Board positions including Vice President. I read the article, “HCDE Draws Sharp Look” from Sunday, May 24, 2015 with intense interest and felt that as a private citizen and former board member, I had to respond. I would ask that the public consider these clarifying facts.

1) HCDE serves students, educators and school districts. Their services are provided at the request of Harris County school districts. They seek to enhance and innovate and provide services to the school districts and the residents of Harris County. All 25 of the school districts in Harris County choose to use at least some of the services from HCDE. HCDE provides even more services than are listed in the article, including Safe and Secure Schools. As told to me by the head of Region 4, all of these services cannot be duplicated by the Education Service Center (Region 4). Who would provide these services, if HCDE had to close?

2) During my tenure, HCDE underwent several audits and a Texas legislative study. These studies determined that HCDE’s education services saved taxpayer dollars and that it would cost school districts significantly more to replicate. While areas for improvement were identified, none of the studies recommended closure. The Board had always taken steps to improve the department and continues to do so.

3) One example that was noted in the article was the policy on hiring political consultants. The Board did not have the chance to vote on the Eversole contract. Once the board learned about these hirings, the policy was changed to bring more transparency to the process of hiring political consultants. While I understand, the concern about using tax dollars for this purpose, I believe it would be unfair to the students and educators served by HCDE to not give them a voice regarding the educational resources that are so valuable to them. Many school districts also hire lobbyists and political consultants to help educate legislators and others about their needs. In addition, HCDE has a group consistently seeking its abolishment. Three year olds and other students with severe disabilities cannot go to Austin to indicate the true value of HCDE, so HCDE does it for them. HCDE is a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves.

4) Ms. Vera and the Houston Chronicle have initiated countless open records request. HCDE has been compliant and constantly sought to increase transparency. Responding to these requests has been costly; however, none of these requests have yielded information that rises to the level of criminal activity. Any issues that were found, the Board had already initiated steps to improve the situation. At the same time, HCDE has continued to educate students, train teachers and provide valuable wraparound services.

5) We should focus on what HCDE is doing now. HCDE has hired a new superintendent, James Colbert, who is moving forward. The Board has made changes to address policies and procedures to ensure that things are done correctly and transparently. HCDE continues to respond to the needs of partner districts. I participated in the hiring of Mr. James Colbert and from what I’ve seen thus far, he is a true leader who is very responsive to the educational needs in Harris County. The reason HCDE has fought against additional studies regarding abolishment is that it is hard to plan for the future when the threat of closure hangs over their heads.

I was honored to serve with Trustees who truly cared about enhancing education in our county in a fiscally responsible way. It is a shame that the voices of a few are taken as fact when thousands of students and the 25 Harris County school districts find value in HCDE every single day.

Thank-you,
Debra Kerner
Former Trustee,
Harris County Department of Education

It must be noted that it was Kerner who lost to Wolfe in 2014. I’m the only one who’s making something out of Wolfe, so make of that what you will. I have always believed that HCDE serves a good and useful function – there’s plenty of testimony out there from teachers and many of Harris County’s smaller school districts to back that up – and have never understood the hate on that some people have for it. That’s politics for you, I suppose. Stace has more.

More on the HCDE pre-k proposal

Some more details on that pre-k proposal being pitched to the HCDE. It raises more questions than it answers.

pre-k

Members applauded the effort by the recently formed Harris County School Readiness Corp., a non-profit group whose membership includes business, philanthropic and community leaders, including former Houston first lady Andrea White. At the end of the meeting, they voted 6-1 to allow Superintendent John Sawyer, who was absent Tuesday, to further study the plan and bring back a recommendation for how to proceed.

The tone of the discussion, however, took a drastic turn during a question-and-answer session after a member of the corporation, former Houston city attorney Jonathan Day, presented the plan to the board with Carol Shattuck, president and CEO of partner group Collaborative for Children.

New trustee Howard Jefferson, who had just been sworn in, asked Day to describe the proposed terms of any agreement between the department and the corporation, and what responsibilities the department may have.

Explaining “work will be done by non-profit service providers,” Day told him “the control of the program in terms of allocation to various providers would be in the hands of the non-profit,” not the agency.

