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HISD

The LBB report on HISD

There’s less here than you might think.

Houston ISD’s inefficient, poorly organized and unwieldy bureaucracy is shortchanging the district’s 209,000 students and city taxpayers, requiring structural changes across virtually all corners of the district, the Texas Legislative Budget Board said in a blistering report issued Friday.

A 325-page performance review of HISD by the LBB, a permanent joint committee of the Texas Legislature, identified extensive operational shortcomings and issued 94 recommendations aimed at improving operations in the state’s largest public school district.

The report took particular aim at the HISD’s prized decentralized power structure, finding the model delivers inconsistent resources to students and poor monitoring of spending, while also piling on the much-maligned school board for eroding public trust and district morale.

The board also proposed several potentially controversial measures, including the formation of a “campus closure and boundary advisory committee” and suggested the district could save $26 million by shuttering as many as 40 underutilized schools. The report also called for various consolidations that could cost hundreds of jobs.

LBB officials said their recommendations could save the district $237 million over the next five years and streamline the delivery of academic services. HISD leaders are not legally required to follow any of the board’s recommendations.

In a statement Friday, the HISD administration said it is evaluating the report.

“We will seek to implement new practices and continue proven methods that maximize student achievement and promote productive and efficient operations,” the statement read.

[…]

The LBB issued several politically palatable recommendations that some community leaders, educators and board members long have sought. They include reducing administrative positions, staffing more campuses with counselors and crafting stronger budget practices.

Most recommendations involve anodyne changes to oversight and structure of the district’s many behind-the-scenes departments, including technology, contract management and transportation.

Other recommendations likely would face immediate backlash, including the suggestion that the district consider shuttering underutilized campuses. School closures have proven particularly fraught in Houston, as lower-enrollment campuses typically serve lower-income children of color.

One of the bigger shifts recommended by the LBB involves centralizing more district operations to ensure consistent, uniform practices. Currently, HISD delegates extensive autonomy over campus-level finances, staffing and programming to principals, a rarity among the nation’s largest public school districts.

Supporters of the decentralized system argue campus leaders are best positioned to know their students’ needs and craft innovative plans for raising student achievement. Opponents claim the setup leads to inconsistent student outcomes, particularly for children in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. The LBB largely sided with critics of the structure.

“Independent campus decisions result in a student experience that differs across the district, and students may not be served consistently,” the report’s authors wrote.

Jodi Moon, who studied HISD’s decentralized model as a researcher with Rice University’s Houston Education Research Consortium, said the district’s system creates “a greater continuum of successes and failures” between schools. She questioned, though, whether a district as large as HISD would see significantly different results under a centralized setup, noting that principal experience, school choice participation and myriad other factors contribute to campus-level outcomes.

“I just find it hard to believe that you’re going to find any of the larger, urban districts where there’s a lot of uniformity,” Moon said.

Please note first of all that this was a report the HISD board asked for. The LBB doesn’t do this sort of thing on their own, they have to be invited in. This report is the result of the Board seeking ways to improve.

Anyone who has paid any attention to HISD in recent years knows that there have been multiple efforts to close “underutilized” schools, and they have all foundered in the face of fierce pushback from parents, alumni, and other stakeholders. Closing smaller schools can look good on paper, but it has real effects on people’s lives and on the neighborhoods where those schools are. The Board has consistently responded to the voice of the people they were elected to represent. Whether the appointed board of managers that the TEA is about to install will take a crack at this, since they don’t have any voters to answer to, is a big and looming question as we enter the takeover era.

The centralization issue is one where I think you could very reasonably argue that any savings that might be achieved is more than offset by giving principals, who know their schools and students best, the autonomy to respond to their own individual needs. It’s far from clear to me that emulating this particular practice of HISD’s peer institutions – New York, LA, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc – is a desirable goal. Putting it another way, do you want to make the bureaucracy that much bigger? I get what the LBB is talking about, but this isn’t a simple matter, and it’s far from clear to me that the savings involved is real.

Anyway. There are good ideas in this report, and there will be opportunities to implement them. It all starts with that appointed board, which will be able to operate in a different manner than the elected board. How much of a good thing that is very much remains to be seen.

How the TEA takeover is going to work

The Chron answers your questions.

The complex process has raised several questions among community members. Here are answers some of the most common queries:

What is the process for identifying and selecting candidates?

TEA officials on Wednesday released their plan for crafting the new board, as well as criteria they will use for picking appointed managers. Those documents can be seen here, along with a link to the agency’s public application to become an appointed trustee.

TEA has opened the process to the public, offering residents a chance to apply. The process includes 12 steps, with no time frames established for when they will take place or how long they will last.

First, the agency plans to conduct community meetings and receive applications. TEA officials will screen the applications, conduct reference checks with community and elected leaders, and perform background checks. Next, governance training will be provided to applicants and phone interviews will be conducted. Finalists will be subjected to two rounds of in-person interviews and required to perform an unspecified task and additional governance training.

Morath ultimately has the power to select the appointed members. He is expected to choose nine people, equal to the number of elected HISD trustees.

State officials have not said when a new board would take power, but it likely would not happen until March 2020 at the earliest.

Who can apply?

At a minimum, the agency requires that potential board members must: be an eligible voter living within HISD boundaries, pass criminal background screenings, and commit 40 hours per month to the board in the first six months and 15 hours per month thereafter.

Individuals with business ties to the district, conflicts of interest, involvement with a closed charter school or intentions to seek other elected offices will be disqualified, state officials said.

See here for the background, and read the rest for more. A more concise version of this story is in this Twitter thread from author Jacob Carpenter. There will be four community meetings, two next week and two the week after, to discuss the impending board appointments. This is the critical first step, and everything follows from there, so if you have an interest in this, there’s your chance to get involved.

Initial thoughts on Election 2019

All bullet points, all the time…

– Here’s my opening statement on the election returns debacle. We have more information about this now, but we still need more before we can go anywhere else with it.

– All incumbents want to win without runoffs, but for an incumbent that was forced into a runoff, Mayor Turner did pretty darned well. Including Fort Bend, he got about 12K more votes than Buzbee and King combined, and missed by about 2K outscoring Buzbee plus King plus Boykins. Suffice to say, he’s in a strong position for the runoffs.

– We are going to have a cubic buttload of runoffs. In addition to the Mayor, there are seven district Council runoffs, all five At Large Council races, two HISD races, two HCC races, and HD148. We might have had pretty decent overall turnout without the Mayor’s race included, but with it at the top it will be a lot like a November election. I’ll put the initial over/under at about 175K, which is roughly the 2009 Mayoral election runoff total.

– Among those Council runoffs are districts B and D, which along with HISD II and IV and HCC 2 will favor Turner. There are no runoffs in E or G, which would have favored Buzbee, and the runoff in A is almost certain to be a serene, low-money affair. Districts C and J went for King in the 2015 runoffs, but the runoffs in those districts involve only Democratic candidates. Turner has a lot more wind at his back than Buzbee does.

– For a more visual representation of the above, see this Mike Morris tweet. Nearly all of those Buzbee areas are in districts A, E, and G.

– In a sense, the main event in November is the At Large runoffs, all five of which feature a Republican and a Democrat. A Council that includes Mike Knox, Willie Davis, Michael Kubosh, Anthony Dolcefino, and Eric Dick is a Council that (including the members in A, E, and G) is fully half Republican, and could thus throw a lot of sand into the gears of the second Turner administration (or really grease the wheels of a Buzbee administration, if you want to extend the metaphor). Yes, I know, Council doesn’t really work like that, but the difference between that Council and one that includes three or more of Raj Salhotra, David Robinson, Janaeya Carmouche, Letitia Plummer, and Sallie Alcorn, is likely to be quite large. You want to have an effect on the direction Houston takes over the next four years, there you have it.

– Council could have been even more Republican, but at the district level it looks to remain at least as Democratic and possibly a little more so than it is now. Districts C and J may have gone for King in 2015 as noted, but Democrats Abbie Kamin and Shelley Kennedy are the choices in C (Greg Meyers and Mary Jane Smith finished just behind Kennedy), while Ed Pollard and Sandra Rodriguez are the contenders in J. (Yes, Pollard is considerably more conservative than most Dems, especially on LGBT issues. He’ll be the next Dwight Boykins in that regard if he wins.) District F has been (with a two-year break from 2013 to 2015) Republican going back to the 90s, but Tiffany Thomas is in pole position. She will no doubt benefit from the Mayoral runoff.

– I should note that in District C, the four candidates who were on a Greater Heights Democratic Club candidate forum I moderated in September – Kamin, Kennedy, Candelario Cervantez, and Amanda Wolfe; Kendra Yarbrough Camarena was also in the forum but switched to the HD148 race – combined for 55% of the vote in C. That’s a nice chunk of your HD134, CD02 and CD07 turf, and another illustration of how Donald Trump has helped kill the Republican Party in Harris County.

– Speaking of HD148, 69% of the vote there went to the Democratic candidates. Jessica Farrar got 68% in 2018, and she was on the high end.

– Remember when I said this about HD148 candidate Adrian Garcia? “It’s certainly possible some people will think he’s the County Commissioner, but whether they’d be happy to vote for him or confused as to why he’d be running for another office is a question I can’t answer.” I would say now the answer is “happy to vote for him”, because with all due respect I cannot see how he finishes third in that field if he was differently named. Low profile special elections are just weird.

– To be fair, name recognition also surely helped Dolcefino and Dick, neither of whom had much money. One had a famous name, and one has been a candidate multiple times, while littering the streets with his yard signs, so there is that.

– I’m just about out of steam here, but let me say this again: We. Must. Defeat. Dave. Wilson. Tell everyone you know to make sure they vote for Monica Flores Richart in the HCC 1 runoff. We cannot screw that up.

– If you still need more, go read Stace, Nonsequiteuse, and Chris Hooks.

TEA announces its takeover intent

Here it comes.

In a move that is unprecedented in scope, Texas state officials announced Wednesday they plan on taking over the state’s largest school district, yanking power from Houston Independent School District’s elected school board members to “prevent imminent and substantial harm to the welfare of the district’s students.”

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sent a letter to Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan and Board President Diana Davila giving two principal reasons for the decision: the school board’s “failure of governance” and the repeated low academic performance of Wheatley High School, which received its seventh failing rating this year. In addition to appointing a board of governance to replace the elected school board, Morath will also appoint a superintendent to lead the district. The timeline of the takeover action is unclear.

“Given the inability of the board of trustees to govern the district, these sanctions are necessary to protect the best interests of the district’s current and future students,” he wrote. The decision means the state will be taking over its largest public school district, which contains more than 270 schools and educates more than 200,000 students.

Houston ISD officials still have a slim chance at averting the takeover and have two weeks to request a formal review challenging it, according to a Texas Education Agency spokesperson.

[…]

During its temporary replacement of the elected board, a board of managers has all the same powers and duties to oversee the school district. Once the state determines it has fixed the specific problems it is charged with, Morath will gradually transfer power back to the elected board.

See here and here for the background. You can see Morath’s letter to HISD here. If for some reason you want to serve on that Board of Managers, the application is here. This decision came a day after the denial of the Wheatley appeal, which was not a surprise. There is the lawsuit filed by HISD to stop the TEA from taking over, which still feels like a longshot to me but which could slow things down. Be that as it may, you can see where this is going.

I’ll just say this much. Despite the problems the Board has had, HISD is overall a pretty good-performing school district. There are problems, of course, as there always are with large, diverse urban districts that serve a population that is mostly low-income and that has a large number of non-native English speakers. I won’t defend the current Board, though after Tuesday’s elections I’d argue it’s already improved, but I’m not at all convinced that the TEA can do a better job with academic performance at schools like Wheatley than the Board has done. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong about that – I hope all of the schools improve while the TEA is in charge – but if I’m right, I don’t know what there is to be done about it. The Chron has more.

Final results are in

Here they are. Refer to my previous post for the initial recap, I’m going to be very minimalist. Let’s do this PowerPoint-style, it’s already been a long day:

Mayor – Turner fell short of 50%, landing up a bit below 47%. He and Buzbee will be in a runoff. Which, if nothing else, means a much higher turnout for the runoff.

Controller: Chris Brown wins.

