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Ken Huewitt

First look at how HISD will balance its budget

Seems to be fairly well-received.

Ken Huewitt

The Houston school district’s interim superintendent on Thursday rescinded his proposal to reduce funding for gifted students amid concerns from parents and board members.

At the same time, Ken Huewitt proposed bolstering the budgets of schools with significant concentrations of low-income students, using $21 million from federal funds. Schools with the highest percentage of poor children would get the most extra money – an attempt to address the academic challenges at what Huewitt called “hyper-poverty” campuses.

Huewitt’s plan calls for revamping how campuses are funded at the same time as the Houston Independent School District faces an estimated $107 million budget shortfall in the coming year. The financial woes stem from the district expecting, for the first time, to have to send tens of millions of dollars back to the state because it is considered too property wealthy.

“This is about funding the needs of our kids,” Glenn Reed, general manager of budgeting for the school district, said after the board’s budget workshop Thursday.

To balance the budget, Huewitt has proposed several cuts, including ending the $10 million bonus program for teachers and other school staff, and cutting $11 million in contracts with outside vendors.

He also would eliminate the $19 million that went to help a few dozen low-performing schools, as part of former Superintendent Terry Grier’s “Apollo” reform program.

See here and here for some background, and remember again that this is not HISD’s fault, it’s the Legislature’s fault. I don’t know how the search for the next Super is going, but if the search firm/screening committee isn’t asking every candidate detailed questions about how they would have handled this situation, they are not doing an adequate job. I hate that HISD is having to go through this, but from what we have seen so far, Interim Superintendent Huewitt seems to have done a pretty good job of it. We’ll see what comes out when the Board votes on the budget.

Alma Allen for HISD Superintendent?

It could happen.

Rep. Alma Allen

Rep. Alma Allen

State Rep. Alma Allen, a former school principal, has emerged as a high-profile contender for the HISD superintendent’s job during the early stages of the search.

The Houston Democrat, who retired from the Houston Independent School District in 2000 and served on the State Board of Education for much of the 1990s, confirmed to the Houston Chronicle on Friday that she was seeking the post to lead the nation’s seventh-largest school system.

“I want people to know,” said Allen, 76. “I want them to know they have someone in the city who is a native Houstonian who is qualified for this position. …This is something I would love to do. I would love for my career to end on this note.”

[…]

The school board has indicated it plans to look across the country for a superintendent to replace Terry Grier, who retired Feb. 29. However, the trustees have not yet crafted a profile of the ideal candidate. The search firm they hired first plans to provide them with feedback from community meetings held over the last two months.

Allen, who worked four decades in HISD as a teacher, principal and central-office administrator, said she has the support of several elected officials, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a former colleague in the state House. Turner’s spokeswoman did not return messages seeking comment Friday.

Allen said one of Turner’s staff members gave the school board’s search firm a letter of support for her at a meeting Wednesday night. State Rep. Gene Wu, who was at the meeting, said he did not read the letter but recalled the mayor’s staffer saying the mayor was sending a letter of support. Wu said he and state Rep. Hubert Vo, another Houston Democrat, both support Allen.

“We at least want her to be considered – someone who has had a lifelong tenure in education, someone who is intimately knowledgeable about our education system, someone who sits on the education committee in the Legislature,” Wu said. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have someone who is able to navigate the Legislature.”

There’s some other general praise for Rep. Allen, whose only known competitor for the job (if indeed she wants it) is interim Superintendent Ken Huewitt. Neither Allen nor Huewitt has ever been a Superintendent before – they would have to pass a certification exam or get a waiver from the Texas Education Agency in order to take the HISD job – and Huewitt doesn’t have a background in education but rather in finance, which has caused some people to express concern about him.

Joe Greenberg, spokesman for a local group of business leaders, parents and community leaders called the Coalition for Great Houston Schools, urged the board to pursue a national search.

“The board’s highest priority should be to search for a candidate with a track record of tangible academic achievement in a large, diverse urban district,” he said.

I like Rep. Allen and admire the work she’s done in the Lege. She would surely know how to work with them to ensure that the needs of a large urban school district such as HISD were being met. That said, the Board hired a search firm for a reason, and I think we need to let them do their thing before we begin to zero in on anyone for the job. I’d also like to know what the various parent and activist groups think. By all means, put Rep. Allen in the running. Just don’t make it a two-person race from the get go.

Grier departs HISD

We await his successor.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Terry Grier steps aside as Houston’s school superintendent on Monday after a six-and-a-half year tenure marked by aggressive reform efforts, high staff turnover and mixed academic results.

