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George Moore

The HCDE makeover

One more world to conquer in Harris County.

David Brown

The future looked bleak for Texas’ last remaining county education department in early 2019.

After years of state-level efforts to abolish the Harris County Department of Education, a new majority of trustees signaled they would take a more critical look at the agency’s inner workings and whether it still served the core function of supporting local school districts.

Less than a year later, the entire makeup of the board has changed. Now a 5-2 majority of HCDE supporters oversee the department and its $128 million annual budget, a majority that could grow after the November election.

The two board seats on this year’s ballot — two of the three at-large positions — are held by Republicans Don Sumners and Michael Wolfe, the remaining trustees who have been critical of the department in the past. Sumners is seeking re-election, and although Wolfe is not running for his old seat, his father, Bob Wolfe, is.

Sumners’ Democratic opponent is David Brown, an educator who works for Change Happens, a Third Ward-based nonprofit that provides mentoring, drug prevention and other services to low-income youth. Democrat Erica Davis, chief of staff for Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen, is running against Wolfe. If Brown and Davis capture the two at-large positions, board president Eric Dick — who has opposed efforts to shut down the department — would be the lone remaining Republican trustee.

[…]

Erica Davis

In recent decades, the department has been the subject of frequent criticism of some state and local conservatives who call it an unnecessary bureaucracy that would better serve districts if it were dissolved and its assets were given to local schools.

Republicans who shared that belief gained control of the board after the 2018 midterm elections and were quick to exercise their new role. Former trustee Josh Flynn was named board president during his first meeting in January 2019. Minutes later, the board voted to scrap a contract with a lobbying firm that represented HCDE interests in Austin.

They voted the following month to change the composition of an ancillary board that issues bonds and oversees construction contracts. They asked the board attorney to investigate the department’s Education Foundation, then put an item on two meeting agendas to replace the same attorney with a representative from Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain’s law firm, an ally of the Republican trustees. The board ultimately kept its original lawyer after the item to remove her was tabled.

Tempers flared between the new majority and those who supported the agency. Trustee Eric Dick, the sole Republican on the board who supported HCDE, frequently exchanged terse words with the new majority, especially former President Flynn and Trustee Michael Wolfe. The tension came to a head after Dick reported that Wolfe had made sexual advances on a woman who had applied to become the board’s secretary, and allegedly attempted to blacklist her among Houston Republican groups after she turned down his advances.

After reviewing a third-party report on the allegations commissioned by the board, trustees voted to censure Wolfe in April 2019, and Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan launched an investigation into the allegations. Wolfe has denied the allegations, and the county attorney has yet to release any findings.

Ultimately, the board’s Republican majority was short-lived. Former Trustee George Moore resigned after moving out of Harris County in May 2019, and the board later appointed Democrat Amy Hinojosa to replace him. Flynn resigned in December that same year after his eligibility to run for the Texas House was questioned due to his position on the board. The board appointed Democrat Andrea Duhon to take Flynn’s place, firmly shifting the board majority.

“I have to tell you, it seems like it’s working like a well-oiled machine,” Duhon said. “It’s been fabulous not having to worry about someone coming in and trying to tear it all apart.”

Sumners, Bettencourt and other Republicans have blamed Flynn for the shift in power. Though Republicans outnumbered Democrats for most of 2019, Dick sided with the Democrats amid an ongoing feud with the Republican trustees, resulting in a 3-3 deadlock that left the board unable to appoint Moore’s replacement. Moore was barred from voting.

In December, however, Flynn skipped a meeting where trustees were set to appoint his and Moore’s replacements. That allowed Dick and the two Democrats to appoint Hinojosa and Duhon.

See here for some background. I had wondered how it was that a board with a Republican majority managed to appoint two Democrats as replacement for departing Republicans, thus turning a 5-2 GOP majority into a 4-3 Dem majority. Pretty hilarious, if you ask me. It’s only the second time in my memory that the Dems have had a majority on the HCDE Board. A brief history:

2006: All seven members are Republicans, after Dems failed to field a candidate in the Precinct 1 position (the incumbent, who had not drawn a primary challenger, withdrew at the last minute).

2008: 5-2 Republicans after Jim Henley and Debra Kerner win the two At Large positions that were on the ballot, as part of the initial Democratic breakthrough in Harris County. Kerner’s opponent in that election, by the way, was none other than Stan Stanart.

2012: Erica Lee wins the Precinct 1 position, and Diane Trautman wins the third At Large spot, thus giving the Dems a 4-3 advantage.

2014: Republicans take back the two At Large positions they lost in 2008 and go back up by a 5-2 margin on the Board. Michael Wolfe, who had lost in 2012, and Don Sumners are elected.

