Fourteen months after the Texas Education Agency ordered Houston ISD to take over the long-troubled North Forest school district, some unexpected disputes over funding have surfaced.
The Houston school board has authorized its attorneys to challenge a Texas Workforce Commission ruling that the district owes more than $3.7 million in unemployment benefits to former employees of the North Forest Independent School District.
In addition, HISD has not yet received enough state money to rebuild North Forest High School and an early childhood center in the area, though district officials say they expect to have sufficient funds in coming years to complete at least the high school project.
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams ordered the 6,700-student North Forest school district to be closed and annexed to HISD on July 1, 2013, after years of academic struggles and financial problems.
David Thompson, an attorney who represents HISD, said the district should not be responsible for reimbursing the state for unemployment benefits because the North Forest employees never worked for HISD. The Texas Education Agency did not require HISD to hire any North Forest staff.
The unemployment claims totaled $3.7 million as of June 30, according to HISD.
“We think we’re right on the law,” Thompson said, adding that he expects the district to file a lawsuit against the Texas Workforce Commission to appeal having to reimburse the commission for the claims. “Three million dollars pays for a lot of teachers, a lot of supplies.”
The HISD school board voted Thursday to authorize next steps to appeal the commission’s ruling.
HISD officials said they did not know how many North Forest employees filed unemployment claims, but it’s likely hundreds. North Forest ISD employed about 850 people before it closed.
Look, HISD did not volunteer for the duty of annexing North Forest. It was imposed on them by the state. I’m not arguing the merit of that decision – I happen to think it was a good call – but let’s be honest, this is a challenge for HISD. To add to that challenge by imposing North Forest’s unpaid bills on HISD is unconscionable, and that’s before we take into account the Lege’s draconian cuts to public education in 2011 and the state’s extremely flush coffers at this time. Seriously, why are we even arguing about this? The state should make good on these unemployment claims already.