Unfunding a Mandate

Judge Eckels pledges all will be made right with the state.
Phillippe Deiderich

A kid gets expelled from school. Or he's been incarcerated for a crime, serves his term and can move back to his home school, except that it's a week before the TAAS tests and not a really good time to rejoin his class.

That's where Harris County's Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program comes in. By state decree a few years back, counties became responsible for educating kids removed from their regular public school. The state pays the counties about $60 a day for each student. In return, the county makes sure the kid goes to school and files regular reports on his progress.

Problem is, Harris County's program has not only fallen behind in its reporting but admits it will never be able to supply all the data it was supposed to give the state for the 2000-2001 school year because the kids are long gone. There's no way to get some of them back for that testing they were supposed to undergo.

And because of that, on November 28 the state sent a letter to Margaret Rohde, administrator of the program, telling her that if she didn't get her house in order the state would take away not only all its JJAEP funding but other grant funds -- including those that go to the juvenile probation department operated by Elmer Bailey.

Rohde, while pledging this will never happen again, has a series of explanations about the missing data. She remains certain that she will be able to clear this up by January and save the funding. She's not worried.

Bailey, while disappointed and clearly uncomfortable, said he is confident that the state would never touch his funding. That wouldn't be fair, to punish his department for what another county department did, he said. He's not worried.

At least, Rohde said, the reporting is up to date this year. They've mastered the computer programs that were giving them trouble and know what they have to do. The testing process itself has been streamlined. Any mistakes made in the past are behind them.

But that's not the story the state was telling a week ago. Linda Brooke, director of education and related services for the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission in Austin, said Rohde's office was not current with its numbers this year, either.

"The counties are required to send the data every other month. In Harris County this is not happening," Brooke said.

That's why the state hasn't sent Harris County the $325,000 that it figures is the minimum needed to run its education program this year, Brooke said. That, and because as of mid-December, the probation commission and Harris County still didn't have a signed contract. Margaret Rohde wasn't aware the money was missing. Harris County Judge Robert Eckels wasn't aware the contract was missing, until asked to check on it by the Press.

And Brooke said she will, too, take away Elmer Bailey's money if she has to.

Not to be neurotic, but maybe a little worry here would be a good thing.

Usually no one gets a letter like the one Rohde received without some history leading up to it. According to Brooke, there is a lot of history.

"There were several times that this was discussed," Brooke said. Missing were the so-called risk/resiliency surveys, which are done by asking kids about behavioral and academic factors such as how they've been doing in school, possible gang involvement and drug use. Those tests are supposed to be done when a child first enters the JJAEP program and just before he exits.

Rohde said the test, now in its second year, surprised them in a number of ways. It was oral instead of written, which made it a one-on-one test instead of a group experience. Rohde said the first part of the test took 90 to 120 minutes to administer(the state's Brooke said 45 to 60 minutes max). And they had a lot of students to test.

This year, Rohde said, the pressure of the testing program has been eased somewhat. They have to test only the students staying at least 90 days. The test itself has also been shortened.

Last year, the county sent 336 of the 1,240 students in the JJAEP program to the private Community Education Partners for their education. The rest went to the Brown Schools, also in the business of providing alternative education. Rohde admits that the schools did not collect all the data they should have. Sometimes, she said, they would lose the chance for an exit test because a kid would get arrested over the weekend and never return.

Yet a December 11 report by Rohde to Brooke shows that of the 1,240 students, only 212 received both tests, which means either our jails were bulging with kids or there were some other factors at work here. The vast majority of the students -- 761 -- received neither test. And even though Rohde has said the test was really designed to measure progress of students who are in their care 90 or more days, only 15 percent of that number (31 students) took both tests.  

Had the new rules been in place last year, Rohde said, 91 percent of the kids would not have had to be tested. Some who missed the entry test had already taken a similar state-approved test while incarcerated, before they were students.

The county and CEP parted ways at the end of last school year. Rohde said it was because CEP couldn't make enough money off the JJAEP students -- at least not the number of students they had going there at the state-set rate. Now the Brown Schools is the sole county contractor.

