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Now we’re dealing with hoax shootings

A new thing we need to be prepared for.

Texas and other states have experienced hoax shootings, but experts say these threats shouldn’t be taken lightly. Research shows that if someone is going to commit a mass shooting there is a good chance they’ll drop hints beforehand.

Sometimes it’s just a student testing the system, said Julia Andrews, director of Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools, an organization that develops best practices for school security systems.

“Sometimes, it can mean getting out of school early, avoiding a test or just seeking attention,” Andrews said. “We are now seeing a lot of copycat threats, but we must take all threats seriously.”

However, schools need to be prepared when that isn’t the case, she said.

An analysis of 170 perpetrators of mass shootings found that nearly half leaked their intention to act violently, with 44 percent of them leaking specific details of their plans, according to a 2021 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, a peer-reviewed medical journal.

For decades, school’s have experienced bomb threats, but this many shooting threats — happening at the same time — is unusual, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“For false bomb threats we have those better figured out, but with a false active shooter situation we’re not there at all,”Canady said, “because we’re dealing with this new trend.”

[…]

In recent years, these threats have likely become more prevalent with the rise of social media, said Zachary Kaufman, the co-director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston.

“Social media and (cell) phones have enabled such hoaxes to be made easier, quicker,” Kaufman said, “and seemingly more genuine than ever.”

See here for the background. As the story and my Facebook commenters noted, there were other hoax reports that day (in Waco, Eanes, and Pflugerville) and the next day, in Klein ISD. That feels a lot more precarious and unsettling than a one off to me. I don’t know what to do about it, I’m just flagging it for your attention. I’m glad to see there are people in the field who do have expertise in this. I really hope they won’t be called on to use it very often.

The active shooter hoax at our neighborhood school

This made for a super eventful Tuesday afternoon.

Police and panicked parents scrambled to Heights High School Tuesday afternoon, in frantic response to a false report that a gunman had shot 10 people in a room on the 2,400-student Houston ISD campus.

The school went into lock down around 1 p.m., and police officers found the room locked and immediately breached the door, according to Chief Troy Finner. Two sweeps of the school found nothing, according to the Houston Police Department.

“We have no injuries here,” Finner said at a news briefing as a crowd of parents stood at an intersection near the high school. “Thank god for that.”

Officials intend to determine who made the hoax call and hold that person accountable. Finner said police believe the call may have come from outside the school.

“There was no active shooter here — there was a fight,” said Constable Alan Rosen.

An email notified parents later that Heights High, as well as nearby Hogg Middle and Harvard and Travis Elementary schools, were placed in lockdown.

“As a precautionary measure, we went into lockdown mode,” Heights Principal Wendy Hampton said in an email to parents. “Houston Police Department and HISD Police are onsite and continue to investigate, though no evidence has been found to substantiate the threat. We take all threats seriously as the safety of our students and staff is always our top priority.”

As it happens, I had to go into the office Tuesday afternoon. I was headed out a little after 1 PM, and was on Studewood going towards the I-10 entrance when I saw three HPD cars with lights and sirens going headed the other way at full speed. I didn’t give it much thought until after I had arrived at the office, took a minute to check Twitter, and found out what was happening. I don’t currently have any kids at Heights or the other schools that got locked down, but my kids have friends there and I have friends and neighbors who have kids at all of them. It was pretty stressful, to say the least, and I had the luxury of not having to be frantic about my own kids. My thoughts today remain with those parents and those kids.

Shannon Velasquez burst into tears on Tuesday afternoon as she waited on the sidewalk near Heights High School, where her daughter and hundreds more students were locked down in their classrooms after someone made a false report about a mass shooting.

The mother knew her daughter was fine — she had spoken with the sophomore student on FaceTime as she sped to school from work.

Still, she could not shake a horrible feeling, and her frustration bubbled over as she heard conflicting information from parents and officers about where she should go to reunite with her child.

“As if this isn’t bad enough?” she said. “I just can’t wait to put my arms around my kid.”

Anxiety, panic and confusion erupted on Tuesday afternoon in the residential streets surrounding Heights High School. Personnel from at least eight law enforcement agencies sped to the scene with lights and sirens. Panicked parents rushed from jobs and lunch appointments. Some drivers ditched their cars on the grassy median along Heights Boulevard, and walked or ran several blocks to the school.