2016: No change in composition, but Sherrie Matula loses the Precinct 2 race by a whisker. Eric Dick is elected in Precinct 4.

2018: Still no change in composition. Danny Norris succeeds Erica Lee in Precinct 1, Richard Cantu succeeds Diane Trautman in the At Large position, and Josh Flynn defeats Andrea Duhon by less than 2,000 votes for the Precinct 3 spot. While Republicans maintain a 5-2 majority on the Board, they now have a majority of Board members who want to undermine what the Board is doing.

Late 2019, after the filing period for 2020 closes: George Moore (who had defeated Matula by less than 500 votes in 2016) resigns for personal reasons, and Josh Flynn resigns (after a bit of a kerfuffle with the county GOP) to pursue the nomination in HD138 (he would lose the primary). As described above, Amy Hinojosa and Andrea Duhon are appointed, giving the Dems a 4-3 majority again. With the Dems favored to win the two At Large seats back, they would have a 6-1 majority for next year. Hinojosa will be up for election in 2022, and Duhon in 2024.

So there you have it. There have been some attempts in the Lege to curtail the HCDE , and it won’t surprise me if there are bills to that effect filed in this session. Having a Dem House majority would block that. In the meantime, I don’t know what has gotten into Eric Dick, but I approve. Remember to vote in these races, they will be way down at the bottom of the ballot. Any chance you get to vote against Don Sumners, you owe it to yourself to take it.

Flynn to “challenge” GOP decision to boot him from HD138 ballot

Still more filing finagling.

Josh Flynn

Texas House candidate Josh Flynn is challenging a decision by the Harris County Republican Party to rule him ineligible for the House District 138 primary because he did not “properly” submit his resignation from the county education department.

Flynn, a Republican who was elected to the Harris County Department of Education board of trustees in 2018, resigned last week after his eligibility for the Legislature came under question and a Houston attorney formally requested the Harris County GOP deem Flynn ineligible.

Under a state law that makes people who hold a “lucrative office” ineligible for the Legislature, Flynn’s position on the HCDE board appeared to bar him from running for the House. Though trustees earn just $6 per meeting, the Texas Supreme Court has determined that “an office is lucrative if the office holder receives any compensation, no matter how small.”

Last week, Flynn submitted his resignation from the board and re-filed for the House District 138 primary. However, in a letter sent to Flynn Tuesday, Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson said Flynn was ineligible to run because he apparently submitted his resignation to the wrong person at the county education board.

“After you withdrew that initial application, HCDE administrative assistant Theresa Perez received notification of your resignation from the office of HCDE Trustee,” Simpson wrote. “The public records do not show that your resignation was delivered to the presiding officer, clerk, or secretary of the Harris County Department of Education.”

In the letter, Simpson cited a section of the Texas Election Code that says if an official is resigning from a governmental body, the resignation “may be delivered to the presiding officer of the body or to its clerk or secretary.”

Flynn did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He told the Texas Tribune Wednesday that he is “fighting” Simpson’s decision, and on Thursday sent an email to supporters assuring them he would appear on the ballot despite the party’s decision.

“While it is unfortunate that they came to this conclusion, I have great confidence that I will indeed be running to be your next State Representative in next year’s election as the Election Attorney feels it is an open and shut case,” Flynn wrote.

See here and here for the background. I assume this means that Flynn plans to take legal action to force his way back onto the ballot, in the same way that Judge George Powell has done. I have a bit more sympathy for Flynn’s position, though as before this is one of those things where good advice from a seasoned campaign professional probably would have saved the day. I have no dog in this fight, but I am very curious to see what happens. And again, the Lege could take action to clean up these bits of law – this here would likely take a constitutional amendment as well – so as to avoid this situation in the future.

Meanwhile, in other HCDE news:

The Harris County Department of Education Board of Trustees voted Dec. 18 to replace trustees George Moore, Position 1, Precinct 2 and Josh Flynn, Position 4, Precinct 3 with Amy Hinojosa and Andrea Duhon, respectively. Both Moore, board vice president, and Flynn, president, had tendered their resignations prior to the meeting.

“I give my sincere appreciation to Dr. George Moore and Josh Flynn for their service to the students and citizens of Harris County,” HCDE School Superintendent James Colbert Jr. said. “Dr. Moore is an outstanding man and has left a significant fingerprint on this organization as a fierce advocate for the underserved and as a great supporter for our 1,100 employees. Mr. Flynn was a good leader who is very well read, extremely efficient and took pride in his leadership post, and I wish him well in his new endeavors.”

