Higher Taxes, Fewer Teachers: HISD Readies Itself for a Tough Sell

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Higher taxes, a sweeping change in bus times, a cut in the number of police officers in the schools and an end to special school adjustments that for the noted T.H. Rogers elementary and middle school alone would mean a loss of $2.5 million in funding and 42 staff positions -- these were just some of the proposals and recommendations discussed at today's Houston ISD school board workshop.

The meeting -- lasting more than 5 1/2 hours before the trustees went back into closed session -- was clearly aggravating to some of the board members both for what the administration did specify and what it did not.

Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett presented a detailed analysis of where adjustments could be made to close what she now projects could be a $171 million budget deficit for HISD. Her plan, worked on with staffers in weeks of meetings, would save full-day pre-K and summer school but bring an end to extra school funding at nine schools, would cut 26 police officer jobs and replace some of those with security guards and would completely redo the district's busing system (now with its 19 start times and 21 end times) by moving to a system with just four bus run times in the morning and the same in the afternoon.

Those cuts -- and close to $21 million in central office reductions -- would save the district more than $50 million, Garrett believes, but that still leaves the district with a $119 million gap for the 2011-12 school year.

Ways to offset that would include increasing the district's $1.1567 property tax rate by one to four cents and changing the optional homestead exemption from 20 percent to 15 percent (not to include seniors 65 and older and not involving the standard homestead exemption that everyone receives. The optional homestead exemption is offered by fewer school districts in Texas.). A four-cent increase and five percentage point change in the homestead exemption would save the district nearly $64 million. "The measure would cost the average homeowner around $173 a year or $15 a month based on a home value of $195,680," an HISD press release stated.

All of which means, a number of teachers and other district employees would still lose their jobs. A school with 3,000 students would lose 15.7 teachers, one with 500 students would lose 2.66 teachers, the district statistics show.

Chief of Staff Michele Pola also had statistics in her PowerPoint presentation on the magnet schools, for example: "An ES [elementary school] with 849 students received $15,000 while another with 235 students receives $278,930." And recommendations calling for a standardized process.

What was missing were names -- and that's what the public wants to know -- as in the names of the schools that might not measure up if any new rules are implemented. An independent audit of the magnet system done by Magnet Schools of America did name names when it recommended ending the magnet programs at 53 of the district's 133 magnet schools, but trustees and Superintendent Terry Grier have insisted the MSA report is not a blueprint for what they have planned for HISD.

Several trustees dug in their heels and said they weren't prepared to vote on the magnet proposals at the March 10 board meeting because they didn't know what they were voting on. "I think that we're ready to see the details," trustee Anna Eastman said. Pola promised more information at the next board workshop on March 3.

Pola presented what she said were results of more than 25 community forums into proposed magnet changes. Trustee Michael Lunceford said he didn't see the comments he'd heard at his Bellaire High School meeting included in the results. And trustee Harvin Moore wanted to know what happened to his request that the responses be weighted -- as in did two people or 100 people hold a particular viewpoint?

Pola said there was no way of determining the preponderance of the comments but that she tried to include the range. Whereupon Moore pointed out that at an earlier meeting he'd specifically asked for weighted results "and I didn't hear an objection when I asked for it."

Larry Marshall continued to delight in in taking extreme, soundbite positions. He repeated his assertion that magnet schools are a luxury and added to that the observation that homestead exemptions and lower tax rates are luxuries. According to him, bus transportation is a luxury in these difficult financial times. He also proposed to "bump out" kids farthest away from their school on a bus route, thereby allowing the district to cut down on its transportation costs. "You can't do that..." Moore began to respond, but the conversation swept on elsewhere.

Former Board president Greg Meyers objected to Chief Operating Officer Leo Bobadilla's characterization of police services as not being part of HISD's core business. Meyers said he considers safety an essential component of what the district has to offer its students.

In light of all the upcoming sacrifices, trustee Lunceford asked if there was any proposal "about the management taking a reduction in pay?"

After some discussion about other alternatives such as furlough days and an across the board one-percent pay cut, Grier said that in many cases, executives taking paycuts is an action more symbolic than meaningful.

"When I go to taxpayers and say you're going to have to pay twice as much as you were, sometimes those symbolic gestures mean something," Lunceford said.

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