Parents gathered information from their children, other parents, news reports and officials — eventually learning that their kids were safe and the massive frenzy actually stemmed from a false alarm.

Still, some parents said they were frustrated by sparse communication from the school, district or law enforcement agencies, although HISD and law enforcement agencies have defended their response.

[…]

Luis Morales, HISD spokesman, said notifications went out to parents 23 minutes after the district became aware of the situation.

“We were able to get that out a quicker than we have before,” Morales said, adding that the district must verify information before sending out notifications.

Chief Troy Finner said during a news briefing on Tuesday afternoon that he sympathized with parents who were frustrated. But safety comes before notifications, he said.

“We have to search the school. That is the most important thing — to stop the threat if there’s a threat,” he said. “We don’t have time to call. Once we make it safe, we start making those calls.”

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena said more than two dozen units from HFD responded to the scene. The first unit arrived two minutes after HFD received the call, he said, and quickly began coordinating a rescue team with police.

“The community expects the first responders to get on scene quickly, to get on scene and coordinate and start taking action as soon as they get on scene,” he said. “That’s exactly what we did.”

I have nothing but sympathy for the parents here. I was scrambling around looking for accurate information too, and the stakes were much lower for me. I have no doubt I’d have been out of my mind and super upset at how long it took to get updates. I also have a lot of sympathy for HISD and HPD, who were understandably reluctant to get out ahead of what they knew. I don’t have a good answer for this.

As relieved as we all are that this turned out to be nothing, we have to talk about the law enforcement response, since that is an obvious item of interest after Uvalde. In addition to HPD, there were deputies from the Precinct 1 Constable and the Sheriff’s office at the scene, and I assume there were some HISD cops as well. We do know that HPD entered Heights HS in search of the alleged shooter, which is good to know, but we don’t know more than that about who was in charge and who was making what decisions. Given what we know about the thoroughly botched response in Uvalde, this should be used as an opportunity for HPD and HISD to review their processes, make sure they have agreements in place, and so on. In the end, thankfully this was just a drill. We damn well better learn from it.

The one big question DPS still hasn’t answered about Uvalde

The Trib gets at something that I’ve mentioned a couple of times.

Ever since the Uvalde elementary school shooting left 19 students and two teachers dead, blame for the delayed response has been thrust on local law enforcement. The school police chief was fired and the city’s acting police chief was suspended.

But the only statewide law enforcement agency, the Texas Department of Public Safety, has largely avoided scrutiny even though it had scores of officers on the scene. That’s in part because DPS leaders are controlling which records get released to the public and carefully shaping a narrative that casts local law enforcement as incompetent.

Now, in the wake of a critical legislative report and body camera footage released by local officials, law enforcement experts from across the country are questioning why DPS didn’t take a lead role in the response as it had done before during other mass shootings and public disasters.

The state police agency is tasked with helping all of Texas’ 254 counties respond to emergencies such as mass shootings, but it is particularly important in rural communities where smaller police departments lack the level of training and experience of larger metropolitan law enforcement agencies, experts say. That was the case in Uvalde, where the state agency’s 91 troopers at the scene dwarfed the school district’s five officers, the city police’s 25 emergency responders and the county’s 16 sheriff’s deputies.

The state police agency has been “totally intransparent in pointing out their own failures and inadequacies,” said Charles A. McClelland, who served as Houston police chief for six years before retiring in 2016. “I don’t know how the public, even in the state of Texas, would have confidence in the leadership of DPS after this.”

Instead of taking charge when it became clear that neither the school’s police chief nor the Uvalde Police Department had assumed command, DPS contributed to the 74-minute chaotic response that did not end until a Border Patrol tactical unit that arrived much later entered the classroom and killed the gunman.

“Here’s what DPS should have done as soon as they got there,” said Patrick O’Burke, a law enforcement consultant and former DPS commander who retired in 2008. “They should have contacted [the school police chief] and said: ‘We’re here. We have people.’ They should have just organized everything, said, ‘What are all of our resources?’ And they should have organized the breach.”

[…]

[Despite testimony from DPS director Steve McCraw], DPS has sprung into action time and again when disaster strikes in Texas, which has proved key during mass shootings and public emergencies, local officials across the state said.

More than three decades ago, for example, state troopers helped local law enforcement confront a gunman after arriving within minutes of a shooting at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, about 60 miles north of Austin. The shooter killed himself after a brief exchange of gunfire.

