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HISD

Paxton threatens HISD over its COVID sick leave policy

We live in such stupid times.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton and Republicans in the Legislature are taking aim at Houston ISD, arguing that the district’s COVID sick day policy violates state law.

This academic year, Houston ISD is offering 10 additional days of paid sick leave to employees who are vaccinated against the coronavirus but test positive during the school year. Unvaccinated staff, however, must use personal leave time if they are infected.

In a nonbinding opinion last week, Paxton said the policy likely constitutes a “vaccine passport,” the documentation certifying a person’s vaccination status shown in exchange for “entry or services.” The GOP-led Texas Legislature last year outlawed such requirements for both private businesses and public agencies, and Gov. Greg Abbott issued a similar executive order banning the practice last summer.

“A court would likely conclude that, by offering additional paid leave only to those employees showing proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a medical exemption, the Houston Independent School District’s COVID-19 paid leave policy violates” the executive order, Paxton wrote.

Tejal Patel, a spokesperson for Houston ISD, said Paxton’s opinion “does not change the implementation” of the district’s paid leave policy. The last day of classes is just about seven weeks away.

“No court has ruled that the district’s policy of awarding additional leave days to vaccinated employees violates” the executive order, Patel said. “The district continues to evaluate its COVID protocols in our efforts to maintain a safe learning and working environment.”

The point of this was that since HISD couldn’t mandate that employees get vaccinated, they took the approach of incentivizing it by offering a reward to those who did. And it worked pretty well, as the story notes – over 20,000 of the district’s 24,000 employees have been vaccinated. In practice, this is no different than a million corporate wellness programs out there. The one I’m most familiar with offered a discount on your health insurance premium if you jumped through certain hoops, which ranged from things like taking a dumb survey to getting a blood test. If you participated – it was completely voluntary – you got a couple hundred bucks off the cost of your insurance for the year. This made sense for the insurer as well, as it (supposedly, at least) led people towards healthier lifestyles, which meant they’d pay out fewer claims.

So I struggle to see how one differs from the other. Except of course that we’re dealing with the extremely whiny snowflakes who refuse to get a COVID shot and who therefore must be catered to at every turn by politicians like Ken Paxton and Paul Bettencourt, who requested the opinion. God knows, we cannot deprive these special delicate flowers of anything. I approve of HISD’s response. So far, the school districts have done pretty well for themselves ignoring Paxton and Abbott. No guarantees here, and of course the Lege can deal with this next year if the Republicans remain in control, but for now I’d say keep on keeping on and hope for the best.

Superintendent House backs off a key piece of his budget plan

Sounds like he heard the concerns.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II on Wednesday said he would scrap a plan that would have centralized the funding of specific positions and programs, instead asking his administrators to come up with a plan that would let campus principals maintain control over their budgets while requiring they staff key positions and provide critical services.

“I have asked the leadership team to present a revised funding model that will create a more equitable baseline education for all students and maintain HISD’s commitment to campus-based budgeting that meets the specific needs of each unique student population,” House said in a letter to the Houston Independent School District community. “We will set clear expectations and hold each campus accountable for improving educational outcomes and eliminating achievement gaps for all students they serve.”

The letter said schools that have not had the money to invest in those key staff positions will receive additional funding to do so.

“All schools will be expected to provide a baseline education experience to all students beginning in the 2022-2023 school year,” the letter stated.

The development which House called a compromise, was the latest this week after House’s Chief of Schools, Denise Watts, told principals Monday the administration would be “revisiting the budget and staff allocation strategy.”

In Wednesday’s letter, House said his decision was the result of hearing from trustees and “many of you.”

See here for the previous update. I’m fine with this, as the main goal of achieving equity is still in there. The details matter as much as before, and we will need to continue talking about how this will be done, what will change, how funding can be ensured, and so on. But this was a good step for the Superintendent to take. The Press has more.

Maybe not so fast on the HISD budget stuff

I’m OK with this.

The Houston Independent School District may reconsider proposed budget changes that would have centralized the funding of certain positions and programs, a top district official told principals Monday.

“Our cabinet team is revisiting the budget and staff allocation strategy this week. As a result, we need to pause all budget meetings and your planning based on the previous allocation sheets,” Chief of Schools Denise Watts told principals via e-mail. “It is my hope that we will be able to communicate how to move forward soon. I apologize for any frustration or confusion that this may cause. I appreciate your flexibility and patience.”

[…]

Under the strategic plan, which aims to make the school system more equitable, the district would centrally fund such jobs as assistant principals, nurses and fine arts teachers in an effort to ensure all campuses staff those positions, which currently is not the case. Additionally, the plan calls for the district to centrally fund programs such as Advanced Placement, special education supports and athletics.

During the first workshops about the budget, several trustees had raised concerns about the lack of details they had received about the proposals, the speed at which the proposed changes would occur and how the district planned to pay for the strategic plan, which will be initiated with the help of federal COVID relief money.

“I am happy to hear the district is listening to the feedback,” Trustee Bridget Wade said Monday.

Wade last week tweeted that she was a “no” vote until she saw more research and data guiding the district. “The pause and redirect are a much needed start.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I agree with Trustee Wade, we need more time and data before we can move forward with this. I’m not making any judgments about Superintendent House’s proposals – as I’ve said, I generally like the goals, but the details very much matter, and so does buy-in from the stakeholders. Big changes need careful handling, and that takes time. I recognize that we can’t take forever, but we should take as much time as is needed, and we should very much listen to the concerns that have already been raised. I am hopeful this will proceed with all due care.

More on the HISD budget plan

Trustees make first contact with the Superintendent’s plans.

More than a month after Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II unveiled a strategic plan aimed at making the district more equitable, trustees still have unanswered questions about how to pay for it and concerns about whether parents and community members understand some of the changes that would occur.

Chief among the changes prompting some of those questions is House’s call to centralize funding for certain positions and programs, a shift from the district’s decentralized system that empowers school principals to spend their budgets as they see fit.

Under the plan, the district would centrally fund such jobs as assistant principals, nurses and fine arts teachers, in an effort to ensure all campuses staff those positions, which currently is not the case. Additionally, the district would centrally fund programs such as Advanced Placement, special education supports and athletics.

In interviews and during budget workshops this month, trustees largely have agreed that all campuses should have those staffers and programs but several say they want more information about how the changes will affect principals’ autonomy.

They also want to know how the district will pay for the initiative, which is projected to cost $255 million to implement in the first year of the five-year plan.

[…]

The district plans to use federal COVID-19 relief money and general budget funds to pay for the first year. Funding it in the other years, however, has not yet been discussed in great detail.

“This isn’t the first time that this type of change has been proposed, right? What I would like to see as a trustee is to see there is transparency around the process, that there is community understanding and buy-in,” said Trustee Judith Cruz, currently serving as board president, “and ultimately that there is alignment to the board’s vision and goals.”

Most recently, former Superintendent Richard Carranza proposed centralizing various staffing and budget decisions, but the plan fizzled out after he left the school system in 2018, less than two years into his tenure. His successor, interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, said the district needed more outreach before changing its funding model.

The district was expected to create a committee to study resource allocation. It is not clear if it ever did.

Trustee Dani Hernandez asked House during a workshop Thursday if that group ever had been formed and produced any reports. House said he was not aware of any.

“I feel like it’s a lot more of a plan than it previously was,” Hernandez said after last week’s presentation. “I still have a lot of questions about it.”

Administrators have said the change will not be a complete abandonment of the district’s decentralized operations but more of a hybrid model in which principals still will make some budgeting decisions.

Duncan Klussmann, former superintendent of Spring Branch ISD, said the level of autonomy given to principals that often is associated with HISD could lead to different programming available to students across the district without “guardrails.”

2019 report by the Texas Legislative Budget Board called for structural changes across the district after finding the decentralized model had delivered inconsistent resources to students and poor monitoring of spending.

“I think there is a balance that organizations are always looking to,” Klussmann said, “to try to figure out that right balance between campus autonomy and centralization.”

See here and here for the background. The story goes on to quote an expert who has some reservations about the plan and the speed with which it is moving forward. She and a colleague turned those concerns into this op-ed piece calling to slow things down.

Houston’s school board needs to take the time the city deserves to see if consolidating budget power back to the top is the right way to go. As such, we respectfully call for the board to stand up for the community and ensure a full public vetting process. It’s what such a monumental decision warrants before a well-established budget strategy with a lot of wins is ditched in the blink of an eye.

Those wins include the fact that the current model, known as weighted student funding, advances equity. Under the highly transparent model, the district gives schools more dollars for students with higher needs. Peer-reviewed research proves it: in fiscal year 2019, HISD spent $384 per student more on schools attended by the average low-income student than schools attended by other students. The weighted student funding strategy brought student achievement gains that won HISD the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education. (The link between implementation and positive student test scores is documented in our research .) And while the district today clearly has ample room to improve, in a district like HISD with very limited dollars, there’s no wiggle room to get it wrong. It is these successes that led the school board to make weighted student funding a cornerstone of district strategy.

The Houston superintendent’s move goes against the tide of dozens of mega-districts that have adopted WSF in recent years — from Atlanta and Denver to Chicago and New York, Memphis-Shelby County and Metro Nashville — each posting equity gains as a result. Most recently, District of Columbia Public Schools approved weighted student funding, swayed by the evidence backing it. And in 2015, the bipartisan federal Every Student Succeeds Act included a pilot program enabling districts to expand their weighted student formulas to include federal funds as well.

We understand that the natural state of many districts is to centralize power over finances. But HISD’s board has long resisted that pressure, choosing instead to run a system that gives principals latitude in how best to staff their schools to meet differing student needs.

