More of a Challenge Than They Thought
Tons of money, a raft of top civic leaders and the best intentions are apparently no instant cure for the deeply ingrained problems of public education. More than a year after Houston was chosen as a recipient of a $20 million grant from a national foundation to bolster local public schools, the board formed to administer the Houston Annenberg Challenge [HAC] has been shaken up and its executive director dismissed.
The grant from the Philadelphia-based Annenberg Foundation, through its Institute for School Reform, had been paired in a two-for-one arrangement with local sources, including the Brown Foundation, to create a $60 million endowment to fund local education projects. So far, about $1.5 million has been distributed to "beacon schools" in five Houston-area districts.
A troubleshooting team from the Annenberg Institute will visit Houston next month to evaluate and audit the effectiveness of the local administration of the grant. While a Houston Challenge official downplayed the significance of the visit, The Insider obtained correspondence between the national project overseers and Houston officials that offers a distinctly different outlook.
In a missive addressed to now departed Houston Challenge executive director Delia Quintanilla, national coordinator Barbara Cervone sounded a warning note about the upcoming review. Acknowledging that it is an unusual step, Cervone explained that "it reflects our serious concerns about the leadership, coherence and pace of the Annenberg effort in Houston -- concerns that compete with the forward strides HAC has made in the past year."
Cervone then added ominously, "The recommendations of the review team and the HAC's ability to make changes in a timely manner will affect the Annenberg Foundation's -- and Institute's -- enthusiasm for long-term support of the Houston program."
In advance of that review, local organizers ousted Quintanilla two weeks ago and shook up the board, bringing in high-powered downtown attorney Jonathan Day as chairman. Day is a partner in the firm Mayor Day and a legal adviser to the Metro Transit Authority board and the Port Authority board. Andrea White, the wife of former state Democratic party chair Bill White, remains president of the Houston Challenge, and Maconda Brown O'Connor, vice president of the Brown Foundation, also continues as a board member. New trustees include developer Jenard Gross, Victory Packaging chairman J. Victor Samuels and attorney Harry Gee Jr.
Day, who chaired his first meeting of the board two weeks ago, downplays the problems in the Houston effort. "The concern is getting the grant program organized, to increase the rate at which we're getting the dollars out and put to productive use," says the lawyer. "There's no concern, to my knowledge, about the way the money's been invested to date."
Annenberg senior project manager Dr. Gail Levin says the foundation "made an investment in the Houston Challenge on the basis of a very fine proposal that was submitted to us.... It is our intention and the intention of the Houston Challenge leadership to ensure that the thrust of that proposal, its priorities, goals, outcomes, are just as they were indicated." Levin refused to specify what parts of the original proposal had not been fulfilled.
HAC has awarded grants to so-called beacon schools in five area school districts. Participating in the Houston Independent School District are Browning, Poe, Scott and Helms elementary schools and Lanier Middle School. Under the grants, as much as $100,000 can go to an elementary school, $150,000 to a middle school and $200,000 to a high school. Some local critics say the grants have been too small to create real change.
Walter Annenberg, a 90-year-old former publisher and diplomat, created the foundation. It set aside $500 million in 1993 for grants to urban and rural school districts to reverse the decline in national public education. The effort has had mixed results, with some of the projects dogged by mismanagement and clashes between proponents of different educational philosophies.
Theodore Sizer, a noted public-education reformer who initially directed the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, quit two years ago. Critics note that promised annual evaluations of the challenge grants have not been forthcoming.
"The Annenberg Challenge simply increases the money flow to a system that diverts grants to serve the interests of politics and bureaucracy," education columnist Patrick Reilly wrote recently. "By reducing the need for tax revenues that might have been allocated to similar projects, the challenge enables administrators and non-teaching personnel to fill their pockets with the largess of school reform."
