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HISD Trustees OK a New Budget Amid Calls For Change

Dr. Grenita Lathan saw her retooled budget proposal approved.
Dr. Grenita Lathan saw her retooled budget proposal approved.
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Armed with more questions than answers about the future — COVID-19 costs? 11-month school year? Classes that are virtual, in-person or hybrid?  What do we do with calls to defund our police department? — the Houston ISD trustees Thursday night trudged through another lengthy meeting and approved a $2 billion budget for the 2020-21 school year in a 7-2 vote.

Included in it is a $34.4 million salary and benefits package that is not as much of a raise as HISD employees  wanted, but it's better than what they were looking at a week ago — which would have been a step increase only that would total $6 million for all teachers. Now a 1.5 percent one-time retention stipend is in place as well as a step increase ranging from $300 to $1,000 based on years of employment with HISD. In the 2019-20 school year, HISD trailed other local school districts in what it paid its teachers.

Teachers on a masters schedule as well as bus drivers, crossing guards and Nutrition Service employees will be getting a one-time $500 retention stipend — prorated if they work less than a 40-hour week.  The compromise reached, after the ensuing outcry when the more severe cut was announced, will mean the district will have a projected $15 million deficit. Trustees Elizabeth Santos and Dani Hernandez voted against the budget.

Santos had offered an amendment calling for more funding for schools that fall below certain attendance standards, but other trustees said the matter needed more consideration before they could tack on another $4.7 million to a budget already starting out with a deficit. The amendment was defeated in a 6-3 vote with only Anne Sung, and Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca joining Santos.

A number of speakers including several HISD students  — fighting continued technical and human error problems with the new call-in, social distancing system — called for the district to pull its police force from schools and instead direct the money to counseling, mental health assistance and libraries. Several said black students are particularly targeted by campus police out of all proportion to their share of the student body.

Ironically enough, the new budget approved an additional $3.5 million for an increase in HISD police officers' pay, which Lathan said was lower than other police departments in the area.

Lekha Sunder, a student who said she represents a coalition of more than 950 members of the Lamar High School community who signed a letter urging HISD and Lamar to remove police officers from campuses. spoke to the board, saying "When schools place police officers on their grounds, they're agreeing to send some of their students to juvenile coart for behavior they would never otherwise be prosecuted for.

"When we criminalize our students, they begin to see themselves as criminals."

Karina Barbosa, a graduate of HISD schools, said at her high school "We had a cop but no full-time nurse. We had a cop but no on-campus library. We had a cop but no mental health counselors." 

Larsen Tosch a senior from Bellaire High School said the use of police officers in schools instills "paranoia among students, especially students of color.

"I do not see why we need to pay for bullets at a school that routinely runs out of paper."

Board President Sue Deigaard said she was putting together an ad hoc committee of trustees to discuss the police in schools issue. In addition she said there will be a board meeting on  September 1 to discuss the issue with a report from the administration. The call to defund police departments has risen nationally following George Floyd's death while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers who have been charged in his death.

Going to a year-round school designation with the Texas Education Agency would give the district more flexibility on the start date and meeting the required number of school days a year if campuses had to be shut down because of the coronavirus spread, Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan has said.

Lathan said so far they have not received guidance from TEA on how Average Daily Attendance will be counted  if schools are closed, or students are online only or if they attend classes on just a few days a week. Summer school started whit week with a total of 53,143 students involved. "We are still trying to reach some middle school students that we want to participate," Lathan said. 

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