Money to Spin

Times are getting tough these days over at the Houston Independent School District.

Thanks to a slumbering economy and cuts in state funding, HISD faces a $100 million shortfall. The district laid off 360 employees earlier this year; magnet program budgets will be slashed by 20 percent; cuts in bus service mean some kids will have to walk two miles just to get to their bus stop.

The district says it is desperately looking for places to cut costs. One place it apparently isn't looking: its public relations department.

A new assistant press secretary begins May 1, at an annual salary of $44,769. The head of the press office, Heather Browne -- who makes $104,000 a year -- says the hiring is justified because it fills a vacancy created when a former employee left.

"It's filling an old position, not creating a new one," Browne says. "There are no new dollars being spent." In fact, the new assistant press secretary is making less than the $56,200 her predecessor made. Browne notes that there is no hiring freeze in place at the district.

Still, the move is a little surprising. It seems that the most nervous folks around these days include press people for government entities facing budget crunches -- the PR departments can often be the first to be knifed.

HISD's PR office has four people, including a secretary; with the new hire, the combined salaries of the four will be more than $225,000.

Gayle Fallon, head of the Houston Federation of Teachers, isn't happy. The day will never dawn when she rejoices over the spending of money on central administration staff rather than teachers; even so, the new hire is especially galling in these times.

Although no teachers were laid off in the recent round of cuts, Fallon says that the past two months have seen a sharp increase in nonrenewals of teacher contracts and "forced resignations," where a teacher is allowed to resign rather than be let go. ("I'm sure some of them were performance-related, but not all 138 of them that have occurred in the last two months," she says.)

"They're letting go cops, they're letting go certified teachers; this district has really skewed priorities," she says. "I'm highly suspicious of anything they hire that doesn't directly touch the campuses. They have enough PR people."

Fallon says she expects class sizes to grow soon in middle and high school classes, which are not covered by state caps.

HISD isn't saying that will happen, but if it does, at least the district will have enough staff on hand to put a good spin on it.

No Show

A nation, or at least a city, sorely in need of bread and circuses will apparently be deprived of one.

Former Fox 26 reporter Lloyd Gite had tongues wagging (do gossip columnists still say that?) when portions of his deposition surfaced a few months ago (see "Backstage Pass," November 21). The deposition was taken as part of his federal lawsuit over his November 2000 firing, and Gite named names as he talked about reporters sleeping with management or appearing on camera drunk and as he passed on tales of screaming prima-donna anchors, stoned cameramen and racial epithets he claimed were directed at him.

All that would have come out in court. But not anymore, alas.

Gite and Fox settled their suit recently. There's a confidentiality clause, so no one's talking, but Gite didn't get rich -- the suit reportedly was dropped for between $100,000 and $200,000. Attorney's fees would come out of that.

The former reporter couldn't talk about it when we called him, but he did mention that he will be opening an art gallery, Gite's African Treasures, this summer. He's also freelancing for MBC, a cable news network aimed at black audiences.

Mute Button

Gordon Bethune, the head of Continental Airlines -- the corporate giant that is the second-largest employer in Houston -- is famous for blunt speaking.

He got in trouble for it April 10 when he spoke at an aviation conference in Phoenix. Discussing a financially troubled rival, he described United Airlines as so bad off as to be considered "HIV-positive."

Denver's Rocky Mountain News carried the remarks, since they involved United's hub at Denver International Airport. By the next day, AIDS groups in L.A. and Colorado were protesting, calling Bethune's remarks "ignorant, uneducated and insensitive."

Bethune had to issue a formal apology. "While taken out of context, it was still a poor choice of words on my part," he said in a prepared written statement to the News.

None of this, apparently, was worth mentioning in our very own Houston Chronicle. The News reporter who broke the story, David Kesmodel, said he even e-mailed the Chron's business desk to alert them. Nothing came of it.

What's a little insensitivity among friends?

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