District A: Peck versus Zoes.
District B: Jackson versus Bailey.
District C: Kamin versus Kennedy. Gotta say, it’s a little surprising, but quite nice, for it to be an all-Dem runoff. Meyers came close to catching Kennedy, but she hung on to second place.
District D: Brad Jordan had a late surge, and will face Carolyn Evans-Shabazz in the runoff. If Evans-Shabazz wins, she’ll need to resign her spot on the HCC Board, so there would be another new Trustee if that happens.
District F: Thomas versus Huynh. Other than the two years we had of Richard Nguyen, this seat has pretty much always been held by a Republican. Tiffany Thomas has a chance to change that.
District H: Cisneros verusus Longoria.
District J: Pollard versus Rodriguez. Sandra Rodriguez had a late surge and nearly finished ahead of Pollard. Very evenly matched in Round One.

At Large #1: Knox versus Salhotra. Both candidates will benefit from the Mayoral runoff, though I think Raj may be helped more.
At Large #2: Robinson versus Davis, a rerun from 2015.
At Large #3: Kubosh slipped below 50% and will face Janaeya Carmouche in overtime.
At Large #4: Dolcefino versus Plummer. We will have somewhere between zero and four Republicans in At Large seats, in case anyone needs some non-Mayoral incentive for December.
At Large #5: Alcorn versus Eric Dick. Lord, please spare me Eric Dick. I don’t ask for much.

HISD: Dani Hernandez and Judith Cruz ousted incumbents Sergio Lira and Diana Davila. Maybe that will make the TEA look just a teeny bit more favorably on HISD. Kathy Blueford Daniels will face John Curtis Gibbs, and Matt Barnes had a late surge to make it into the runoff against Patricia Allen.

HCC: Monica Flores Richart inched up but did not make it to fifty percent, so we’re not quite rid of Dave Wilson yet. Rhonda Skillern-Jones will face Kathy Lynch-Gunter in that runoff.

HD148: A late surge by Anna Eastman gives her some distance between her and Luis La Rotta – Eastman got 20.34%, La Rotta 15.84%. The Republican share of the vote fell from 34% to 32%, right on what they got in this district in 2018.

Now you are up to date. Go get some sleep.

2019 election results: Houston and Metro

Unfortunately, we have to start with this:

Results of Tuesday’s election could take until 2 a.m. Wednesday after the Texas Secretary of State issued a new regulation that upended plans by the Harris County Clerk’s Office to speed vote counting.

The first tubs containing electronic ballot cards from across Harris County arrived at central count just before 9:30 p.m., where election judges and poll watchers waited to see the vote count in action.

Dr. Diane Trautman said she had hoped to have votes come in from 10 countywide drop-off locations, fed in through a secured intranet site, leading to faster results on election night.

Instead, Secretary Ruth R. Hughs ordered on Oct. 23 that law enforcement officers would instead escort the ballot box memory cards from each of the 757 polling sites to the central counting station.

That change, made nearly two weeks before Election Day, led to a major delay that left voters wondering for hours how races up and down ballot would turn out.

Early election results trickled in shortly after 7 p.m., but remained virtually unchanged for hours Tuesday.

Here’s the County Clerk’s statement about that order. I don’t know what was behind it, but it sure did gum things up. In the end, final results were not available till quite late, with no more partial results after midnight because producing those was slowing down the input process. Here’s the later statement on when results would be expected. Suffice to say, this was a mess, and no one is happy about it all. Expect there to be an extended fight between the County Clerk and SOS offices.

Anyway. I’m still groggy from a late night, so I’m going to hit the highlights, and we’ll get final results later. Here we go.

Mayor: Turner leads, is close to a majority.

Mayor Sylvester Turner held a wide lead over Tony Buzbee in limited early returns late Tuesday and was within striking distance of an outright re-election win, though it was unclear at press time if he would secure enough votes to avoid a runoff.

Buzbee, a millionaire trial lawyer, jumped out to an early second-place lead that he appeared likely to retain over Bill King, an attorney and businessman who narrowly lost a 2015 runoff to Turner but struggled this time to compete financially with Buzbee, his main rival for conservative votes.

With a small share of Election Day precincts reporting, Turner remained a shade under the majority vote share he would need to avoid a December runoff against Buzbee.

Councilman Dwight Boykins, who competed with Turner for the support of Democratic and black voters, trailed in fourth place, while former councilwoman Sue Lovell was further behind in fifth. Seven other candidates combined for the remaining share of the vote.

Adding in the Fort Bend results, and we get the following:


Turner     63,359  47.28%
Buzbee     39,361  29.37%
King       17,878  13.34%
Boykins     7,848   5.86%
Lovell      1,433   1.07%
The Rest    4,121   3.08%

Three things to think about: One, Turner has at this point more votes than Buzbee and King combined, so if we do go to a runoff that’s not a bad position to start with. Two, the Election Day results reported so far came mostly from Districts A, C, E, and G, so they would be more favorable to Buzbee and King than the city as a whole. And three, the election polling was pretty accurate, especially at pegging the support levels for Boykins and Lovell.

Oh, and a fourth thing: Tony Buzbee’s drunken Election Night speech. Yowza.

Controller: Incumbent Chris Brown leads

It’s Brown 62,297 and Sanchez 54,864 adding in Fort Bend, and again with mostly Republican votes from yesterday (Sanchez led the Election Day tally by about 1,700 votes). Barring a big surprise, Brown has won.

City Council: Most incumbents have big leads, and there’s gonna be a lot of runoffs. To sum up:

District A: Amy Peck has 44.3%, George Zoes 16.8%
District B: Tarsha Jackson 21.0%, Renee Jefferson Smith 15.1%, Cynthia Bailey 13.7%, Alvin Byrd 10.7%
District C: Abbie Kamin 30.8%, Shelley Kennedy 15.8%, Greg Meyers 14.4%, Mary Jane Smith 14.0%
District D: Carolyn Evans-Shabazz 19.0%, Carla Brailey 12.3%, Brad Jordan 11.9%, Rashad Cave 11.4%, Jerome Provost 10.4%, Andrew Burks 10.3%
District E: Dave Martin easily wins
District F: Tiffany Thomas 39%, Van Huynh 24%, Richard Nguyen 18%
District G: Greg Travis easily wins
District H: Karla Cisneros 38.9%, Isabel Longoria 27.5%, Cynthia Reyes-Revilla 24.0%
District I: Robert Gallegos easily wins
District J: Edward Pollard 32.4%, Sandra Rodriguez 26.4%, Barry Curtis 19.7%
District K: MArtha Castex-Tatum easily wins

At Large #1: Mike Knox 38.1%, Raj Salhotra 21.1%, Yolanda Navarro Flores 16.3%, Georgia Provost 14.7%
At Large #2: Davis Robinson 38.9%, Willie Davis 28.8%, Emily DeToto 18.8%
At Large #3: Michael Kubosh 50.8%, Janaeya Carmouche 20.6%
At Large #4: Anthony Dolcefino 22.9%, Letitia Plummer 16.4%, Nick Hellyar 12.8%, Ericka McCrutcheon 11.3%, Bill Baldwin 10.5%
At Large #5: Sallie Alcorn 23.2%, Eric Dick 22.0%, no one else above 10

Some of the runoff positions are still very much up in the air. Michael Kubosh may or may not win outright – he was only at 46% on Election Day. Name recognition worth a lot (Dolcefino, Dick) but not everything (both Provosts, Burks). Not much else to say but stay tuned.

HISD: Davila and Lira are going to lose

Dani Hernandez leads Sergio Lira 62-38, Judith Cruz leads Diana Davila 64-36. Kathy Blueford Daniels is close to fifty percent in II but will likely be in a runoff with John Curtis Gibbs. Patricia Allen, Reagan Flowers, and Matt Barnes in that order are in a tight battle in IV.

HCC: No story link on the Chron front page. Monica Flores Richart leads the execrable Dave Wilson 47-34 in HCC1, Rhonda Skillern-Jones leads with 45% in HCC2 with Kathy Lynch-Gunter at 26%, and Cynthia Lenton-Gary won HCC7 unopposed.

Metro: Headed to easy passage, with about 68% so far.

That’s all I got for now. Come back later for more.

TEA recommends HISD takeover

Not finalized yet, but you can see the way it’s going to go.

The Texas Education Agency is recommending that the state take over Houston Independent School District — the state’s largest public school system — due to its elected school board’s “demonstrated inability to appropriately govern,” according to a 318-page final investigative report sent to lawmakers Wednesday.

TEA’s Special Investigations Unit Director Jason Hewitt found that school board members violated state open meetings law by discussing district business without notifying the public of their discussions, attempted to influence how contracts were awarded, and took action on district issues individually without consulting other board members. It substantiates most of the allegations made in a preliminary August report.

District officials and board members, whose responses are included in the final report, dispute many of the agency’s conclusions and argued the allegations were not investigated properly. The Texas Tribune obtained a copy of the report, which is public, late Wednesday. TEA officials confirmed that they had sent it to legislators.

Hewitt recommended Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath appoint a board of managers to oversee the school district, replacing the elected school board.

[…]

Houston ISD received a B from the state this year, largely based on student test scores, but Wheatley High School failed in August for the seventh year in a row. The TEA is separately considering penalizing the district because of Wheatley’s repeated low performance.

The findings in the report are final and cannot be appealed. Morath will make the final determination on whether to replace Houston ISD’s board.

See here for the background. Remember that this is about the ethics investigation – this is the final version of the August report, which means this version was written after HISD had a chance to respond to the initial report, which also recommended a takeover. The accountability ratings issue is still pending, with the Wheatley rating being half-heartedly appealed, and that decision by Morath – a decision between replacing the Board and closing Wheatley, the latter of which everyone expects will not happen – is not due till early next year. I presume Morath has more discretion in this matter, but given that a takeover is basically inevitable at this point I’m not sure how much it matters. I suppose it may make a difference in terms of how long it may take HISD to get back in control of its own governance, and what it needs to do to get there, but in the short term it’s a distinction without much difference.

In the meantime, there’s this.

Lawyers for Houston ISD’s school board have asked a federal judge to preemptively stop the Texas Education Agency from stripping power from the district’s elected trustees and allow board members to select a permanent superintendent, the latest maneuver in a growing legal battle between the district and state.

In a motion filed Tuesday, the HISD board’s lawyers argued agency officials have discriminated against voters in predominantly black and Hispanic cities, overstepped their authority in suspending the district’s superintendent search and misinterpreted a new state law that requires dramatic intervention in districts with long-struggling schools.

[…]

In their motion for a preliminary injunction, HISD’s lawyers said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is attempting to “unlawfully supplant the democratically-elected board of trustees” and replace it with a state-appointed governance team. The district’s lawyers noted that 10 districts subject to major state intervention in recent years all serve large majorities of black and Hispanic students, illustrating discrimination under the Voting Rights Act.

“You could argue that it’s a coincidence. I think it’s not,” Kevin O’Hanlon, a lawyer for HISD trustees, said Wednesday.

In addition to discrimination claims, HISD’s lawyers argued that a state-appointed conservator overseeing the district’s operations of long-struggling Kashmere High School overstepped her legal authority in suspending HISD’s superintendent search last March. HISD has been without a permanent superintendent since March 2018, when Richard Carranza abruptly left to lead New York City’s public schools.

HISD’s lawyers claim the conservator, former Aldine ISD administrator Doris Delaney, only had the power to dictate matters related to Kashmere.

“Delaney was appointed to be a campus-level conservator over the performance of one of (HISD’s) schools, and was to implement and ensure compliance with getting the resources necessary to extract it from its low-performing status,” O’Hanlon said.

However, state law grants broad authority to conservators, including the ability to “direct an action to be taken” by a district’s board of trustees.

I Am Not A Lawyer, but let’s just say I have my doubts about the likelihood of success here. It’s worth a shot, but I wouldn’t go betting the rent on it. We’ll see how this goes, and how long it takes – would anyone be surprised if this is still in the courts when the TEA is handing power back to HISD? I don’t think it’s likely to go anywhere, but that’s just my guess at this time.

30 Day finance reports: HISD

The Chron notes that where there are elections there are contributions, even for our diminished HISD Trustees.

The threat of state officials stripping power from Houston ISD trustees has not scared off donors interested in the district’s school board elections, with 13 candidates combining to raise about $210,000 through early October.

With about a month before the Nov. 5 general election, candidates running for four school board seats were collecting money at a similar pace as the 2017 election cycle, campaign finance records show. That year, 19 candidates took in about $300,000 with a month remaining before the general election, which featured five regular races and one special election in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

[…]

The bulk of donations to date have been collected by five non-incumbent candidates.

In District IV, which covers parts of southern and downtown Houston, Matt Barnes and Reagan Flowers outpaced the two other candidates running to replace Trustee Jolanda Jones, who is not seeking re-election. Barnes, the founder of Barnes Strategies Consulting, took in about $61,000, more than any other candidate had raised at this time in 2017. Flowers, the CEO of nonprofit C-STEM Teacher and Student Support Services, netted about $31,000.

To HISD’s east, District VIII challenger Judith Cruz collected about $60,000 in donations as of early October, far more than the single $2,500 contribution reported by incumbent Board President Diana Dávila, who traditionally does not raise campaign funds.

Armed with a fundraising advantage and several endorsements — Houstonians For Great Public Schools, Harris County Young Democrats and Latino Texas PAC, among others — Cruz is campaigning as a voice of change and transparency. The race comes as Dávila faces accusations from TEA investigators that she misled state officials during an inquiry into potential violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act and improperly interfered in district vendor contracts. Dávila has denied the allegations.

The story also mentions District III challenger Dani Hernandez ($26K) and District II candidate Kathy Blueford-Daniels ($17K, though most of that was in kind donations). Naturally, I have the details:

Kathy Blueford-Daniels – HISD II
Jevon German – HISD II
Cris Moses – HISD II

Sergio Lira – HISD III
Dani Hernandez – HISD III

Reagan Flowers – HISD IV
Patricia Allen – HISD IV
Matt Barnes – HISD IV

Diana Davila – HISD VIII
Judith Cruz – HISD VIII


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
B-Daniels     17,660        780    2,500           0
German           250        627        0         250
Moses            790        658        0         131

Lira           6,585      5,709        0       6,883
Hernandez     26,627      5,994        0      16,478

Flowers       31,120      8,979    3,058      22,140
Allen          3,845        318        0           0
Barnes        42,736     34,640    2,491      23,375

Davila         2,500      2,605   19,073           0
Cruz          45,235      7,191        0      48,833

Here are the July reports. Many of the candidates running now were not in the race at that time. The totals mentioned in that Chron story are cumulative – Barnes had raised about $19K as of the July report, and Cruz had raised about $15K – but each individual report only reflects the amount raised and spent during that time period (July 1 through September 26 for these purposes), so what you see above is just that part of it. Nobody has raised any money in District II – as noted above, nearly all of Kathy Blueford-Daniels’ total is in kind donations – which for an open seat race is a situation that always intrigues me. District IV looks to be pretty competitive – Reagan Flowers entered after the July reports were filed, so everything she has raised is there in the 30 day. Hernandez and Cruz have raised their money, now they have to spend it. We could have a very different Board in less than two weeks.

Endorsement watch: Miscellania

We cover three endorsements today: HD148 (I presume the Chron is not endorsing in HD28), HISD IV, and City Council District C. Endorsements for the constitutional amendments were in the print edition on Saturday, I’ll run them on Tuesday. That leaves the Mayor and Controller, and I assume those will be in today’s print edition, and will have been online as of later in the day Saturday. I’ll get to those on Monday.

For today, we start with HD148 and the Chron’s recommendation of Anna Eastman in HD148.

Anna Eastman

Voters have their work cut out for them in making a choice because there are 14 candidates for the job, including 11 Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent — all of them appearing on a single unified ballot.

We recommend voters choose Anna Eastman, who was a respected member of the HISD board for eight years before she stepped down this year. Her HISD district included 75 percent of District 148.

Eastman stood out as a smart, dedicated member of the board who generally favored enlightened policies.

Should she win the House seat, she has a laundry list of issues she wants to tackle, including, of course, education, starting with improved teacher pay.

There are fifteen candidates running for this office, unless one of them has dropped out and I missed it. Not sure if the Chron knows something I don’t know or if they just goofed on the math. Either way, I agree that there are a plethora of good choices, and I’m kind of glad I don’t have to pick just one. My interviews with ten of these candidates can be found here, and a look at their 30 day finance reports is here. If you’re in HD148, who are you voting for?

Meanwhile, in another race with a lot of credible candidates, the Chron recommended Abbie Kamin in District C.

Abbie Kamin

Houston City Council District C is home to one of the city’s most vibrant and prosperous neighborhoods, the Heights, and neighborhoods hit hardest by Hurricane Harvey. It’s also home to some of Houston’s most engaged residents, so it’s no surprise that so many candidates are competing to represent the district on City Council.

Council member Ellen Cohen, the city’s mayor pro-tem, faces a term limit and is not in the race.

To replace her, voters should choose Abbie Kamin, a bright, thoughtful civil rights attorney. Three other candidates also stood out as strong contenders, each impressing the editorial board during screening meetings.

Shelley Kennedy, who served under former Mayor Annise Parker on the Keep Houston Beautiful Commission and currently serves on city’s police oversight board, was compelling. So was Greg Myers, who served on the Houston Independent School District board from 2004 to 2016. Amanda Wolfe asked smart questions about Metro, and obviously has a firm grasp on neighborhood-level concerns within the district.

But it was Kamin, 32, who brought the best mix of policy smarts and a can-do spirit of compromise and team work. Those skills, as much as determination to fight for her constituents, are absolutely essential to success as a member of the Houston City Council.

Kamin is also a fundraising machine, and has a record of achievement that makes you realize how big a slacker you were in your 20s. Again, there are a lot of strong candidates in this race, and with 14 candidates anything can happen.

Finally, there’s Matt Barnes in HISD District IV.

Matt Barnes

In a 2018 op-ed published on these pages (“Houston ISD’s misdiagnosis and the cure” ), Matt Barnes issued a clarion call to Houstonians, asking qualified candidates to run for the Houston Independent School District board of trustees. “Those of you who are as angry as I am about young people growing up unprepared for adult life: Get ready. The cure to HISD’s governance problem starts with us running (and voting) in 2019.” After his preferred candidate decided to pass on this race, Barnes tossed his own hat into the ring for District 4 that is held by outgoing board member Jolanda Jones. The district includes the Third Ward, where Barnes has been a resident for 20 years.

Barnes, 48, is well-suited in experience, temperament and commitment to be an outstanding trustee. His professional background includes more than 20 years of involvement in education from pre-K to university, including his recent position as CEO of Educational Makeover, an organization dedicated to providing free coaching to parents. Not only is Barnes familiar with the dividing line between board of trustees and management, he also has served on several nonprofit boards. To prepare for this race, the radio talk show host immersed himself in data about the district and has staked out his priority for enhanced student achievement, early literacy. While the candidate does not support a takeover of the board by the Texas Education Agency, if the change does occur, Barnes promises to be a “bridge builder” between the appointed board and the community.

My interview with Matt Barnes is here. I know it seems weird to be electing HISD trustees when the TEA is about to appoint people who will have the real power, but someone has to oversee those appointees and hold the TEA to its promises and responsibilities. In that sense, the HISD Trustee elections are even more important than usual. Don’t blow them off.

Endorsement watch: One more HISD, two in HCC

Some pretty easy calls for the Chron here. In HISD VII, they go with Judith Cruz.

Judith Cruz

Houston Independent School District does not need more of the same in its leadership. The embattled district must move away from the dysfunction that has tainted the current school board, from the in-fighting and public squabbles that have left its reputation in tatters and taken focus away from the needs of students.

State intervention, triggered by Texas law when Phillis Wheatley High School failed in yearly accountability ratings, will likely result in a state-appointed board of managers. But voters must also do their part by electing trustees who are well-prepared to guide the district no matter what is ahead.

In HISD’s Board of Trustees District VIII, which includes the East End and some of the city’s top performing schools, that means rejecting incumbent Board President Diana Dávila.

A Texas Education Agency investigation found that Dávila made false statements to state officials during an inquiry into potential violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act in late 2018, when she and other trustees unsuccessfully tried to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Latham. Dávila also faces accusations of improperly interfering in district vendor contracts.

Dávila, who declined to participate in a candidate screening by the editorial board, has denied wrongdoing, but the allegations and her role in the board’s missteps would only be a distraction.

Her opponent, Judith Cruz, 44, brings a commitment to rebuilding trust and transparency, as well as experience as a classroom teacher and in an educational nonprofit, DiscoverU. She began her career with Teach for America, and went on to teach ESL at Lee High School (now Wisdom) in HISD, and at Liberty High School, where she was a founding teacher.

[…]

It is time for a change in HISD. We recommend Cruz for Board of Trustees District VIII.

I expected this, based on the Chron’s endorsement of challenger Dani Hernandez in District III. Even without Dávila’s other baggage, the Chron was almost certainly going to call for a clean slate. My interview with Judith Cruz is here. Some but not all of the 30 day finance reports for HISD are up, I’m going to wait a little more before I post on them to give time for them all to appear. The Chron still has to make a call in HISD IV.

Also a trivially easy decision was to endorse Monica Flores Richart in HCC District 2.

Monica Flores Richart

Former Houston Community College District 2 trustee Dave Wilson announced in August he was quitting his seat in order to focus full time on running to represent District 1. Trouble is, he said he had moved from District 2 to District 1 seven months before, in January — and was only just then getting around to vacating an office he appeared to be no longer eligible to keep. He called Texas residency rules “vague” but there’s nothing vague about keeping a job representing a district you no longer even live in.

Now that he’s running to fill a different seat on the same board, we do not encourage anyone to vote for him.

Fortunately, the majority Hispanic District 1 on the northeast side has a really good candidate running against Wilson, and we heartily endorse her for the job.

She is attorney Monica Flores Richart, 45, who has an undergraduate degree in public policy from Princeton University, a law degree from Columbia University. She worked for U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, the Democrat who in 2006 won the heavily Republican district vacated by Tom DeLay. He got swept out of office in a Republican wave in 2008.

[…]

Richart is smart, has good ideas and strikes us as someone who can accomplish positive change in a professional way.

We endorse her for District 1 on the HCC board of trustees.

My interview with Monica Flores Richart is here. Honestly, they could have written dozens of paragraphs about what a bigoted jackass Dave Wilson is and then ended with those last two sentences above. But Richart really is a strong candidate, so better to emphasize that as well.

Finally, the Chron endorses Rhonda Skillern-Jones in Wilson’s old district, District 2.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

The District 2 candidates are former HISD board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones, longtime educator and community leader Kathy Lynch-Gunter and attorney Brendon Singh.

Retired teacher Linda Murray, 70, is on the ballot but told us she has dropped out and supports Skillern-Jones.

Skillern-Jones, 52, is the heavyweight in the field, having served eight mostly laudable years on the Houston Independent School District board of trustees, including two as president.

The Texas Southern University grad’s reputation took a hit in April 2018 when she presided with a heavy hand over a failed attempt to transfer control of 10 troubled schools to a charter school company with a questionable reputation.

The emotional meeting resulted in two people being hauled off by police and, in the end, the transfer of schools was abandoned. Skillern-Jones, who had asked the police to help quiet the protesters, accepted blame for the debacle.

[…]

There were a lot of things to like about Lynch-Gunter, 56, and Singh, 24, an HCC alumnus, but Skillern-Jones’ experience and knowledge of educational governance is hard to beat.

We agree with Skillern-Jones that her long record of public service shouldn’t be reduced to her actions during a single meeting. We urge voters to elect her to the HCC board of trustees, District 2.

You may ask, why does Skillern-Jones not get the same level of skepticism that fellow HISD Trustees Sergio Lira and Diana Dávila got? One, she wasn’t named in that TEA ethics investigation, and two I presume either the Chron didn’t consider her a part of the problem in the same way, or they decided that even with that on her record she was still the better choice for HCC. There’s one more HCC race, though it appears to be uncontested, and one more HISD race, the open seat in District IV. We’ll see what the Chron has to say about them.

Endorsement watch: Two in HISD

The Chron goes against the incumbent in District III.

Dani Hernandez

[Incumbent Sergio] Lira, who was elected in 2017 after the death of longtime trustee Manuel Rodriguez, has 30 years of experience in education, with a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies, and time spent as a teacher and assistant principal. Although his experience allows him to easily expound on the board’s policies and programs, it could not keep him from finding himself at the heart of the board’s dysfunction.

Texas Education Agency officials concluded Lira and fellow trustee Diana Dávila made false statements to investigators looking into charges that some board members violated the state’s Open Meetings Act as a prelude to the embarrassing ouster and reinstatement of interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan in late 2018. Lira told the editorial board he couldn’t comment because it was an ongoing investigation, but stressed the TEA’s findings were allegations, not proof.

Still, we agree with Hernandez that new leadership is needed in the district and believe she has the potential to provide it, quickly getting up to speed to better serve her constituents.

Hernandez, 31, became a teacher in the district through Teach for America after she graduated with a degree in sociology from Boston University. The daughter of immigrants and the product of HISD schools, she was the first in her family to go to college. After six years in the district she decided to join her family’s real estate business but never forgot her students.

“When I came back to HISD as a teacher, I saw the same challenges and the same educational inequities facing my students that I faced,” Hernandez told the editorial board. “If we want HISD to be able to graduate students who will be college ready, career ready, military ready — that achievement gap needs to shrink.”

See here for the background. I suspect the Chron will treat HISD Trustee incumbents in the endorsement process, this year and in 2021, in the same way as they treated misdemeanor court incumbents in 2018. In that case, no matter how good their record was otherwise, if they opposed bail reform they were opposed. Any Trustee the Chron deems to have been a part of the problem on the Board, regardless of other considerations, will be similarly opposed. Maybe those who are not up till 2021 will have a chance to rehabilitate themselves, who knows – 2021 is a long way off. But no one should be surprised if their tenure is held against them.

In the open seat District II race, they endorsed another teacher.

Cris Moses

In District II, home to Kashmere and Wheatley high schools — which have proud histories but have struggled of late — and North Forest High School, which came under the district’s control six years ago, voters have five candidates to choose from. Cris Moses, 35, a math and technology teacher at HISD’s Fleming Middle School, stands out from the crowded field as the right person for uncertain times.

Moses is the only teacher among the candidates, but our recommendation doesn’t hinge on the board’s need for more professional educators. The board functions best with the benefit of different skill sets and professional points of view. Moses’ leadership style singled him out. During our screening, Moses, a clear communicator, displayed an even temperament and an evident passion for kids.

We were also impressed that the five candidates agreed on many of the key issues facing the district. Each understood the critical distinction between governance and management and forswore the meddling and micromanaging that has plagued past HISD boards. Candidate Kathy Blueford-Daniels put it best when summing up recent board meetings: “This is not normally how adults are supposed to behave.”

All the candidates also said that the board should make the hiring of a permanent superintendent a priority and that the new hire ought to be someone from within HISD or with strong Houston ties.

One area of sharp contrast did emerge. One candidate — John Curtis Gibbs, a community outreach liaison and director of constituent services for City Councilman Michael Kubosh — favors a state takeover of HISD. Moses, Blueford-Daniels, a retired Postal Service supervisor, and accountant Jevon German do not. Chloe A. Veal, a student pilot, remains undecided.

The Erik Manning spreadsheet as always has more info about the candidates. I have not done any interviews in this race but may return to it for the runoffs. I’m working on the HISD and HCC candidate finance reports as well, hopefully soon. I don’t know how favoring a TEA takeover will play with the voters, but everyone needs to have a plan to get the district and the Board back on track, and for holding the TEA accountable during its time in charge.

HISD’s appeal of the Wheatley rating

Not much there. You can read whatever you want into that.

If Houston ISD trustees expected the district’s administration to make an impassioned, detailed appeal to the state for an accountability reprieve at Wheatley High School — a last-ditch effort to avoid severe state sanctions tied to chronically low performance at the campus — they did not get it from Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

Instead, Lathan submitted a two-page, bare-bones case for overturning Wheatley’s failing grade to the Texas Education Agency, infusing the request with none of the emotion that trustees displayed last month when they ordered her to file an appeal. Rather, Lathan briefly recounted the reasons trustees expressed for supporting an appeal — the lingering effects of Hurricane Harvey, some signs of progress at Wheatley, the impact of sanctions on a district — that her administration believes is doomed to fail.

“I think they could have stated a very strong position and documented evidence, for example, from renowned research on the long-term effects of an incident like Harvey,” said HISD Trustee Sergio Lira, who voted to order the appeal. “I think it could have been much stronger, and I’m disappointed.”

The disconnect over the depth of HISD’s Sept. 13th appeal, obtained through a public records request this week, illustrates yet another example of the frayed relationship between Lathan’s administration and a majority of the district’s school board, which have been engaged in a year-long standoff marked by distrust and differences of opinion.

[…]

In a statement Tuesday, HISD officials said the appeal “was submitted in good faith.”

“As such, the administration stands behind the submission and has no further comment,” the statement read.

TEA officials are expected to rule on HISD’s appeal by December.

See here for the background. On the one hand, as I understand it the data is pretty cut and dried, and there’s not much in there to be disputed. No one really thinks that this appeal has much chance of success, so no real point in doing valueless work. On the other hand, when your boss tells you to do something – and the Board is the boss of the Superintendent – you do it, and you do it in a way that meets your boss’ expectations. To do otherwise is somewhere between incompetence and insubordination.

I’m not in a position to say which is the more accurate description of the situation. But however you look at it, this isn’t how this is supposed to work.

Two HISD candidates fail to qualify for the ballot

We revisit a periodic issue.

Two applicants seeking to replace Houston ISD Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones have failed to qualify for the November ballot, leaving five candidates running for the open seat, according to HISD officials.

Michael Maloney, an athletics coach, and Arthur Smith, a T-shirt printer, failed to qualify due to issues with their signature petitions, district officials said. Candidates can pay a $300 fee or collect signatures from registered voters living within the voting district boundaries to earn a spot on the ballot. Maloney and Smith said they collected more than the required 266 signatures, but HISD officials said some signatures were invalid.

“Errors included signatures for individuals who did not live in the appropriate school district, or did not live in the district for which the candidate sought election,” HISD officials said in a statement. “The district engaged an independent consulting firm to verify signatures and determine if they met legal requirements.”

[…]

Maloney said he submitted more than 300 signatures from residents living in District II, but later discovered some individuals’ registered addresses were outside the District II zone. Maloney said he is exploring legal avenues for a write-in candidacy, adding that it appears unlikely he will be successful. The ballot does not contain a write-in option because no candidates declared a write-in candidacy by the mid-August deadline.

“It’s very grim, dim and disappointing, but I understand,” said Maloney, who has not been actively campaigning at public events.

Smith, who said he submitted about 280 signatures, blamed HISD administrators for his failure to appear on the ballot, accusing them of corruption and incompetence. Smith said he has filed a grievance with the district against an employee responsible for overseeing school board matters.

“They feel it’s OK for them to run around and make up their own rules inside the administration,” said Smith, who continues to appear at campaign-related events. “They told me I have some people from Galena Park and other parts of HISD (signing the petition). I know that’s false, because if that’s the case, show me the proof. They have not presented anything to me that shows the proof.”

This sort of thing has happened before, and no doubt will happen again. As I’ve said before, while I prefer to err on the side of being lenient towards the petition-submitters, these requirements are not onerous. Lots of other candidates manage to meet them successfully. As such, I have a hard time being overly sympathetic. If you want to run for office and you choose to go via the petition signature route to qualify, it’s on you to know and follow the law.

Interview with Matt Barnes

Matt Barnes

Like I’ve said, the HISD Trustee elections still matter this year. One could argue, they’ve never mattered more. With two of the four Trustees that are up for election this year deciding to step down, we will get some change no matter what else happens. There are four candidates running in District IV, the seat now held by Jolanda Jones. One of those candidates, Matt Barnes, entered the race before we knew Jones was not running again. Barnes is a longtime educator with experience from pre-K to college, including HISD Energy Institute High School Advisory Board Member, BakerRipley Head Start/Early Start System Board of Trustees, and as CEO of Educational Makeover, an organization dedicated to providing free educational coaching. Here’s what we talked about:

As always, refer to the Erik Manning spreadsheet for all your candidate info needs. I did interview one of the other candidates in this race, Reagan Flowers, in 2012, when she ran for HCDE Trustee. My 2015 interview with outgoing Trustee Jolanda Jones is here.

Interview with Judith Cruz

Judith Cruz

As we’ve discussed, there are still HISD Trustee elections this year, despite the uncertainty surrounding the TEA takeover. While the Board may not have much authority during the time that the TEA-appointed board of managers is in charge, it still matters who the elected Trustees are, because the governance by the elected Board has been part of the problem. With that in mind, one way to move the HISD Board in the right direction would be to replace the scandal-plagued Diana Davila with Judith Cruz in District VIII. Cruz is a Teach for America alum who has taught at Lee High School (now Wisdom) in HISD, and subsequently was part of the team that created and started Liberty High School in Gulfton, where she was a founding teacher. She served on multiple HISD committees, including HISD’s Superintendent’s Parent Advisory Committee and her neighborhood school’s SDMC (Shared-Decision Making Committee). And despite my repeated flubs in the interview, she is running in District VIII, not District II. Here’s what we talked about:

As always, refer to the Erik Manning spreadsheet for all your candidate info needs.

Risk management is hard

I have a lot of sympathy for these school officials.

At least 20 school districts in Greater Houston opted to stay open as the remnants of Tropical Depression Imelda bore down on the region Thursday, decisions that angered some parents as heavier-than-expected rains flooded swaths of the region during the school day.

Water inched in at least two Houston ISD schools while students were inside. Parents drowned their cars or waited in long lines trying to pick up students in some neighborhoods. Districts canceled after-school activities, issued shelter-in-place orders and grappled with transportation challenges as rising waters swamped roads.

At least 11 local school districts announced they would be closed Friday: Aldine, Conroe, Humble, Huffman, Channelview, Galena Park, Sheldon, Dayton, New Caney, Crosby and Splendora. Parents and others still fumed that many districts opted to stay open during the worst flooding the region has seen since Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday, Houston ISD issued a statement that all of its schools would also be closed Friday.

In choosing to hold classes, officials from districts across Greater Houston said they followed advice from emergency management officials delivered in the early morning hours of Thursday, before weather patterns took an unexpected turn. Officials in Houston, Aldine, Conroe, Willis and other school districts that remained open said the change in weather caught them by surprise, forcing them to make last-minute decisions about transportation and whether to delay or move up dismissal times.

Like I said, my office was open Thursday after we’d all been told to work from home on Wednesday. That didn’t work out so great for a lot of us, myself included. We didn’t see the Thursday deluge coming, so based on the evidence we had, that was the decision. As an HISD parent, I distinctly remember several recent occasions where schools were closed in anticipation of dangerous weather that wound up not coming. That causes lots of problems for parents, too, as not everyone has the capability of taking off time from work at the last minute. HISD and other districts – and businesses, and government offices, and so on – have to tke their best guess in these situations. Sometimes, even when they bet on an obvious favorite, that guess is going to be wrong. It sucks, but that’s life and it’s no one’s fault.

Why would you run for HISD Board of Trustees this year?

It’s a good question.

As she campaigns door-to-door to become the newest member of Houston ISD’s school board, Reagan Flowers is encountering many confused voters.

They ask whether school board elections matter this year, given the growing likelihood that state officials will strip power from HISD trustees within months. They wonder what Flowers will do if she wins but does not get any authority. They question how she would change the culture of the much-maligned board.

“There’s still a tremendous need to educate people, to inform them of the process,” said Flowers, an education nonprofit executive and one of four candidates vying to represent District IV, which covers parts of downtown and southern Houston. “I tell them I’ll be your representative, your voice, making sure the needs of the district are being met.”

As November approaches and the threat of state intervention in HISD looms, Flowers and fourteen other school board candidates find themselves in the midst of a highly unusual election season, aiming to convince voters to participate in potentially diminished races.

[…]

Some candidates said voters remain confused or apathetic about the off-year school board elections. About 25 percent of registered voters cast ballots for HISD trustee in 2015, with mayoral and city council races likely boosting turnout.

However, multiple candidates said more-engaged voters are aware of the school board’s self-admitted dysfunction, laid bare during a heated October 2018 meeting, and want trustees who will cut through the tumult. Dissension over whether to retain Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan has inflamed tensions on the board in the past 12 months, creating factions that largely split across racial and ethnic lines.

“The only thing I hear about (from voters) is that they’re concerned with the in-fighting on the board and they want it to stop,” said Patricia Allen, a District IV candidate and retired HISD principal. “I’m not hearing positive things about the board takeover. But what I am hearing is, the board needs changes, that they need someone in there to focus on education.”

That sounds about right to me. The story name-checks all of the candidates, for the two open seat races (Districts II and IV, where Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Jolanda Jones will step down) and the two races against incumbents Sergio Lira (III) and Diana Davila (VIII). It’s not clear to me, or I suspect to anyone as this particular type of intervention by the TEA has never happened before, what exactly HISD Trustees will be doing once the TEA does its thing. Obviously, the goals are to improve outcomes in the schools, and to fix the problems the Board had so that it can be trusted to regain control. What that will look like in practice is something we will discover together. In the meantime and as always, please do pay attention to these races if you have one on your ballot (I don’t this time), and make good choices.

The TEA delivers its terms to HISD

As expected.

The Texas Education Commissioner has put the state’s largest school district on official notice that it could lose its locally-elected school board because of failing grades at one Houston high school.

The commissioner, Mike Morath, notified Houston’s interim superintendent, Grenita Lathan, and school board president, Diana Davila, that he may have to take action to appoint outside managers to oversee the district — or order the struggling school closed. The campus, the historically black Wheatley High School in Fifth Ward, recently had its seventh failing grade in a row.

“If the preliminary unacceptable academic performance rating assigned to Wheatley High School becomes a final rating, I will be required by TEC §39A.111 to order either campus closure or the appointment of a board managers and will notify the district of my specific decision in future correspondence,” Morath concluded in the letter.

Morath has not made a final decision and the failing grade remains preliminary until Sept. 15.

You can see the letter at the link. All signs point to the board of managers option being used, but the law does allow for the schools in question to be closed, so that got mentioned as well. Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter tweeted that there was to be a discussion of appealing the Wheatley rating at yesterday’s public meeting, though it is very unlikely to succeed. There is still the lawsuit over the ethics investigation, but even if that were to succeed it would only reduce by half the number of justifications the TEA currently has for a takeover. I’m not sure what happens next, but something will happen by the 15th. The Press has more.

UPDATE: It’s official, the board has voted to appeal Wheatley’s rating.

Bonus commentary on 2019 lineup

There was a lot of last minute activity at Monday’s filing deadline, as there usually is. Probably more so this year, as approximately ten percent of Houston adults are running for office this November. The point here is that the news stories and other available sources at the time had a lot to do to keep up with it all, and those of us who follow them now recognize there were things we missed the first time around. So, after another review of the Erik Manning spreadsheet and the City of Houston 2019 election page, here are some semi-random observations about things I didn’t note or comment on the first time around. I’ll run this down race by race.

Mayor: Mostly, I’m going to point out the filers and non-filers that are worth mentioning for one reason or another. The usual reason is going to be because my reaction to the late filers was along the lines of “oh, Lord, not that person again”. Exhibit A is Kendall Baker, who has cluttered up multiple ballots since the 2007 special election in At Large #3. Most recently, he ran in HD137 as a Republican in 2016, and in District F in 2015. Baker wasn’t a late filer – he had a June finance report – but as I prefer to think pleasant thoughts I’d forgotten he was in the race. He was one of the anti-HERO loudmouths who has his own problems with inappropriate behavior.

District B: Willie D did not file, so we will have a maximum of one Geto Boy on Council.

District C: Kendra Yarbrough Camarena did not file. She instead filed for the special election in HD148. Erik is tracking those filings in his spreadsheet as well. Yarbrough Camarena appears to be the first official entrant in this race. And don’t worry about District C, there are still thirteen candidates for that office.

District D: Andrew Burks rises from the ash heap to run again. Can you still be a perennial candidate if you once won something? My ruling is Yes. Burks served one action-packed two year term in At Large #2 from 2011 to 2013 before being defeated by David Robinson. I was wondering about how the term limits charter amendment would apply to him, and I found the answer, in Article V, Section 6a: “Persons who served a single term prior to 2016 who are not serving in City elective office in 2015 and thus not subject to subsection (b), shall be eligible to serve one additional four-year term in the same City elective office.” So there you have it.

District F: Adekunle “Kay” Elegbede is listed as a Write-In Candidate. Obviously, this means he will not appear on the ballot, so what does it mean? Here’s the applicable state law. Basically, this means that any write in votes for this candidate will actually count (as opposed to write-ins for, say, “Mickey Mouse” or “Ben Hall”), and there’s no filing fee.

District J: Jim Bigham, who ran against Mike Laster in 2015 did not file. He did not have a finance report, so no big surprise.

District K: Republican Gerry Vander-Lyn, who ran in the special election that Martha Castex-Tatum won, and one other person filed. Neither will provide much of a challenge to Castex-Tatum, but their presence means that no one is unopposed this cycle.

At Large #1: Ugh. Yolanda Navarro Flores, defeated by Zeph Capo in 2013 from the HCC Board, is back. In addition to her ethical issues while on the HCC Board, she was also pals with Dave Wilson. ‘Nuff said.

At Large #2: Apparently, it really isn’t an election without Griff Griffin. I had honestly thought he’d gone away, but no. The funny/scary thing is that he could easily wind up in a runoff with CM Robinson.

At Large #4: Anthony Dolcefino also jumps out of District C into this race. There are now 11 candidates in AL4, so it’s not like he landed in that much smaller a pond.

At Large #5: I guess Eric Dick isn’t having any fun on the HCDE Board, because here he is. As per the Andrew Burks Rule, which I just created, I label him a perennial candidate as well. Note that HCDE Trustees are not subject to resign to run, so Dick may continue on in his current gig, as Roy Morales had done for most of the time when he was on the HCDE Board.

HISD II: Lots of people signed up for this one after all. The one name I recognize is Kathy Blueford-Daniels, who had run for City Council in District B previously. Here’s an interview I did with her back in 2011, and another from 2013. Rodrick Davison, the one person to post a June finance report, wound up not filing for the office

HISD IV: Reagan Flowers was a candidate for HCDE in Precinct 1 in 2012. I interviewed her at the time. I feel like she ran for something else since then, but if so I can’t find it.

The 2019 lineups are set

Barring any late disqualifications or other unexpected events, we have the candidates we’re getting on our 2019 ballot.

More than 125 candidates turned in paperwork to run for city office by Monday’s filing deadline, setting up a packed November ballot likely to leave every incumbent with at least one opponent.

The unusually crowded field is driven largely by the city’s move in 2015 to extend term limits, allowing officials to serve two four-year terms instead of three two-year terms, said Rice University political science Professor Bob Stein.

“It used to be that you just wouldn’t run against an incumbent. You would wait until they term-limited out,” Stein said. “Candidates are no longer getting the two-year pass.”

Thirteen candidates have filed to run for mayor, including incumbent Sylvester Turner, who is running for a second four-year term. Turner’s challengers include his 2015 runoff opponent, Bill King, lawyer and business owner Tony Buzbee, Councilman Dwight Boykins and former councilwoman Sue Lovell.

By Friday evening, the city’s legal department had approved applications from at least 97 candidates. Another 28 candidates had filed for office and were awaiting approval from the city attorney’s office, and an unknown additional number of candidates filed just before the 5 p.m. deadline.

Ten candidates were officially on the ballot for mayor, with three others awaiting legal department approval by the close of business Monday.

Early voting begins Oct. 21 and Election Day is Nov. 5.

Late additions include retreads like Orlando Sanchez, who I guess hasn’t found steady work since being booted as Treasurer, and Eric Dick, seeking to become the next Griff Griffin, who by the way also filed. Sanchez is running for Controller, while Dick is in At Large #5, and Griff is once again running in At Large #2.

And there’s also HISD.

Two Houston ISD trustees filed paperwork Monday to seek re-election and will each face a single challenger, while several candidates will jostle to fill two other open seats on a school board that could soon be stripped of power.

HISD Board President Diana Dávila and Trustee Sergio Lira made their re-election runs official hours before Monday’s afternoon deadline, while trustees Jolanda Jones and Rhonda Skillern-Jones will not seek another term.

Thirteen newcomers will aim to unseat the two incumbents or win vacant spots on the board. The prospective trustees will square off in a November general election and, if necessary, runoff elections in December.

So much for them all resigning. You can read each of the stories in toto to see who gets name-checked, or you can peruse the Erik Manning spreadsheet, which is fortified with essential vitamins and minerals. Note also that in the HCC races, Monica Flores Richart has the task of taking out the reprehensible Dave Wilson, while Rhonda Skillern-Jones faces Brendon Singh and Kathy Lynch Gunter for the trustee slot that Wilson is abandoning in his desperate attempt to stay on the Board, and Cynthia Gary appears to have no opposition in her quest to succeed Neeta Sane. Leave a comment and let us know what you think of your 2019 Houston/HISD/HCC candidates.

HISD has a lawsuit against the TEA over that ethics investigation

I missed the first act of this story, but that’s okay because this is where it gets interesting.

Lawyers for Houston ISD’s school board are seeking to stop the Texas Education Agency from replacing the district’s elected trustees following a state investigation into alleged misconduct, arguing the agency conducted a “one-sided investigation” that reached conclusions “unsupported by any credible evidence.”

In an amended lawsuit filed Friday, lawyers for the nine-member board cite several ways in which agency leaders violated trustees’ rights and failed to fully investigate allegations of wrongdoing. The lawsuit comes two weeks after TEA investigators determined several trustees violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, improperly influenced district contracts and overstepped their governance role — allegations denied by the HISD board’s lawyers.

The 49-page complaint argues that TEA officials were determined from the outset of the inquiry to oust HISD’s school board, failed to fully investigate allegations and incorrectly applied the law to their findings. In addition, the lawsuit alleges the agency is violating federal civil rights laws by only replacing school boards in districts where a majority of residents are people of color.

“TEA intends to punish the district by replacing Houston ISD’s elected board of trustees with an unelected board of managers — a sanction that is unavailable under the law and facts of this case,” David Campbell, a lawyer hired by HISD’s school board, wrote in the complaint.

[…]

TEA officials already had appointed a conservator to oversee the district due to chronically low performance at several campuses. Appointing a state board of managers is considered the next most serious sanction at the agency’s disposal. Morath has not issued a final decision, which likely will come in the next several weeks.

The HISD board’s lawsuit, however, seeks to negate virtually all of the TEA’s findings and stop Morath from replacing the board. Trustees originally filed the suit in June, seeking to preempt possible state sanctions resulting from any finding that board members violated the open meetings law. Friday’s amended petition expands trustees’ defense in response to specific allegations by TEA investigators.

Lawyers for the trustees argue that board members did not violate the Texas Open Meetings Act because they did not meet together as a group of five or talk about replacing Lathan.

“At the time of these discussions, no board members discussed any terms of employment, or any other matters regarding the potential appointment of Dr. Saavedra as interim superintendent,” Campbell wrote.

As noted, this lawsuit is about the results of the ethics investigation. That investigation began in January and expanded to include things beyond the original open meetings complaint. The lawsuit was filed in June, and if there was a story about that I missed it. I’m not going to comment on the merits of this lawsuit or its likelihood to succeed – in addition to Not Being A Lawyer, I haven’t had a chance to read the thing yet – but as noted even if this succeeds then the HISD Board is still not out of the woods because of the accountability ratings. Oh, and yesterday was the filing deadline, and none of the four trustees up for re-election had filed as of the weekend; I don’t know yet who’s in and who’s not, but will have an update on that by tomorrow. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure.

We await HISD’s fate

I mean, I think we know what it’s going to be, but there are still some questions.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath came to and left the Greater Houston area Thursday without addressing one of the biggest issues on his agenda: the fate of Houston ISD’s school board.