A source familiar with the Houston Challenge says there was tension between proponents of child-centered individual-learning techniques and those pushing state-mandated testing to meet objective standards. That led to infighting on the local board about where to spend the grant money.
Day says he just wants to get on with the mission of improving public education and forget past difficulties. "The problem is to get focused and get a clear vision about where we want to go from here, as opposed to any sort of regrets or recriminations about where we've been," explains the attorney diplomatically. "The question is to get mobilized to really invest this money wisely."
Appointing an unpaid gay community liaison might seem like fairly noncontroversial stuff if you happen to be Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, whose 18th District is one of the most liberal in the nation and includes a large gay and lesbian constituency. Unfortunately, Lee's choice of politically ambitious plaintiff's attorney Andres Pereira for the role stepped squarely on the toes of another veteran legislator with close ties to the gay community, state Representative Debra Danburg.
Pereira has made no secret of his desire to replace Danburg as the representative for District 137, going so far as to form an exploratory committee and commission a poll last year for a possible challenge to Danburg's seat. He candidly notes that an openly gay candidate has few realistic options for office, and that District 137 is one of them.
Lee's naming of Pereira provoked a sizzling letter from the state rep to the congresswoman. After reminding Lee that both she and Danburg share a commitment to furthering the interests of gay constituents, the state rep began firing from the hip. "It is unacceptable that I had no input into an appointment that so affects a key constituency in my district," declared Danburg. "Particularly when that appointment is a declared opponent of mine.... You have worked too hard to build credibility to have it undone using the auspices of your office."
Danburg also noted that PVC-pipe litigation king George Fleming, Pereira's employer and his distant relative, tried to arrange a lunch between the three to reach a truce -- but Pereira refused to cooperate. "It concerns me that Andres is countermanding the political desires of his current employer," Danburg wrote to Lee. "He might do the same to you to pursue his own political agenda."
Pereira replies that Fleming finds the whole situation "comical," and he's amazed that Danburg thinks she can tell a congresswoman how to handle her business.
"I think the congresswoman, last time I checked, wasn't required to clear things with the representative," says Pereira. "I understand she feels her district encompasses most of the gay and lesbian community, and so she has an interest in it. But, by the same token, the congresswoman has a direct relationship with that constituency and doesn't have to clear it with the representative."
In a telephone conversation with The Insider, Danburg got really personal. She claimed Pereira had executed what would be a nearly unique maneuver in American politics, publicly exploiting his gayness in order to run for political office. She says that as recently as a year and a half ago, Pereira was wearing a wedding ring and claiming he was married to a woman. Since then, she says, he joined the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and began introducing himself as openly gay in order to set up a run for her legislative seat.
"His whole deal is, 'I'm gay and therefore I should be the elected representative,' " says Danburg. She says the constituency of her district is far more diverse than that.
"Neither I nor anybody I associate with would consider being gay a disqualifier for anything," allows the representative, who then chuckled. "But it's not a qualification for much of anything except a sexual liaison."
Pereira replies that he's been openly gay at least four years, and the ring he wears marks a commitment to a longtime male partner. He's also amazed that anyone could think that he's exploiting being gay as a political asset.
"It's certainly something I'm proud of, but I certainly think it would be far easier for me to run as a straight person rather than a gay person. It's the first time I've ever heard that being gay is a plus to run for public office."
Perhaps We Spoke Too Soon...
Last week's cover feature on Lee P. Brown ["Muted Mayor," July 2] noted that the new executive had shed his old police chief image as an inveterate traveler in favor of grinding, seven-day weeks on the job in Houston. But perhaps old habits die harder than we thought.
Now comes word that Brown will take off an an 11-day trade mission to Egypt and Israel starting July 15. Newly elevated mayoral communications director Don Payne laughed when asked whether this might revive the old "out-of-town Brown" nickname. Nope, commented Payne. "He'll be out-of-the-country Brown." At least with his current travel itinerary, no one can accuse the mayor of seeking a cool summer getaway.
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