“They knew that people were dying, and so they acted,” said Suzanna Hupp, a former Republican state representative whose parents died during the 1991 Luby’s massacre. She said that didn’t happen in Uvalde, adding that “clearly there was a command breakdown there.”

In a 2013 chemical explosion in West, about 70 miles south of Dallas, state troopers immediately took control of the law enforcement response at the request of the county’s emergency management coordinator. And in the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School, about 30 miles south of Houston, state troopers quickly fired at the gunman, according to local law enforcement officials who initially responded. The rapid engagement by school police and DPS was key to the gunman surrendering, district and county officials said.

“DPS had a tremendous role in Santa Fe of stopping the killing because they were among the first to arrive and they actually did what they were supposed to,” said Texas City Independent School District trustee Mike Matranga, the district’s security chief at the time of the shooting. He added that, in Uvalde, DPS supervisors “should have essentially asked [Arredondo] to stand down due to his ineffectiveness and taken over.”

Police experts and lawmakers pointed to clear signs that they believe should have alerted emergency responders that no one was in control. Arredondo, who resigned from his elected City Council seat in July and was fired from the school district on Aug. 24, remained inside the hallway on the phone during the shooting. He said he was trying to find a key to the classroom that the gunman was in. Investigators later determined that the door was likely unlocked. The school police chief did not identify himself as the incident commander and told The Texas Tribune he never issued any orders; his lawyer later said his firing was unjust. In a letter, Arredondo’s attorneys said the police chief “could not have served as the incident commander and did not attempt to take that role” because he was on the front lines.

Separately, no command post was set up outside of the school, which lawmakers noted should have been an indicator to responding officers that no one was in charge.

[…]

The disconnect over who should take charge and when exemplifies a need for detailed planning and frequent training between larger law enforcement agencies and smaller departments, police experts told ProPublica and the Tribune.

Larger agencies with more personnel, equipment and training should have agreements with school districts that clearly state that they will assume command upon arriving at critical incidents that include active shooters, hostage situations and explosive devices, said Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief and CBP commissioner until 2017. He and other experts said that even if school police are designated as the lead, the role of every law enforcement agency in the region should be specified.

San Antonio, one of the state’s biggest police departments, has such agreements with local school districts and universities that name the bigger city police agency as the incident commander in the event of a mass shooting. After the Uvalde shooting, San Antonio police Chief William McManus met with school officials in his city and reminded them that his agency would take charge in an active shooter situation.

McManus, whose officers arrived in Uvalde after the gunman was killed, said in an interview that because of the confusion at the scene, he felt the need to emphasize how his department would respond to such an incident in San Antonio.

It is unclear what, if any, involvement DPS or another law enforcement agency had with the Uvalde school district’s mass shooting plan because those governmental bodies declined to release such documents or answer questions. The state police did not have a written memorandum of agreement with the school district outlining its role in such situations, according to DPS records.

Who’s in charge in these situations is a question I’ve raised a few times in writing about this, when the legislative report was released and when the HISD board addressed the question. This is an area where I believe the Lege can and should take action, by requiring school districts (and hell, colleges and universities and community colleges) to have some kind of agreement with either local or state law enforcement agencies and ensuring some minimum standards are met. It’s also a big question for DPS to answer: Why didn’t you take over at Uvalde? Steve McCraw has addressed that already, but I don’t think we should believe him. Certainly, not as long as DPS is being sued over its refusal to release its information to the public about their actions, anything McCraw says should be taken as self-serving first and foremost. And those same questions also go to Greg Abbott, who is McCraw’s boss and patron. Both of them have gotten away with doing nothing for a long time. We need to make sure that time runs out.

The proposed HISD charter partnership policy change

I don’t have a lot of time to dig into this, but there are a couple of things I wanted to touch on.

Parents, education advocates and a group of Houston elected officials including three Houston ISD trustees on Monday blasted a proposal by other school board members that would change the district’s policy surrounding charters, calling the measure dangerous to public schools and imploring it be taken off an agenda days before its first reading.

Revisions to the policy, which was initially issued in April 2018, would grant parents or guardians the authority to approve or turn down a partnership with a charter, or other entities permissible under the state’s education code, that is initiated by the district’s administration.

A detail of the proposed changes that garnered opposition would create a pathway for 60 percent of parents or guardians of an HISD school “to be served by a new or existing school,” according to a draft of the proposal, allowing them to initiate such a partnership.