His replacement will inherit a stubborn racial achievement gap and lagging student test scores. Based on state ratings last year, 20 percent of the Houston Independent School District’s campuses were low-performing. The new chief also will take over management of the $1.9 billion construction program, which has faced delays and higher-than-expected costs since voters approved the bond package under Grier’s watch in 2012.

Finding a superintendent with experience leading a similar-sized district will be tough – HISD is the nation’s seventh-largest, with 215,000 students. The depth of the candidate pool depends on the criteria the trustees set, said Henry Gmitro, president of the board’s new search firm (it severed ties with the first one). For example, Gmitro said, assistant superintendents from large, diverse districts may end up fitting the board’s profile.

Grier, a North Carolina native, came to Houston in 2009 from his post as superintendent leading San Diego schools, with 135,000 students.

Upon coming to HISD, Grier recalled last week, “I spent the first six months to a year drinking out of a fire hydrant. It’s a big, complex bureaucracy.”

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest district, recently picked an internal candidate after a monthslong national search led by Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates. HISD has hired the same firm for $77,000, including expenses.

“We’re not limiting ourselves to just people in Houston or Texas,” board president Manuel Rodriguez Jr. told a dozen or so community members last week during a meeting at Chavez High. “We are looking national, even international. We’re going to try to pick the best person that will fit the city of Houston. We understand diversity. We understand the city. We understand the politics of the city.”

Rodriguez, one of nine trustees, also has said he wants a superintendent who can speak Spanish. More than 60 percent of HISD’s students are Hispanic, 25 percent are black, 8 percent are Anglo and 4 percent are Asian.

[…]

Before Grier, the last time the HISD board hired an outsider as superintendent was 1991.

Trustees, in a rare unanimous vote this month, noted that they sought stability in naming the district’s chief financial officer, Ken Huewitt, as interim superintendent. Grier had promoted Huewitt to serve as his No. 2 over the summer. Grier said in an interview last week that he thinks Huewitt would be a good candidate for the permanent job.

At the recent Chavez High School meeting, when a search consultant asked if the next superintendent should be an educator, nearly all hands were raised.

While some superintendents have nontraditional backgrounds – coming from the business world or the military – the common path is moving through the education ranks.

I suppose I’m agnostic on the questions of whether the next Superintendent is an insider or outsider, or if he or she is an educator or not. HISD has its share of challenges, but it’s also got a lot of good schools and dedicated employees, and recent state-caused issues aside, it’s generally in decent financial shape. The next Super will have to do a lot of learning on the job no matter who it is. I wish I could say there’s a clear formula for picking the right person, but there isn’t, and we won’t know if we’ve got someone who can truly do the job for several months as he or she adjusts and figures it out. I guess the main thing is to find someone who has the potential to do a great job, then give that person all the support we can to help him or her achieve that potential. And hope for the best.

HISD girds for budget cuts

Welcome to the job, Ken Huewitt. Isn’t this fun?

BagOfMoney

Houston’s deputy superintendent on Thursday presented the school board with the deepest round of proposed budget cuts since 2011, leaving principals to decide between slashing staff, supplies, field trips or other activities.

Ken Huewitt, who transitions to interim superintendent next week, called for teachers’ jobs to be spared but said an undetermined number of other positions – some vacant – may be lost to curb a projected $107 million shortfall driven by the state’s funding system.

“These cuts will affect the campuses. There’s no way around that,” Huewitt told the board.

Each school in the state’s largest district would lose $179 per pupil – the equivalent of three employees at a 1,000-student campus – and funding for gifted students would drop.

The proposed cuts also target some of the Houston Independent School District’s major reform efforts, indicating a shift at the end of outgoing Superintendent Terry Grier’s six-and-a-half-year tenure. For example, the teacher bonus program, once heralded as among the nation’s largest, would all but end, with the last payouts in early 2017.

In addition, the extra money allocated for tutoring and longer hours at a few dozen low-performing campuses, part of Grier’s signature turnaround program, now would be spread across the district.

That change, meant to help a greater number of troubled students despite budget woes, would increase the amounts for low-income or at-risk children by $88, to $352 per pupil. Funding for each homeless or refugee student would jump more than $500 to $704. The figures vary slightly for middle and high schools.

Campuses, however, would receive half as much for each gifted student, falling to $211. Huewitt’s proposal did not address whether magnet schools that serve gifted students – some of the district’s most popular – would keep the $410 they get on top of the basic allotment.

