$10K Down The Drain
State rep takes donation, then quits race
By Richard Connelly
Terri Hodge was a state rep from Dallas for 14 years; earlier this year she faced a tough re-election fight. Hodge sent out a desperate plea for help, and among those answering was Houston state Representative Senfronia Thompson, who wrote a $10,000 check from her own campaign fund.
And nine days later, Hodge pleaded guilty to tax fraud, which is generally not thought to be the best strategy to winning a tough re-election.
Thompson's was by far the largest donation from a House colleague in Hodge's latest campaign finance report.
Any buyer's remorse, Representative Thompson?
"It was such a plea that I felt just really obligated to do something to help her, Thompson tells Hair Balls. "I was just totally unaware that her case was that close to being resolved."
She says she doesn't think Hodge knew she'd soon be accepting a plea bargain when she accepted the donation.
"It was just one of those things...And I believe that had she been aware it was going to be resolved quickly, she probably would not have even asked for that money, because she's not that kind of a person," Thompson says. "She would not have put persons in those kinds of positions to give her something when she knew she was going to be pleading out the following week. I just think it was something that just came up, and in the federal system it was probably that her lawyer probably had the opportunity to go ahead on it and resolve that matter as quickly as he could and that it came up and he just took advantage of it."
Pretty gracious, we guess, which of course it's somewhat easy to be when you're spending donors' money and not your own. Thompson's donors are largely big-bucks outfits like PACs and law firms, who won't miss the money (and probably don't have huge qualms about how Thompson spends it).
But does she have any worries that her contributors will be annoyed that their cash went to a criminal?
"I don't think so," Thompson says, "and if they do I will be happy to explain it to them. I think they'll understand that I give big donations all the time and I believe that they would understand."
And if they didn't?
"Well, I would just continue to try and get them to understand and I would hope that they would be broad-minded enough to understand my position at that particular time based on what I knew at that moment," she says.
The word "refund" wasn't mentioned, but we guess that might be a difficult concept to embrace when you've just seen your own $10,000 campaign donation be set on fire by the person to whom you donated.
They Call Me Master Batum!!
By Chris Vogel
It's a fact that most men like to play with themselves. Some even enjoy doing it in public. One man in particular, however, apparently likes to do it in front of unsuspecting women, over and over again, regardless of the consequences.
His name, according to court records, is Marcus Master Batum.
Seriously, we're not making this up.
On February 28, Mr. Batum was charged with indecent exposure. Harris County court records state that he bared all and began masturbating in front of a female corrections officer while incarcerated at the county jail on an unrelated charge.
This was not the first time Batum has taken his little buddy out to play in public. Court records show he has been charged with misdemeanor indecent exposure seven other times since 2005 and has been convicted for at least three of them. It appears as though Batum's favorite targets are female corrections officers. Six of the charges are listed as happening at the jail in front of women.
Batum, 28, also goes by a couple of other names, according to court records, including Marcus Nathan Batum.
We're not sure which stage name is real, or whether he — or possibly a mischievous sheriff's deputy — is playing a joke, but there it is in black and white, filed officially with the court.
Regardless, to whoever came up with the name, we offer our thanks.
HISD May Say Good-bye to CEP
By Margaret Downing
Two-thirds of the Houston ISD students sent to Community Education Partners, the private facility that operates two alternative campuses here, aren't required to be there by state law. It's local district policy and the discretion of the individual principal that decide if a student is removed from his home campus and placed at CEP.
That's what an initial review of HISD's placement of kids at CEP revealed, Superintendent Terry Grier told the school board. And to his way of thinking, some of the reasons students are ousted for discipline problems are things that the schools should have handled with a lighter touch.
Grier recommended that the district sever its ties with CEP and instead pay for a smaller alternative school that would handle only the most severe of the disciplinary problems. He estimated that they would need to plan for 1,000 slots just to be safe, and said he believes several companies would want to compete for the business. One possible solution, he said, would be to send the mandatory placement students to the Harris County Office of Education's program, with two facilities. He said CEP could join in the bidding on the new school.
Students who commit lesser offenses could be placed in other HISD middle schools and high schools for a period of time. In this swap system, used now by schools in New Orleans, students are granted a second and last chance to avoid being sent to an alternative school. Placed in a new school, they are told they can stay as long as they behave and apply themselves to their academics. One mistake and they're out. Grier says he's already discussed the idea with several principals and they are interested in it, as long as they are included in the planning (as in, don't send kids from one school to its archrival).
"We're not talking about serious violators. If you look at the reasons, many times it's failure to comply. Many times he's talked back to a teacher. It's not for kids who've hit a teacher," Grier said.
The superintendent started out very carefully at last week's meeting, saying that he wasn't commenting on the worth of the CEP program (loved by Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon and strongly supported by trustee Larry Marshall, who was on the CEP consultant payroll in years past).
Instead, he focused his arguments on the fact that as the district faces the possibility of some significant financial shortfalls in the upcoming year, it needs to cut costs as it can. And why is it spending more than $21 million (an $18 million base contract with another $1 million built in for excess students, $1.5 million in transportation and about $210,000 for the Special Ed payroll) for 1,600 student slots (whether all are used or not) each year? He compared it to the cost of a private-school education. This year, he said, they are down in the number of students by 332 students compared to last year.
The district was supposed to have reported back on the results of an independent evaluator's assessment of CEP by now, but the evaluator came down with double pneumonia and now isn't expected to finish his report until April 1. So time ran out on the original contract extension until March 1.
But Grier said the district can still cancel the contract "without cause" if the trustees simply vote not to fund it.
The district's review of its own records revealed some troubling facts, Grier said. For one thing, why was the contract given to CEP each year instead of letting several companies compete? Why is HISD using its $1 million excess student payment to fund a charter school now at CEP? It doesn't fund any other external charters. Why was the money not returned to HISD?
Most of the referrals are at the middle-school level, many of them overage middle-schoolers.
A Houston Press call to CEP headquarters in Nashville was not returned.
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The response of board members was lukewarm at best. Although Grier had said he didn't think it was a good idea to reabsorb all the discipline cases into an in-house system (past efforts by HISD to do this didn't work well, he said), trustee Paula Harris clearly didn't relish putting a new program in place when the district will be trying to start so many other new things in the next school year. "I just don't want us to get off track with some of these schools," she said.
Manuel Rodriguez questioned whether this was putting too much stress on educators and other students in the swap system. Grier assured him it would not; as part of his proposal, "each campus would receive $10,000 for the use of mentors to assist in making the student transfer successful."
Trustee Marshall was most critical of the idea of the swap system, mainly because, as Grier described it, it is being run in New Orleans public schools by Paul Vallas, who used to be in Philadelphia. "Philadelphia was left in shambles by Mr. Vallas," Marshall said. "I went and watched him go through circus acts and all he left was destruction...Your expert has credibility problems," he told Grier. Grier said Vallas got the swap-schools idea from nuns running parochial schools. "If we're going to be upset, let's be upset with the nuns," he told Marshall.
In the end, Grier couldn't restrain himself from commenting on the worth of CEP's program. "They don't get much of an education," he said, referring to the private program. "I've talked to principals who don't want to send the kids to CEP."