The board of education is scheduled to have a first reading of the proposal on Thursday morning, which has also drawn criticism as it will occur during working hours. While nearly 60 other policies will have a first reading this week it appeared the charter one was the only to have been presented by trustees; it included a line that called the proposed changes “boardmember-proposed revisions.”

Trustees Kathy Blueford-Daniels, Elizabeth Santos and Myrna Guidry stood with a group of parents and elected officials — including Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, and various state representatives — at a Monday afternoon news conference opposing the proposed policy.

“This is not about giving parents voice in our school,” said Ruth Kravetz, co-founder of local advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education that organized the event. “Charter operators will promise the sun, the sky and the moon to get parent buy-in.”

Trustee Sue Deigaard, who represents HISD schools from parts of Montrose to southwest Houston, said the proposed changes could help the district with its deficit, and declining enrollment, as the partnerships give schools systems additional funds through a state law. The policy as it is gives the board and administration discretion over the decisions on such partnerships — and not much say to parents, she said.

HISD, the state’s largest school system, has about 195,000 students and is not projected to increase its enrollment to pre-pandemic levels, administrators told trustees during budget workshops. In 2015, for instance, HISD had about 215,000 students.

“We know from the budget conversations in the spring that we are going to have some really tough decisions ahead, possibly close schools,” Deigaard said in an interview. “I wanted to make sure that the superintendent had that tool if he wanted to use that tool.

She added, “Here’s a sort of grounding value that I had in the process, really multiple grounding values: One was — how do we make sure we open up opportunities but make sure that we’re not doing anything that would be harmful. The other grounding principle was when we make these big decisions, such as a school closure or partnership, how do we ensure that we’re doing it with families and not to them.”

[…]

Deigaard said concerns about the policy were valid but in her view the proposal empowered parents to approve or disapprove such a change.

“I think it’s a very real fear for families to think, ‘Oh, my school is going to get partnered off,” Deigaard said. “If that’s not what they want, this policy says they don’t have to have that.”

This all bubbled up after a tweet on Saturday, which made a reference to this change but didn’t have anything specific. I wound up having a conversation with Sue Deigaard, who has always been very generous with her time when I have questions about complicated school stuff. There are a number of things that motivated this, including the possibility of utilizing underused space in existing schools and giving parents who aren’t currently sending their kids to HISD a reason to do so – she mentioned conversations with parents who want a particular type of program or school option that doesn’t currently exist. Countering the enrollment decline, and taking steps to keep HISD as a primary option for parents were a main message I took away from my conversation with her.

At a fundamental level, I trust Sue Deigaard – who, as I have said in previous posts, is someone I’ve known for a long time, going back to when we were both at Rice – and I don’t believe there’s any appetite within HISD to give a bunch of power and money to charter schools. Your mileage may vary on these points. I’m sure there’s plenty of room for discussion and disagreement about this proposal, as would be the case for any big proposal. The story notes that Superintendent House may not end up supporting it, if there isn’t sufficient public support for it. If so, then so be it. This is a first reading – it may not make it to second reading. I want to hear more about it. From there, we’ll see where it goes.

(Today is “move kid #1 into her college dorm day”, so I’m a little pressed for time right now. I’ll try to know more about this next time.)

First school ratings since 2019 released

All in all, not too bad. But for poorer schools and school districts, it remains a very hard go.

The Texas Education Agency on Monday released its first public school ratings in three years and despite pandemic interruptions, the number of schools that received the highest rating increased.

This year, 27.9% of 8,451 schools evaluated received an A rating. Another 46.1% received a B, 19.4% received a rating of C and 6.7% received “Not Rated” labels. Not all schools and districts are rated because some are alternative education programs and treatment facilities.

The state agency’s ratings — tied in large part to results of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test — are the latest metrics used to grade how well Texas public schools are performing as students emerge from the worst of the global coronavirus pandemic. Even though students returned to classroom instruction last year, surges in COVID-19 infections both last fall and winter forced some schools to close and revert back to remote instruction.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath credited local educators with the increases seen, despite those interruptions, in each of the A and B categories and a reduction in the number of schools that received below-average grades, those in the “Not Rated” category.

“These results show our state’s significant investment in the post-pandemic academic recovery of Texas public school students is bearing fruit,” Morath said. “I’m grateful for the driving force behind this year’s success: our teachers and local school leaders.”

