Updated:HISD Parents Group Says No to More Bennies in Apollo 20

It seems that a proposal to put even more money into the Apollo 20 reclamation project in the Houston ISD was the final straw for a group of parent leaders in the school district.

At the same time as the district is planning "to cut summer school funding for 54,140 students," due to lack of funds, according to the HISD Parent Visionaries, it is proposing to hand out bonuses to principals at the four high schools and five middle schools -- all historically low-performing schools -- of up to $30,000 each for high schools and $20,000 for middle.

Today, the group sent out a broadcast e-mail today protesting Superintendent Terry Grier's plan to set up an additional incentive bonus plan for principals and school improvement officers at the nine schools.

Grier's proposal will be voted on at Thursday night's regularly scheduled board meeting. Parent Visionaries are asking district residents to call their trustees and urge them to vote against the proposal. The total cost of the program would not exceed $239,866, according to the proposal.

Most of the cost of the Apollo 20 program is being paid by federal funds. The district is still trying to raise private funding for the remaining costs and in the event that it does not, Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett has set aside $6.2 million in the district's general fund to pay for any shortfall.

Parent Visionaries pointed out the district is also meeting with parents this week to fill them in on the expected severe cutback in funds available to it in the next year because of the shortfall in the state budget. Which makes it even more inexplicable, they say, that it would expend more funds on Apollo 20 which only serves a portion of the students in the district.

We called in to the HISD press office for official comment and will update when we hear back.

UDATED: Parent Visionaries contacted us to say the bonus amounts aren't just $30K and $20K as we reported, but to add in a $15K max to each of them from the ASPIRE program which among other things, rewards principals for their students improving on standardized tests like the TAKS.

And HISD's Chief of Staff Michele Pola and Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett talked with us to refute some of what the Parent Visionaries group is saying.

First and most important: "The board had approved already the bonuses for the Apollo principals earlier in the year. The bonus pay program had already been approved," Pola said. Garrett said bonuses were approved in an open board meeting on April 29.

It was done, Pola said, "because we recruited the principals on those. That's how we recruited them."

"Principals who have contracts in school districts that are doing well are not going to leave and give up their contracts for no contracts in a pay for performance plan," Pola added.

Actually what the board is being asked to approve Thursday night are not the bonuses themselves, but the manner in which a principal will be judged in assessing that incentive pay.

For TRS (Texas Retirement System) purposes for the funds that the principal may receive to be able to be counted towards retirement, the board has to approve the metrics that will be used to allocate the performance funds," Pola said.

The reason the metrics setting was delayed, she said, was because they wanted input from theprincipals on what those metrics should be. Critics have asked why the principals get to set their own standards. Pola explained that it was done to make sure the standards set at each school were reasonable -- for instance that a school that has only had 10 percent of its students scoring at the commended level wouldn't be asked to move to 95 percent in one year.

Garrett confirmed that she has set aside $6.8 million in general funds just in case Apollo 20 fund-raising efforts fall short (she doesn't think they will), but Pola emphasized that none of that money would go to incentives.

As for the summer school cutbacks, as Garrett put it, "less money means less offerings," but it has nothing to do with Apollo 20 money.