Between Passing Standards and State Funding, HISD Remains in Free Fall

It wasn't just the budget numbers that remain in free fall as Houston ISD trustees discovered at today's agenda workshop. Next fall, board members and Superintendent Terry Grier's administration will have to come together to set stopgap passing standards for district students that will cover only the 2011-12 year, Carla Stevens, HISD's assistant superintendent of research, said at today's agenda meeting.

Next year the state moves to the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test from the discarded TAKS, but a new test means entering a new universe in terms of determining a pass-fail rate.

"We will have to have something as stopgap measure for promotion since we won't have STAAR passing levels that year," Stevens told trustees toward the end of their three-hour public meeting.

As expected, but with some continued disgruntlement, the seven trustees in attendance (Carol Galloway and Board President Paula Harris were AWOL, as was Grier, who was in Washington D.C. testifying about the No Child Left Behind Act) voted unanimously to approve dropping the national Stanford standardized test as a promotion and retention ingredient. Despite all the trustees' talk about how the TAKS test carries little weight as a measure of student competency or future success, they're dropping the Stanford at the recommendation of the administration, who say the results of the spring tests come back too late in the year to be factored into the promotion criteria.

Ann Best, head of HISD Human Resources, said now the Stanford will be used to "intervene" with students whose low scores show they need extra help. And Stevens said actually this intervention will occur at a much more rigorous level than has been applied to promotions.

Trustees also voted 7-0 to cut $17.9 million in central office costs and $22.6 million in district-wide programs. These cuts still leave an anticipated shortfall of some $65 million, Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett reminded board members. Trustees were also told to expect a 7 percent decrease in Title I funds from the U.S. Department of Education, which affects Pre-K funding, but the district has committed to paying for the full pre-K program with other funds if needed. There is a decrease in money for summer school and the district is still looking for complete funding there. Summer school this year will run from June 7 through July 1, but there have already been discussions about moving it later in the summer in the following year.

HISD attorney David Thompson discussed the present state of education funding bills in the Legislature and said that if House Bill 2485 from Houston representative Scott Hochberg is adopted, it could mean even more serious financial consequences for HISD. Thompson said that most legislators are looking at each school district's tax rate and if those rates are relatively low -- as HISD's is, compared to other nearby districts, at $1.1567 per $100 of house valuation -- then the state thinks they should do something about that to raise money.

"Every proposal on the House and Senate side is making that a key component or driver," Thompson said. No trustee seemed enthused about the idea of raising taxes, and in fact Lawrence Marshall talked about how the district hasn't gone there -- to which Garrett replied: "Yet."

Thompson said although the House passed a bill calling for $8 billion in education cuts, he believes the Senate version will be about half that.

Trustee Michael Lunceford asked the board and administration to evaluate whether HISD employees making more than $100,000 a year should take a pay cut and thereby provide funding to retain more teachers. He referenced Grier's earlier comment that something like this would only be "symbolic" in nature without real benefit, saying, "A lot of people think it's a very strong symbol. I would like to see you revisit that. "

"In private industry it's common to do things like this in crisis times," he said.

The board doesn't usually vote on policy outside of its once-a-month meeting, but in response to a question from trustee Anna Eastman, Garrett said she thinks it's best when the board knows it wants to cut a program to take care of it as soon as possible so people can make other plans. Eastman said she thinks it is important that all board members and the superintendent be present for all meetings where things like this are voted on, and asked that any future meetings be scheduled at times when the most people possible could be there.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing