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March 10th, 2011:

Judge Priest recuses himself in DeLay associates’ trial

Didn’t see this coming.

Two associates of former U.S House Majority leader Tom DeLay will get a new judge.

State District Judge Pat Priest of San Antonio, who oversaw the month-long trial of DeLay last fall, surprisingly recused himself this morning on a motion submitted by the defense.

John Colyandro of Austin and Jim Ellis of Washington are charged with conspiring to launder corporate money into campaign donations during the 2002 elections, the same charge DeLay was convicted on last fall.

Defense lawyers declined to say why they wanted Priest removed from the case, noting that the motion was sealed. Priest did not give any insight into why he stepped down.

Billy Ray Stubblefield of Georgetown, presiding judge of the Third Administrative Judicial Region, will appoint a new judge. The next court date for the case will be May 23.

Perhaps we’ll find out some day what this was about. Whoever inherits this better get up to speed quickly, lest it take another few years.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story, which doesn’t have much more information about this.

Hochberg’s “Let’s get real” bill

Rep. Scott Hochberg has filed a school finance bill that he himself wouldn’t vote for. It’s to make sure everyone realizes what the proposed cuts to public education really mean.

Under HB 2485, all school districts would be treated as equal passengers on the Titanic, Hochberg, D-Houston, said Tuesday, as Senate members on the other side of the Capitol discussed ways to allow schools to furlough teachers and modify class size limits in an effort to deal with the budget crisis.

“All are in the same lifeboats,” he said.

Without lawmakers finding new revenue or pulling money out of the $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund, Hochberg’s bill would mean a $326 million cut for Houston ISD, or about $1,328 less per student. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD would see a $60 million cut, or $455 less per student; Spring Branch would get cut $52 million, or $1,282 per student.

“It’s important for members to know what $9.8 billion (in cuts) means, and what it means for their school districts,” Hochberg said.

The proposed $9.8 billion cut in the basic public education funding program does not include at least $1.3 billion in discretionary state grants covering services such as Pre-K, dropout prevention programs and teacher excellence bonus awards.

Hochberg’s bill is largely an effort to create attention for the realities of mega cuts in public education.

It would cut about 20 percent out of the Houston ISD budget.

“For us to make that kind of cut would vastly impact schools. You are talking about significantly fewer teachers when students return to class next fall,” Houston ISD spokesman Jason Spencer said. “You are talking about layoffs the likes of which this school district hasn’t seen in generations. It’s catastrophic.”

Remember, HISD is assuming they’ll lose about $170 million, or half of what Hochberg says they would as things currently stand. “Catastrophic” is a good word for this. The question, given the blind allegiance to not finding new revenues, is whether the reality of what that means will make legislative Republicans reconsider their positions. All I can say right now is that I hope they feel very uncomfortable.

More on Hochberg’s bill is at Postcards and the Trib, with the latter including audio from an interview with him. You can see HB2485 here, and you can see the effect on each ISD in this Excel spreadsheet on Hochberg’s website. Burka and BOR have more.

The story also notes that the Senate Education Committee laid out two bills to give school districts “flexibility” in dealing with whatever lack of funds they are given. These are committee chair Sen. Florenence Shapiro’s SB3, which would among other things allow for furloughs and teacher pay cuts, and Sen. Dan Patrick’s SB443, which would raise the class size limit for grade K through 4. Abby Rapoport has a good summary of the discussion about those bills. This bit, about SB443, is the key:

The latter change is pretty straight forward. The state currently allows schools with an “exemplary” rating to forgo a variety of requirements. Since exemplary schools have the highest rank, the logic goes, they don’t need to be told how to provide an education. Patrick would let “recognized” campuses—the second tier in the ranking system—have the same privileges.

According the Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis, that would mean around 70 percent of campuses would be exempt from a whole lot of the state regulations. She questioned witnesses, and Patrick himself, with unveiled skepticism, arguing the bills were “using the budget crisis for purposes of changing policy.” Much like [Sen. Royce] West, she argued the only reason the Senate would consider such a rule change would be to help the districts save money in anticipation of inevitably deep cuts to education.

In other words, the Republican way to deal with education funding shortfalls is to lower our standards. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

Harris County passes its budget

It’s about what you’d expect.

Facing an 11.3 percent drop in revenue, Harris County Commissioners Court passed a budget today that could mean dozens of law enforcement jobs cut or left vacant, hundreds fewer patients receiving mental health counseling and fewer books in county libraries.

The $1.23 billion budget reflects a revenue drop of $156.8 million from last year as property taxes, the main source of revenue for the county, have fallen in the wake of the recession that has eroded property values. Spending in the fiscal year that ended Feb. 28 was $1.35 billion.

The budget passed unanimously, with little comment from the court.

Only County Attorney Vince Ryan and Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman spoke about the need to protect their revenues before the vote.

Ryan said his office now is representing the county in almost 600 cases, with more than $50 million at stake. His staffers, he said, work for an average hourly rate a fourth or less what outside counsel would cost.

“Further reductions in our staff will impair our ability to serve you and the people of Harris County,” Ryan said.


“I think it’s going to be a very interesting 12 months,” [County Judge Ed] Emmett said. “We’re going to have to get a handle on the new reality and the new reality is we’re not going to have this ever-increasing revenue stream. I personally would like to start next year’s budget process tomorrow.”

I just wonder when we’ll reach the point where we say we can’t cut any more without affecting the things we really need to do. I’m sure the next 12 months will include a lot of debate about just what it is we do need to do. I certainly agree it will be an interesting year, but I have many concerns about the way that discussion is going to go.

1200 teachers at risk in HISD

That’s a lot of jobs.

The Houston school board is scheduled to vote Thursday on Superintendent Terry Grier’s plan to reduce the amount of money the district doles out to each school, paving the way for layoffs in light of a projected state funding shortfall. This is the first major step in a months-long process to balance the district budget.

District officials can’t say with certainty how many school employees will be out of work because principals must set their budgets, state funding could change and some job loss could be absorbed through attrition.

But HISD’s chief financial officer, Melinda Garrett, says pink slips are a guarantee.

“There are real people behind some of this,” she said in an interview Monday after presenting the budget plan to the school board.

To get a simple picture, a $65 million cut equates to more than 1,200 teaching jobs across the Houston Independent School District.

Boil the numbers down to the school level, and that’s four teachers per campus on average.

HISD’s policy allows school principals to set their own budgets, so some might be able to reduce job loss by makings cuts in other areas.

“They’ll cut supplies, field trips. They might have a (junior varsity) team they decide to cut,” Garrett said. “They could cut teachers, clerks, counselors. It’s going to come from a variety of sources.”

All of which is just fine by Rick Perry. It’s also not all there is to HISD’s budget, as their total projected shortfall, under a self-described “optimistic” assumption of only $5 billion in state cuts to public education, is $171 million. There will be more cuts from the central admin and likely elsewhere, so more jobs lost, and very likely a tax rate increase on top of that. There is also the possibility of furloughs and/or pay cuts in combination with or as a replacement for some job cuts, and also of larger class sizes, which may make cutting some teachers’ jobs easier. And if there are no fundamental changes in Texas’ tax and revenue structure – specifically, if nothing is done to close the structural deficit caused by the 2006 property tax cut – we’ll likely face the same problem in two years’ time. That’s the Texas Century for you. Hair Balls has more.

Getting ready for the Save Texas Schools rally

This needs to be big.

Teachers, parents and school district employees will head by the thousands to the state Capitol over Spring Break for two rallies, hoping to show lawmakers what’s at stake with budget cuts to education.

They’re ready to flex their political muscle over the possible loss of between 80,000 and 100,000 jobs in public school districts statewide, according to estimates from public policy and school finance groups.

“The goal is to get legislators, who are the only ones right now (who) can stop this, to see us as human beings and not just numbers,” said Jodi Ingersoll, a Spanish teacher at Johnson High School who is planning to attend both rallies.

Ingersoll, 29, is a lead organizer in San Antonio for the Save Texas Schools March & Rally on Saturday, the first of the two scheduled as part of Spring Break, which is March 14 to 18.


As of last week, at least 5,000 people statewide had signed up to attend one or both rallies, with more expected.

I sure hope a lot more than that eventually attend. I wish I could be there but my schedule doesn’t allow it. If you can make it, please do so. Here’s the basic info again for the March 12 rally. If you need a little motivation, consider stuff like this.

“If you want to set up the state of Texas for failure with a less-educated work force and reduced average income, what the Legislature is considering doing in terms of cutting education is exactly the way you would go,” said Albert Cortez, an expert on minority education and director of policy for the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development and Research Association.

Students with limited English proficiency can prosper academically if they get specialized staff and specialized materials, Cortez said.

Over the past 10 years, the number of students with limited English proficiency has jumped to 815,998 from 555,334, according to the Texas Education Agency. The number of children from low-income families has skyrocketed to 2,848,067 from 1,955,012 during the same period.

Those students are more expensive to educate and failure often results in many dropping out of school, experts said.

It’s only our future that’s at stake, that and a whole lot of jobs in the here and now. Please make your voice heard while you still can.

Texas blog roundup for the week of March 7

The Texas Progressive Alliance is ready for this Saturday’s rally to save Texas schools in Austin as it brings you the weekly roundup.