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Some superintendents disagree about school opening delays

It takes all kinds.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Superintendents leading 10 Houston-area school districts penned a letter this week opposing Harris County’s recommendations for reopening campuses, arguing that face-to-face instruction should resume earlier than health officials suggest.

In their two-page letter, the superintendents say guidance released last week by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah will keep campuses closed too long, denying valuable in-person class time to students. Superintendents are not required to follow the county recommendations, though the guidance serves as a key document in the debate over when to restart in-person classes.

“It is clear that we all have the same goal, which is to return students to in-person instruction as safely as possible, the superintendents wrote to Shah on Monday. “We thank you for the continued efforts of your departments on behalf of Harris County. With that said, we believe that the metrics outlined in the plan you have provided are not attainable to resume in-person instruction in the foreseeable future.”

The superintendents represent Clear Creek, Cy-Fair, Deer Park, Huffman, Humble, Katy, Klein, Pasadena, Spring Branch and Tomball ISDs. Combined, the districts serve about 457,000 students.

In response to the letter, Harris County Public Health officials said in a statement that the organization “has made it abundantly clear that current indicators are not safe to resume in-person activities in Harris County due to COVID-19.”

As the new school year approached and superintendents debated when to resume in-person classes, some education leaders called on county health officials to offer guidance on reopening campuses.

Hidalgo and Shah followed through by producing several public health benchmarks that should be met before in-person classes resume at the lesser of 25 percent capacity or 500 people in a campus. The metrics included cutting the 14-day rolling average of new daily cases to under 400, bringing the test positivity rate under 5 percent and ensuring less than 15 percent of patients in ICU and general hospital beds are positive for COVID-19.

Harris County likely remains at least several weeks away from meeting those metrics. For example, the county recently reported a rolling daily average of about 1,250 new cases and a test positivity rate of 16 percent.

In their letter, the superintendents only mentioned two specific health benchmarks with which they disagreed. The school leaders wrote that the recommendations would “essentially require indefinite closure of schools to in-person instruction while awaiting a widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure or greater staffing capacity at Harris County Public Health for contact tracing.”

However, the guidance specifies that districts could start to reopen and ramp up to the lesser of 50 percent building capacity of 1,000 people on campus even without a “widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure.” County officials did not detail what qualifies as a medical countermeasure in their written guidance, and they did not respond to written questions Tuesday.

See here for the background. As a reminder, Judge Hidalgo and Harris County have limited authority here – ultimately, if these districts decide to open, they can. It’s only when outbreaks occur that the county will have more power to step in. Humble ISD has already opened, the others have plans to have at least some students back by September 16. As the story notes, other districts including HISD, Aldine, Alief, and Spring did not sign this letter, but it was not clear if they had been invited to sign it or not.

I get the concern from these districts, and there’s room for honest disagreement. I don’t have any particular quarrel with their approach, though I personally prefer the more cautious path. As Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter notes in these two Twitter threads, the county now meets three out of seven criteria for reopening, and is trending in the right direction for the others. There’s no accepted national standard for what is “safe” to reopen – that’s a whole ‘nother conversation, of course – so one could argue that Harris County is being overly restrictive. Of course, we’ve also seen plenty of schools and universities that brought in students and then immediately suffered outbreaks that forced closures. Bad things are going to happen until this thing is truly under control, and it is not going to be under control any time soon while Donald Trump is President. That’s the reality, and all the choices we have are bad. Which ones are the least bad is still an open question.

TEA updates its school-opening guidance

They heard the outcry.

Facing growing backlash from teachers, parents and health officials, Texas education officials Friday relaxed a previous order that would have given public schools just three weeks from the start of the fall semester to reopen their classrooms for in-person instruction.

School districts will be allowed to delay on-campus instruction for at least four weeks, and ask for waivers to continue remote instruction for up to four additional weeks in areas hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. During those second four weeks, districts must educate at least a small number of students on campus, and tell the state what public health conditions would allow them to bring more students into classrooms.

Local school boards in areas with a lot of community spread can also delay the start of the school year.