[…]

HISD’s expected budget shortfall stems largely from a key provision of the state’s school-funding system. For the first time, HISD expects to join Spring Branch, La Porte and some 240 other districts deemed so property-rich that they must forfeit money to the state to help those with less wealth. HISD had avoided this status with help from state lawmakers over the years, but this time legislators did not agree to raise the payback threshold enough to counter the district’s still-rising property values.

A 2014 court decision declared the state’s overall school-finance system unconstitutional. The Texas Supreme Court is weighing an appeal from the state, so no immediate financial relief is expected.

In the Houston region, the Spring Branch Independent School District is the largest system that this year had to send money back to the state under the so-called Robin Hood, or recapture, system. The district, in west Houston, forfeited $8 million in 2015. Officials expect the amount to quadruple to $35 million in the coming year due to the strong housing market and business redevelopment, said Karen Wilson, associate superintendent for finance.

Like I said, things are tough all over. The Lege and the hot real estate market got HISD into this predicament, and the best hope to get them out of it is a good ruling from the Supreme Court. Honestly, this is a good illustration of why our school finance system is so screwed up. It’s just too dependent on local taxes. The state has gradually shrunk its own responsibility for paying for schools. That needs to stop, and the idea that we can educate our growing population of schoolchildren, many of whom have needs that require extra resources, for the 21st century and with ever-increasing standards on the cheap has to stop with it. In all things in life, you get what you pay for. The Lege and the Supreme Court need to recognize that. A statement from Mayor Turner, who knows a thing or two about the school finance system, is here.

HISD names an interim Superintendent

It’s who we expected.

Ken Huewitt

The Houston school board’s search for a new superintendent took a step back Wednesday as trustees severed ties with the firm they selected two months ago and agreed to start fresh with another.

The district likely will be out some money, at least for expenses incurred by the Iowa-based consultants, but board President Manuel Rodriguez Jr. said he hopes the process stays on track to have a new leader on the high-profile job by July. With Superintendent Terry Grier stepping down Feb. 29, trustees chose Deputy Superintendent Ken Huewitt to serve as interim superintendent.

After hiring Ray and Associates on a split vote in December, trustees on Wednesday unanimously and without discussion chose Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, another well-known group that had applied for the job. According to media reports, the Illinois-based firm has faced criticism in recent months after conducting superintendent searches in Nashville, Tenn., and Minneapolis that failed to result in hires.

“We have expectations of being successful. There’s no concerns right now,” Rodriguez said after the board meeting.

Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates also is conducting a superintendent search for the Humble Independent School District, which has roughly 41,000 students, about one-fifth as many as Houston ISD. Klein ISD, on the hunt as well, turned local for consultants, hiring Houston attorney David Thompson and former Texas Education Commissioner Mike Moses.

[…]

After splitting on several major votes in recent months, trustees united Wednesday on the search firm items and on unanimously naming Huewitt as interim superintendent.

Several trustees urged Huewitt, HISD’s chief financial officer, to focus on academics as well as finances. About one-fifth of HISD’s schools are rated low-performing.

“I think this city and I think this board want to make sure we have some stability during this interim time,” trustee Greg Meyers said. “But we also want to make sure we continue to move the needle.”

See here for some background. Most of the rest of the story was about the Board firing its original search firm for finding a new Super and hiring another. No one had anything specific or interesting to say about it, so there’s not much for me to add. As for interim Superintendent Huewitt, I wish him the best of luck. These are tough times, and I presume anyone sitting in that chair will be hesitant to do anything that an incoming Super would not care for. Anything he can do to make things a little better for that next Super will be much appreciated. The HISD News Blog has more about Superintendent Huewitt.

Things are tough all over

HISD faces a big deficit:

BagOfMoney

Houston ISD leaders are bracing for a projected $107 million budget shortfall that, in a worst-case scenario, could prompt the district to slash jobs.

During the school board meeting Thursday, however, officials pledged to try keep cuts away from schools.

“We get it,” Ken Huewitt, the district’s deputy superintendent and chief financial officer, told the board. “We’re in the business of teaching and learning.”

Huewitt said he told central office departments to consider not filling vacant positions and asked principals to weigh spending cuts up to $275 per student. His first-draft proposal also would save $10 million by dissolving the teacher bonus program, affecting payouts in January 2018. Money for next year already is in reserve.

He cautioned, however, that the district is still early in the planning process. The board is set to approve the budget in June. District officials typically present the severest financial outlook at the outset, without, for example, using savings to plug the gap.