In the coming weeks, Morath likely will be forced to decide whether to replace all trustees governing Texas’ largest school district or close one of HISD’s most historic campuses, the consequence of historic Wheatley High School failing to meet state academic standards for a seventh consecutive time. While Morath was in no mood to discuss the looming decision following the release of academic accountability ratings Thursday — he hurried out of an Aldine ISD school without answering questions or making a statement on HISD — a review of comments by the commissioner, his top deputies and state education leaders offers insight into the likely process.

Barring a successful appeal of Wheatley’s grade, which became public Thursday, Morath is widely expected to strip power from the nine HISD trustees and appoint a new board of managers comprised of Houston-area residents. The process likely would take multiple months to complete, with a replacement board seated sometime in early 2020.

“These are not going to be people that live in Austin,” Morath told the Houston Chronicle in the spring of 2018, when asked about the possibility of a state-appointed board taking control of HISD. “These are going to be well-qualified people that live in Houston that just didn’t want to run for school board before, but they wouldn’t mind being appointed.”

See here for the background, with the reminder that the Wheatley academic rating issue isn’t the only peril that the HISD Board faces. I was told by someone who teaches at Wheatley that their rating basically comes down to one student. The reason for this is that there are myriad sub-categories at each school that are also included in the accountability ratings, and not meeting standard in any one of them can cause the school to get an F even if the rest of their ratings were sufficient. It’s possible Wheatley could prevail in that appeal, and by all means they should pursue it, but as noted that would still not be the end of HISD’s troubles.

At this point it seems clear that the TEA will not close down Wheatley, which is the right call, so barring anything unexpected it’s all about how they go about replacing the Board. The Chron asks some good questions about how this may play out.

Intervention must be undertaken with respect and careful attention to community concerns. New board members must reflect the district’s diversity and its values. They must understand the communities they serve as well as grasp the importance of inclusion and best practices in their governance. The panel should include experienced educators, as well as candidates with financial expertise and civic involvement. There must be a clear plan for implementation, for measuring success — and a defined exit strategy.

Parents, educators, students and taxpayers, therefore, must step up to ask hard questions and demand that the state provide honest answers. How will members be chosen? What criteria will be used to ensure that state appointees prioritize the needs of HISD students? Will there be additional financial resources to help schools improve? Will a strong ethics policy be in place and enforced?

Above all, Morath and TEA must promise — and provide — transparency. Parents need to be confident that their children’s welfare is at the center of every decision, every discussion. Houston is done accepting any less.

As we know, and as both the story and the editorial state, the history of TEA intervention is mixed at best, so we better know going in what the goals are and what the path to achieving them is. Otherwise, we’re just wasting our time.

HISD misses on accountability ratings

There’s now a second reason for the TEA to step in and take over HISD.

Houston ISD moved a major step closer to temporarily losing local control over its school board Thursday, as long-awaited state academic accountability ratings showed one of the district’s longest-struggling campuses received its seventh consecutive failing grade, triggering a Texas law requiring harsh sanctions.

Barring a successful HISD appeal of Wheatley High School’s rating in the next several weeks, state law mandates that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath now must close the historic Fifth Ward campus or replace the district’s much-maligned school board with a state-appointed governance team. Morath and the agency’s leaders have strongly suggested they would appoint a new school board if forced to act.

The state law demands action against any district with a campus receiving five consecutive failing grades as of 2018, regardless of the district’s size. Wheatley avoided triggering sanctions last year because it received an accountability waiver due to Hurricane Harvey, but the campus narrowly fell short of meeting standards this year.

HISD received a “B” grade for districtwide performance, on par with many of the state’s largest urban districts. Its overall score of 88 marked a 4-point improvement over last year.

Twenty-one HISD schools received an “F” grade, equal to 7.5 percent of all district campuses. An identical number of HISD schools did not meet state academic standards last year, though most received a Harvey waiver.

Notably, several HISD high schools met standard after struggling in recent years. Kashmere High School received a “C” grade, the first time it has met standard in 11 years. Madison, Sterling and Washington high schools also earned “C” grades, while North Forest and Yates high schools narrowly missed a “C” rating and scored “D”s.

See here, here, and here for the background.As with the ethics investigation, in which the HISD board has a chance to respond, there’s an appeal process available for Wheatley. It should be noted, they came pretty close to making the grade, and the other three all did quite well. Which is not to say that all is wine and roses, as other schools got failing grades, and we could wind up in a similar place in a couple of years. Plus, as the Trib noted, other school districts in the same situation as HISD took advantage of the partnership provision of HB1842 to put the day of reckoning off for two more years. As we well know, that option was rejected by HISD in response to public pressure, without ever being fully explored. I thought that was a bad decision at the time, and I feel very justified in feeling that way today.

At this point, the only viable way forward that I see for anyone who wants to fight this is to explore legal action. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has been very clear in past public statements that the law does not give him any discretion in this matter. Either the failing schools (just Wheatley in this case) are closed, or a new Board of Trustees is appointed. A lawsuit could challenge that interpretation, and who knows, maybe it could succeed. I doubt it, but it’s got to be better odds than trying to put pressure on state leadership to find an alternative.

HISD Trustee Sue Deigaard wrote this op-ed about how we got here, detailing several points of failure by the Board. Perhaps if all nine Board members offered to resign on the spot, thus allowing an election of a new Board, that might satisfy the TEA. It would have to happen right now, because the filing deadline in Sunday, and we’d need to get a bunch of candidates up and running by then. This too is probably a pipe dream, but I don’t know what else there is to suggest at this time.

UPDATE: From this morning’s version of the story:

During an appearance with Morath on Thursday, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, said HISD officials did not take advantage of funding opportunities and legislative maneuvers that could have staved off intervention. He cited the school board’s refusal to surrender control of long-struggling campuses to outside entities, an arrangement that could have temporarily prevented sanctions and brought an additional $1,800 per student to those campuses.

“We’ve given them every opportunity to be successful, and they continue to choose not to,” said Huberty, who chairs the Texas House’s Public Education Committee.

I hate to keep harping on the partnership thing, but as you can see it’s going to be used against the Board. And I hadn’t even known about the extra funds for students that was available.

July 2019 campaign finance reports: HISD and HCC

One last look at July finance reports. I’m lumping together reports for HISD and HCC, in part because there’s some crossover, and in part because there’s not all that much to these. As always, refer to the Erik Manning candidate spreadsheet, and note that for a variety of reasons people may not have had a report to file for this period. January reports for all HCC incumbents are here and for all HISD incumbents are here. I only checked on those whose terms are up this year for this post.

Yes, despite the recent unpleasantness (which as of today may be compounded), there will be elections for HISD Trustee. HISD incumbent reports can be found via their individual Trustee pages, while reports for candidates who are not incumbents are found on a separate Elections page for the year in question, which for 2019 is here. Annoying, but it is what it is. Reports for HCC incumbents and candidates can be found here, though this includes a number of people who are not running for anything but have had reports in the past. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to it, but at least they’re online now. Here are the reports of interest:

Rodrick Davison – HISD II

Sergio Lira – HISD III

Jolanda Jones – HISD IV
Matt Barnes – HISD IV
Ashley Butler (CTA) – HISD IV

Diana Davila – HISD VIII
Judith Cruz – HISD VIII

Dave Wilson – HCC 1

Rhonda Skillern-Jones – HCC 2

Neeta Sane – HCC 7


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Davison            0          0        0           0
Lira               0          0        0       6,007
Jones              0          0        0      12,260
Barnes        18,246      2,586    2,491      15,310
Davila             0          0   19,178           0
Cruz          14,717      3,340        0      10,043

Wilson             0          0   12,782           0
S-Jones        9,300      4,310        0       5,281
Sane               0      4,766        0       6,553

As before, not a whole lot of activity, so let’s talk again about who’s running for what. So far, Rodrick Davison is the only candidate for the now-open HISD II position. Amazingly, Rhoda Skillern-Jones was first elected in 2011 when the seat was vacated by Carol Mims Galloway, and she was unopposed in that race. I did not find a website or campaign Facebook page for Davison (his personal Facebook page is here), but a Google search for him found this, which, um. Matt Barnes, Ashley Butler, and perennial candidate Larry McKinzie are running in HISD IV, which is now also an open seat. Still no word about what Diana Davila will do, but the filing deadline is Sunday, so we’ll know soon.

As we know, Monica Flores Richart is the candidate tasked with ending the execrable Dave Wilson’s career on the HCC Board. Brendon Singh is also running in HCC 2. Cynthia Gary, who has been a Fort Bend ISD trustee and past candidate for Sugar Land City Council, is the only candidate so far seeking to win the seat being vacated by Neeta Sane. We’ll check back on this after the filing deadline, which is August 16 and thus rapidly closing in. If you know of any further news relating to these races, please leave a comment.

So what’s the goal of a TEA takeover of HISD?

The history of TEA takeovers of school districts is mixed, so we ought to be clear about what the forthcoming takeover of HISD is supposed to do.

In recent years, districts subject to state-appointed boards successfully have balanced budgets and repaired leadership fissures but mostly struggled to immediately raise student achievement.

The immediate track record of state-appointed school boards does not bode well for drastic, quick repairs in the state’s largest school district, which has been dogged by chronically low performance at several schools and allegations of misconduct by trustees. HISD could trigger the appointment of a replacement school board if any one of four long-struggling schools fails to meet state academic standards this month, or if Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath upholds his staff’s recommendation this week to remove trustees following an investigation into alleged misconduct.

However, HISD presents a unique case with no precedent in state or national education. Never before has a public school district with 200,000-plus students, relatively strong districtwide academic performance and a solid balance sheet lost local control over its governance. A replacement board likely would be tasked with addressing the district’s lowest-rated campuses and resetting governance of HISD.

Ben Melson, director of public policy for the Greater Houston Partnership, which has advocated for installing a board of managers in HISD, said replacement boards in other Texas districts have “had a lot of success in addressing very specific issues” that prompted their appointment. Districts such as Beaumont and Edgewood ISD in San Antonio, however, remain low-rated academically, each receiving the equivalent of a “D” grade last year under the state’s accountability system.

“On that front, you see student assessment results, student outcomes overall, really stay stagnant,” said Melson, who has researched the efficacy of boards of managers for the partnership. “There really was no significant increase or decrease over the time of the board of managers. It’ll be an interesting opportunity for a board of managers to have their sole focus on students and improving student outcomes.”

The possible appointment of a replacement board largely has split the HISD community, with supporters arguing the move would refocus district efforts on students and opponents decrying it as an undemocratic seizure of power by state bureaucrats. To date, public outcry about losing local control over the district has been relatively muted.

See here and here for the background. There are two reasons why the TEA will or may exercise its authority to oust the Board of Trustees: The ethics investigation that has already led to a recommendation to take over, and the need for those four schools to make standards, which may lead to the same recommendation. That suggests two obvious goals: To get those schools up to standard, and to improve the functioning of the Board. The latter seems more achievable – at least, there’s a direct path to it, by the simple expedient of most if not all of the current members stepping down. Two of them are already doing so, with a third being rumored to do so this year. No guarantees of course – maybe the next generation of Board members that get elected will have similar problems – but it’s the obvious way to go.

Bringing the four schools up to standard is another matter. Ideally, the work HISD has done already will accomplish that – we’ll know very soon one way or the other. If one or more of them don’t make it, then it’s on the TEA and its appointed Trustees to do better. As noted in the story, that’s not so easily done. The way forward is not clear. If I’m the TEA, I know what outcome I’m rooting for.

As for the reaction to the TEA stepping in, I’m not happy about what is happening, but as I said before, it’s hard to be too vehement in defense of the Board. It’s hard for me to say that – I know most of the Trustees, and I like them. For whatever the reason, they didn’t function well together. The report is unflattering. I wish none of this was the case. I have no particular reason to trust the TEA, or to think the appointed Trustees will be any better qualified or more likely to make progress on the issues HISD now faces. But this is the situation we’re in, and the aim should be to get HISD’s governance back on track. I don’t know what else to say.