“Our objective is to get as many kids as possible on campus as long as it is safe,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on a call with school superintendents Friday afternoon.”But we know on-campus instruction is really the best instructional setting for the vast majority of our students in Texas. Please don’t feel compelled to use this transition period unless your local conditions deem it necessary.”

The revised guidance offers school districts more options on reopening their schools. Last week, the Texas Education Agency had released more stringent guidelines requiring all school districts to offer on-campus instruction daily for all students who want it, except for a transition period of three weeks at the start of the school year.

Educator associations still say Texas isn’t going far enough to protect educators and parents. The Association of Texas Professional Educators released a statement calling the revision “insufficient” and lacking in “science-based metrics,” since it still requires schools to offer in-person instruction to students who need and want it daily.

Specifically, the guidance says districts that limit in-person instruction must provide devices and WiFi hotspots to students who need them. Students who do not have reliable access to technology must be allowed to learn in school every day. And during the second four weeks of state-allowed remote learning, districts must educate at least some students on campus, though they can restrict that number as they see fit.

“We demand that Gov. Abbott issue a statewide order that all school buildings remain closed and all instruction be provided remotely until the pandemic has clearly begun to subside and it is safe to reopen school buildings under strict safety standards,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said in a statement Friday.

[…]

School districts may also, with permission from the state, choose high schools where students will receive part of their instruction on campus and part remotely at home for the entire school year. Students must learn on-campus for at least 40% of the days in each grading period, usually six or nine weeks long.

That option would be best for districts “if your health conditions are such where you really need to reduce the number of people on campus at any one time,” Morath said Friday. Some districts have already proposed bringing different groups of students into classrooms on alternating days or even weeks, and otherwise educating them remotely.

See here and here. The state is going to allocate more money for school districts to buy equipment for remote learning, which is a huge barrier for a lot of kids. Some counties like Dallas have issued local health advisories that would require schools to remain closed, which the TEA guidance is allowing for at this time. The AG’s office has released an opinion saying that local governments can’t force private religious schools to close. So there’s still a lot of moving parts.

The Chron covers the local angle.

In anticipation of a change in guidance, Houston ISD announced Wednesday that it plans to remain online-only for its first grading period, which lasts six weeks. District officials also said they plan to delay the start of school by two weeks, moving the first day of classes to Sept. 8.

HISD officials hope to reopen campuses Oct. 19, but Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said public health circumstances will dictate whether that happens.

Officials in Aldine and Alief ISDs said they would start in all-virtual classes for the first three weeks, while Fort Bend ISD leaders said they will stay online-only indefinitely, with exceptions for a small percentage of students.

Several other school districts have released plans for reopening campuses that, for now, do not include online-only plans in August. However, superintendents in Conroe, Humble and Spring Branch ISDs, among others, said they are monitoring public health conditions and could decide in the coming days to keep campuses closed.

Spring Branch Superintendent Jennifer Blaine, whose district released a reopening plan Wednesday, said she plans to make a closure decision no later than the end of the month. Blaine said she first wants to see results of a survey sent to parents this week asking whether they want in-person classes or online-only instruction for their children.

“We don’t want to string this out,” Blaine said. “People are anxious and nervous. People want to know what the plans are going to be for August.”

The about-face on hybrid models in high schools, however, likely will cause some districts to re-evaluate their plans.

We’ll see what happens with HISD. One criticism that has been levied by teachers’ organizations about the TEA plan at this time – and to be fair, I think the TEA plan is still a work in progress, they have already changed it in response to public feedback – is that there isn’t yet a set of objective, scientific metrics that will govern how and when schools will reopen. I agree that this is a major oversight, but I will also point out that having metrics isn’t enough. We had a set of objective, scientific metrics that most people thought were pretty decent that were supposed to guide how and when the state reopened, and look what happened there. It’s necessary to have these metrics, but it is very much not sufficient. You have to actually follow them, and to be willing to slow down, stop, or even reverse course if the metrics aren’t being met. And given the nature of this pandemic, and the by now completely well-known lag between the case rate, the hospitalization rate, and the death rate, you have to be willing to do those things before we get into a crisis situation. You have to be willing to do them at the first sign of trouble, not at the point where things have already gotten bad ans now you need to try to catch up. If we haven’t learned that lesson by now, then we really are a bunch of idiots who will let many people suffer and die for no good reason.

