Finances: No. 1 Cause of Marital Discord and HISD Trustee Testiness

Husbands and wives play this game all the time. They're short of money and need to put themselves on a stricter budget. They agree they can get by with the worldly goods they already have until better times. Resolute and united, they pause for a smooch, and, holding hands, march forward bravely.

Until, just like the increasingly testy, increasingly discordant Houston ISD trustees are finding out, one person's "necessity" may be another individual's first choice for the discard pile. And what some people see as an "extravagant" acquisition in hard times is others' "too-long-delayed must-have."

The devil, as the truism goes, is in the details.

The fact is the Houston Independent School District is still looking to fill a shortfall of another $59 million in funds for the next school year. That number has stayed rather steady for a number of weeks, after trustees first whittled things down from an expected $171 million shortfall.

At Thursday morning's workshop, trustees were looking at a sheet of possible cuts when they were told that the previously discussed plan to add new specialized dual credit programs, a.k.a. "career academies", at Furr, Scarborough, Sterling and Kashmere high schools would cost the district $1.65 million.

Trustees Anna Eastman, Michael Lunceford and Juliet Stipeche were the most vocal about asking whether this was the right time to offer this kind of new program, considering its price tag. Board President Paula Harris and longtime trustees Larry Marshall and Manuel Rodriguez were equally adamant that yes indeed it is. Former Board President Greg Meyers was there, but didn't enter the fray. The back and forth that followed, particularly between Eastman, Harris and Marshall, wasn't always of the kindest, gentlest type, including when it moved on to include discussion of whether HISD should be installing new bus and school times to economize on transportation costs.

Which is when Marshall brought up the dreaded charge of "micromanaging" when Eastman asked for more board discussion on the plan to change bus route times.

Another point of contention was over whether the district really needs to undertake a Literacy Initiative right now that will involve working with teachers this summer to develop a program at a cost of $1.75 million that will cover all grades.

Superintendent Terry Grier spoke in favor of proceeding, arguing once again that with 70,000 HISD students not reading at grade level, there is no time to wait and what has been in place isn't working for all students.

"We're looking to develop a program that can teach children to read, not only to read but to comprehend. One of our big challenges is the large number of kids who come into our district who do not speak English as a first language. And that's a struggle, but we can do this work," Grier said. "I want to let you know how much I appreciate your willingness to let us put money in the budget to go after what I perceive to be our most serious problem in our school district. Because if you cannot read in today's world, you cannot be successful.

And, he said, any program developed without teacher input was doomed. "If we don't find a way to engage our teachers in this, teachers will see this as just the central office trying to do things to them rather than trying to do things with them, " Grier said.

And Middle School Chief Dallas Dance told everyone that "middle school teachers do not know how to teach reading," don't even have to take a reading course to get their diplomas. The summer session, he argued, will help fill that gap.

Ah, but the costs of all these programs continued to be a sticking point.

"We closed the doors of four schools last week. We have had to rif [reduction in force] hundreds of teachers," Eastman said. "We're looking at proposing a pretty drastic change in our bell system to save money....I think the planning and looking toward something like this in the future is a good idea, but I have a real problem funding a $1.6 million increase to something right now when we still have a $59 million projected shortfall. I really struggle with my ability to go and possibly ask taxpayers to pay more tax, and I think right now we need to be focused on either keeping stuff funded that we value and that we know works, and implementing all these other new things that we're trying to do like the literacy initiative, I really struggle with being able to support something like this right now."

"Infusing a whole bunch of capital outlay and technology and furniture and supplies so we can get this program off the ground feels very counterintuitive to me. I don't think we need to stop innovation. I think we have a whole lot on our plate right now and the amount of effort and time and money that that's going to take, I believe should take precedence."

Trustee Michael Rodriguez countered: "We're trying to transform instead of reform. Tradition has been what we've been doing for a long time. As a businessman, you have to look at ways to move forward, to develop new avenues to be able to do what you should do. With these career academies we're looking at ways to prepare and move these kids forward not just for college but for the work force. Our ultimate goal is not to sit and stay status quo or to remain doing what we've been doing as traditional education, but it's to find those ways to educate motivate and move our kids forward."

Mike Lunceford: "When I ran for the board, because I felt we had poor vocational training. I think it's premature to start new programs." He pointed out that Kashmere is already a year into the Apollo turnaround program, and now the district is adding in another variable at the long-troubled school.

Board President Harris weighed in: "I agree with a lot of the points here today. One of the things we have to remember is we have a $59 million shortfall. But one of the things to remember is there's still things we don't want to cut because it's good for children. If we have to close Kashmere because we didn't find a workable solution...I don't think the public trusts us."

"To say that 'Oh, we need to wait on these children, on vocational programs' and yet we vowed not to cut magnet money -- we could have but we didn't want to cut academic achievement," Harris said. "We won't say that our vocational programs need to be shored up. They're terrible. I can't sit here and say we have to focus on Vanguard...and I can't say that we can't focus on career academies."

"Either we are or we're not trying to educate all children to the highest performance levels," Harris proclaimed. "I think what we need to do is take it to a vote."

In other -- uncontested -- action, the proposed redistricting plan for HISD trustees was unveiled and unlike the city and the state efforts, there wasn't any dissension. Apparently each trustee will retain about 93 percent of his or her present district. To have a look at it, you can go to the page that the HISD Web site has set aside for this.

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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