[…]

The district need not jettison weighted student funding to mandate that all schools apply an effective reading curriculum or offer fine arts — things that leadership has called for. The district can absolutely require all schools to offer certain programs or services under weighted student funding; principals simply keep the leeway to decide how best to deliver those offerings at their school. It’s the district’s responsibility to then hold principals accountable for outcomes.

So, a centralized funding model does not win more money for schools. It does, however, incur losses. Principals — who know their students and the strengths of their unique mix of staff — lose their flexibility to decide how to tailor their resources to meet the needs of their diverse students. And a proven track record of equity hangs in the balance.

In working with scores of districts through our national school finance research center, we can confidently say that Houston’s rush to change is unprecedented. We have never seen a big-city district so dramatically overhaul its finance model without at least two years of planning. And while the threat of a state takeover continues to hang over HISD, there is no evidence that the Texas Education Agency is demanding this rapid-fire shift.

As I said before, I generally support the goals of Superintendent House’s vision. I’m fine with taking all the time needed to study it and make sure that we’re not disrupting things that are working well or implementing things that don’t have empirical backing yet. I’m out of my depth beyond that, so that’s all the more reason why I’d say taking more time on this is worthwhile.

January 2022 campaign finance reports: HISD

Previously: City of Houston

HISD campaign finance reports are almost always less sexy than city of Houston reports, but we just had some expensive races last year, so let’s see where all the current Trustees are with their finances.

Elizabeth Santos – Dist I
Kathy Blueford-Daniels – Dist II
Dani Hernandez – Dist III
Patricia Allen – Dist IV
Sue Deigaard – Dist V
Kendall Baker – Dist VI
Bridget Wade – Dist VII
Judith Cruz – Dist VIII
Myrna Guidry – Dist IX


Dist  Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
==========================================================
I     Santos        23,404     10,202        0         192
II    B-Daniels          0         59    2,000         132
III   Hernandez          0          0        0       2,192
IV    Allen              0          0        0           0
V     Deigaard       2,712     59,870        0      12,189
VI    Baker          2,100      2,000      208           0
VII   Wade           6,192     10,818    7,000       3,130
VIII  Cruz               0        460        0         686
IX    Guidry         6,805      9,046    5,500       2,256

Here are the July 2021 reports, and the 8 day reports from the general election. I didn’t post reports from the runoffs. For candidates not on the November 2021 ballot (Kathy Blueford-Daniels, Dani Hernandez, Patricia Allen, and Judith Cruz, these reports cover the last six months of 2021. It’s not surprising that they weren’t raising money during this time. For Myrna Guidry, who won in November without a runoff, this report should cover the period from the 8-day report in late October through the end of the year, but looking at it I can see that it includes contributions from August through October. It also lists a $2K in kind contribution of “polling expenses” from Rep. Alma Allen, but on her Subtotals page she has both that amount and the $6,805 that she has as her overall total listed as just cash contributions. Someone needed to review this report before it was submitted. For the other four, it covers the period from the 8-day runoff report in December through the end of the year.

Santos’ report obviously stands out here, but the vast majority of the amount raised was actually in-kind contributions, mostly in the form of mail and GOTV efforts on her behalf, and mostly from the Texas AFL-CIO and Sylvia Garcia campaigns. Just under $2K of that total were cash donations. Kendall Baker gave $1K to himself and also received $1K from the campaign fund of County Commissioner Tom Ramsey. Bridget Wade was also a recipient of Commissioner Ramsey’s generosity, to the tune of $2,500.

Sue Deigaard spent her money on mailers (about $24K), phonebanking ($10K), digital ads ($7,500), a newspaper ad ($2K) and texting ($1,500). There were also multiple expenditures ranging from $80 to $950 attributed to “blockwalking” that I didn’t bother adding up. I’m now moderately curious about what the unsuccessful candidates reported on their final form, but the houstonisd.org’s 2021 Election page appears to have been archived, so I’m not able to find the reports for non-incumbents now. Not a huge deal, I was just wondering, but it is a little annoying to not see that data now.

Not much else to report here. I’ll take a look at the HCC reports next, which will be equally not very exciting, and we’ll be caught up for now.

Appeals court upholds school district mask mandates

Maybe not the most timely ruling ever, but still nice.

An appellate court on Thursday sided with Texas school districts in their dispute with state officials over mask mandates, which numerous school systems have already lifted as pandemic conditions have eased.

The state’s the 3rd Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s orders that granted school districts temporary injunctive relief from the enforcement of an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting mask mandates.

In its opinion Thursday, the appellate court pointed to its opinion in a similar challenge involving Harris County. In that case, the court considered whether a disaster act gave the governor the authority to stop local government entities from implementing COVID-19 safety measures viewed by the governor as “more restrictive than necessary,” according to the opinion.

“For the reasons previously set forth in our opinion in Harris County, we again conclude that the Governor does not possess absolute authority under the Texas Disaster Act to preempt orders issued by governmental entities and officials,” Thursday’s opinion read.

Many, if not all, school districts that defied Abbott’s order have lifted their mask mandates, including Houston, Dallas, Spring and Aldine ISDs, which were among the plaintiffs.

[…]

With the opinion, the court confirmed the state Education Code gave districts the authority to decide.

“We conclude that the Education Code provisions granting broad authority to local school districts and community college districts to govern and oversee public schools within their districts do not prescribe ‘the procedures for conduct of state business,’” the opinion stated. “In sum, the Texas Disaster Act does not grant the Governor absolute authority to preempt orders issued by local governmental entities, such as school districts, and the provisions of the Education Code relied on by the school districts in issuing their respective facecovering requirements are not subject to suspension under … the Act.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. As noted before, the Supreme Court has yet to take up this question, though at this point maybe they just won’t since it’s not currently at issue. (That could of course change.) Ken Paxton is never one to take an L so I suspect he’ll continue to pursue this. I also strongly suspect that a top item on the agenda for the 2023 Lege, assuming no changes in the power structure, will be to amend the Education Code to explicitly prohibit school districts from making this policy without the permission of the Governor first. Have I mentioned that this is an important election coming up? Just checking. The San Antonio Report has more.

HISD’s budget plan

From the op-ed pages, a few words from Superintendent Millard House.

During a listening session at Chavez High School last September, a mother told me in tears that her child had to travel an hour each way to reach a magnet school. When parents and students don’t have options for a great education in their own neighborhood, it should not come as a surprise that Houston ISD has 20,000 fewer students enrolled since the 2016-2017 school year. While the COVID pandemic plays a major role in that number, enrollment had already begun dropping.

We need the trust of everyone in the community to turn things around. And to build that trust, as the superintendent, I must be frank.

When I was hired to lead the Houston Independent School District last summer, I believe I was clear-eyed about the opportunities and challenges I was taking on. If there was one thing that was not clear to me, it was the urgent financial challenges facing our district. Years of poor budgeting practices, unchecked waste and organizational inefficiencies combined with steady declines in enrollment have created a structural deficit that my administration could not have anticipated just a year ago. Now it’s time to do the work and start making the tough calls.

We have assembled a world-class team and built a five-year strategic vision for this district that — if we make hard choices and put students first in our decision-making — will stabilize the district and make it one of the few urban districts in the country that provides every student with an education that meets their unique needs and prepares them for success in life after graduation.

[…]

It is clear there are three things HISD must invest in to stabilize the district:

1. We cannot afford to lose any more students and we must bring new students into the district. Stabilizing and then growing enrollment is the single most important thing we can do to right-size the budget and meet our commitments to the Houston community.

2. We cannot afford to lose more experienced educators. When we lose teachers, kids suffer. We must pay our educators a competitive wage because it’s the right thing to do and HISD will not survive if we don’t.

3. We cannot afford the wasteful spending at the district- or campus-level that has not just created inefficiencies, but also exacerbated inequities across the communities we serve. We must centralize some aspects of school budgets to reduce costs and meet the needs of all children.

See here for more on the strategic plan. There are still a lot of details to be filled in, and of course there needs to be support for both from the community and the HISD Board. I like the overall direction, and I generally agree with the three points outlined above, though decades of “fiscal conservatism” mumbo-jumbo have left indelible scars that flare up in the presence of old saws about cutting waste and finding efficiencies like Harry Potter whenever He Who Must Not Be Named is up to something. We’ll see what the details and the next two budgets look like and go from there. The Press has more.

More school districts dropping mask mandates

Unsurprising.

Some of Texas’ biggest school districts are lifting mask mandates for students just weeks before spring break.

Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest district, and Dallas ISD announced Monday that they would not require students to wear masks. Austin ISD announced Wednesday it would stop requiring masks.

The move comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that coronavirus infection rates were slowing.

“It does give people hope for this spring,” said Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

All three districts enacted mask mandates in early August amid the delta variant surge and in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that says Texas schools can’t require masks.

At the time, dozens of school districts went against the governor’s order, and some were sued.

[…]

Candice Castillo, executive officer of student support services in Houston ISD, said recent data points to a dramatic downturn. In a district with about 195,000 students, there are 46 active cases, a 90% decrease in cases from the peak of omicron.

The district’s decision comes after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level from “severe” to “significant.”

“This is the right moment for us to make this decision,” Castillo said.

In Austin ISD, the district has seen a 97% decrease in cases over the last six weeks, and the current number of active cases represents less than 1% of the total student and staff population.

Stephanie Elizalde, Austin ISD superintendent, said Wednesday during an Austin ISD board meeting that the district is abiding by the CDC’s recommendations, but to keep in mind that the fluidity of the pandemic means that the mandate can come back when necessary.

See here for more on HISD lifting its mask mandate. You can feel however you want about this – I know a lot of people are still very apprehensive about easing off on precautions like masking, and I totally understand. I’m still masking in public indoor spaces, and likely will continue for the foreseeable future. But the point is, the districts got to make the decisions they thought were best, based on the status of the pandemic and the advice and guidance from the CDC. That more than anything is what we wanted and deserved. The fact that they managed to hold out in defiance of Abbott and Paxton for all this time is a victory. It could be a transient one – for sure, someone is going to file a bill next session to force school districts to bend the knee to the governor – but at least we have an election first that can affect that action. Again, that’s all we can reasonably ask for at this time.