The TEA’s ratings are determined by scores in three categories: how students perform on the STAAR test, which is given each spring; improvement in those scores; and how well schools are educating disadvantaged students. Students are tested on different subjects: reading, math, science and social students.

Districts also get an overall rating. There are a total of 1,207 school districts in Texas, and 1,195 were evaluated. Out of the districts evaluated, 33.1% got an A, 54% got a B, 9.4% got a C and 3.5% got a “Not Rated” label.

[…]

In 2019, the last time that TEA put out these ratings, 8,302 schools were rated, and 21.1% received an A, 39.5% received a B, 26.1% received a C and 13.3% received failing grades. In 2019, 1,189 districts were rated. Of those, 25.3% received an A, 56.9% received a B, 13% received a C and 4.8% received failing grades.

Texas continues to show some struggle with getting “high-poverty” schools an A grade. Data shows that only 18% of those campuses in Texas were rated an A. The TEA labels schools as “high-poverty” if their number of economically disadvantaged students surpasses 80%. Of the schools that received a “Not Rated” label, over half of them were “high-poverty” schools.

Texas has about 5.4 million students in its public schools, and 60% of them are economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for free or reduced lunch. Out of the 8,451 schools rated this year, 564 campuses received the “Not Rated” label. Most of these “Not Rated” campuses — 499 — serve students who live in some of the state’s poorest communities.

While there is work to be done with Texas’ poorer schools, Morath said, the increase among the A-rated schools — a rise seen after the pandemic interrupted classroom instruction — means the state is on the right track to catch students up to pre-pandemic levels.

This spring’s STAAR results showed big gains in reading. While math scores did increase from the dips seen in 2021, they revealed that Texas students still have work to do to catch up to their pre-pandemic test score levels.

You can see all the results here. The Chron complied results for area schools; HISD overall got a B, but some schools such as Kashmere and Yates high schools were Not Rated, which is the grade given in place of a D or F this year. Those grades will return next year. As I said, all things considered this isn’t bad, but there remains a lot of work to do. We need the Lege to not do anything to screw it all up next spring. Reform Austin has more.

HISD buys stuff for its police

Okay, but I hope the plan to deal with an active shooter has more than this in it.

Houston ISD trustees Thursday evening approved a measure to buy 200 rifles, ammunition and 200 ballistic shields for the district’s police department, which Superintendent Millard House II said last week was not prepared with its current equipment to stop an active shooter.

Trustees voted 6-3 on the purchase after spending roughly an hour in closed executive session discussing the item and about 20 minutes of intense discussion from the dais. Trustee Dani Hernandez proposed postponing the measure by a week because she was “not willing” to proceed without more specific information. That effort, however, failed with a 3-6 vote.

Earlier in the meeting, about a dozen speakers urged the board to delay the vote or to vote no.

“I need more information about the broader safety plan for the district in general. At this time, I don’t believe I have all the information I need,” Hernandez said before the vote. “I don’t think that we have explored all options at this point — safety is essential for HISD.”

HISD Police Chief Pete Lopez told the board last week he was confident in the training the police department had received but he did “not have a lot of confidence in preparing our officers to encounter a suspect without the proper equipment.” The equipment to be purchased would be used to help with scenario-based training to learn how to respond to such a threat.

“My officers are dedicated to our students and to our staff and regardless if we have the equipment or not, we are still going to respond,” Lopez said after the vote. “This act tonight will allow us to respond in a safer manner.”

The police gear will be for specific situations, not items that police will walk around with, House said.

“The bigger issue here is ensuring that they have all the tools possible so that they can be as safe as possible,” House said, “and provide the kind of safety that we want to provide on campuses.”

See here for the background. While in general I tend to think that most police departments have (and spend money on) too much stuff, I don’t have an opinion on this particular purchase. I’ll accept that they need it in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. I will just say again that all the manpower and equipment added up to diddly squat in Uvalde, so what I want – what I would think we would all want – is to know that there’s a plan in place for this kind of horrific scenario, and training in place to back it up. I still haven’t seen any talk about that, and that concerns me. Buying stuff is the easy part. Please reassure all of us that you’re at least working on the hard part, HISD.

It’s not a teacher shortage yet

But you can see one on the horizon.

School districts across the Houston region are trying to fill thousands of teacher vacancies before most will be welcoming students back to classrooms in the coming weeks.