Anyway. If you want a broader perspective from teachers about the upcoming school year and what we can and should be doing, give a listen to this week’s Mom and Dad Are Fighting podcast, which is usually about parenting but this week talked to four teachers from different parts of the country. As one of them puts it, if we move ahead with opening schools before we have this virus under control, some number of kids, and some number of teachers – and I would add, some number of parents – are going to die as a result. Do we really want to do that?

We’re about to find out what school might look like this fall

Brace yourselves.

Education leaders across Houston say they are working to welcome students like Alexis and Jayden back in the fall, but if guidelines released by the Texas Education Agency for in-person summer school are any indication of what’s to come, little will feel familiar.

Strict limits on class sizes and the number of students on school buses could mean children come to campus in shifts, with some days dedicated to online-only learning from home. Students may start their days in school with temperature checks and handwashing. Lunch may have to be eaten in classrooms instead of cafeterias to maintain physical distancing.

The full contours of safety mandates could become clearer Tuesday, when Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is expected to unveil state guidance to superintendents for the 2020-21 school year.

The new rules likely will look different than those issued for hosting in-person summer school, which initially included a mandate of no more than 11 students in a typical classroom and a recommendation that districts consider the use of face masks for students and staff. TEA officials relaxed the classroom size limit this week to allow 22 people in a classroom, provided each person has 45 square feet of space and desks remain 6 feet apart.

Still, many questions remain unanswered: What will daily and weekly schedules look like? What happens if a teacher or a student tests positive? What will it take for restrictions to ease? How will districts afford some potentially costly changes to meet the new safety rules.

In Spring ISD, Superintendent Rodney Watson is planning four scenarios for the upcoming school year: campuses reopening with minimal social distancing; in-person classes resuming with stringent social distancing; returning to school with rolling closures in the event of an outbreak; and hosting all learning remotely.

[…]

If classrooms reopen in August, school schedules also could look much different.

Amid the push for social distancing, many districts are considering a “hybrid model,” in which some students attend in-person classes for part of the week while remaining home for the rest.

In Spring Branch ISD, district officials are considering three hybrid scenarios: bringing in the youngest students in each school daily while limiting face-to-face instruction to one or two days for other students; hosting in-person classes for half of the students two days per week, with the other half attending two different days; and bringing half the students into school for four consecutive days, with the other half rotating in for four days the following week.

Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre also is examining how to provide as much in-person instruction as possible to students transitioning to new campuses, who he said need a solid foundation before they move on to higher grades. Under one scenario, those students would be on campus every day, while older students would go to campuses only two or three times a week.

My workplace is moving towards a hybrid-style return to the office, with some people remaining at home, and others alternating days or weeks in order to limit the number of people present. A longer school year with more breaks built in, to allow for some schedule flexibility in the event school has to be closed for a period of time due to an outbreak is possible. I suspect something like a model where only about half of the students are present any given day, and which ones they are depends on the day or the week, is likely, but this is a situation where one side won’t fit all. We’re going to have to live with a higher level of uncertainty than we like, and as one person quoted at the end notes, we will probably be doing something similar in the 2021-22 school year as well. Hang in there, y’all.

Many more school districts are feeling the pinch

Not just HISD. Not by a long shot.

For eight-straight years, Cypress-Fairbanks and Conroe ISDs earned the Texas Smart Schools Award, bestowed on school districts with prudent financial practices and high academic achievement.

Now, Cypress-Fairbanks faces a $50 million deficit next school year, and Conroe is projected to face its first deficit in nearly a decade in the next two to four years.

They are not alone.

As the Texas Legislature studies potential changes to the state’s school funding mechanisms, the majority of large Houston-area school districts are facing budget shortfalls they say stem from a lack of state aid. Of the 10 largest Houston-area school districts, all but three approved budgets last summer that included deficits of more than $1 million, according to a Chronicle review. At least nine say they may have to dip into reserve funds within the next three to five years if revenues do not increase.