On the matter of the still-unresolved litigation over the mandates and Abbott’s executive order banning them in the schools:

I Am Not A Lawyer, but my best guess is that SCOTx will eventually take this opportunity to decline to intervene on the grounds that there’s no longer a reason for them to get involved. I suppose they could order the lawsuits to be dismissed, but here’s where my non-lawyerness comes to the fore, because I don’t know if that’s a thing they normally do. Be that as it may, the stars have aligned for them the sidestep a politically charged case, and that I know is a thing they like to do.

HISD lifts its mask mandate

A bit earlier than expected.

The Houston Independent School District will lift its mask mandate Tuesday, no longer requiring the use of face coverings at all facilities and buildings, district officials said Monday.

The change in policy at Houston ISD arrived three days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed how it measures community spread to account for hospitalizations in addition to caseloads. Additionally, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo last week lowered the county’s COVID-19 threat level to “significant,” the second-highest possible threat level, while Mayor Sylvester Turner lifted a mandate that required city employees and visitors to municipal buildings to wear masks indoors.

“Masks within HISD schools, facilities, and school buses will become optional,” Superintendent Millard House II said in an e-mail to principals Monday morning. “Please encourage students, staff, and any other HISD stakeholders that may need an additional layer of protection or are exhibiting symptoms of a communicable disease to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.”

See here for the official announcement. I was expecting this to come in a couple of weeks, but here we are. My kids have been pretty dedicated mask wearers, so we’ll see what they and their friends do. I hope that we have done what we can to improve air circulation in the schools, and I hope this spurs some people to get their kids vaccinated. And I really really hope we don’t have to change directions again this semester. The Press has more.

HISD’s strategic plan

It sounds good. Let’s see what feedback it gets.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II on Thursday unveiled his long-awaited five-year strategic plan, offering an equity framework that would aim to equip all campuses with library, nursing and counseling staff, as well as fine arts, gifted and talented programming and special education support.

The plan also would increase teachers’ base salaries, offer signing bonuses to new educators, expand early childhood education and reorient how the district communicates with families.

HISD officials plan to outline the monetary details of the plan during a March 3 meeting to workshop the upcoming academic year’s budget. House said administrators have a “solid handle” on how the plan will be funded but declined to elaborate until that information is presented to the board in two weeks. Some initiatives will be funded with federal COVID-19 relief money.

“We know that everything that HISD does has a bearing on this great city,” House said. “When I say I am excited about the entire plan, I really am excited about the entire plan — from being able to compensate our educators in a manner that I know and think they deserve (to) being able to set a base system in terms of how we support our schools and a staffing plan, as well.”

The plan calls for increasing the range of teacher’s salaries by several thousand dollars over the next couple of years. Currently, teachers make between roughly $57,000 and $84,000, according to numbers shared Thursday. Under House’s plan, that range would increase by the 2024-25 school year to between $64,000 and $90,000. Additionally, the plan would implement raises for police officers, principals and assistant principals while updating the master pay scale for all of the district’s other support staff.

HISD also will offer signing incentives for new teacher hires; those with at least two years of experience who sign by April area expected to receive $5,000, and others would get $4,000. Teachers hired through August are expected to receive a $2,000 signing bonus. Meanwhile, current teachers who commit to teaching three more years at HISD will get signing bonuses each of the next three years — $500, $1,000 and $2,500, respectively.

[…]

The plan calls for centralizing the funding of specific materials and services to ensure all schools contain them, including fine arts and athletic programs; gifted and talented programming; special education supports; and substitute teachers.

The plan also would create a baseline of staffing to secure all campuses have 11 key positions staffed: principal, nurse or associate nurse, assistant principal or dean, counselor or social worker, librarian or media specialist, student information representative, physical education teacher, art or music teacher, administrative assistant, clerical worker and wraparound specialist.

The move appears to be a direct answer to community members, staffers and parents who attended a series of community forums last fall to make the case for nurses and librarians at all campuses.

See here for some background, and here for the message Superintendent House sent to parents. A copy of the strategic plan workshop is embedded in the story. The broad outlines of this sound good, but of course the details really matter. HISD has certainly tried to revamp its magnet school program in the past. It’s hard to do because it creates winners and losers, or at least the perception of such, and people who like what they have now aren’t usually all that happy to see it get changed. In five years’ time I won’t be an HISD parent any more, but I still care very much about getting this right, which among other things means doing it with the participation and buy-in of the community. I wish the Superintendent and the Board all the best with this. The Press has more.

HISD may lift the mask mandate after spring break

Seems reasonable.

Houston ISD students will get an extra day spring holiday and will complete the last day of the first semester before the winter break next school year under a calendar approved by the board of trustees Thursday.

The board also faced a parade of speakers demanding the district lift its mask mandate. The item, however, was not on the board’s agenda.

Superintendent Millard House II said the district planned to continue following COVID infection and spread data and, if trends hold, may reassess its policies in early March and potentially lift the mask mandate by the time students return to classrooms after spring break.

“When school resumes on March 21, a scenario exists where masks will be optional,” House said. “We can only get there, as we know, if we all pull together and continue our efforts of mitigation that we know work.”

First, my kids (or at least the one who will still be in HISD next year; the other will be off at college) definitely appreciate having the fall semester end at the start of winter break. Neither of them liked having to deal with finals in January. I suspect they are not alone in this.

Second, HISD had previously considered lifting the mandate at the end of 2021, but chose to keep it in place as omicron began surging. The intent was always to review the policy and scale it back or take it down when it made sense to do so. Some other large urban districts have already taken this step. It’s a complex decision, one that needs to balance evidence that masking has some negative effect on kids, especially younger kids, with the reality that even a “milder” form of COVID can still wreak havoc as teachers and support staff get sick and have to isolate. Hopefully the numbers will stay down enough for this to make sense, and if we’re really lucky maybe we’ll get a longer lull before (sigh) another variant comes along. Here’s hoping for the best.

HCC special election set

All you need to know.

On Saturday, May 7, 2022, Houston Community College System (“HCC”) will hold a special election to fill a vacancy in the HCC Board of Trustee position for geographic district II for the unexpired term through December 31, 2025.

Interested candidates desiring to run for a HCC Trustee Position must file for a place on the election ballot on or before Monday, March 7, 2022 at 5:00 p.m. (the “Filing Deadline”). All applications must be filed in person, by mail or e-mail at the following address:

Houston Community College System
Office of Board Services
3100 Main, 12th Floor
Houston, TX 77002
[email protected]

The HCC Office of Board Services will accept in-person applications for a place on the ballot during the designated filing period, Monday through Friday between 9:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. NO applications will be accepted after the Filing Deadline. There is no filing fee.

You may pick up an application form from HCC Office of Board Services at the address listed above or from the Texas Secretary of State’s website at https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/forms/index.shtml.

Please view the election Frequently Asked Questions below for additional election information.

For remaining questions, please contact the HCC Office of Board Services at 713-718-8398 or [email protected] Please note that HCC Office of Board Services is unable to provide legal advice.

See here for the background. The term of office is through December 31, 2025, so you get 3.5 years in office before you have to run again. As I have noted before, this election will be separate from the primary runoffs, which will occur on Tuesday, May 24. As also noted, this will be the only election administered by Harris County on that date. A quick view of the county election archives should convince you that it is unusual to have a May election in an even-numbered year in Harris County. There may be other elections on the May uniform election date – I’m told there will be one in Friendswood – but most likely they will not be run by the county. If you’re in HCC District 2, keep your eyes open for this. I’ll see about doing some interviews once candidates have filed.

Still on the horizon for HCC will be redistricting. No big deal, it should be a fairly simple matter of equalizing population, but it will need to be done. HISD has to do this as well, and their task will be similar. A decade ago, HCC had annexed North Forest and Alief ISDs and needed to include them in their plans. (HISD later took over North Forest and had to re-redraw its districts to accommodate that.) There’s nothing so complicated this time. Here’s the HCC redistricting page from 2011 if you want to get a feel for how this goes.

Back to school

Sort of.

Roughly one-quarter of Houston ISD students were absent Monday, the first day back following the district’s winter break, according to the district.

District officials released figures Tuesday that showed 45,515 students were absent on Monday and 26,259 on Tuesday, resulting in attendance rates of 76 percent and 85 percent, respectively. The district’s average daily attendance was 95 percent in the 2018-19 school year, the latest figures available from the Texas Education Agency.

While the data did not include reasons why students missed school, the absences offered a clue about the potential impact of the COVID-19 omicron variant surge on schools as they resumed instruction following breaks in the Houston region.

One possible reason for the high absenteeism on Monday: At least in my house, we all thought school didn’t start until Tuesday the 4th. Most years, the first Monday in January is a teacher in-service day, so schools are open but not for students. That was not the case this year, and it wasn’t until we saw an email from the Superintendent on Friday that we realized our error. I would not be surprised if some number of families had made travel plans that didn’t have them back in town until Monday. Obviously, COVID diagnoses and exposure and plain old fear played a role as well, but the difference between Monday and Tuesday is big enough that I think failure to understand the schedule was a factor. Just a thought.

Now that we’re a week into the school year, my kids, at two different HISD high schools, did not say anything about having a lot of substitute teachers or empty classrooms or anything like that. HISD does still have its mask mandate, so maybe that has allayed some fears, I don’t know. The younger kid has finals next week, so I am hoping for as much normality as the fates will grant us. Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, on a tangential note:

Houston Independent School District is calling on students and alumni for help to address the loss of learning its elementary students suffered due to challenges from the pandemic.