Previous interviews with current candidates

I’ve said a few times that I’m going to be doing just a few interviews this fall. I will start publishing them tomorrow. I may pick up some more for the runoffs, but for now my schedule just does not accommodate anything more than that. But! That doesn’t mean you can’t listen to past interviews with some of the people on your November ballot. Many of the people running now have run for something before, and in many of those cases I interviewed them. Here then is a list of those past interviews. The office listed next to some of them is the office they now seek, and the year in parentheses is when I spoke to them. Note that a few of these people have been interviewed more than once; in those cases, I went with the most recent conversation. Enjoy!

Mayor:

Sylvester Turner (2015)
Bill King (2015)
Dwight Boykins (2013)
Sue Lovell (2009)

Council:

Amy Peck – District A (2013)
Alvin Byrd – District B (2011)
Kendra Yarbrough Camarena – District C (2010)
Carolyn Evans-Shabazz – District D (2017)
Richard Nguyen – District F (2015)
Greg Travis – District G (2015)
Karla Cisneros – District H (2015)
Robert Gallegos – District I (2015)
Jim Bigham – District J (2015)
Edward Pollard – District J (2016)

Mike Knox – At Large #1 (2013)
Georgia Provost – At Large #1 (2013)
David Robinson – At Large #2 (2015)
Michael Kubosh – At Large #3 (2013)
Letitia Plummer – At Large #4 (2018)

Controller:

Chris Brown – City Controller (2015)

HISD:

Sergio Lira – District III (2015)
Jolanda Jones – District IV (2015)
Judith Cruz – District VIII

HCC:

Monica Flores Richart – District 1 (2017)
Rhonda Skillern-Jones – District 2 (2015)

Initial reaction to the TEA action on HISD

Lots of wait and see so far.

Houston-area political and community leaders offered muted response Thursday to a state recommendation issued this week to replace Houston ISD’s school board, reserving judgment until more details are known about a Texas Education Agency investigation into allegations of misconduct by multiple trustees.

One day after the state’s recommendation became public via media reports, area officials grappled with questions about the investigation while reinforcing their beliefs about the appropriateness of dramatic intervention in Texas’ largest school district. The recommendation is contained in a Texas Education Agency investigative report that circulated only among HISD officials and state lawmakers until Thursday evening, when the full document became public through a federal court filing.

The report documents multiple instances of alleged wrongdoing by trustees, varying in severity. The most serious findings include five trustees violating the Texas Open Meetings Act, multiple board members interfering in district operations and Board President Diana Dávila conspiring to steer a custodial contract to a preferred vendor. HISD officials have until Aug. 15 to formally respond to the allegations, after which Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath will decide whether to implement the recommendation made by his staff.

“In order to make an informed opinion, I need to really sink my teeth in the report,” said state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston. “I will do that over the next couple days and look to see what HISD’s response is.”

HISD trustees and community members offered few comments about the investigation Thursday during a regularly-scheduled meeting, which passed with only fleeting references to the report. Dávila, who has denied the multiple allegations levied against her in the state’s report, issued a call for retaining local control over the school district.

“The citizens of Houston should not be punished by taking away their democratic right to be able to elect, or un-elect, those that they feel do not support what’s in the best interest of students,” Dávila said.

Several other trustees have declined to comment on the report or not responded to requests for comment. As she left Thursday’s meeting, HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos said she is “waiting for due process” before commenting on allegations that she violated open meetings laws.

See here for the background. The report is here, published via the Chron, and since I haven’t read it yet I’ll not have anything further to say just yet. I will note I haven’t seen much posting about it on Facebook, though I can’t say I’ve been comprehensive. Maybe HISD will have a good response to it, I don’t know. For now, I’d say a lot of people are processing. Campos and the Press have more.

It looks like we’re getting a new school board

What a mess.

Texas Education Agency officials have recommended that a state-appointed governing team replace Houston ISD’s locally elected school board after a six-month investigation found several instances of alleged misconduct by some trustees, including violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, inappropriate influencing of vendor contracts and making false statements to investigators.

The recommendation and findings, issued by TEA Special Investigations Unit Director Jason Hewitt, will not become final until HISD officials have had an opportunity to respond. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who leads the agency, ultimately will decide whether to oust HISD’s school board. HISD officials have until Aug. 15 to respond, and Morath likely would issue a final decision in the following weeks.

In his recommendation, Hewitt wrote that HISD trustees should be replaced by a state-appointed board due to their “demonstrated inability to appropriately govern, inability to operate within the scope of their authority, circumventing the authority of the superintendent, and inability to ensure proper contract procurement laws are followed.”

[…]

In their report, state investigators outline multiple years of failed oversight and improper behavior by HISD’s much-maligned school board, which long has grappled with in-fighting and distrust. Conflict within the board reached a boiling point in the summer and fall of 2018 when trustees clashed over whether to retain Lathan, who took over as interim superintendent following Richard Carranza’s abrupt departure to become chancellor of New York City public schools.

Five board members had grown particularly frustrated with Lathan, believing she had not been responsive to their desires for the district and failed to adequately protect them from a threat posed by a community activist.

Through interviews and a review of text messages, state investigators determined the five trustees — Board President Diana Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — secretly met with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra in two separate groups to coordinate ousting Lathan and installing him as interim superintendent. The meetings took place at a Houston restaurant on the same day in October 2018, the report said. Investigators determined that arrangement constituted a “walking quorum,” in violation of state law that requires trustees to conduct district business in public.

Three days later, the five trustees voted to replace Lathan with Saavedra, offering no advance warning to the public or the other four board members about the move. Trustees reinstated Lathan within a week of the vote following intense public backlash. Lathan remains the district’s indefinite leader.

TEA officials interviewed trustees as part of their investigation, ultimately determining that Dávila and Lira falsely claimed in interviews with investigators that they only met one-on-one with Saavedra. In separate interviews, Saavedra and Flynn Vilaseca placed Dávila and Lira at the restaurant meetings, the report states.

In an interview Wednesday, Dávila said she provided her best recollection of meeting Saavedra to TEA investigators, and denied that she attempted to mislead state officials.

“They wanted us to remember things that happened six, seven months prior to us being interviewed,” Dávila said.

So in the end it will be the ethics investigation that brings down the Board. We’ll get the performance results for the schools, including the four that needed to meet standards this year, on August 15, so there may be another cause for the demise, but this one came first. This isn’t final yet – the Board has until the 15th to respond to this report, and then TEA Commissioner Mike Morath gets to make his ruling – but the handwriting on the wall is quite clear. The state is stepping in to take over the HISD Board.

The report isn’t public yet – I presume it will be by the time Morath issues his ruling – but the Chron got to see it. The other misconduct allegations reported in the story apply to Diana Davila, with Sergio Lira also being accused of not being truthful to investigators. I feel like in other circumstances, with a Board that wasn’t already under a conservator, this would be an embarrassment but not the end of the existing Board. In such other circumstances, I might be moved to outrage at the prospect of our democratically elected Board being summarily replaced, even if only for a couple of years, by state-selected trustees. I find it hard to muster any such reaction this time. I find myself resignedly in agreement with this:

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who frequently has criticized colleagues who voted to oust Lathan, said replacement of the school board is “sadly, unfortunately” in the district’s best interests.

“I think it’s tragic, but I think the alternative is worse,” Jones said.

The good news, such as it is, is that the four schools in question, which have been making progress, will probably not be closed. That was a huge point of contention with the parent groups. If that’s truly off the table, then my guess is that reaction to this will be somewhat more muted. Who is going to step up to defend the current board, and demand that the TEA leave them in place?

It should be noted that there will still be elections for HISD trustees this November. These elected trustees, along with the others that are not on the November ballot, will still serve but have much less power in the interim. At least two of the four trustees whose terms are up this year (Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who is running for HCC Board, and Jolanda Jones) have announced they are not running for re-election, with Davila being rumored to not run again as well. If the end result of all this is that in another two or four years we get to elect nine new members, and (hopefully) the sword of Damocles that is the academic standards issue is not looming over us when we do (good luck with that, whoever the TEA picks to run the place), I find it hard to be too upset about that. I’m certainly not more upset than I am about everything that led to this.

An update on the races in HISD and HCC

As you know, there’s been a lot of action not just in the Houston City Council races but also in the 2020 election races. That doesn’t mean things have been dull in HISD and HCC, which of course have elections this November as well. I’m going to bring you up to date on who’s doing what in HISD and HCC, which as always deserve more attention than they usually get. We will refer to the Erik Manning spreadsheet for the names, though there will be some detours and some plot twists. Settle in and let’s get started.

There are four HISD Trustees up for election this cycle: Rhonda Skillern-Jones (district II), Sergio Lira (III), Jolanda Jones (IV), and Diana Davila (VIII). Lira, running for his first full term after winning in 2017 to succeed the late Manuel Rodriguez. He has no declared opponent at this time.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones has decided to step down from HISD and is now running for HCC Trustee in District 2. That’s the district currently held by the execrable Dave Wilson. (Hold that thought for a moment.) Her jump to HCC has been known for about a week, but as yet no candidate has emerged to announce a run in HISD II. I’m sure that will happen soon.

Diana Davila is being challenged by Judith Cruz, who ran for this same seat in 2010 after Davila’s abrupt departure when she was first an HISD Trustee; Cruz lost the Juliet Stipeche, who was then defeated by Davila in a return engagement in 2015. Davila has been at the center of much of the recent chaos on the Board, especially the disputes over interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan. I would expect that to be part of this campaign.

Jolanda Jones has two challengers for what would be her second term on the Board. One is perennial candidate Larry McKinzie, the other is Matt Barnes, a career educator with some charter school experience that I’m sure won’t cause any issues at all for anyone in this election. Ahem. A possible complicating factor here (we do love complicating factors) is that there has been chatter about Jones running for City Council again, this time in District D. It’s not the first time that this possibility has arisen. To be clear, as far as I know and unlike that other time, Jolanda Jones herself has not said anything about running for Council. This is 100% speculation based on other people talking about it, which I as an irresponsible non-journalist am mentioning without bothering to check for myself. I do that in part because it allows me to dredge up the past discussion we had about whether the term limits law that existed in 2012 would have allowed Jones to run for Council again, and from there to pivot to whether the same questions apply to the updated term limits law. Jones served two two-year terms and would hypothetically be running for a third and final term, which would be for four years. Council members who were first elected in 2011, such as Jack Christie, got to serve a total of eight years via this mechanism, and because the updated term limits law that was ratified by voters in 2015 was written to exempt current Council members who were not on their third terms. Would that also cover a former Council member who had served two terms? I have no idea, but if the question became relevant, I feel confident that lawyers and courtrooms would quickly become involved, and we’d eventually get an answer. See why this was irresistible to me? Anyway, all of this is probably for nothing, but I had fun talking about it and I hope you did, too.

Now for HCC. There are three HCC Trustees whose terms are up: Zeph Capo (District 1), the aforementioned Dave Wilson (District 2), and Neeta Sane (District 7). We’ll start with Sane, whose district covers part of Fort Bend County. She is running for Fort Bend County Tax Assessor in 2020 (she had previously run for FBC Treasurer in 2006, before winning her first term on the HCC Board), and while she could run for re-election in HCC first, she appears to not be doing so. Erik’s spreadsheet has no candidate in this slot at this time.

Zeph Capo is also not running for re-election. His job with the Texas AFT will be taking him to Austin, so he is stepping down. In his place is Monica Flores Richart, who had run for HISD Trustee in my district in 2017. Capo is Richart’s campaign treasurer, so that’s all very nice and good.

And that’s where this gets complicated. Dave Wilson is the lone Trustee of these three who is running in 2019. He is not, however, running for re-election in District 2. He is instead running in District 1, where I’m guessing he thinks he’ll have a chance of winning now that the voters in District 2 are aware he’s a conservative white Republican and not a black man or the cousin of former State Rep. Ron Wilson. I’m sure Rhonda Skillern-Jones would have wiped the floor with him, but now he’s running for an open seat. He won’t have the same cover of stealth this time, though. You can help by supporting Monica Flores Richart and by making sure everyone you know knows about this race and what a turd Dave Wilson is. Don’t let him get away with this.