For some, it is more dire. If nothing changes at the state or local level, district officials say Spring Branch ISD in west Houston will be financially insolvent in three years. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD will use up all its reserve funds in four or five years. Pasadena ISD only avoided a $20 million shortfall for the next school year by passing a tax hike referendum, and multiple districts are considering similar measures to keep their schools afloat.

That pain is felt in large and small districts across the state. North East ISD in San Antonio expects to cut $12 million from its budget next year, likely leading to teacher layoffs, according to the San Antonio Express-News. By 2020, budget documents in Ysleta ISD near El Paso show the district likely will draw down its reserve funds by $12 million. Friendswood ISD, which educates roughly 6,000 students in a sliver of southeast Greater Houston, is facing a $1.9 million budget shortfall next year.

“If we’ve been one of the most efficient districts in the state, and we’re facing this crisis, imagine what other districts are dealing with,” Cy-Fair ISD Chief Financial Officer Stuart Snow said.

[…]

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who sits on the Commission of Public Education Funding, said districts should expand their revenue streams to include sources other than local property taxes and the state. He pointed to Dallas ISD, which pulls in about $10 million annually from philanthropy. United Airlines also staffed one of DISD’s schools with 25 full-time employees, a partnership Bettencourt said should inspire districts elsewhere.

“It’s not going to be one-size fits all — there are many, many ways to do it right,” Bettencourt said. “At end of the day, we want the education system to get students the best educations they can get for best deals taxpayers can support. But we need to look for all the ways we can do it right.”

First of all, to Paul Bettencourt: You cannot be serious. Philanthropy? Are you kidding me? Dallas ISD’s 2017-2018 general revenue expenditures were over $1.4 billion. That $10 million represents 0.7% of the total. You gonna suggest everyone search their couch cushions, too? Oh, and I don’t know about you, but I’m old enough to remember when two of the biggest philanthropic entities in Houston were Enron and Continental Airlines. Good thing HISD didn’t make itself dependent on them, you know?

This is entirely the Legislature’s responsibility. We are here because they refuse to adequately fund schools, and because they use the increases in property valuations to fund the rest of the budget, while blaming local officials for their shortfalls and tax hikes. As with everything else in this state, nothing will change until the people we elect change. If you live in one of these districts, don’t take your frustrations out on your school board trustees. Take it out on the State Reps and State Senators who skimp on school finance, and the Governor and Lt. Governor who push them to keep doing it.

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.

How are those new Chapter 42 regs working?

A little too soon to tell.

Planning and Development Director Patrick Walsh said the changes were designed to make the city competitive with its suburbs by creating more housing options, holding down prices and spurring redevelopment outside the Loop.

“It’s going to be hard to quantify the degree to which these rules are supporting the objective of affordability, but I do think we’re starting to see these rules used to accomplish the goal of reinvestment,” Walsh said. “In even just a couple of months after the rules are in place, we’re seeing some applications for these shared-driveway type developments with some smaller lots. That is a sign of some degree of modest success, and we’re hoping for more.”

[…]

Civic club leaders, concerned about waves of tightly packed two- or three-story patio homes invading established neighborhoods, negotiated for the rules to be phased in over two years. The first phase took effect in late May, with tracts larger than an acre and smaller tracts that are not residential and are not adjacent to residential areas becoming available for development under the new density rules. The rules will apply citywide starting next May.

The Planning Commission has considered or soon will consider three applications that would not have been possible previously.

In east Spring Branch, at Silber and Purswell, Soleil Livin’ Homes plans to build 27 units on a 1.2-acre vacant industrial site. In southwest Houston’s Willowbend neighborhood, a developer seeks to build six lots on half an acre.

And at the northwest edge of the Loop in Garden Oaks, homebuilder Miguel Facundo is building 14 units on the half-acre site of a former roofing business at Alba and Judiway.

Facundo said he plans to build at least 50 more townhomes in the area. He said he has heard chatter about industrial and commercial sites nearby selling to other developers for more such projects. In pushing for the rule changes last year, representatives of Spring Branch-based David Weekley Homes discussed numerous projects they would be able to build in their area once the higher density was allowed.