Hinojosa, a Pasadena resident, was sworn into office shortly after her appointment. She is a 16-year, oil-and-gas project manager. She volunteers with an education advocacy group called ProUnitas. “I’m passionate about serving my community and about improving student outcomes,” said Hinojosa. “I look forward to the work ahead, and I’m excited.”

Duhon, a Katy resident, is a small business financial advisor who has a record for advocating for public education programs such as Head Start. HCDE currently serves 1,250 Head Start children and families in northeast and east Harris County. “I look forward to serving the community on behalf of the students of Harris County,” Duhon said.

Duhon, as the Chron story noted, lost by about 2,000 votes, or 0.6 percentage points, to Flynn in the 2018 election. I had completely forgotten this, but George Moore had won an even closer election in 2016, barely edging Sherri Matula by less than 500 votes and 0.2 percentage points. Duhon has filed for the Position 7 At Large seat in the 2020 primary, but in response to my question said she will be withdrawing from that race (there are three other candidates, including David Brown, who along with Duhon (then seeking the Position 5 At Large spot) had been an early entrant) and will serve the remainder of Flynn’s term, which runs through 2024. Some other mid-term appointments would require her and Hinojosa to run next year to fill out the unexpired terms, but apparently that is not the case for the HCDE Board.

This also means, as the Chron story points out, that the HCDE Board is now a 4-3 Dem majority, which had been the goal with the two At Large positions up for election. If the Dems win them, it’ll be a 6-1 split, with only Eric Dick on the Republican side (and, if you believe him, only kinda-sorta on the Republican side). That’s both exciting and a little worrisome, since the HCDE has been a target for some Republicans in the Lege to eliminate. Consider that a further incentive to win the State House in 2020. Also, too, At Large incumbent Michael Wolfe – you know, that guy – will not be running for re-election in 2020, as he takes another shot at knocking off Republican JP Russ Ridgway. Lots of changes on the HCDE Board, now and next year.

UPDATE: Flynn has now officially taken action:

Texas House candidate Josh Flynn sued the Harris County Republican Party on Thursday, alleging that party Chairman Paul Simpson erred in declaring Flynn ineligible for the House District 138 primary this week.

Flynn’s lawsuit, filed against the party and Simpson in state District Court, seeks a temporary restraining order and temporary and permanent injunctions to bar Simpson from ruling him ineligible.

[…]

In the lawsuit, Flynn contended that he effectively delivered his resignation to the board secretary — in this case Superintendent James Colbert Jr. — by leaving it with an administrative assistant in Colbert’s office while the superintendent was away.

Flynn, who also served as board president before resigning, claimed that he was personally the “presiding officer” of the board and therefore “delivered his resignation to himself.”

His attorney in the case is Jared Woodfill, the former Harris County Republican Party chair whom Simpson unseated in 2014.

We’ll see what happens with it.

Endorsement watch: HCDE

I believe this wraps up endorsement season.

Sherry Matula

Sherry Matula

County School Trustee, Position 1, Precinct 2: Sherrie L. Matula

We emphatically endorse Sherrie L. Matula in this race to replace Marvin Morris, a respected trustee who lost in the Republican primary. Matula, 65, has the resume of an education expert, working for decades as a school teacher in Clear Creek Independent School District and Pasadena Independent School District. She also served two terms on the CCISD Board of Trustees, on the board of the Texas State Teachers Association and as president of the Galveston County Education District.

County School Trustee, Position 2, Precinct 4: Marilyn Burgess

In this race to replace Board President Angie Chesnut, our strong choice is Marilyn Burgess, a certified public accountant. As the former director of the Texas Parent Teacher Association, Burgess, 62, would bring a valuable educational perspective to this board as well as financial expertise. If elected, Burgess, a Democrat, promises to make sure the county gets the most out of every dollar spent and to increase the classes available for high school dropouts to complete their diplomas, as she says these classes fill up the day that they open.

Matula, who made a couple of very respectable runs for State Rep in HD129 back in 2008 and 2010, has a shot at this, as Precinct 2 leans Republican but could easily go blue in a year like this where Democrats are polling so well countywide. Burgess is running in the most Republican Commissioners Precinct in the county – forget a landslide, it would likely require a tsunami to make that race competitive. Which is unfortunate, because the candidate who will get elected is Eric Dick, who will then join forces with Michael Wolfe to make a mockery of things. Getting Matula elected would help balance that out a bit, though there’s only so much one person can do. If you live in Precinct 2, which is Commissioner Jack Morman’s precinct, be sure to vote for Matula in this race.

This endorsement was published in Friday’s Chron, so they got them all in before early voting began. That has not always been the case, and I’ve criticized them in the past for being pokey about this, so kudos to the editorial board for their diligence. The full list of Chron endorsements for this cycle can be found here.