A review of about 18 area school districts’ job listings, including Alvin, Deer Park, Fort Bend, Galena Park, Goose Creek, Katy, Magnolia, Pasadena, Galveston, Humble, Spring Branch and Spring ISDs, as well as Lamar CISD, showed a need for more than 3,400 educators to fill a variety of vacancies as of Monday.

The Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest system scheduled to kick off its year Aug. 22, had about 870 openings for certified teachers listed on its career portal Monday.

Aldine ISD, which serves nearly 67,000 students and employs more than 4,000 educators, currently has 370 teacher vacancies. That number is “way up” from previous years, according to administrators, despite recruiting efforts that include signing bonuses, increased salaries and looking for applicants internationally. Klein ISD is searching for 120 teachers, according to its website. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the state’s third-largest system, is trying to fill 472 teaching vacancies.

It is a nationwide problem as low pay, long hours and the politicization of education have taken their toll on the beleaguered profession.

“You look across the state and across the country, there are districts even smaller than us with even more vacancies,” HISD chief talent officer Jeremy Grant-Skinner said. “We’re all feeling the challenge together of staffing during this very unique time. We’re feeling like we’re going to get as close as we can.”

HISD, with roughly 195,000 students and 27,000 full- and part-time employees, had about the same number of vacancies at this time a year ago, Grant-Skinner said, before reducing it to about 400 by the time schools opened. To fill those openings until certified educators could be hired, the district sent central administration staffers who held teacher certifications into classrooms. Grant-Skinner said there have been no conversations about doing that again this year.

The 870 openings represent about 8 percent of the 11,000 teachers included in the upcoming year’s budget.

Since then, the district has raised teacher pay, hoping it will help recruit and retain educators. Several other districts, including Katy and Cypress-Fair ISDs, also have boosted teacher salaries.

Emphasis mine. I highlighted that to note that this problem, at least for HISD, is not unprecedented. The gap was more than cut in half least year, HISD was able to fill in other vacancies from within, and they have raised their pay as a way to attract new job seekers. There are obviously a lot of major challenges facing teachers now, most of which are the result of actions taken by Republicans, but it’s too soon to say for this year that the problem is getting worse. That may end up being the case, and it’s good to draw attention to this now, I just want to be a little cautious about getting ahead of ourselves.

That said, there are other danger signs out there that should be taken seriously.

More Texas teachers are considering leaving the profession than at any point in the last 40 years, according to new polling from the Texas State Teachers Assocation.

The survey found that 70 percent of teachers were seriously considering quitting this year, a substantial jump from the 53 percent who said so in 2018, the last time the typically biennial survey was conducted. Teachers attributed their grim outlook to pandemic-related stress, political pressure from state lawmakers, less support from parents and stretched finances.

The survey represented all grade levels and regions of the states. It was skipped in 2020 amid of the pandemic.

[…]

In the survey, which was completed by 688 Texas teachers, 94 percent said the pandemic increased their professional stress, and 82 percent said financial stress was exacerbated. Experts have pointed to better pay as a key way to recruit and retain teachers. Respondents taught for about 16 years on average, and their average salary was around $59,000. That’s about $7,000 below the national trend, according to the teachers association.

Besides salary, Texas teachers on average also receive some of the worst retirement benefits of those in any state, a separate study from June found. Teachers who have retired since 2004 have not received a cost-of-living adjustment, although the Legislature has routinely passed “13th check” bills that send extra annuity payments.

In addition to pay, 85 percent said they felt state lawmakers held a negative view of teachers, 65 percent said the public held a negative view and 70 percent said support from parents had decreased over the last several years.

If your job is more stressful than before, if you don’t feel respected by the powers that be or your stakeholders, and if on top of that you could make more money doing something else, well, that’s a pretty powerful combination. We can take this feedback seriously and try to do something about it, or we can ignore it and risk having to deal with a crisis situation later. Seems like a straightforward choice to me.

How would HISD’s police respond to an active shooter incident?

It’s a question we would all rather not have to think about, but this is the world we live in. And at this time, the answer that Superintendent Millard House gave to that question was not reassuring.

Houston ISD’s police department would not be prepared should Texas’ largest school district be targeted by active shooter, Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday night.

“I don’t know that this has garnered community insight but what I do know is that, if there was an active shooter in HISD, our police department is not prepared,” House said during an agenda review meeting.

