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Harvin Moore

HISD’s opening thoughts on dealing with budget cuts

It’s not going to be pretty, no matter how you slice it.

Fewer police officers would patrol school hallways, property taxes would rise, several campuses would close and about 300 central office jobs would be cut next year under HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s initial cost-cutting proposals.

Grier asked the Houston school board on Thursday to consider increasing the property tax rate by up to 4 cents and reducing a tax discount known as the optional homestead exemption.

“Of course you can balance the budget without them,” Grier said of the tax proposals. “But you can’t balance the budget without them without having draconian cuts at the school level.”

Houston Independent School District officials are preparing for a shortfall of $171 million based on deep cuts in state funding. The amount could change as the Legislature finalizes the state budget, and the board isn’t expected to vote on a final budget until June.

The largest tax increase option Grier presented to the board would increase the rate by 4 cents from $1.1567 per $100 of assessed value and lower the homestead exemption to 15 percent from 20 percent. The exemption reduces the taxable value of the property.
Under that scenario, the tax bill for the owner of an average-priced home, $195,680, would increase by $173.70.

As noted before, HISD could actually raise the tax rate more than that. For a variety of reasons that won’t happen, not the least of which in my mind is the thought that they may find themselves in a similar position two years from now and want to keep some options open. Plus, I think Harvin Moore has it right:

Trustee Harvin Moore said it was a weak negotiating tactic to make decisions while state lawmakers have yet to amend their bare-bones budget proposals.

“I do not think it’s a good move to say, ‘Well, OK, we’re willing to cut this much or to raise taxes this much,’ ” he said. “The state’s going to say, ‘Well, that worked well.’ ”

And then the legislators that passed the budget that forced HISD and other school districts to raise their taxes will spend the next 18 months bragging about how they balanced their budget without raising taxes. It’s a sucker’s game.

Hair Balls has more on what HISD is considering, which is clearly still in the “run it up the flagpole and see who salutes” stage. There’s also the related and as yet unresolved matter of magnet schools, on which the budget issues will have some unknown effect.

In the meantime, some Senators are working on a way to help school districts delay decisions about firing teachers, while the debate about how much is spent on education administration continues on.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston and the vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, called the 58,575 people employed in nonteaching support positions by Texas public schools —”your math department supervisors, your curriculum experts” — a “soft target” for budget cutters. Those positions “must be seriously addressed,” he said. “That number is not based on reality.”

According to Patrick, the ratio of teachers to nonteachers, which includes those employed in administrative and support capacities, in districts has grown to nearly 1 to 1 today from 4 to 1 in the 1970s.

But while it may be more palatable to think of those cuts as trimming bureaucratic fat rather than as damaging the vital organs of a school, there may be less to cut than lawmakers imagine, said Michael Griffith, a school finance expert with the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan research organization. In reality, Griffith said, administrative spending “is not as bad as some of the rhetoric you’re hearing.”

“You might look at a school district and say ‘well, they have 35 people in their office doing administrative work, that seems excessive’ until you find out that 15 to 20 of them are actually paid for in federal grants,” he said. When districts receive Title I and IDEA grants, that money can also cover administrative costs, so cutting those positions doesn’t mean those dollars will go to saving teachers.

Griffith said, there is no “magic number” that reflects the optimal number of teaching to nonteaching personnel for districts, because it’s difficult to make comparisons across campuses. “The best you can see is if people compare their district to similar districts,” he said, “but that means having 1,200 separate little studies” in Texas.

[…]

Ed Fuller, a special research associate at the University of Texas, said that data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that the number of central office administrators has actually decreased in Texas since 2003. The number of administrators per school is just below the national average, he said, and there is evidence that districts with more administrators may actually increase the effectiveness of schools.

In an analysis that used campuses’ scores in the Texas Comptroller’s recent Financial Accountability for Texas study — which rated schools and districts based on student achievement relative to spending — he found that the more central office administrators per school, the higher the FAST rating.

This could be true, Fuller said, because it could mean that school principals are receiving more guidance and therefore staying in their jobs longer and improving their abilities more rapidly. “If you don’t have enough central office administrators,” he said, “then principals don’t get the support they need.” He said preliminary results from a survey of principals in Texas suggests that this is accurate.

There’s something I’ll bet you’ve never heard before – I sure hadn’t. The existence of a correlation is by itself meaningless, but it sure would be interesting to see what a rigorous study might reveal. One other point that I often hear but which wasn’t raised in this story is that a lot of the jobs that Patrick is complaining about exist because of mandates by the state. All this accountability stuff we’ve laid on schools and school districts in recent years represents real work – data crunching, report writing, and so forth – that has to be done by someone. You can’t have it both ways.

HISD may raise tax rate

The state of Texas may not be considering any revenue enhancements to deal with its budget shortage, but that doesn’t mean that other taxing entities, such as school districts, won’t consider them.

Melinda Garrett, HISD’s chief financial officer, said the administration is considering various options for balancing the budget, including those that involve increasing the tax rate and reducing a special tax discount.