Although the county's contract with CEP requires it to do the pre- and post-testing, Rohde said, she didn't think it was fair to not pay CEP its full amount just because it had failed to do what it was supposed to do in a few isolated areas. "They were thrown off guard, and we were as well, with the change in the format from when you can administer 20 [tests] at a time to one at a time."

Unfortunately for Rohde, the state is not being nearly so understanding.

She said her office thought they had downloaded the risk/ resiliency tests to the state in September. It was only much later, she said, that she discovered "there was a glitch in our database" and the statistics hadn't made it. After receiving the letter, she re-sent the data, Rohde said.

According to Brooke, even when Harris County has sent them files, they have been incomplete. Rohde "has made an effort to come into compliance for this year, but she's not there yet," said Brooke. Still missing is complete student data and testing for this year, Brooke said.

A continuing problem that both Elmer Bailey and Rohde talk about is that the computer systems of Harris County and the state probation commission don't match. As a result, Bailey said, there's no easy transfer from the county, which collects a whole lot more information, to the state, which wants to see only certain statistics.

Harris County has been given until January to get its missing information to the state. Brooke said if that doesn't happen, her office will be stepping up its enforcement even more, demanding compliance. The state wants things to work out, Brooke said, and she believes Rohde and her office are truly working hard on the problem.

But the fact remains that despite repeated phone calls and conversations between Brooke's office and Rohde's office about data submissions, timeliness and formatting, Harris County hadn't given the commission the numbers it requires by contract.

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels presides over the Harris County Juvenile Board and is Margaret Rohde's direct boss. Contacted a few days after the letter to Rohde, he said he was just coming up to speed on the problem.

He said he'd been assured by Rohde that everything was up to date, for this year at least. Informed that was not what Brooke was saying, Eckels said he was going to check into it further, to talk with Brooke directly, that he might fly to Austin to see her in person. He said he wanted to determine where the bulk of the problems were, in the county or at the state level.

"Anytime I get a letter like this from a director of a state agency or of a state program, I'm extremely concerned," Eckels said. "We'll do whatever is required to comply with the stated requirements.

"I believe we are gathering the data. The disjoint is with why the data is not getting from our offices to the TJPC offices."

As it turned out, Eckels got tied up and sent an aide to Austin. The aide reported that the kinks could be worked out. In fact, by last Friday Linda Brooke reported that the county was now current. "We'll still have to see where they are in January," she said. The TJPC staff is so small, Eckels said, that it had a hard time converting Harris County's information.

As for the unsigned contract, Eckels explained that the county had to redo its funding. "Memorandums of use" had to be redrawn from each district, and the county is still waiting on the one from Houston Independent School District. Until that gets signed, though, no $325,000.  

Margaret Rohde, the program director since January 2000 and a county employee since 1995, seems dedicated to doing right by these kids. But she still wasn't getting the state the required information for the second year in a row.

And the threat of lost funding is no small thing. Even though it's a county agency, JJAEP gets no financial support from Harris County other than in in-kind services such as offices and utilities. Instead, it gets its funding from the state and any stray grants it may secure. There should be a lot of emphasis in Rohde's office on keeping the state happy, because she is jeopardizing not only her funding but the 30 percent of Bailey's total funding that comes from the state.

Again, there's a lot of disjointedness, a lot of disconnectedness at work here.

Margaret Rohde wasn't sure whether the state got one of its reports or not.

Rohde thought her office was in compliance this year, but it wasn't.

Rohde wasn't aware that the county hadn't received its $325,000 for the year, until a reporter told her otherwise, for the program she administers. Okay, so the funds don't go to her directly, but wouldn't she check with the county's financial folks?

While Judge Eckels certainly shouldn't be micromanaging departments, he seems a tad disconnected himself from what's going on in this one. Reports not getting in on time, an unsigned contract and incomplete testing -- jeez, those all seem like things he'd rather have learned about from someone other than the Press. Maybe some of his folks ought to be keeping him better informed.

And when the county gives out thousands of dollars in education contracts, why shouldn't it make those businesses toe the line and furnish data required by the state? It's nice to cut people some slack from time to time, but not when it endangers your own operation.

"I'm not happy about this," Eckels said.

It's hard to imagine how he could be.

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