The district announced Wednesday that it is hiring 500 HISD students and alumni for spring semester tutoring positions at elementary schools throughout the district. The district is seeking students ages 15 and up and alumni currently in college for the position which pays $12 an hour, according to a release.

[…]

Student tutors will work in-person with shifts available during the school day, after school and on Saturdays, according to the release, and will be paired with a certified teacher for up to 20 hours a week to help third to fifth-grade students with core subjects like English, Math and Science.

The program begins in January and runs through the end of June, according to the release. Those interested should apply by Jan. 12 at apply.ieducateusa.org. No experience is required and the district welcomes all majors.

The HISD press release is here. Go check this out if you’re interested.

Back to school, kids

It’ll probably be fine. And honestly, there’s no appetite for anything else.

Most of Texas’ roughly 1,200 school districts will welcome students and staff back within the next week, even as other states debate whether to mandate vaccines for teachers and staff or even return to remote learning. Almost 1 in 4 COVID tests in Texan are coming back positive for the virus, and hospitalizations have increased by 1,613 patients compared with a week ago. As of Dec. 28, 4,917 Texans were hospitalized for the coronavirus.

As of Wednesday, there were 220 Texans under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. That number has been increasing since Christmas. Texas saw the highest number of people under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19 in early September, when it was at 345.

The omicron variant has been surging across the United States. So far, it has generally been less severe and deadly than the earlier delta variant. However, the federal government recommends that all children 5 or older get the vaccine.

At Cook Children’s Health Care System in Tarrant County, positive cases among children have climbed sharply since Dec. 21 — going from a 5.7% positivity rate to 22.1%. “We are seeing upwards of 400 positive COVID-19 cases among children per day,” Dr. Mary Suzanne Whitworth said in a statement. “This is similar to where we were in early September when delta was spreading rapidly in our area.”

Despite those numbers, education leaders have largely urged a return to regular in-person instruction, with precautions in place.

Superintendent Millard House II of the Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest, announced Wednesday that it will maintain its mask mandate and will start to offer free COVID-19 testing for students and staff.

“We are looking forward to adding this layer of protection to our COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” House said in a statement. “We remain committed to keeping our students and staff safe and working toward implementing strategies that can help us continue offering safe and sustainable in-person instruction.”

In Austin, the school district will continue to require masks on campus and will offer testing to students and staff and vaccination clinics for anyone 5 and older.

In an email sent to Austin parents, district administrators said they were keeping schools open because they were confident that mitigation strategies were working and because vaccines are now widely available.

“Our layered protocols work! We have been here before. We can do this. Our kids need the schools to stay open,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde wrote in the email.

She added that the Austin ISD would continue social distancing, serving lunches outdoors and using its advanced air filtration system to slow the spread.

HISD’s mask mandate has been a big success, though it hasn’t really been tested by omicron yet. If people are properly wearing appropriate masks, they can protect themselves pretty well. Better ventilation and doing whatever possible outside is helpful. I’d feel a lot better if a whole lot more kids were getting vaccinated, but maybe getting them back into schools will nudge a few more in that direction. Some universities have pushed back the start of in person classes for their spring semester in favor of online learning, but I just don’t see that as viable for the independent school districts, at least not at this time. Mask, ventilate, vax, test, and isolate as needed, and we can get through this. I’m hoping for the best.

HISD will not lift its mask mandate

Seems like an easy call at this point.

The Houston Independent School District will maintain its mask mandate and offer free COVID testing at campuses for students and staff in 2022, Superintendent Millard House II announced last week.

House previously said the district would review the mandate after the holidays. The largest public school district in the state, HISD remains one of the few school systems regionally with a mask requirement.

“In light of the surge of COVID-19 cases in Houston and the surrounding areas, HISD continues to prioritize safety, including providing additional vaccination and COVID testing opportunities,” House said in an email to parents.

The ongoing spread of the omicron variant, which has proven capable of evading some immunity from vaccines, has triggered a steep surge in cases nationwide. The average number of daily cases has more than doubled since Nov. 29, from 80,680 to 201,330, according to the New York Times COVID data tracker. The numbers are also climbing in Texas, which reported 10,600 confirmed new cases last Thursday, the highest total since Oct. 6.

HISD data only shows confirmed cases up to Dec. 17. The district reported 143 positive cases on that day, up from 22 on Dec. 10.

Starting in January 2022, the district will offer free COVID-19 PCR tests on campuses to HISD students and staff. A one-time consent is required for testing and can be filled out at the following link https://bit.ly/HISDC19Test.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of Superintendent House’s email. It was reasonable, back in November when things were looking good and Harris County was lowering its threat level to consider whether the mask mandate was still needed after the holidays. For obvious reasons, things have changed since then, and it would be more than a little unwise to take other action. If omicron burns itself out quickly, if the kid vaccination rate skyrockets, the district can consider the question again later. For now, there was no other call to make.

And by the way, isn’t it nice how HISD called Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton’s bluff on their mask mandate ban and threats to sue over HISD’s totally correct action? That has paid off in spades, and brings with it the extra zest of knowing we beat them fair and square. A whole lot more districts should have followed this path.

Indictments and guilty pleas in FBI investigation of former HISD officials

Woof.

A former top Houston ISD official and vendor were indicted Thursday in connection with an alleged bribery scheme over the last decade that federal prosecutors estimate cost the district millions of dollars and resulted in plea agreements with at least five other former district officials, including a former president of the district’s Board of Education.

Federal authorities arrested former Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby, 43, and contract vendor Anthony Hutchison, 60, both of Houston, on Thursday, hours before their initial court appearance. Both men pleaded not guilty to all counts and were expected to be released under conditions that include no contact with current and former HISD employees with the exception of Busby’s wife, who prosecutors said has filed for divorce.

Prosecutors accused Busby of helping award HISD construction and grounds maintenance contracts to Hutchison in return for cash bribes and hundreds of thousands of dollars in home remodeling, according to a 26-count indictment unsealed Thursday.

“This investigation and resulting indictments reflect my office’s commitment to rooting out public corruption,” Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery said in a statement. “We will not stand idly by when there are people in positions of trust who are suspected of such wrongdoing.”

Dick DeGuerin, Busby’s lawyer, denied any wrongdoing by his client.

“For most of his adult life, Brian Busby has been a loyal employee of HISD, rising from the lowest employment to chief operating officer,” DeGuerin said. “He has never taken a penny from any contractors or any illegal money — ever. I am sure that a fair jury will find him innocent.”

[…]

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who served two terms as HISD trustee between 2012 and 2019, and as board president in 2015 and 2018, was among the former officials charged in connection with the alleged bribery scheme and pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. She currently serves as a Houston Community College Trustee. It was not clear Thursday whether she would have to resign or be fired. A spokesman for the college did not respond to a request for comment.

She also worked for Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ community and government affairs team until Thursday.

“The news today came as a shock to us, and we never had any indication of such inexcusable wrongdoing during her time at Precinct One,” Ellis’ office said in a statement. “Upon learning of this news today, her employment was immediately ended.”

Attempts by the Chronicle to contact Skillern-Jones, as well as the other former officials who entered plea agreements, were unsuccessful Thursday.

Those other former employees were identified by prosecutors as Derrick Sanders, 50, Missouri City, officer of construction services; Alfred Hoskins, 58, Missouri City, general manager of facilities, maintenance and operations; Gerron Hall, 47, Missouri City, area manager for maintenance; and Luis Tovar, 39, Huffman, area manager for maintenance.

Sanders had joined Aldine ISD in September 2020 and voluntarily resigned Oct. 22, school officials there said.

Saying he was “extremely outraged,” HISD Superintendent Millard House II, who began leading the largest public school district in Texas in July, told the Chronicle he had ordered a review of the internal team and systems for contracting and vendors, as well as an external review of the district’s procurement procedures before he was even made aware of the charges. He said he had made changes “to make sure everyone on my staff knows it is a new day inside HISD.

“I am outraged. Outraged that we’re talking about this. Outraged how adults who are supposed to be working for the public trust may have taken money from children,” House said. “In my 26 years as an educator — in Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee — I have never seen such a failure. As a parent, as a teacher, as a taxpayer, I promise you – HISD will do everything in its power to never be vulnerable to this kind of alleged misconduct again.”

He added: “I will not be deterred by 10 years of corruption, waste, and fraud that came before me. My team did not create this problem, but we will solve it. Permanently.”

See here for the background. The Chron’s editorial board ripped into Skillern-Jones for her role in this debacle. I wish Superintendent House all the best in cleaning up whatever remains of this mess. And a note to the other HCC Board members: You should probably try to get Trustee Skillern-Jones to resign from that position.

On a completely tangential note, the story that the FBI raided Brian Busby’s house was in late February of 2021, so about 21 months ago. There’s another FBI probe of interest happening in this state, and it began in November/December of last year, or about 12-13 months ago. Just offering that data point as some perspective on how long it can take for these things to go from beginning to indictment, in case your mind works like mine does.

UPDATE: Rhonda Skillern-Jones has resigned as HCC Trustee. Good. The HCC Board will name a replacement for her, with that person having to run again in 2023.

2021 runoff results

Here are the vote totals, and here’s an early Chron story which has the results right but was just before the last batch came in. To summarize:

– Sue Deigaard had the only easy night – she led by 30+ points early on and cruised to a 64-36 win.

– Bridget Wade had a modest early lead, which stretched out to a 54-46 win.

– The next closest race was in HCC, where Eva Loredo had a small lead all the way, eventually winning by five points.

– Elizabeth Santos held on by 41 votes, and unfortunately Kendall Baker finally managed to get elected to something, by 78 votes. It would not surprise me if there are recounts in either or both of these, though as we know, those seldom make any difference.

– The HISD board has Republicans on it again, for the first time since the 2017 election that put Deigaard and Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca on and gave Anne Sung a full term. Democrats now hold a 7-2 advantage on the board. I fully expect Wade and Baker to make trouble, but they’re not going to be able to get anything passed unless they can convince at least three other members to go along with them.