(Hey, remember the big legal fight over Wilson’s residency following his fluke 2013 election, and how he insisted that the warehouse he moved into was his real home? So much for that. I assume he has another warehouse to occupy, which is totally fine because our state residency laws are basically meaningless.)

Finally, while their terms are not up, there are two other HCC Trustees who are seeking other offices and thus may cause further vacancies. Eva Loredo, the trustee in District 8, has filed a designation of treasurer to run for Justice of the Peace in Precinct 6 next March, while current Board chair Carolyn Evans-Shabazz in District 4 is now a candidate for City Council District D. If Wilson loses (please, please, please) and these two win theirs we could have five new members within the next year and a half, which would be a majority of the nine-member Board. The Board would appoint replacements for Evans-Shabazz and/or Loredo if they resign following a victory in their other elections, and there would then be an election for the remainder of their terms. I will of course keep an eye on that. In the meantime, if you can fill in any of the blanks we’ve discussed here, please leave a comment.

Orlando Sanchez’s water-pourer lawsuit dismissed

Hey, remember when former Treasurer Orlando Sanchez filed a million dollar lawsuit against the doofus who poured a glass of water over his head at the press conference where Sanchez was begging the state to take over HISD? Well, the guy’s lawyer contacted me recently to let me know that the lawsuit had been dismissed, with Sanchez ordered to pay court costs. You can see a couple of the defendant’s motions here and here. The long and short of it is that the civil standard for assault is the same the criminal standard, and since Sanchez suffered no injury there was no assault as defined by the law. In addition, the defendant had a legitimate claim that his water-pouring constituted an expression of free speech, presumably in the Nigel Farage getting milkshaked mode. Add it up and it’s one ex-lawsuit. Looks like Orlando Sanchez is going to have to find another way to get fame and fortune.

How long will that TEA ethics investigation of HISD take?

Could be months, but they don’t really know.

The state investigation into allegations of Open Meetings Act and procurement violations by some Houston ISD trustees could last months, a top Texas Education Agency official said Saturday, potentially leaving the district and its superintendent search in limbo.

At a town hall attended by about 50 people, TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance A.J. Crabill said state officials are still conducting a special accreditation investigation into HISD, with the most severe possible punishment resulting in school board members surrendering their powers to a state-appointed governing team. TEA officials have not provided a timeline for the investigation, which started in January, but Crabill said initial results likely are not imminent.

“My best guess is that the state is still several months away from a preliminary report,” Crabill said, while cautioning that he is not directly involved in the investigation.

Crabill’s comments came during a wide-ranging question-and-answer session, held at a downtown Houston church, that offered some clarity to residents concerned about the threat of sanctions looming over Texas’ largest school system. In addition to any fallout from the state investigation, HISD likely would lose local control of its school board if any one of four chronically low-performing campuses fails to meet state academic standards this year.

Crabill offered no hints as to whether HISD’s school board will fall out of power, telling the crowd it’s too early to predict outcomes of the state investigation or academic performance this year. He reassured those in attendance that an appointed board would hold power for only a few years, gradually transitioning back to a locally elected body.

The state-appointed board would be tasked with addressing a narrow set of pressing issues while carrying out the day-to-day functions of a traditional school board, Crabill said. In HISD’s case, the state-appointed board primarily would be tasked with improving student achievement at the lowest-performing campuses, where standardized test scores rank near the bottom in Texas and historical patterns suggest about two-thirds of graduates will not enroll in college.

See here, here, and here for the background. My understanding is that the accountability scores should be known by about August or so, meaning that we’ll know by then if the schools that must meet standards have done so or not. As is usually the case with these stories, I’m lost for much to say beyond I hope everything works out.

Achieve 180 schools showing progress

I hope it’s enough.

Houston ISD schools covered by the district’s $16 million campus turnaround plan saw modest improvements in the program’s first year — enough to outpace gains reported across the district, but not nearly enough to pull chronically low-performing schools on par with peers.

A report published this week by HISD showed the 44 schools included in the turnaround plan, known as Achieve 180, largely exceeded or mirrored district improvements in 2017-18 on several key academic and behavioral metrics, including state standardized test scores, exclusionary discipline rates and participation in more challenging courses. The improvements were reflected in the number of Achieve 180 schools meeting state standard — and avoiding the dreaded “improvement required” label — rising from 18 in 2017 to 33 in 2018.

In some areas, however, Achieve 180 schools saw little to no positive movement. Student attendance and chronic absenteeism rates remained stagnant, which district officials largely attributed to the effects of Hurricane Harvey. Out-of-school suspension rates barely moved, remaining three times greater than non-Achieve 180 schools. Highly-rated teachers did not move in large numbers to Achieve 180 schools, unswayed by $5,000 bonuses offered by district officials.

In an interview Thursday, HISD’s area superintendent responsible for Achieve 180, Felicia Adams, said district leaders were “pretty satisfied” with the first-year results, especially since some campuses implemented portions of the initiative later in the 2017-18 school year.

“These are schools that have been struggling for quite some time. To at least get out of being an ‘improved requirement’ campus was a major gain for many of them,” Adams said.

[…]

According to the district report, which analyzed student performance in 2017-18 relative to the prior year, math and reading passage rates on STAAR, the state’s primary standardized test, rose about 6 percent in Achieve 180 schools — double the 3 percent increase seen across the rest of the district.

The use of in-school suspensions also dropped by about 21 percent at Achieve 180 schools, roughly the same rate as campuses not covered by the initiative.

Perhaps most notably, about 8 percent more students in Achieve 180 schools took an Advanced Placement exam last year, while 3 percent fewer students in non-Achieve 180 schools sat for a test.

Even with the improvements in STAAR test performance, passage rates at Achieve 180 schools remain roughly 15 percent to 20 percent lower than the rest of the district. In addition, students at Achieve 180 schools passed about 14 percent of their Advanced Placement exams in 2018, compared to 39 percent throughout HISD.

Some Achieve 180 schools also fell further behind last year, including four campuses that have failed to meet state academic standards for four-plus consecutive years.

That, obviously, is the most important metric right now. The overall improvements are great, and one wonders how much more could be done with sufficient resources and some more time, but either those four schools make standard or the TEA climbs aboard. For all the mishegas at HISD this year, and with the continued uncertainty surrounding the HISD Board, Achieve 180 is worthwhile program that has generated real results. Again, as above, I just hope it’s enough.

HISD conservator suspends superintendent search

Halt!

A state-appointed conservator ordered Houston ISD trustees on Monday to suspend their search for a permanent superintendent, an unprecedented intervention in the state’s largest school district.

In a letter sent to HISD trustees, the conservator, Doris Delaney, said she is exercising her legally-authorized power to “direct an action to be taken” by a school board. HISD trustees were days away from naming a lone finalist for the district’s superintendent position, with a final round of candidate interviews scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

Delaney said she is ordering the search suspended “until the agency has completed its special accreditation investigation” into the district. The investigation, which involves allegations of Texas Open Meetings Act violations by five trustees, has been ongoing since January.

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who is not among the five trustees under review, also tweeted Monday that the investigation has expanded to include “malfeasance regarding contracts” with vendors, offering no additional details. Texas Education Agency officials said they could not comment on the ongoing investigation. Jones could not immediately be reached for comment.

Delaney’s move is a potentially ominous sign for HISD’s school board, which could be replaced by the state later this year due to chronically low performance at a few campuses or potential findings of malfeasance by trustees. If state officials replace HISD trustees, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath would have the legal responsibility of choosing the district’s superintendent, with no obligation to keep the school board’s choice.

See here and here for some background. On the one hand, I understand where Dr. Delaney is coming from. This investigation is a serious matter, and if it turns out that some number of Trustees were involved in violating the (now less potent) Open Meetings Act, one can make a good case that they have forfeited the right to name a Superintendent. On the other hand, the (resumed) search has been going on for awhile, so maybe she could have said something sooner? I wasn’t sure what to make of that at first, but perhaps this explains it.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sent Houston school officials a letter detailing an expanded role for the conservator, Doris Delaney, according to the news outlet. Her duties now include “attending board meetings and overseeing the district’s governance,” according to the letter Houston Public Media posted Monday.

You can see the letter here. That seems portentious, but maybe I’m reading too much into it. All I know is that I hope this is wrapped up quickly and favorably. I can’t take any more drama. The Press has more.

Not so open meetings

We’ll have to see how big a deal this is.

In a major blow to the state’s government transparency laws, Texas’ highest criminal court has struck down a significant provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act, calling it “unconstitutionally vague.”

That law, which imposes basic requirements providing for public access to and information about governmental meetings, makes it a crime for public officials to “knowingly [conspire] to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations.” That provision aims to keep public officials from convening smaller meetings — without an official quorum present — to discuss public business outside the view of the taxpayers and the media.

Craig Doyal, the Montgomery County judge, was indicted under that statute for allegedly conducting “secret deliberations” — without a quorum of the commissioners court present — about a November 2015 county road bond. Doyal filed to have the charges dismissed, claiming the statute was unconstitutional. The case eventually made it to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which handed him a victory Wednesday. Two judges on the nine-member, all-Republican court dissented.

“We do not doubt the legislature’s power to prevent government officials from using clever tactics to circumvent the purpose and effect of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” Presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote for the majority. “But the statute before us wholly lacks any specificity, and any narrowing construction we could impose would be just a guess, an imposition of our own judicial views. This we decline to do.”

Attorneys for Doyal argued months ago that the case should not be interpreted as a broad “take-down of the entire Texas Open Meetings Act.”

“This case is not about discussions of public matters in a quorum,” they wrote in a July 2018 brief. “This case is not about shutting out the public and the press from the political process.”

But open government advocates warned that the ruling, while specific to one slice of the open meetings act, importantly undermines its aims.

“I’m disappointed in the ruling,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Some people will use it as a chance to try to get around the spirit of the law. But the vast majority of people want to follow the law and want the public to understand government and participate in government. The vast majority of public officials know they can’t go around in secret and deliberate.”

See here for a bit of background on the Doyal case. I don’t know about you, but I have always assumed that Sharon Keller imposes her own judicial views on every appeal she hears. Be that as it may, my first thought on reading this story was whether it might have an effect on the accusations against five HISD trustees who are alleged to have formed a “walking quorum” and met illegally to discuss replacing Superintendent Grenita Lathan. That charge, if justified, represents another reason for the TEA to take over HISD. Unless, I presume, it turns out that what they allegedly did wasn’t actually illegal. As of yesterday, that was unclear.

The ruling could impact the Texas Education Agency’s investigation into allegations of Open Meetings Act violations by some members of the Houston ISD Board of Trustees.

TEA officials are investigating whether five trustees illegally coordinated ahead of an October 2018 vote to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who took over the position indefinitely in March 2018. The five trustees each spoke with Lathan’s chosen replacement, Abelardo Saavedra, prior to the vote. Some trustees have said they communicated with one other board member about a potential motion to remove Lathan.

Trustees ultimately voted 5-4 to replace Lathan with Saavedra, but they reversed the decision several days later following intense public backlash and Saavedra’s decision to back out of the job. Saavedra told the Houston Chronicle he quickly discovered HISD’s issues stemmed from the school board, as opposed to Lathan’s administration.

TEA opened a special accreditation investigation in January after receiving “multiple complaints” about violations of the Open Meetings Act. TEA leaders said they are investigating whether trustees were “deliberating district business prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting,” regarding Lathan’s removal.

While the notice alludes to misconduct described in the same statute that was overturned Wednesday, TEA officials did not indicate they are investigating HISD based on that statute. Rather, the TEA notice lists the entire chapter of open meetings laws, leaving it unclear whether the investigation rested entirely on the now-invalidated statute.

TEA officials declined to comment Wednesday “due to the open investigation.”

I Am Not A Lawyer and am thus not qualified to assess that possibility, but as a blogger I’m fully capable of speculating about it. My point is that this ruling may well have some odd and unexpected consequences. Greg Abbott says he wants state agencies to “continue to follow the spirit of the law”, whatever that means. I expect that would eventually lead to more litigation, until or unless the Lege fixes the law to satisfy this ruling. Anything is possible, but I tend to bet the under in these matters. Welcome to the mostly post-Open Meetings Act world that we now live in. The Observer has more.