He went onto explain, admitting his bluntness, that the group wanted to avoid having the education department board handle the program because of its reputation as a stepping stone for higher political office. He also alluded to recent criticism the agency has faced for hiring lobbyists, including former county commissioner Jerry Eversole, who resigned in October 2011 after being accused of taking cash bribes in exchange for contracts.

“I think this kind of a structure will really work well,” Day said. “I’ll be very blunt with you, we are aware of the criticism about the structure of this board… But we thought that a nonprofit is a way to provide stability and to provide the assurance of the public that this is going to be mired down in partisan controversy.”

[…]

Board President Angie Chesnut and Board Vice President Debra Kerner, alluding to an earlier discussion, then asked Day, whether the the trustees would be able to appoint a member to the corporation’s board.

“Is that something we were still considering?” Kerner asked.

“That’s a matter we need to discuss,” Day replied. “It’s something that we are open to, but to be very blunt… we would like to avoid to the maximum extent possible the problems and perceptions of the partisanship and disagreements, we do not want to import that into our board.”

Chesnut then told Day: “I have to be honest with you, also. I will not support this process without having participation on your board.”

A clarification: In my previous post, I said that the HCDE approved the plan. As you can see from the first paragraph quoted above, all they approved was for Superintendent Sawyer to study the plan. I just misread the story on which I based that statement. My apologies for the confusion.

From this post, and from Big Jolly’s account of the HCDE meeting, it sounds like this idea isn’t fully formed yet. It would certainly help if the Harris County School Readiness Corporation would get their website and Facebook pages up so we can examine their plan in more detail, and give them feedback directly. I do think the HCDE Board needs to appoint at least one member to the School Readiness Corp’s board – at least two would be better. But really, just getting all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed would go a long way. I think this is fated to wind up in court one way or another, so while Judge Emmett is soliciting opinions from the County Attorney and the Attorney General about the legalities of all this, it would be wise for the HCSRC to get and publish its own opinion. Who knows, maybe there’s a less dicey way to make this happen. But let’s get some more information, no matter what else. Stace has more.

HCDE hires Eversole to lobby for them

From the Things That Make Me Do A Facepalm department: The HCDE has hired Jerry Eversole as a lobbyist. Yeah, that Jerry Eversole.

Eversole was taciturn in discussing his work Thursday, saying department of education officials approached him. His contract will pay $45,000, plus expenses, between Dec. 1, 2012, and Aug. 31, and calls for him to help raise awareness of the benefits of the department’s programs with local, state and federal officials.

“I have the right to work and make a living,” Eversole said. “And I’ll say that the person who has a problem with me is (County Judge) Ed Emmett. So, if you want comments about what’s wrong with me and about any of my convictions and why I was convicted, he seems to know everything, so you can call him. That’s really all I have to say.”

Emmett, through a spokesman, declined to respond to Eversole’s comments.

The department, which is governed by an elected board of trustees and is not part of Harris County government, also has hired lobbyists and former state representatives Rob Eissler, who was paid $10,125 in December and January, and Stan Schlueter, who was paid $6,125 in January. The department did not produce Eissler and Schlueter’s contracts by deadline.

Department Superintendent John Sawyer is on vacation until March 19 and unavailable for comment, spokeswoman Tammy Lanier said.

Board of trustees President Angie Chesnut said Sawyer was within his authority to make the hires but said she disagrees with the move.

“Had the decision been mine – and I do not speak for the board – I would not have done that,” she said. “And that’s no disrespect to Mr. Eversole. It’s just that I think it creates in the public’s mind a question that doesn’t need to surround HCDE. There most certainly must have been other alternatives.”

Ugh. Look, I have no problem with HCDE hiring someone to speak for their interests, which are currently being threatened. It makes sense to hire someone who knows the players and has a rapport with them. Engaging Rob Eissler was a good move. But geez, if you first reaction to the idea of hiring Jerry Eversole for this was something other than “You’ve got to be kidding”, then I suggest you get out more. Eversole may have the right qualifications – Steve Radack thought his hire was a smart move by HCDE, not that it was going to change his mind about abolishing it – but the optics of it are terrible, as KTRK’s lurid reporting should make clear. I’m sorry, but nothing good can come of this, and John Sawyer needs to have his head examined for even thinking of it. Finally, yes, Jerry, you have a right to earn a living. But that doesn’t mean that all options need to be open to you. Metro is hiring bus drivers – I suggest you look into that opportunity.