Facundo acknowledged that the prices he will offer, while perhaps $100,000 cheaper than the homes built under the old rules, will be aimed far above middle-income buyers, in the high $500,000s. Examples from Weekley representatives’ rarely listed price points below $300,000.

“My product’s a little bit different than most of the patio and townhome builders,” Facundo said. “I’m trying to do more of an upscale, a quality build. Then the neighborhood continues to go in the right direction.”

See here for the last update. It’s good that projects like these are being built, though there’s clearly still some work to be done on affordability. Another recent story adds to the anecdotal evidence with the news that over the last 12 months, residential permits within Beltway 8 were up 22.8 percent over the same period last year, which is more than twice the rate as the rest of the city. Beyond that, who knows? I liked the changes made, and I definitely agree with the idea behind them that it’s important to attract development inside city lines – it matters politically and economically. There’s plenty of empty and underused land that’s begging to be put to better use. I hope these new rules will facilitate that, but we need to carefully watch the effects and be prepared to make further changes if needed.

School superintendents for Early To Rise

From the press release:

(Houston, TX) Today Harris County Superintendents participated in a press conference for the Early to Rise campaign, which is seeking to create a dedicated funding stream to improve the quality of early childhood education through a ballot measure in November. Representing over 400,000 students and their families, the superintendents gave comments on the program. In attendance were Dr. Terry Grier Superintendent of Houston Independent School District, and Dr. Wanda Bamberg Superintendent of Aldine Independent School District. Dr. Mark Henry Superintendent of Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District, Dr. Guy Sconzo Superintendent of Humble Independent School District and Dr. Duncan Klussman of Spring Branch Independent School District, were unable to attend but provided comments.

This campaign has garnered the approval of over 145,000 of our fellow Harris County citizens who have signed a petition to place this important initiative on the November ballot, making it the largest petition drive in the history of Harris County. The Early to Rise campaign will help to raise the standards, training and educational outcomes for young children up to age 5 so that they can begin Kindergarten excited, curious and ready for school.

All representatives felt that making this kind of investment in early childhood education is absolutely critical to the region’s social progress and economic vitality. The first steps toward prosperity begin in the early years and this innovative effort is supported by extensive research.

That’s an impressive number of signatures. I presume they will turn in the petitions next week, to be followed by someone filing a lawsuit, because that’s what I’ve expected all along. As with Sheriff Garcia, it makes sense for school supers to support this. It’s very much in their interest for kids to show up for kinder as prepared for it as possible.

Still waiting on the new density rules

With all that went on last year in Houston, one item that had been on the table was a revision of Chapter 42, to redefine the rules about density and other codes for developers. The planned revisions never made it to Council for a vote, and the city is starting over with a new cast on Council to get this going again.

Developers and city officials say the first major revisions since 1999 to the city’s density rules, known as Chapter 42, are necessary to accommodate the next wave of Houston’s growth. U-Haul recently announced that Houston is the No. 1 destination in the country for movers for the third straight year.

Projections are for Houston’s population to grow by more than 27,000 people a year in coming decades.

Without rule changes, they will not find affordable places to live in Houston, Mayor Annise Parker warned.

“We have to continue to find ways to preserve a range of housing opportunities for our residents. We don’t want to become a city where if you have lots of money to spend you can find a place to live and if you have very little money to spend you (don’t) have good housing stock available,” Parker said.

The heart of the Chapter 42 amendments is taking the cap of 27 houses per acre that exists inside the Loop and extending it out to the Beltway. That would allow many more houses to be built than currently allowed on typical 5,000-square-foot lots.

“We’re not getting new single-family residential being built from 610 to the Beltway,” said Joshua Sanders, a lobbyist for developers. “We’re losing a lot of our population to the county and to the surrounding cities.” That means longer commutes and fewer city property tax revenues.

Increased density means cheaper houses because developers can fit more of them on the same piece of land. Depending on the location and the type of dwelling, the new rules could knock $100,000 off the sales price, Sanders said.

