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John Calaway

Early to Rise appeal denied

That pretty much wraps it up, for now at least.

A controversial 1-cent property tax to buoy local preschools will not be on the November ballot following a Houston appeals court ruling.

The 14th Court of Appeals, in an opinion issued late Thursday, rejected the Harris County School Readiness Corp.’s lawsuit to force County Judge Ed Emmett to put the tax before voters this fall. The three-judge panel dismissed the lawsuit.

[…]

“In the petition, relators ask this court to compel the Honorable Ed Emmett, Harris County Judge, to order an election in accordance with the ‘Petition to Authorize a One Cent Tax for Early Childhood Education,'” a three-judge panel wrote in the opinion.

The panel said the group failed to prove it was entitled to a writ of mandamus forcing Emmett to put the measure on the ballot. It did not elaborate in its two-page opinion.

The order is here. It’s pretty much “They asked us to do something, and our answer is No”.

The School Readiness Corp. said in a statement Friday that it “respectfully accepts the opinion,” but is “deeply saddened by the impact this decision will have on thousands of preschool children in Harris County.”

[…]

However, the group’s lawyer, Richard Mithoff, said he has told his clients “it would be very difficult if not impossible to get the matter on the ballot this time for the November election.”

As for future ballots, Mithoff said, the group “will assess all options.”

“What the campaign has clearly learned from this, what the leadership has clearly learned, is that there’s overwhelming support for funding early childhood education,” he said.

A copy of their full statement is beneath the fold. See here for the last update and here for most of my other posts on this. It seems clear to me that they should try again next year. They had no trouble getting the signatures, they got support from school and law enforcement leaders, and even Judge Emmett admitted that if the language on their referendum had been a little different he would have had to put it on the ballot. That’s a fixable problem, and so is the fractious relationship between the School Readiness Corp and the County Judge, who would normally be inclined to support a pre-K expansion effort. If the School Readiness Corp can engage with Judge Emmett to the point where he’s at least neutral on their efforts rather than actively opposed, and they can improve and strengthen their model for oversight, I see no reason why they can’t be successful with this in 2014. I know they aimed for this year because their polling suggested that the electorate would be more favorable to them because the city of Houston and its Mayoral election would be the biggest component of it, but I’m sure they did their poll before the Astrodome referendum was on the radar, and who knows how that might wind up skewing things. The idea behind Early to Rise is compelling and worthwhile. They just need to work on the details. I would like to see them try again next year.

(more…)

Early To Rise submits its petitions

From here it gets real.

The Harris County School Readiness Corp., a new nonprofit led by business and civic leaders, is calling for a ballot intiative to levy a 1-cent-per-$100 tax through the Harris County Department of Education to generate about $25 million a year for training teachers and buying school supplies for child care centers serving children up to age 5.

Chairman James Calaway touted the proposal Tuesday as he stood ready to roll a dolly stacked with five boxes filled with more than 150,000 signatures into the office of one of the plan’s most vocal critics, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

“Let’s deliver these to the county judge so he can begin his five days of verification to get it on the ballot,” he said.

Here’s their press release. There’s already a dispute over how quickly the signatures must be certified. Calaway says Tax Assessor Mike Sullivan has five days to randomly verify a subsample of the signatures. Sullivan and County Judge Ed Emmett say he has until the deadline for putting items on the ballot, which is August 26. That’s also the deadline for the Attorney General to render an opinion that would be relevant and timely. At the behest of Judge Emmett, County Attorney Vince Ryan has submitted a request for an AG opinion that asks “whether the Harris County Judge is authorized to deny a petition to order an election to levy and collect an equalization tax for the Harris County Department of Education and related questions”. (Sen. Dan Patrick has also requested an opinion.) You can hear all the attorneys limbering up in the background as they prepare for the inevitable lawsuit. I presume the fact that Ryan submitted the request means that Judge Emmett was told he couldn’t do it himself, a fact that Lisa Falkenberg pointed out awhile back. So at least this is known to be kosher.

I don’t know what will happen next, but if I had to guess I’d say this makes it to the ballot. Barring a ruling that the law being used is invalid, I’m not sure what the pretext would be for stopping it. Doesn’t mean Abbott couldn’t come up with a reason if he wants to, of course. But let’s say it does make it onto the ballot. I’m wondering now if the Harris County School Readiness Corporation has had any second thoughts about its reasons for pushing this in 2013 instead of waiting till 2014. As I understand it, they thought that they’d have a better shot in 2013, when voters from the city would be a disproportionately large share of the electorate. While I don’t think that support or opposition to the Early To Rise plan will cleave exactly along partisan lines, I do think it’s reasonable to think the Democrats are more likely to support it and Republicans are more likely to oppose it, and given that, you’d like for the mostly-Democratic city to be the bulk of the voters. Of course, in our generally low-turnout city elections, the voters who show up aren’t necessarily representative of what a high-turnout electorate would be. With the addition of the Astrodome referendum, it’s impossible to say what the county electorate will look like, and it’s no longer a guarantee that city of Houston voters will be the bulk of it. If the key to getting this passed is a Democratic electorate, then maybe it would have been better to wait till next year and the hoped-for Wendy Davis Express to serve as a tailwind. Of course, no one could have known all this six months ago, or whenever the Harris County School Readiness Corporation first geared up. They picked their target, now we’ll see how wise they were to do so.

That’s getting ahead of ourselves, because we still don’t quite know exactly what we’d be voting for.

For months, corporation members have been negotiating with the Harris County Department of Education on a governance agreement.

“We’ve been working to find the right balance of public oversight,” Calaway said, declining to talk specifically about details until the proposal is presented publicly to the department’s board of trustees Tuesday.

Wishing to dispel myths that the nonprofit simply would be cut a check for the tax dollars and left free to spend it on its own operations, Calaway said much of the finance and accounting work would be handled by the Department of Education.

The nonprofit’s three-person staff would coordinate with existing early education providers to spend the money, he said.

The challenge is sorting out how much public oversight to mandate for a private entity spending public dollars, Calaway and education department Superintendent John Sawyer agreed.

Sawyer said the proposal is unlike any other private-public partnership he has seen.

“Elected officials would allow the operations to be overseen by a board different from themselves,” he said. “My board has got to come to grips with that. Or not.”

The suggestion of having HCDE name a board member has been dropped by agreement. I suspect they’ll get the details hammered out, but I’m wondering what happens if they don’t. Does it make sense for the Harris County School Readiness Corporation to push a proposal that the HCDE hates? The whole reason why the Harris County School Readiness Corporation was able to mount this petition drive is because the HCDE still exists, unlike most other county school boards. It’s HCDE’s tax rate that we’re being asked to increase. Being harmonious with them would seem to be the first order of business. We’ll see what they come up with by Tuesday. Campos, who thinks the “right balance of public oversight” is “100%”, has more.