UPDATED: Most HISD Trustees Say Give the Money Back to the Schools Now

Update: HISD spokesman Jason Spencer says Superintendent Terry Grier always meant to give the restored overcut of funds back to the schools and that the only difference of opinion was whether principals should be limited in how they used that money. See bottom of story for more.

A majority of Houston ISD trustees meeting Monday afternoon said they want $18.5 million -- the amount of money they initially overcut from their budget -- to go back to the district's schools this fall with no restrictions on how principals should use the money, including no bars on using the money to hire teachers.

They said that's what they promised.

In doing so, they rejected Superintendent Terry Grier's proposal to instead put the money into the general fund and save it for the next school year where there is an anticipated budget shortfall of about $41 million thanks to the state legislature's decreased funding of education.

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When trustees approved the 2011-12 budget in June, they stipulated that any excess monies be returned to the individual campuses in the form of student funding allocations known as the PUA. The $18.5 million means $85 of the $275 cut made to this funding will be restored.

"When we voted for this, we voted for the money to go back to the schools. This is something that we promised to the community and I think we are beholden to the community," trustee Juliet Stipeche said.

Grier had also proposed that by having a $33 million one-time federal grant pick up many of the district's general fund costs, an equal $18.5 million could be freed up to pay for "technology, intervention strategies and instructional materials," in all the schools with a prohibition on spending any money on hiring teachers.

He said he didn't want to go through another round of teacher layoffs in the next year because these are only one-time funds, and he said based on two meetings he's had with principals, these were the areas where they said they could use the extra help. "We were not trying to put shackles on our principals," Grier insisted.

The majority of trustees were having none of it.

"The intention was not to say the money has to be or should be used for personnel but that it should go back into the principal's budget and be as close to the child as possible," Anna Eastman said. "My sentiment was we have principals on our campuses who we hire to have the discretion and authority on how they spend their budgets."

Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett and trustee Harvin Moore tried to make the case that Grier's proposal is called for because of the uniqueness of what state legislators decided to do -- namely cut the school district's budget so much more in the second year than the first, rather than having equal amounts disbursed across both years.

"I believe we should send every bit of extra money to the schools when we have it," Moore said. "But the fact is, the way the state did their budget this time we appear to have it for one year but we don't really have it, because they take away more than twice that amount in the second year."

"I contend there is no money being returned to the schools. It's a trick," Moore said. "We appear to have the money, but no we don't."

Trustees Carol Galloway and Larry Marshall both rejected Grier's statement that any teachers hired at this point would have to be fired in the next year, saying taxes could be raised. Marshall also said there were other options such as consolidating schools that could cut costs.

"Here we are now in the midst of this crisis and we promised the constituents that we are going to return whatever difference we have to the PUA," Marshall said. "Gosh, it's just a matter of us having the courage and conviction to maintain and honor that promise."

The board will vote on a revamped proposal at its Thursday night meeting.

In other action, Grier announced he is bringing in the Council of Great Schools and an external audit firm to evaluate the district's procurement procedures. His action follows Eastman's call for just such an evaluation earlier this week, amid reports that both Board President Paula Harris and trustee Marshall have relationships with vendors doing business with the district.

As perhaps an antidote to this, trustee Greg Meyers stayed long enough at the meeting to declare that a) a proposed leadership training contract with St. Thomas University was well in the works before he went to work for the school in May and b) that he will abstain from any vote involving St. Thomas.

Trustees Eastman, Lunceford and Galloway asked for more data on the St. Thomas deal and questioned why the district is doing this since it has an ongoing relationship with Rice University which provides a similar program.

Grier said the district has relationships with many universities and he doesn't want to discard a long-standing relationship with St. Thomas. Galloway said she couldn't remember any such lengthy relationship, and Chief Human Resources Officer Ann Best said she would provide a timeline.

UPDATE: Spokesman Jason Spencer said Wednesday that moving the $18.5 million in restored funds to the 2012-13 budget and replacing it with the exact amount in one-time federal funds for the 2011-12 school year was "just an accounting issue."

" He [Grier] has always said from day one that the money go back to schools," Spencer said. "Now I understand that different trustees had different interpretations of what was intended by that."

The argument at Monday's meeting was Spencer said, Are we going to let principals hire back teachers with the money?"

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