This story is more a recap than a report of something new, so I don’t have anything new to add as well. I will simply note again that there’s more empty, or at least greatly underdeveloped, space in Houston than you probably think. I’ve gone on at length about the Fifth Ward, but recent travels around the city doing interviews have reminded me of other areas that are as wide open, in places like Sunnyside and Hiram Clarke. My point is that the city of Houston already has a lot of room to accommodate that projected growth and more. Some of it absolutely needs to be in the form of more dense development, but some of it also needs to be taking advantage of this existing space. What both of these have in common is a need for improved infrastructure to make them viable and desirable. If we don’t solve these problems, we’re going to lose out to the places that have solved them.

Class size issues are everywhere

We know that waiver requests to exceed the 22 student class size limit are way up. But that mandated limit is only for grades K through 4. What about higher grade levels? Patricia Kilday Hart reports that those classrooms are more crowded, too.

Lamar High Principal James McSwain estimates his classes are on average 8 to 10 students larger. Susan Kellner, Spring Branch ISD board president, says her district’s middle school classes have jumped in size – with as many as 35 students in one class.

At Bellaire, [Principal Tim] Salem trimmed as few teachers as possible, but that meant he had to cut other staff positions, like a school counselor. Counselors manage class schedules and meet with kids in crisis; they are also the one adult constant in a student’s high school career. “That’s their graduation compass,” Salem told me. Each Bellaire counselor now has a caseload of 450 to 500 students.

Salem said Bellaire has some classes with 40 and 41 students; math teacher Kathy Gardner told me she had a pre-AP geometry class that started the year with 43 students (though the class dwindled to 35 as students reacted to the workload.)

What’s it like in a classroom with that many teenagers?

“I can’t even walk between the desks,” U.S. history teacher Lori Good told me. “I’ve tripped on backpacks twice.”

The mantra of those who defend the budget cuts and minimize concerns about class sizes is that teacher quality matters more than the number of students. The problem is that at some point, even the best teachers can’t operate effectively. And some of them will decide that rather than have to deal with all this extra work for no extra pay, there must be a better deal for them elsewhere. Which means that the super-sized classrooms may have negative effects that last well past the point of a hoped-for future budgetary fix.

But before we can realistically hope for a budgetary fix, we need to make sure everyone understands what the problem is that needs to be fixed. This is a good start:

[T]he Spring Branch board president said she is hearing complaints from parents who are “worried that their children are going to get less attention.”

Those concerns should be directed at state lawmakers, many of whom argued that reducing per-student funding wouldn’t really alter life in a Texas public school.

“I tell parents to tell their legislators what it looks like in reality and not just in theory,” says Kellner. “This was a state decision.”

For Spring Branch, that would be State Rep. Dwayne Bohac, and he voted to create the problem. If you want it fixed, you should vote accordingly in 2012. If you live somewhere else, find out who your State Rep and State Senators are, and if they were part of the problem as well, make yourself and your vote part of the solution next year. Nothing will change until that happens.

Three things you can do to help save Texas public schools

1. First and foremost, make sure you understand the scope of the issue and how it will affect you. Here’s an email that was sent out by the Spring Branch ISD to its parents:

Why should you care about the State Legislature and how its leadership impacts SBISD students?

  • In 2005, state property taxpayers were told by the Texas Legislature that their property taxes would be lowered and that the funding loss to our schools would be made up through other taxes or revenue sources, including a new business or “margins” tax. That promise to make up for the funding loss has not been kept. The Texas Legislature must honor its commitment and restore this funding.

  • Reductions proposed in Austin would equate to 15% of SBISD’s current funding. This represents a reduction of about $800 per student from the current $5,700 per student allotment, or $20,000 per classroom. Pictured in another way, this is the equivalent of one full class period being eliminated from every student’s school day.

  • In 2006, the state froze school district revenue at the 2006 level. Since that time, in order to fund basic inflationary cost increases, including cost-of-living increases for our teachers, SBISD has made difficult non-campus reductions and used its savings to limit the direct effect on our classrooms. In fact, the current 2010-11 SBISD budget reflects reductions of more than $8 million to make ends meet. Unless the Legislature restores school funding, SBISD will no longer be able to keep the impact of yearly budget reductions away from its classrooms.