His remarks were in response to questioning from Trustee Dani Hernandez regarding an item the board is expected to vote on during next week’s meeting for purchase of items worth more than $100,000. The specific agenda item includes various purchases for the school district’s police department.

House said the district would be buying 200 rifles, 200 ballistic plate shields and rifle ammunition.

“As we study the Uvalde scenario and looked at what … proper preparation that needs to be in place, officers would not have been prepared for what that looks like,” House said.

[…]

Hernandez asked what research was guiding HISD, instead of feelings. House asked HISD police Chief Pete Lopez to share information in response to her question.

Lopez said research showed police who were better prepared helped in stopping a shooter faster. He was confident about training the district’s police force — estimated to be more than 200 employees — had received. But he did “not have a lot of confidence in preparing our officers to encounter a suspect without the proper equipment.” He said they needed scenario-based training to learn how to respond to such a threat.

The school district has about 195,000 students.

“The equipment that I’ve requested is to provide additional training to teach the officers how to breach the doors, how to use those shields and also quickly enter that room and neutralize the suspect,” Lopez said. “And of course save our students and our staff.”

Like I said, nobody wants to have to think about this. Given that we have to, there are two things that I want to know up front, based on what we have witnessed from Uvalde. One is that there is always a clear definition of who is in command at such a scene. While it’s unlikely that DPS and Border Patrol would show up at an HISD school wit an active shooter, HPD and the Sheriff’s office will almost certainly have officers on the scene. Make sure that there is a written policy that says who is the leader, so that we don’t have a nightmare situation where dozens of cops are waiting around for someone to tell them what to do. And two, the policy must also state that the top priority is going after the shooter, again to avoid a repeat of what happened at Robb Elementary. Everything else, from best practices to training to equipment to whatever else can be provided for. First and foremost, we have to make sure that there’s a commitment to stop the person or persons responsible for the shooting. You wouldn’t think this is a thing that needs to be said, and to be clearly spelled out in an official document for which there would be severe consequences for now following it, but it is and we do. So let’s make sure we have one. Campos has more.

HISD approves its budget

First one for the new Superintendent.

Houston ISD trustees on Thursday unanimously approved a $2.2 billion budget that will give teacher raises some have called long overdue and fund the upcoming school year when the district is expected to begin implementing a strategic plan aimed at making the state’s largest school system more equitable.

All nine trustees voted in favor of the proposed budget following a presentation from Superintendent Millard House II about how parts of the budget will meet board goals, which a few trustees had asked about. A roughly $100 million deficit will end up being reduced to some $30 million at year’s end through unspent funds, mostly from job vacancies, administrators have said they anticipate.

“We cannot hope to serve the needs of our children by being close-fisted on the most important determinant of their success: high-quality professional educators,” Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who frequently advocates for educators from the dais, said in a statement posted on Twitter after the vote. “This budget honors our kids by honoring our teachers, support staff and principals. It is past time for HISD to be the district that sets the standard in our region. I’m proud to be part of the team that gets us there.”

The compensation package, backed with the help of federal COVID-19 relief money the district received, will boost the salary of a starting teacher to $61,500 from the current annual pay of $56,869. Employees at the higher end of salary ranges will see about $3,000 more each year, those salaries reaching the mid- and high-$80,000s.

Other employees are also expected to receive raises as the district will update its master pay table.

The spending plan also set the financial framework for the first full year of House’s five-year strategic plan. Campuses will be required to staff librarians or media specialists, nurse or nurse assistants, and counselors.

In addition to the $2.2 billion operating budget, the district expects to pay another $374 million in debt service. Central administrators this spring cut $60 million in what House has called the first step toward financial sustainability. The cuts did not affect the police force, financial or legal services, House said.

See here and here for some background. HISD was known to pay its teachers less than other area districts, and it has seen some teachers leave as a result, so the pay raise was needed. We’ll see how those first pieces of the strategic plan go. I’m generally optimistic, but there are always some bumps in the road. Now that this has been settled and HISD appears to be in fairly stable shape for the near term, it’s probably time to start talking about the next capital bond issuance. The last one was in 2012, and there are surely numerous buildings that need work, and that’s without mentioning the urgency of better ventilation as a COVID mitigation. I don’t know if there’s time to get a bond item on the ballot this year, but if they wait until next year at least it’s a city election year and we’ll have an open Mayor’s race, so they won’t have to sweat as much to get their voters to the polls. Hope you’re working on a plan for this, 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.