– So is this a portent of Bad Things to come for Democrats? Eh, maybe, but I wouldn’t read too much into it. These were pretty solidly Republican districts – as was Deigaard’s – before 2017, and both Sung and Vilaseca were caught up in the Abe Saavedra fiasco. For what it’s worth, Harvin Moore beat Anne Sung by a similar 53-47 margin in the 2013 race, while Mike Lunceford in V and Greg Meyers in VI were unopposed. In fact, the last election in District VI before 2017 that wasn’t unopposed was in 1997.

– Total turnout in the four HISD district was about 35K, which is right about where I thought it would be.

– Election results came in at normal times, with the first Election Day numbers coming in at 8:15 and the final tallies being posted three hours later. Isabel Longoria tweeted that it was a wrap at 11:27. I saw some concerns about slowness at the voting sites related to the processing of the paper receipt, but I think that can be ameliorated by having more scanners at voting locations for future, higher-turnout elections.

It’s 2021 Runoff Day

The interactive map of voting locations is here, and a list with addresses is here. I do believe that most of the votes for the runoff have already been cast, but I’ve been wrong before. I’ll have results tomorrow. Those of you in HISD district V (Sue Deigaard), VI (Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca), and VII (Anne Sung) really need to make sure you vote.

Final 2021 runoff early voting totals

The last day of early voting is always the busiest. (Well, other than the 2020 election, but you get the idea.)

Early voting for four Houston ISD board seats and local council races ended Tuesday with 21,732 ballots cast, according to unofficial county totals.

The final day of voting saw its largest turnout for in-person balloting, with 2,851 voters hitting the polls, about 1,200 more than the next highest one-day total.

Election day will be Saturday for the HISD seats, individual city council races for Bellaire and Missouri City, and a trustee race in the Houston Community College System that were forced into runoffs after none of the candidates in the contests secured at least half the vote during the Nov. 2 election.

Polls will be open Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. To find your ballot, go to harrisvotes.com

You can see the final totals here. While the mail and in person totals were almost identical as of Saturday, there were about 5K in person votes cast on Sunday through Tuesday, but only a thousand mail ballots were returned. I thought we’d get to about 20K votes by Tuesday, so I was a bit pessimistic, but in the ballpark. My estimate from the weekend of 30-35K total votes overall may be a bit low as well, but I’m sticking with the idea that more than half of the votes have been cast already. Put the over/under at 35K, and we’ll see what happens. That would make turnout for the runoff about 75% of turnout from November for the affected districts. We’ll know by Sunday. Have you voted yet?

2021 runoff early voting report: Just checking in

I haven’t been following the daily early voting reports for the runoffs very closely. Only a small portion of the populace is voting, so comparisons to the November EV totals don’t mean anything. But we’re most of the way through the EV period, and I voted yesterday, so I thought I’d take a look. You can see the report through Saturday here. So far, about 15K votes have been cast, with an almost exact 50-50 split between mail ballots and in person ballots.

For what it’s worth, there were about 48K votes cast in the HISD districts that have runoffs. I’m not including the HCC 8 total as there’s overlap – I’m in both HISD I and HCC 8. Maybe we get to about 20K early votes by the end of the period on Tuesday – I’ll take a look after early voting ends. I would guess that in the end maybe 30-35K total votes are cast – I’d bet that early voting will be a significant majority, maybe two thirds of the final total. All of this is of course extremely back-of-the-envelope, but I feel reasonably comfortable saying that final runoff turnout won’t equal or surpass November turnout. At least, not cumulatively – it’s possible one of the districts could be running ahead. I’ll revise all of this when I see the final EV numbers.

One more thing – I voted at the West Gray multi-service center, which used to be my go-to place but isn’t now that there are places closer to my house, and since I don’t have a commute that takes me past there any more. This was the first time I’ve voted there without seeing a single candidate or campaign volunteer. That place is always jumping, so that felt very weird. Have you voted, and if so did you encounter anyone with a campaign?

HISD will keep its mask mandate

This is in response to that recent Fifth Circuit ruling about mask mandates in schools and whether Greg Abbott’s ban on them violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Houston Independent School District will keep its mask mandate in place, district officials said Thursday, despite a federal appeals court ruling halting an injunction on Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting such requirements.

“The ruling does not impact the requirement that students, staff, and visitors must wear masks while on HISD property. This mandate remains in place for HISD schools,” the district said in a statement. “While we are heartened that we have maintained the lowest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the state and vaccinations are now available for our youngest students, HISD’s mask mandate will remain in place for students, staff, and visitors in all HISD schools, buildings, and buses regardless of vaccination status.”

HISD plans to review the mandate at the end of its semester after the holidays, Superintendent Millard House II said last month.

House implemented HISD’s mandate shortly before the start of the school year and the board of trustees voted to express support for it.

The district, by and large, has avoided significant backlash from individuals opposing the mandate, outside of a handful of parents who have addressed House and trustees at board meetings and during a recent series of community forums.

The district’s statement noted that HISD and other districts sued over the governor’s order in state district court. The lawsuit, it said, is based on state law regarding the authority of Texas school districts to make health and safety decisions for their students. It remains in litigation.

See here for more on the Fifth Circuit ruling. As noted, Superintendent House did say that HISD would consider lifting its mask mandate after the holidays if conditions continue to improve; who knows what will happen now that the omicron variant is out there. The federal lawsuit really didn’t have much bearing on HISD anyway, since they were among the plaintiffs that had sued Abbott in state court over his mandate ban, and won an injunction that as far as I know is still in place; besides, Abbott and Paxton don’t have any authority to enforce it anyway. The district and the Superintendent are doing the right thing. Keep on keeping on. The Press has more.

Early voting starts today for the 2021 runoffs

You know the drill – It’s runoff time for the 2021 elections, and early voting starts today. There are nine early voting locations, which you will find in the various districts that have runoffs – HISD districts I, V, VI, and VII, and HCC district 3, as well as City Council races in Bellaire and Missouri City(*). Early voting runs from today through next Tuesday, December 7. Early voting hours will be from 7 AM to 7 PM each day, except for Sunday the 5th, when it will be 12 PM to 7 PM. You can vote in the runoff whether or not you voted in November, though of course you can only vote if you’re in one of those places.

The HISD runoffs are particularly important because there are some characters in those races that we really don’t want or need to have in positions of power. The race in District I, which is my district, is one where reasonable people may reasonably disagree on the better choice. The races in districts V, VI, and VII involve perfectly fine endorsed-by-the-Chronicle incumbents against people who are going to crusade against masks and “critical race theory” and a whole lot of other nonsense. District VI in particular features a perennial candidate who frankly got too damn many votes in November despite a documented history of sexual harassment, and as I have come to find out, credible allegations of domestic abuse following his divorce a couple of years ago. Vote for Sue Deigaard in V, for Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca in VI, and for Anne Sung in VII.

The race in HCC is also one where you can go either way; the Chron restated their endorsement of challenger Jharrett Bryantt over the weekend. Get out and vote, you have plenty of time to do so.

(*) Several non-HISD districts don’t have runoffs, as a plurality is enough.

Re-endorsement watch: This time it’s Anne

Time to start thinking about those HISD and HCC runoffs, kids. The Chron has started thinking about them, because they have issued their endorsements for the runoffs. Of the four HISD runoffs, three involve candidates they endorsed the first time around: Incumbents Sue Deigaard and Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, and challenger Janette Garza Lindner. In the District VII race, the candidate they endorsed did not make it to the runoff, so they had to try again, and this time they went with the incumbent, Anne Sung.

Anne Sung

Now it comes down to incumbent Anne Sung, a 42-year-old, Harvard-educated, former award-winning HISD physics teacher, strong advocate for special education and truly experienced board member who unfortunately made some poor choices that dimmed our view of her performance. In 2018, she joined colleagues who met secretly with former Superintendent Abe Saavedra, which state officials say violated Texas’ open meetings law. Three days later she voted to swap Saavedra for interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

Sung apologized and said she only wanted Saavedra’s advice on state oversight issues and didn’t know of plans to hire him until moments before she voted for it. That excuse wasn’t quite sufficient. Still, incumbents only lose our endorsement when there’s a qualified replacement, and now we don’t believe there is one.

In the runoff, Sung faces Bridget Wade, 53, who touts her service as former Briargrove Elementary PTO president and carnival chair. She also sat on the Episcopal High School Board of Trustees.

In our interview with Wade, she talked about putting kids first and restoring integrity to the HISD board but she failed to articulate specific plans for doing so. Parroting phrases such as “best practices” and “school choice” offers little.

Far more concerning has been Wade’s willingness to pander to the right wing of the Republican Party, where she derives much of her support. She doesn’t just oppose HISD’s mask requirement, she dismisses it, without an ounce of introspection, as a “partisan political battle.”

It’s not a partisan act to implement policies that keep kids and teachers safe. It’s a partisan act not to. Communicable diseases are spread in the community and they’re fought the same way.

Last month, Wade cheered on some unmasked parents who became upset at having to wait to speak at a long meeting and began surrounding Superintendent Millard House II and shouting him down: “You do not walk away from us!” one yelled at him during a break. “You work for us!”

“Exactly right!” Wade responded on Twitter. “And the good woman who screamed that will know I work for you.”

Yelling and dysfunction are not the way. Not for parents. And not for HISD board members. We believe Sung understands that. She was never one of the disruptive voices and we believe she’s learned her lesson from the shenanigans of the past.

Her experience and dedication to HISD students speak for themselves. We urge voters to back Sung in the runoff for District VII.

