Trustee Larry Marshall denied any conflicts of interest in his trip to Costa Rica no matter what the Houston Chronicle says. Anna Eastman said she isn't a "teacher basher" even though she knows some people think she is. And Board President Paula Harris saluted her friends and said she's not going to deny them even if they want to do business with the district and anyone (Texas Watchdog in this case) writes about it.
Oh, and in other business, with little debate or deliberation, the Houston ISD board of trustees Thursday night approved a $1.58 billion budget for 2011-12 that represents a $96 million drop from this year's budget and gives the district a start on the 2012-13 budget that's going to be even tougher.
It will, of course, have to be tweaked again this year because like all of the public school districts in Texas, HISD is still waiting on the Texas Legislature to finalize its own budget numbers. Another factor is that the budget for next year that HISD did produce has "over cut" by $21.9 million.
Sharon Eaves, general manager of HISD's Office of Budgeting and Financial Planning, took the trustees and a relatively small group of onlookers in attendance through a 24-page powerpoint that hit the high points of how HISD and its budget got to where they are today.
Trustee Manuel Rodriguez said that HISD had worked hard to rehire as many teachers who'd received "reduction in force" letters and as a result, there were only slightly more than 500 teachers who lost their jobs for reasons other than performance problems or because they took early retirement.
As previously reported, the district expects to be looking at a $40 million shortfall in funding in 2012-13 in addition to the cuts it has already made.
The additional costs the district is facing included $7.2 million in increased health care costs for its employees, $3.8 million in unemployment insurance costs and $1.7 million in increased costs for the district's Literacy Initiative.
The personal privilege time when trustees "share" with the audience took on reality TV aspects when Eastman, in sincere and heartfelt tones, said that she has had the reputation of a "teacher basher" -- something that people who know her know couldn't be farther from the truth. And that actually she has incredible respect for teachers.
In turn, Marshall said he joined the board in 1997 so that he could help with health coverage for employees and that his trip to look at the Costa Rican health care system was part and parcel of that.
"You recently read about my journey to Costa Rica. My journey to Costa Rica was my invitation from the Costa Rican government -- not by any invitation of a vendor. When you read the story in the newspaper, you got the impression there could have been a conflict of interest. I did not go to Costa Rica at the invitation of a vendor, I was there representing the government."
As a result of his trip, Marshall said, "I received many other invitations from other Latin American countries." And he plans to take them up on it "because many of those countries have excellent health care programs and as a trustee I need to ask myself : 'What do I bring to the table? How can I make a difference?' So we're moving on that. "
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"What do I bring to the table? That was my motivation for running for the board," Marshall said. "To try to make a difference. To be a resourceful board member and not be parasitic."
And completing the personal declaration time, President Harris, responding to the Texas Watchdog report that she has friends who do business with the district and votes on their contracts, said:
"I'm not ashamed ever to say that I'm friends with some of them [teachers, principals, the district's business partners]. I'm very proud to serve on Project Grad's board as I serve on this board. I'm very proud to recommend that we increase, well not increase, just continue the funding tonight, even as a friend.
"Sometimes it's hard to be my friend. They're going to do a story every week about my friends. I've got so many friends in this district. But that's fine. Just know that if you don't deny me I won't deny you. I consider you friends and I'm very happy to see you."