“I wish we could hold them steady,” Garrett said. “It depends on how large the final state cut will be and how bad you want to raise class sizes and let people go.”

Garrett estimates, based on discussions at the state level, that the district will be $170 million short next year. That’s a gap about half as large as one consulting group predicted initially based on the Legislature’s early, bare-bones budget proposals.

The HISD board will have to decide whether it wants to balance the district’s budget through cuts alone or with additional tax revenue.

Estimates from HISD documents show that the district could, if the board chose, cover most of the $170 million shortfall by raising the tax rate by the maximum 7 cents and by abolishing the special tax break known as the optional homestead exemption.

That would cost the owner of an average-priced home an extra $580 a year.

“That’s not likely to happen,” Garrett said.

I would imagine that HISD will see how much it can squeeze out of relatively non-painful cuts – i.e., cuts to central admin personnel and the like, but not to classroom instruction – and adjust taxes to make up the rest. They have a fair amount of flexibility on that, meaning that they’re going to take a hit for having been fiscally conservative up till now. The real problem here, as Trustee Harvin Moore points out, is that the state is funding a smaller and smaller share of public education, while localities are ponying up more. That will be what the next lawsuit it about, much like the previous one was.

Still more on magnet schools

So what do we know about HISD’s magnet schools and that consultant’s report that recommended some hefty changes to them? Well, other than the consultants themselves, no one likes the report very much.

The message was clear at Lamar High School [Tuesday] night: remove the magnet designation from high performing schools in the district and Houston ISD will not only be destroying dreams and futures, but it will lose a lot of money as its best and brightest go elsewhere.

Trustee Harvin Moore, whose district includes Lamar and who has a child in a magnet school program, didn’t seem inclined to disagree.

“The board of education seemed rather frustrated by the contents of the report. I think it didn’t stand up that well, frankly,” he told the crowd that filled the auditorium. “Many of my colleagues are inclined to think there is very little in that report that we will support.”

Similar meetings were held in each of HISD’s trustee districts last night. At Lee, HISD Human Resources Director Ann Best made a brief presentation of the Magnet Schools of America recommendations — which call for removing the magnet designation from 53 of the district’s 133 magnet schools and the millions of dollars in funding along with it — stressing that in no way were the proposals board policy.

In fact, the evening seemed to be one of stepping away from the report, which cost the district $260,000. If so, that would make those in attendance very happy.

But HISD still believes that something must be done about the existing program.

[HISD Superintendent Terry] Grier and board members have said repeatedly they don’t want to dismantle the magnet program and have distanced themselves from some recommendations in the report.

But these officials also have noted discrepancies in the funding and academic performance among magnet campuses.

“It’s not going to be, ‘We get to keep ours because it’s excellent,’ ‘We get to keep ours because we have poor kids,’ ‘We get to keep ours because it’s the only one that does this or does that,’” said HISD board president Paula Harris, speaking to about 400 people at Sterling High School. “There actually have to be some parameters around it.”

Brainstorming aloud, Harris suggested such parameters could include preserving only those magnets with exceptional academics and a fifth or more of their students enrolled in the school’s magnet program, among other criteria.

May I suggest creating a task force with parents, teachers, principals, a couple of school board members, and an outside expert or two to come up with the next round of recommendations, instead of hiring more consultants to produce a report that wasn’t worth the time to read? I agree that there needs to be some criteria or benchmarks that magnets need to meet, and that we should strive to protect and hopefully try to replicate the successful ones. I still think there’s some merit to the idea of creating more magnet schools, perhaps by combining a few programs from various schools, but I have no empirical evidence for this, just my own opinion. It’s clear that everyone believes that the magnet programs are beneficial to HISD in many ways and should be supported, and I certainly agree with that. From reading these stories, though, it seems to me we also need to ensure that neighborhood schools are as good as they can be as well. Not everyone wants to specialize, and it’s probably better if fewer students are traveling across town to go to school. Having magnet programs that will attract students is great, but having schools that will attract them is better. See this op-ed by the HISD Parent Visionaries group for more.

No vote from HISD on several school upgrades

Last week, I noted that a parents group and some HISD trustees were complaining about there not being a vote on three school construction projects that were promised as part of the 2007 bond referendum. Even though we now have a new Superintendent in tow, which was supposedly the holdup on these items, they’re still not getting any action.

Parents trying to get facilities upgrades at several Houston ISD campuses said Monday that Board President Larry Marshall has once again thwarted efforts to bring the matter to a vote this week.

Saying she is in a “complete state of shock” after the posting of the board’s workshop schedule for Thursday morning, which contains only three of seven schools, education activist Mary Nesbitt is calling on parents and others to come to the workshop to get the board to honor commitments by Supterintendent Abe Saavedra to correct facilities deficits at Bellaire High School, Grady Middle School, Sam Houston High and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

Nesbitt called Marshall’s actions “completely unprecedented and without regard for the wishes of the other board members who made a formal request to put forward the package of seven schools.”