The looming financial problem stems from the district expecting to reach, for the first time, the revenue level that requires property-wealthy school systems to send significant funding back to the state.

Lawmakers typically change the formula to avoid the so-called Robin Hood payback scenario for the Houston Independent School District and Dallas ISD, but that did not happen in the 2015 session, according to attorney David Thompson. The Legislature is not set to reconvene until January 2017 unless a special session is called.

Which there might be, depending on how the Supreme Court rules in the school finance case. If all goes well for HISD, they would be getting more money out of it. But you can’t count your chickens before they hatch, especially when you don’t know their timetable for hatching. The board has to make a budget, and they can’t make it based on assumptions about things that may happen at some unclear time.

And then there’s Houston.

As if nosediving sales tax revenues and a looming budget deficit were not enough, a swathe of successful lawsuits from business owners protesting their property values have handed Houston City Council another fiscal headache.

Mayor Sylvester Turner lamented what his finance director projects as a $16 million drop in property tax collections during the current budget year, which ends in June.

Granted, that’s not much in a more than $2 billion operating budget. But if all other trends hold, the news means there may be $16 million less on hand to close an already daunting $126 million budget gap for the new fiscal year that starts July 1.

Finance Director Kelly Dowe used new data from the Harris County Appraisal District to make the estimate. That data, said HCAD’s chief appraiser Sands Stiefer, was drawn from November and December, when many judges are trying to clear their dockets.

Turner at Wednesday’s council meeting lashed out at what he said is an “inherently unfair” system that rewards commercial property owners who hire lawyers to argue their properties are worth less than county officials contend.

That hands a higher share of the tax burden to individual homeowners who lack the same means to fight, the mayor said.

“They’re doing it each and every year. When they’re not successful at the appraisal districts, they go to court for relief,” Turner said. “The reality is, that $16 million is a real hit to the city’s budget.”

The hit is particularly harmful, Dowe said, because the city is operating under a cap on property tax collections that voters imposed a decade ago.

So this is the usual story, one part the rigged appraisal system and one part the stupid revenue cap, which does nothing but penalize the city for having strong economic growth, while exacerbating the problem in leaner times. The city has other issues it has to deal with, and the revenue cap is only part of the problem, but if you don’t recognize that it’s part of the problem, then you’re part of the problem, too.

And on that note, a song from the 80s that captures the theme of this post:

That’s John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, who clearly kept on playing after the 80s. Good for them.

No decision on interim Superintendent

The HISD Board of Trustees is still deciding how to proceed in the wake of Superintendent Terry Grier’s resignation.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Trustee Anna Eastman said after [Tuesday’s board] meeting that she continues to have a lot of questions about how the job-order contracts have been administered. Among other things the audit showed that the district’s Construction and Facilities Service Department wasn’t asking for detailed information about costs before writing big checks to contractors and that it was cutting up the same project into different pieces so that it could come in under the $500,000 state-mandated threshold and grant contracts without having to ask permission from that pesky school board.

“Someone’s got to be held accountable for it. There’s been too many ‘oops.’” Eastman said. “I have concerns about people with less authority in the organization taking all the responsibility. I think leadership has to take responsibility for anyone in the organization thinking that was ok or that was the right thing to do.”

As for the interim question:

“The board cannot name an interim unless we officially reassign the superintendent to other duties which he has to agree upon,” said Eastman. “It would have to be a negotiated agreement, or we would agree on a quicker termination of his contract and I don’t think the board is interested in that or the superintendent.”

Eastman said she thinks the board should concentrate on finding a new superintendent and wait till after Grier’s March 1 departure to appoint an interim. “I’d like to see a person [new superintendent] in place before the next school year. Dr. Grier started in September so basically the organization that was in place was his predecessor’s organization.” Eastman also said it was important for any new board members to be part of the process, as well as the community.

Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones thinks the board should work quickly in moving along the process for a new superintendent, but not so fast that they don’t get input from all aspects of the community to make sure that person is a good match for HISD and its demands.

As for the interim spot, Skillern-Jones said, “I don’t think it’s unanimous around the board that we not appoint one now. We have a superintendent who is out on leave. He has an acting deputy superintendent which is in place [Don Huewitt] I have some trouble with that situation as it exists. We suspect that the superintendent may be out on medical leave for a long period of time. And I have some concern about where responsibility rests in that situation.