Our Priorities:

Spring Branch ISD students will graduate from high school on time and go on to successfully complete a 2-year technical degree, or a 2-year associate’s degree, or a 4-year bachelor’s degree.

To support this goal, the Legislature must:

  • provide SBISD with a revenue stream that is predictable, takes into account inflationary costs, and is not less than the amount SBISD currently receives;
  • exempt school districts from state mandates for which the Legislature has not appropriated funding sufficient to meet expenditures (for example, costs related to the 4X4 math/science requirement);
  • restore the authority of elected school boards to raise funds locally without a tax-rate election, and eliminate the requirement that any of these additional funds be sent to the state (Robin Hood);
  • return local control and responsibility over important issues, such as the school calendar, to elected school district trustees who are most accountable to the community on matters of public schools; and
  • provide high-performing school districts like SBISD with autonomy and flexibility over their educational program.

As the Texas Legislature continues to meet during the months ahead, reduced budgets and associated reductions will be more clearly defined. SBISD, in the meantime, will continue to communicate with Legislators and our community about what these cuts will mean to our students, our employees and the local community.

If you’re not getting this kind of information about what’s going on with your school and your school district, talk to your child’s teacher, your PTA, your principal, or your school board trustee. You can’t know what to do if you don’t know what’s at stake.

2. Make your voice heard in Austin by lobbying your Representative, your Senator, and the members of the relevant legislative committees. HISD has a Legislative Training session scheduled for next Saturday to help you learn who these people are and what your best strategies are for communicating with them.

With the State of Texas facing a record-level budget shortfall, it is expected that the Texas Legislature will be severely cutting funding for public education.

To help parents, teachers, administrators, students, and other concerned members of the community understand how this could affect Houston-area students, HISD will be presenting a “primer” on how the Texas Legislature works on Saturday, February 26.

The district’s second “Legislative 101,” which starts at 9:00 a.m. at the DeBakey High School for Health Professions (3100 Shenandoah, 77021), will provide participants with an update on current legislative activity, the chance to hear from top lobbyists on the most effective ways to communicate with elected officials, and details on how Houston-area school districts can work together on legislative issues impacting their students.

For planning purposes, those who expect to attend this event are asked to RSVP as soon as possible to [email protected].

You can also watch a video of the first event held on January 27.

Some legislators – Republicans, for the most part – will need more convincing than others.

3. Head up to Austin for a rally and march.

We invite everyone from across Texas to join us at the Capitol building in Austin Texas on March 12th, 2011!

Save Texas Schools will hold a rally and march at the State Capitol on March 12, 2011, with parents, teachers, students, community members, business owners, and faith organizations. A list of speakers and entertainment is in the works for this historic, nonpartisan, family-friendly event. We invite everyone, from school districts all across the state of Texas, to join us in asking our lawmakers to Keep Texas Smart!

DATE: Saturday, March 12, 2011

TIME/PLACE:

March: 11:00 a.m. starting from 12th & Trinity (2 blocks from the Capitol)

Rally: Noon – 2:00 p.m. at the Texas State Capitol on the South Steps, Congress Ave. & 11th St.

Click the link above for a map, and click here to RSVP.

So there you have it. If we don’t fight for this, we will have no right to complain later on. And if you need a little inspiration to get into the fighting mood, read this letter from John Kuhn, superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District, in which he channels a little William Travis to the Lege.

What school districts may do to respond to the budget cuts

They may raise taxes:

Some school officials also are considering even more unpopular options – increasing property tax rates or eliminating special tax breaks. In some cases, even those moves aren’t expected to raise enough money to plug the worst-case budget holes.

“Right now, nothing is off the table,” said Candace Ahlfinger, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena Independent School District, which could lose between $32 million and $53 million under the initial House budget plan.

[…]

Pasadena ISD – as well as Houston ISD, Spring Branch ISD, Cy-Fair ISD and about 200 other districts – have another way to increase revenues. Their school boards could decide to eliminate a special tax break, known as the optional homestead exemption, they have chosen to give property owners.