See here, here, and here for the previous endorsements. As I said before, Sung is in a tough spot, as she trailed Wade on Election Day and doesn’t have nearly the campaign cash as the challenger. The district was also a Republican one in the pre-Trump days, though perhaps if the runoff voters see Wade as in the Trump mold that could help Sung. She has her work cut out for her. Early voting for the runoff starts Monday and runs through the following Tuesday, December 7. Get ready to vote again.

HISD will consider lifting its mask mandate

After the holidays, depending on how things go.

Houston ISD will consider changing its mask mandate policy after the winter break in the wake of expanded vaccine eligibility for youngsters and improving pandemic conditions in the city, Superintendent Millard House II said Monday.

House noted there have been spikes of COVID-19 infections following holidays since the pandemic began and said he would like to get through the winter holidays before deciding whether to lift the face-covering rule.

The district will seek feedback from the community about whether it should modify its mandate before making a decision, he said.

“We would like to get through the holidays and then we will come back from the holidays and consider what the data is telling us at that particular point,” House said. “And if we are continuing to push forward in the right direction — like we are heading right now — there will be consideration around, you know, not making the mask mandate mandated.”

[…]

Earlier this month, County Judge Lina Hidalgo reduced the threat level of COVID from “severe” to “significant” due to a decrease in new cases and hospitalizations. She encouraged unvaccinated persons to avoid gatherings, wear a mask and get a vaccine while asking those fully vaccinated to wear masks indoors due to significant transmission.

The Texas Medical Center reported 43 new hospitalizations on Sunday. Approximately 56.7 percent of the county’s population is considered fully vaccinated, per county data; that reflects nearly 69 percent of population aged 12 and older who are eligible for the vaccine. Across Texas, 54 percent of the population is considered fully vaccinated, according to state data.

Dr. Omar Matuk-Villazon, a pediatrician and Chief Medical Officer at the UH College of Medicine, said he has heard from children who are excited to get a shot because they see it as a way to get rid of masks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends universal masking in schools, but he said discussing paths to getting rid of mandates is a worthwhile conversation.

“Let’s have every kid who wants to be protected get protected and then let’s decide after that,” Matuk-Villazon said. “We may lose public health care trust. … We need to have a plan.”

At HISD, House has repeated since implementing the mandate less than two weeks before a full return to in-person instruction in August that it could be changed, depending on the circumstances of the pandemic. During recent town halls, he told some parents who asked him to consider changing it that it was his hope to, when the time is right.

Since the start of school, the district of nearly 195,000 students, has logged 3,569 cumulative cases among kids and 496 among staffers. As of Monday, it reported 241 active cases, 213 of which were students and 28 staffers.

As the story notes, some area districts have already lifted their mask mandates, while others haven’t made any plans to do away with theirs. HISD is also partnering with the Houston Health Department to provide vaccines for children ages 5 and up at select schools. I’m basically fine with this plan, and if you’ve listened to any of my HISD candidate interviews, you know this combination of “more vaccinations plus a sufficiently low case rate” was the consensus view for when the mask mandate should be eased up. I don’t think we need to be in any rush, so waiting to see if there are any post-holiday spikes is a good idea.

HISD really has done a good job of keeping everyone safe so far this semester. I can tell you, the number of calls and emails I’ve gotten about confirmed cases at my kids’ schools is far less than it was last spring. We should want to get to a point where it’s safe to let people go maskless. I hope this means that the vax rate among HISD teachers and staffers is sufficiently high to pursue this, and I would be very happy for them to continue to enforce masking among those who aren’t vaxxed. They’re the risky ones, after all. In the meantime, let’s set this goal, and then work to make it reachable. It’s worth doing.

It’s mostly about the gay books

Color me not surprised.

Greg Abbott in the 80s

While a Texas House committee chairman’s inquiry into schoolbooks has often been linked to new state laws limiting how teachers address slavery and racism, most of the literature he’s called into question deals with a wholly different subject: LGBTQ issues.

That has also been the focus of Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent demands of the Texas Education Agency to work with other statewide agencies to set standards to prevent schoolchildren from exposure to what he’s defined as “pornography or other inappropriate content” and to investigate any possible related crimes. The books that prompted such labels and backlash from parents at a handful of Texas school districts are written by LGBT authors and discuss LGBT identity and relationships.

Democrats have denounced the Republican efforts as politically motivated attacks meant to gin up support from their base that they say will ultimately result in censorship and harm students, especially those who are already marginalized.

It’s part of a trend of conservative-led fights across the country over how schools can teach about issues of race, particularly systemic racism, as well as sex and gender, blurring the already faint line between local and national politics.

Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, chairman of the House General Investigating Committee, had given the districts until Friday to respond to his inquiry. Several reached by Hearst Newspapers — including Katy and Fort Bend in the Houston area and Northside and Spring Branch in the San Antonio area — said Thursday that they were still reviewing the request and/or did not expect to make the deadline.

The letter had asked districts whether they carried any books on a list of about 850 that included Pulitzer Prize winners and other acclaimed literature.

Krause, who has not responded to multiple requests for comment, has said the purpose of his request is to verify that the districts are in compliance with new laws passed this year.

[…]

Danika Ellis, who runs The Lesbrary, a blog about lesbian and bisexual books, reviewed the list of titles Krause ran by school districts. She found — as a Hearst Newspapers analysis also concluded — that more than 60 percent of the books had to do with matters related to LGBT topics. About 20 percent touched on transgender issues or featured a transgender character. At least 9 percent related to sex education.

That’s compared with just about 8 percent that relate to race and racism. The rest of the books were not as easily categorized but related to topics such as teen pregnancy, abortion, contraception, sexual assault and sexually transmitted diseases.

“This house bill is supposed to prevent ‘discomfort,’ but what about the discomfort of kids who experience racism or who never see themselves represented in the curriculum or the books on the shelves?” Ellis wrote on her blog. “What about the discomfort of queer kids who see that even mentioning people like them is categorized as inappropriate or obscene or even ‘pornography’?”

HB1525 was primarily meant to make adjustments to the major school finance bill, HB3, passed in 2019. But a last-minute amendment by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, inserted language that required school boards to develop a policy for the adoption of human sexuality curriculum and set new guidelines for boards to follow in approving the curriculum.

They now have to take into account the advice of local school health advisory councils, parent groups appointed by school boards that give recommendations. They also were already required to ensure any approved materials were “suitable for the subject and grade level for which the curriculum materials are intended” and “reviewed by academic experts.”

Hughes did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, who co-authored the bill and chairs the Texas House LGBT Caucus, said it “never had the breadth” that Krause is claiming it has.

“The SHAC was put into a school finance bill to continue to target sex education when we know research tells us the opposite: that medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education is really important to holistic development,” González said. “However, what Rep. Krause has been trying to do over the last few weeks is beyond sex education and beyond the SHAC’s work, and he is primarily doing this not out of concern for children but out of political advantage for his own attorney general race.”

See here and here for the background. As of Friday afternoon, Austin and Dallas ISDs had said they will not respond to Krause’s request; it’s my hope that more ISDs, including Houston, will follow suit. The Trib has two more stories about this publicity/campaign stunt by Krause, which you can read as you see fit. I hate giving the little twerp any more attention for this, but ignoring it doesn’t seem right, either.

Some years ago, I was having a discussion with a friend about then-Mayor Annise Parker’s victory in the 2009 election over Gene Locke. I was trying to figure out why Parker did better in the Republican City Council districts than Locke did, given that Locke had made some effort to woo Republican voters. My friend’s response was “they’re more racist than they are homophobic”, which I still think about from time to time. From the vantage point of today, maybe that’s not so clear anymore.

Runoffs will be on December 11

As is usually the case, the second Sunday in December for municipal and school board/community college runoffs.

Runoff elections will be held Dec. 11, the Harris County Elections Department announced Friday.

Four Houston ISD board seats, and individual council races for Bellaire and Missouri City, as well as a trustee race in the Houston Community College System will be decided in runoffs after none of those candidates won more than 50 percent of the votes cast.

Early voting is scheduled to begin Nov. 29 and end Dec. 7. Voters can cast ballots between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. during early voting, except for Dec. 5 when polls will be open from noon to 5 p.m.

Election day voting hours will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and permit individuals in line by the cutoff time to vote even if their ballot is not cast until later.

Elections officials said they must wait for a Nov. 8 deadline before completing a final canvass of results and officially announcing runoff races. Four of five open HISD board seats were forced into a runoff, per unofficial returns.

The runoffs include four HISD trustee races, one Houston Community College board seat, and a single city council race in Bellaire and Missouri City.

The HISD runoffs have the potential to bring significant change to the Board of Trustees, though I think in the end the effect is likely to be fairly small.

Three incumbents — Elizabeth Santos in District 1, Sue Deigaard in District 5, Holly Flynn Vilaseca in District 6 — all were the leading vote-getters in their races, but failed to garner at least 50 percent of the ballots cast. Trustee Anne Sung in District 7 finished about 4 percentage points, or 631 votes, behind challenger Bridget Wade in unofficial returns. Neither passed the 50 percent threshold.

The only HISD race decided by voters Tuesday was for District 9, where Trustee Myrna Guidry fended off two challengers with nearly 61 percent of the vote.

The outcome of the runoffs, which will be scheduled for next month, could alter the board just as the district has reached a sense of stability with new Superintendent Millard House II preparing a multi-year strategic plan and the district considering its first bond referendum in nearly a decade.

The district still faces a potential takeover threat by the Texas Education Agency, but that effort remains tied up in litigation.

Two paths led to runoffs, said Jasmine Jenkins, executive director of education nonprofit Houstonians For Great Public Schools.

First, she said, there have been national conversations led by conservatives to encourage people to run for local office, sometimes by playing to racial divides and appealing to grievances, such as those surrounding mask mandates to fight the spread of COVID-19.

At the same time, and more locally, Jenkins said there may be voters who are happy with the district’s direction and current stability but wary of any board members “steeped in the dysfunction of years past.”