“Does it rest with the superintendent who is physically absent or does it rest with the deputy superintendent and who gets to decide where that responsibility rests is the board? So until we have a clear cut picture of who’s responsible, who’s actually at the helm, and who we hold accountable then I’m uncomfortable with that as a situation. So I think that should be temporary. It may not be popular opinion. We’re looking at six months out of a nine-month school year. A lot of things can happen. Who do we hold accountable and in what way? “

See here and here for the background. Both Eastman and Skillern-Jones make good points, and I’m not sure myself what the best course of action is. I think it’s all right to keep Huewitt in place to run things, but the chain of command – and of accountability – needs to be established and agreed upon by all. It would also be nice to have a new Superintendent in place well before the start of the 2016 school year, for the reasons Eastman identified. Frankly, the sooner the Board can get the job search going, the better.

What next for HISD?

The board ponders its options for Superintendent while they prepare to search for a successor to Dr. Terry Grier.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

The Houston Independent School District board is set to meet Tuesday morning to discuss the district’s next steps after Superintendent Terry Grier’s surprise announcement Thursday that he was stepping down effective March 1.

Board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones said Friday that trustees would consider when to appoint an interim superintendent. She said the interim likely would not start until Grier’s exit but could start to transition into the role.

The interim, she said, could come from inside or outside the Houston Independent School District.

“We’re not ruling anyone out,” she said. “I think the goal should be to find someone who can continue the work that we’re doing while bringing a sense of calm and stability, and creating an environment that is inviting to a new superintendent.”

Ken Huewitt, the district’s deputy superintendent and chief financial officer, sat in for Grier at the school board meeting Thursday night. Grier promoted Huewitt in July to serve as his deputy, saying he would handle day-to-day operations in Grier’s absence. Grier underwent a knee replacement in August and has a second surgery set for November.

“Dr. Grier is still the superintendent, and he will be the superintendent until such time that his resignation is effective,” Skillern-Jones said. “He has been courteous enough to give us six months’ preparation. During this time, we can prepare for the transition. We can find the person, and they can be prepared to take the helm when Dr. Grier steps down.”

The school board and Grier still have to discuss a possible exit package. It’s possible they could negotiate different terms based on any unused leave time or other factors.

Skillern-Jones and other trustees said a permanent superintendent would not be hired until next year, based on the timeline and board elections taking place in November. The newly elected trustees – four seats are on the ballot – will take office in January.

[…]

Trustee Juliet Stipeche, who has been one of Grier’s strongest critics, said she thinks the timing of his announcement was based on his tenuous relationship with the board and possible newly elected trustees. Several candidates had called for Grier’s ouster.

“The writing was on the wall that he didn’t have the support for an extension,” Stipeche, who chairs the board’s audit committee, said Friday. “And I believe that people whose opinion he trusts and relies upon strongly encouraged him to leave at this point, so the district could get a new leader who can be devoted to trying to solve many of the problems that currently exist.”

Stipeche described Grier’s tenure as “painful.”

“He is a it’s-my-way or no-other-way (leader),” she said. “He’s not a consensus builder. He’s a firebrand.”

In an interim superintendent, Stipeche said, she would like someone experienced who can oversee financial problems with the district’s $1.9 billion construction bond program. Grier’s administration has estimated a $211 million shortfall, though Huewitt has said he has a plan to borrow funds to fill most of the gap.

See here for the background. Ken Huewitt seems like the obvious choice for interim Superintendent, but I’m sure the board will want to consider all its options. One of those options might be to ask Grier to serve in a different role until he officially departs.

Will Terry Grier get to serve out the rest of his superintendency or will he be moved to another position while an interim superintendent runs the Houston ISD?

That’s one of the things that’s going to be discussed next Tuesday when the school board meets at 7:30 a.m. Trustee Juliet Stipeche said this afternoon that there are some questions about whether Grier, who faces another round of knee surgery in November (and who’s having apparently a tough recovery from the first surgery) would be available to run the district during the time he is out following surgery.

On Thursday Grier abruptly resigned but pledged to keep working until March 1, 2016, three months before his contract was set to expire.

“You can’t have two acting superintendents,” Stipeche said. “So the question is, can Dr. Grier assume a different role?”

Good question. I have no idea. Should make for a fascinating discussion.

Beyond that, the interesting decision is for the successor. The first thing the board needs to do is decide what exactly they want in a new super. I wish all this had happened before I went and did HISD candidate interviews, because that would have been a great question to ask, but that’s the way it goes. Be sure to ask your Trustee and/or the candidates running for Trustee in your district what they want to see in the next Superintendent.