They will almost certainly deplete their own “rainy day funds”:

Under the House budget proposal, HISD could lose between $203 million and $348 million – up to a fifth of its budget – according to estimates from a consulting firm. [Chief Financial Officer Melinda] Garrett told the school board that she didn’t expect the House plan to be the final word but said the district had to prepare for the worst.

She said the board could decide to increase the tax rate by a few cents without going to voters because the district hadn’t hit the limit yet. Dipping into the district’s savings accounts – which total about $285 million – is another option, Garrett said.

Given that the cuts that will be made in this biennium will almost certainly have a ripple effect into the next biennium, districts will do this with extreme reluctance. But since the other option is firing a lot of people, what choice do they have?

News from the state Capitol of possible cuts to public education of $9.8 billion has prompted Austin school district officials to look at drastic measures that in previous tight budget years were inconceivable — including school closure, cutting pre-kindergarten programs and cutting hundreds of teaching positions.

In phone calls and letters today to district staff, Superintendent Meria Carstaphen announced that on Monday, she would ask the school board to approve staff changes that include cutting one-third of librarian positions and more than 300 classroom jobs.

The total number of jobs lost if something like the Pitts budget gets passed would be staggering.

In any bill introduced this session, ALL districts will be subject to cuts. When a school finance bill sponsor tries to line up votes, the first question he or she gets is: when do I get to see my printouts? The printouts tell members how their constituents will fare under the bill. This session, all of them lose.

So, how do you line up support for a bill that offers only pain?

“We’ve never had one of these before,” the noted school finance guru Lynn Moak told me. “How are you going to divide the shortfall and get people to vote for it?”

Moak believes that education cuts of $5 billion a year could lead to as many as 100,000 lay-offs across the state. Personnel accounts for 85 percent of school spending.

Do you suppose that 100,000 number will start to follow Rick Perry around? I sure think it should. It is what he wants to have happen.

UPDATE: Some more reactions from Dallas. This person will someday either be hailed as a visionary, or jeered as a fool:

Garland ISD Superintendent Curtis Culwell said his district is not changing plans based on the preliminary state figures.

“I call it the shock-and-awe budget,” Culwell said. “Having said that, I think everyone needs to temper their reaction because it’s not workable, not plausible and not in the best interest of Texas, today or tomorrow.”

I sure hope the Lege reaches the same conclusion.

Endorsement eatch: For HCC annexations

Missed this from Wednesday.

In this fall’s elections, voters in the Spring Branch and North Forest Independent School Districts are being asked to approve annexation of their respective districts into the Houston Community College System.

We believe the larger region has a stake in these elections and strongly encourage voters in both areas to cast their ballots in favor of annexation. The annexation effort has been community-driven in both districts and was unanimously approved in both cases by the HCC Board of Trustees.

[…]

The benefits of inclusion in the community college system are a genuine bargain. The system’s tax rate of just over nine cents per $100 of assessed value is the lowest among area community colleges. Residents over age 65 receive an exemption of up to $100,000 in addition to the 10 percent homestead exemption.

In Spring Branch, the annexation effort has been targeted for defeat by antitax crusaders wishing to draw the line against additional taxes. That is a shortsighted crusade: Education that helps the Houston area train a skilled job force is precisely the wrong place to draw lines.

Shortsightedness about taxes has never been an obstacle for some folks. I hope the fact that the Chron has taken a position on this issue, which only affects a relatively small number of voters, means that they will offer endorsements in the Alief, Cy-Fair, and other area ISD elections. The same type of antitax crusaders are at work in those elections as well – as noted in my interview with Sarah Winkler, this is the case in Alief in part because of a successful HCC annexation election in a previous cycle – and that needs to be more widely known.

By the way, I was able to easily find this endorsement editorial because the Chron has, for the first time I can recall, maintained a list of all their endorsements on the index page for the opinion section. Like the trend towards getting endorsements done before the start of Early Voting, I hope it’s something they keep doing. Kudos to whoever made it happen.