[…]

“I am still cautiously optimistic about what is to come no matter what the results of the runoffs are,” Jenkins said. “I am hopeful not just for stability and improved governance, but I am hopeful that the bold ideas of a new superintendent will be really supported and will be given shape by the vision and direction that the board gives him.”

I’m the least worried about Sue Deigaard, who came very close to getting fifty percent. Elizabeth Santos is in a similar position as she was going into the 2017 runoff, except this time she’s facing a Latina instead of an Anglo opponent. I think she’s a favorite to win again, but it’s not a sure thing. This is the one race where the ideology of the Board member won’t change that much either way, at least on the current hot button issues like masking and whatever the “critical race theory” debate is supposed to be about.

I think Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca is also the favorite to win in District VI, mostly because her opponent is a clueless perennial candidate, but the margin in round one was a lot closer than I would have liked. She’s going to need to work it to win, and I really hope she does because Kendall Baker would be a disaster on the Board. As for Anne Sung, she’s clearly in trouble. Running behind a candidate who has more money than you is never a good spot to be in. This is the one race in which the Chron will have to redo their endorsement, and I’ll be very interested to see if they care more about Bridget Wade’s opinions on those hot button issues or the quality of Anne Sung’s apology in the Saavedra/Lathan open meetings fiasco. They either overlooked or didn’t notice the “critical race theory” issue with their initial endorsement, so we’ll see.

As for HCC, we’re stuck with Dave Wilson again sigh but at least the runoff in District 8 between incumbent Eva Loredo and challenger Jharrett Bryantt isn’t a threat to the board’s functioning. Please remember that these elections are as important as the November elections, and make a plan to vote if you live in one of these districts.

More on the November 2021 election results

Here’s the Chron story on the Tuesday election results. It is mostly a straight recording of the individual races, including those I covered yesterday and others that I didn’t. Of the most interest to me is this:

Results were delayed until late Tuesday, in part because of a reported power outage at Harris County Elections’ counting center. Early and absentee totals were not available until after 10 p.m.,

“The machines are sensitive to any interference, so to ensure the integrity of the computers we conducted a full logic and accuracy test, which takes about two hours,” according to a Facebook post by the county’s elections administration office. “Though we want to get the results out quickly, we prioritize processing everything accurately even if it takes some extra time.”

The post said judges were dropping off equipment at the central counting location at that time.

People still were voting at 8 p.m., about an hour after polls closed, at one poll location, Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria tweeted.

“Standby, watch the Astros, and we’ll catch you soon,” Longoria said in the Tweet.

The Astros advice probably didn’t help anyone’s mood, but that’s hindsight. The Facebook post in question, which contains video of Longoria explaining what is happening, is here – there are more vids further up the page as well. Campos was furious, called it a “botched” night and an “epic failure”, and expects “outrage” from Commissioners Court. Stace was more measured, saying “these glitches give the County a chance to fix things so we can avoid them when everyone shows up next November”. I lean more in that direction, but I get the frustration – I wore myself out hitting Refresh on Tuesday – and there are a lot of questions to be asked and answered. I will be interested to see how the Court reacts.

Longoria also had this to say, on Twitter:

The line about jail voting refers to this. Not sure where she’s getting the 12% turnout figure from – going by the Election Day totals posted, there were 227,789 votes cast out of 2,482,914 registered voters, for 9.17% turnout. Still, that’s a significant increase from 2017, which had 150,174 ballots cast out of 2,233,533 voters, for 6.72% turnout. That’s a 52% increase in voters, or a 36% increase in turnout as a percentage of registered voters, in a year where there was nothing sexy on the ballot. What gives?

It could be an effect of a more energized Republican base, going to the polls to express their feelings about President Biden. I don’t know that the Constitutional amendments were a great vehicle for that, but maybe the school board races were. Conservative challengers are in runoffs in three races, so maybe that had something to do with it. Here’s a comparison of turnout from 2017 to 2021:


Year  Dist   Votes  Voters  Turnout
===================================
2017     I   9,784  78,479   12.47%
2021     I  10,108  87,671   11.53%

2017     V  12,431  85,309   14.57%
2021     V  17,153  89,123   19.25%

2017    VI   7,399  73,575   10.06%
2021    VI   8,972  77,508   11.58%

2017   VII  12,219  89,177   13.70%
2021   VII  15,596  99,824   15.62%

2017    IX   8,622  84,185   10.24%
2021    IX   8,935  90,067    9.32%

On the one hand, the two races that didn’t prominently feature conservative candidates actually had less turnout (at least percentage-wise) than they did in 2017. On the other hand, outside of the District V race, the increase wasn’t that much. In District VI, it was a jump of 21% in total voters, and 15% in turnout of RVs, and in District VII, it was 27% for voters and 14% for turnout of RVs. Not nothing, but much less than Harris County as a whole. Even District V, at a 38% increase in voters and 32% increase in turnout of RVs, was below the county level.

So who knows? Final turnout was definitely higher than I thought it would be, and in the end it was still the case that almost exactly half of the vote came in on Election Day. Again, more than I thought it would be but still a big step down from 2017, when 59% of the vote was on E-Day. Given the huge turnout in 2020, it may be the case that there are just now more habitual voters. If that’s so, we’ll see some of that effect in 2022 and especially 2023, when the open Mayoral race will also drive people to the polls. I don’t think there are any big conclusions to draw here, but let’s put a pin in this and see what we think a couple of years down the line.

November 2021 election results

At 9:45 PM last night, this is what we had:

I think there was a power outage, and apparently a long line. This is why you test new equipment in lower-turnout elections. I guess the good news is there will be a May election next year, to give it one more test drive before a higher turnout election. But this wasn’t a great look.

All of the constitutional amendments appear to be on their way to passage. Austin’s divisive Proposition A is losing badly. The special election runoff in HD118 is close – Frank Ramirez had the early lead, which widened when the first seven voting centers reported, then John Lujan caught up when the next eight reported. There are nine centers to report as I type this, so who knows what to expect. The proposal to incorporate The Woodlands was losing.

And that’s all I’ve got. When there’s something on the HarrisVotes page, I’ll update this.

UPDATE:

Partial results are here. In HISD, Sue Deigaard and Myrna Guidry are above 50%, while Elizabeth Santos is in a runoff with Janette Garza Lindner, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca is in a runoff with Kendall Baker, and Anne Sung is in a runoff with Bridget Wade, if everything holds. In HCC, Adriana Tamez is leading, and Eva Loredo is in a runoff with Jharrett Bryantt. John Lujan held on to win the runoff in HD118.

UPDATE: A much larger batch of votes has come in, though it looks like there are still a handful to be counted. Sue Deigaard is now slightly below 50%, so add one more HISD runoff to the pile. Other results are the same.

UPDATE: In re: those last ballots:

November 2021 final early voting totals

A busy final day, and a significant uptick in early votes over 2017.

Friday was the last day to vote early in the 2021 school board and state constitutional amendment elections with early numbers showing an uptick in turnout in Harris County compared with four years ago.

County election data shows the estimated total of those voting early in person as of Friday night to be 63,358 compared with the 46,224 in-person ballots cast in 2017, a 37 percent increase. Mail-in ballots also jumped in this early election period with tentative numbers showing 47,243 ballots cast compared with the 12,205 counted in 2017, almost a four-fold jump. .

Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said extended hours of operation, drive-thru voting and five 24-hour polling places helped boost election access for voters. On Thursday, polls that were open until 10 p.m. also saw increased activity.

“Voting until 10 p.m., we see from the stats last night, worked. People still came out to vote,” Longoria said of voters taking advantage of the longer hours. “We’re seeing that we just surpassed the 2017 in-person voting, which is amazing. When you help people remove those barriers — even something as small as having to print a form online — people go and vote, even in these ‘off-year’ elections.”

The final early voting report is here, and you can compare to the final 2017 EV report here. Overall, 110,601 people have voted in this election. That’s nearly double the total for the same period in 2017, with mail ballots being the biggest difference maker. It was only on the last day, when nearly 18K people voted in person, that the in person total surpassed the mail ballot total. Of those 63,258 in person voters, 3,100 used drive-through voting. Six hundred and eleven voted during the extended hours, including overnight voting.

How is that likely to affect final turnout? Compared to 2017, when 150,174 people voted in total. Based on past history, we’d expect turnout of over 200K, given that in the past most people voted on Election Day in even-numbered years. I strongly suspect that a much larger fraction of the voters have already shown up, thanks in part to the surge in mail voting, and in part to the increase in early voting from 2020. I’m betting that just as elections that came after 2008, the first time we ever had more than half the votes cast early, we’ll see a bump in early voting for other elections as well. By the way, that surge in mail ballots is due in part to the Elections office sending a mail ballot application to every eligible voter. Which they’ll not be able to do again because of the voter suppression bill that was passed by the Lege. I’m sure we all feel so much safer now. Anyway, I’m going to take a wild guess and say that about 2/3 of the vote has already been cast, which means I figure final turnout will be in the 160-170K range. That’s a notch up from 2017, but we also have more registered voters. The number to look for is turnout as a percentage of registered voters, which was 6.72% in 2017. My guess is we’ll still be pretty close to that. But we’ll see! Have you voted yet?

8 day campaign finance reports: HISD

I don’t often go to the 8-day finance reports, mostly because there’s too little time to squeeze everything in, but HISD is the main story this year, so let’s have a look. The 30-day report summaries can be found here, and the July reports are here.

Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I

Sue Deigaard, District V
Maria Benzon, District V
Caroline Walter, District V

Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, District VI
Kendall Baker, District VI
Greg Degeyter, District VI

Anne Sung, District VII
Bridget Wade, District VII
Dwight Jefferson, District VII
Mac Walker, District VII

Myrna Guidry, District IX
Gerry Monroe, District IX
Joshua Rosales, District IX


Dist  Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
==========================================================
I     Santos        16,677     25,640        0       6,565
I     Lindner       29,530     46,115        0      44,217
I     Kopinsky       4,225      6,087        0       2,523
V     Deigaard      20,560     14,077        0      47,097
V     Benzon         3,161      2,587        0       5,344
V     Walter         2,050      9,953        0         633
VI    Vilaseca      13,345     40,716        0      39,403
VI    Baker          5,150      1,553        0       1,765
VI    Degeyter       1,616      5,688    5,781         212
VII   Sung          21,872     58,920        0       3,358
VII   Wade          36,256    110,643    7,000      89,071
VII   Jefferson      9,200      9,080        0         119
VII   Walker        
IX    Guidry         5,555      5,550    7,500       5,000
IX    Monroe        11,406      1,247        0      10,159
IX    Rosales        6,150      7,975    2,177         352

All of the finance reports for each candidate can be found here. There was not an 8-day report listed for Mac Walker, so the link for him is to his 30-day report.

The 8-day is generally where you start to see more money being spent than raised. There’s less time to raise it – barely three weeks since the previous report – and now is the time to send mail, do robocalls, run ads, pay canvassers if that’s your thing, and so forth.

I’m not surprised that Bridget Wade is the top spender here, given that she was the big fundraiser from the jump. She has TV ads running – I saw one during “Monday Night Football” this week. Not necessarily the best use of campaign money, given that plenty of people who are not in District VII (such as myself) will see the ad, and not all of those who are in District VII will make the connection, but the first job of any campaign is to make sure people know there’s an election and that this candidate is running in it. A TV ad checks those boxes, and as a bonus you may get other people to talk about it. Mission accomplished. Her report shows $50K for a cable TV buy, plus another $10K for radio. Anne Sung has put the bulk of her spending – over $46K – into mail, plus $3K for digital ads.

Here in District I, I’ve gotten a ton of mail from both the Santos and Garza Lindner campaigns; I’ve also been stalked on the web by Santos online ads. The Santos campaign has had canvassers out in the neighborhood – we got door-knocked on Wednesday – which led Campos (who consults for the Garza Lindner campaign) to grouse about PAC money being spent, in this race and in others, with little disclosure about how the funds are being spent and who it is that is doing the spending. This is the report he’s talking about – the PAC in question is Patriot Majority Texas, funded by the American Federation of Teachers, and in support of trustees Santos, Vilseca, and Sung. Indeed, it does not tell you much. Sung is getting more than Santos – given her opponent, Sung needs all the help she can get – with Vilaseca getting considerably less. Make of it what you will.

Both Gerry Monroe ($10K) and Dwight Jefferson ($17K) had outstanding loan totals listed for their 30 day reports. Neither reported any such total on the 8 day report, and I don’t see how either of them could have been paid off. The omission is probably an oversight on their part. Finance reports are weird, man.

Not much else to say. What campaign activity have you observed in your district?

2021 Day Seven EV report: After the weekend

Let’s get right to it: These are the early voting totals for the 2021 election after Sunday:

Mail ballots: 36,517
In person: 19,901

You can see the full Day Seven report here. The “voters by type” breakdown on the last page only goes through Saturday, so I don’t have the most up to date numbers on drive through voting, but it’s a pretty small fraction of the total.

The thing that I noticed when I looked at the numbers was that Saturday was not the biggest day of in person voting, as I had expected it to be. My first thought was that this was an outlier, and that there had to be some reason for it that I would need to speculate on. Turns out, this is the new normal, at least for odd-numbered years. Look at the EV daily totals for 2019, 2017, 2015, and a few elections before then, and you’ll see that Saturday is a good day for turnout, but generally only the second best day. It’s the Friday that leads the pack, and that has been true for odd-numbered years going all the way back to 2009, the last year in which Saturday led the first week’s totals.

Odd years continue to be unlike the even-numbered years in that early voting is a much smaller piece of the pie. I consider the year 2008 to be an inflection point in voter behavior, in that it was the first year of any in which more than half of the total vote was cast before Election Day. That very much persists in even-year races, with nearly 88% of the vote in 2020 being cast early. Looking at previous Presidential years, 2016 followed this year’s pattern of Saturday not being the biggest day of the first week, but in 2012 and 2008 Saturday led the way. 2020 was a different kind of outlier because of the extra week of early voting and the supercharged early energy, but there you can see that there was a significant dropoff on Saturday after that frenzied first week.

So what has happened? Two things, I would guess. One is just that we are all used to voting early, even those of us who persist in waiting until Election Day. And two, because early voting is such a part of the fabric now, it’s more common for people to do it as part of their workday routine. I have voted during my lunch hour most years, and I think that’s pretty common. Whatever the reason, Saturday is not the huge narrative-setting day that it used to be in the EV process.

The rest of this week, if previous patterns hold, will wind up exceeding the first five days. I kind of think that won’t be the case, because of the large number of mail ballots, but we’ll see. In any event, the norm is for the first two to four days of this week to be similar to last week, with Friday being the biggest day of the whole period. I don’t know if that’s what we’ll get this time, but we’ll see. Have you voted yet?

Chron overview of the HISD Trustee elections

There is an election, with candidates, and they all deserve a paragraph and maybe a quote if they’re lucky so you can sort it all out and know how to vote.

Five seats on the Houston ISD Board of Education will be decided Nov. 2, potentially altering the shape of the nine-member board as the district finds a sense of stability with its first permanent superintendent in years but remains under threat of a state takeover.

Sixteen individuals, including the incumbents, are vying for the seats representing Districts 1, 5, 6, 7 and 9.

Several candidates pointed to the potential state takeover and previous board dysfunction as reasons that prompted them to seek office. Meanwhile, several incumbents noted recent progress and momentum with Superintendent Millard House II, who started in July and is working on a strategic plan for the district, as reason they wished to remain in their roles.

The board has changed in the two years since its infighting was laid bare by a video of a meeting for training on how to govern. Within the last five months, for instance, current trustees have unanimously hired House, expressed support for his decision to implement a mask mandate in defiance of a gubernatorial executive order, and approved a bigger-than-expected pay raise for teachers.

You can read the rest, or you can listen to my interviews with the candidates (you can see a full list of them in this post), or go back and read all the Chron endorsements, which give more than one paragraph to at least one of the candidates in each. And with all that, I do hope they have a similar piece about the HCC Trustee races. Even one paragraph is better than nothing.

Superintendent House’s listening tour

I like what he’s been doing.

During his first week as Houston ISD’s superintendent in July, Millard House II said he welcomed feedback from everyone, especially those who long have been left out of important discussions.

He has been receiving a steady stream of feedback on small comment cards and at microphones at a series of town hall meetings.

Residents, employees and parents have complained to the leader of the state’s largest school district about campuses that have been neglected, asked him about how he plans to address issues, both new and old, and have urged him to prioritize children.

Specifically, House has heard about transportation woes exacerbated by a driver shortage, the district’s struggles to appropriately educate students with special needs, the neglect of school libraries and unequal access to resources and funding across the district.

The issues have been brought to House’s attention at a series of town halls he hosted in recent weeks.

The discussions are expected to inform conversations about his first strategic plan for HISD as its superintendent. In a brief interview, House said the gatherings were just the first step in collecting information for the plan, the first draft of which he hopes to have ready in the next couple months.

As speakers lined up at microphones, House cautioned audiences he still was new to the role and did not know everything.

“I am just over the 60-day mark, so I am not going to have answers for you this evening,” he said Wednesday at Booker T. Washington High School. “My purpose in being here is to hear you and then to infuse what you are providing to me as a superintendent and let you hold me accountable when it is all said and done.”

At each meeting, House emphasized the strategic plan will not be his or the Board of Education’s but “our” plan.

From the rest of the story, he seems to be doing a good job hearing what people are telling him and taking action, often getting the person asking the question involved in the solution. Each of the HISD trustees and candidates I’ve interviewed so far has had positive things to say about Superintendent House. It’s early, and whatever plan he comes up with to deal with things like special ed and improving underperforming schools and more equitably distributing HISD resources will surely have its share of critics. But he seems to be going about this the right way, and of course we all want him to succeed. There’s a lot on the line here, and we have no time to lose.

Early voting starts today for the 2021 election

Time to strap on the pads and get yourself out to the polling places:

A sample ballot for Harris County is here – note that it covers all of the local elections, so much of what you see will not be on your specific ballot. Early voting hours will be 7 AM to 7 PM every day except Sunday the 24th (12 PM to 7 PM) and Thursday the 28th, which will be 7 AM to 10 PM with 24-hour voting at select locations. You can see a map of locations here – there are a lot of them – and you can use the “find your nearest polling place” utility here. Note that there are also some drive-through locations. This is because the new voter suppression law does not take effect until next year. Enjoy these things while you still can.

Here’s a list of all my interviews for the cycle:

Elizabeth Santos, HISD District I
Janette Garza Lindner, HISD District I
Matias Kopinsky, HISD District I
Sue Deigaard, HISD District V
Maria Benzon, HISD District V
Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, HISD District VI
Greg Degeyter, HISD District VI
Anne Sung, HISD District VII
Bridget Wade, HISD District VII
Dwight Jefferson, HISD District VII
Mac Walker, HISD District VII
Myrna Guidry, HISD District IX
Joshua Rosales, HISD District IX
Adriana Tamez, HCC District 3
Reagan Flowers, HCC District 4
Eva Loredo, HCC District 8
Jharrett Bryantt, HCC District 8

There are also the Constitutional amendments. If you’d like someone to explain them all to you with advice on how to vote, the latest edition of the H-Town Progressive podcast, with guest Andrea Greer, has you covered. This is going to be a low turnout election, you should be in and out in minutes at any location, so get out there and make your voice heard.