Nesbit sent out another message to the Facebook group HISD Parent Visionaries about this, which I’ve reproduced beneath the fold. Trustee Harvin Moore said on Twitter that this was “The most bizarre power play I have witnessed in six years on the HISD board”. The workshop will be held at 7:30 a.m. Thursday in the Board Services Conference Room at district headquarters, 4400 W. 18th St., and I daresay it will be contentious. Be there if you can.

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Parents call on HISD to keep promises Saavedra made

With the revelation that HISD may have chosen its new superintendent, this Chron story from yesterday about how parent groups who were promised certain specific actions from outgoing Superintendent Abe Saavedra relating to the bond referendum, and the Board of Trustees’ apparent reluctance to act on them until they have a new super in place, may now be moot. But it’s still an interesting look at how the Board can operate, and why folks feel frustration about them.

Board President Larry Marshall denied a request by Trustees Manuel Rodriguez Jr., Harvin Moore and Dianne Johnson — who wanted the board to move forward with several construction projects at a meeting this Thursday.

Saavedra’s administration was prepared to recommend $56 million in upgrades to Lockhart Elementary School, Bellfort Academy, Grady Middle School, and Bellaire, Sam Houston and Worthing high schools. Saavedra, who declined to comment on the proposal, also was seeking a $40 million new High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, pending private sector help in finding a downtown location.

Marshall said he would not consider the trustees’ request until after the board selects a new superintendent — which could happen as soon as Thursday.

“It is most inappropriate to allow such distractions to interfere with the search process,” Marshall wrote in a letter to his fellow trustees.

Some parents have questioned Marshall’s response, [Mary Nesbitt, vice president of Parents for Public Schools] said, because he is allowing trustees to a discuss another divisive topic Thursday: paying higher wages to construction workers. Saavedra promised to push for higher wages during the 2007 bond campaign in exchange for support from labor unions.

It would seem that distraction is no longer present. We’ll see how the Board reacts to it. A message from Nesbitt to a Facebook group called HISD Visionaries regarding this is reproduced below.

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The HISD Trustee races

Most of the electoral action this fall will be for City of Houston races, but there are also five HISD Trustee seats on the ballot, one of which will be open. School Zone reports on the two races that will be the highest profile.

District I: Natasha Kamrani, who is wrapping up her first term, has not announced whether she will seek re-election. Expect word soon. Alma Lara, a former principal in HISD, is planning to run for Kamrani’s seat. She’s filed paperwork naming a campaign treasurer and has a Web site. Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers who had a public spat with Kamrani last year over holding bad teachers accountable, is praising Lara. “She’s a great principal,” Fallon told me. “We had a great relationship with her. I think she has a really good chance. She’s so wired into the community.” Fallon also supported Kamrani’s opponent four years ago.

District V: Dianne Johnson, elected in 2001, is not seeking re-election. “I think eight years is enough,” Johnson told me. “If that’s enough for the president, it ought to be enough time for a board member. It’s probably time to give other people other opportunities. It’s probably time for Dianne to look for other opportunities.” Michael Lunceford, a parent whose children have graduated from HISD, is running to replace her. No one else has filed paperwork yet.

Greg Meyers, Harvin Moore, and Larry Marshall are all running for re-election, and likely won’t face much of a challenge. I live in District I and am friends with Kamrani, but it’s fair to say her time in office has been rather tumultuous. That race will be one to watch whether or not she runs again. Be sure to read the comments on that School Zone post, as Gayle Fallon mixes it up with some of the usual anonymous gripers. As for Dianne Johnson’s to-be-open seat, I know nothing at this point about Michael Lunceford, and found nothing of use via Google. All I can say at this point is I’m sure there will be more candidates.

HISD to broadcast some meetings

This is a good first step.

Saying they want to be more transparent, Houston Independent School District trustees agreed Thursday to broadcast their once-monthly general meetings on the district’s cable access station, which runs 24 hours a day.

Trustees, though, are refusing for now to broadcast their less formal public meetings, where much of the debate and discussion — and even some votes — take place.

“If we televise everything we do as board members, then we would crowd out other programming,” Trustee Harvin Moore said. “Where would we stop? We have workshops. We have committee meetings. You have to draw a line at some point.”

Trustees also decided against airing the portion of their general meetings when citizens can address the board about any topic. Some trustees said they worried about parents violating children’s privacy.

HISD, which televised its meetings decades ago, now plans to take a more restrictive approach than some other local governments. The Houston City Council, for example, airs its general meetings, plus public comment periods and some committee meetings.

The Cypress-Fairbanks school board has been televising its meetings for more than a decade. Like HISD, trustees there have one meeting to discuss agenda items in detail, followed by a meeting where they cast votes.

Cy-Fair also has been posting videos of board meetings on the school district’s Web site for six years, and it now streams them live online, too.

HISD spokesman Norm Uhl said the district is researching ways to broadcast the meetings online.

I think the technology of that is pretty well understood at this point, so I hope what that means is they’re looking for a way to do it given current staffing and funding levels. Live-streaming and posting videos is the obvious answer to the concern about hogging the public access channel. The rest is just details. I applaud HISD for taking this step, but let’s not stop there. More like Cy-Fair and Houston City Council, please.