A Do-Over Ahead for HISD and its Proposed Budget For Next School Year

For Board President Diana Davila and her fellow trustees it was a very long meeting and they'll get to try again next week.
For Board President Diana Davila and her fellow trustees it was a very long meeting and they'll get to try again next week. HISD-TV screenshot
In a 6-3 vote Tuesday night, the Houston ISD board rejected a proposal recommended by Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan's administration to approve a basic budget now for the 2019-20 school year and then return next week to amend it to include employee compensation.

Working against a state-mandated deadline of June 30 and despite the pleas of Chief Financial Officer Dr. Rene Barajas to get some form of a budget in place so there will be no possible interruption in paychecks or district operations as of July 1, the majority of the board insisted they wanted to wait.

Only trustees Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Jolanda Jones and Wanda Adams — all strong supporters of Lathan's — voted to approve the budget. Board members Sergio Lira, Anne Sung, Elizabeth Santos, Diana Davila and Holly Marie Vilaseca voted against it — preferring to wait until June 27 to vote on all parts of the budget at once. Trustees actually have a little more time to set the compensation levels; the raises need to take effect by July 22 for them to count in the teacher retirement compensation system.

"I caution the board that by adopting the budget right now with the notion that we've all been talking about for three hours that we will come back on the 27th and have a budget workshop to talk about the amendment, incorporate the amendment, it is a fail safe," Barajas said. "Again if something were to happen on the 27th there's a no-vote, we shut down on July 1. [Voting for the budget] tonight guarantees that on July 1 we are open for business."

The late passage of House Bill 3 which sends an additional $135 million to the Houston school district, including instructions to direct certain percentages of the money to teacher raises consumed the trustees' discussion. As with most legislation, it is not especially detailed and several questions remain about how the Texas Education Agency will interpret the bill.

Several trustees expressed concerns that the lowest level employees were being left out of any of the benefits — pointing out that  a 3.5 percent raise for someone making $12 an hour amounts to an additional 42 cents per hour.

Under the administration's plan,  $57 million from the General Fund would go to employee compensation with percentage increases set at different levels depending on the job and years of service.

There was also a lot of concern expressed about whether enough of the money was going to benefit students themselves in terms of services.  Another $42 million was set aside for spending on instructional programs "so we don't get in trouble with TEA," Barajas said.

Trustee Elizabeth Santos was most vocal about the fact that board members only received the proposed compensation package right before Tuesday's meeting and didn't have time to thoroughly go through it. She asked for an addidtional workshop to discuss the plan — something not greeted with a lot of joy particularly by Jones, a practicing attorney,  who said she didn't have time for another long school board meeting on June 27, given that she has court cases scheduled for that day.

The board is scheduled to vote on the 2019-20 budget again next Thursday. If it doesn't pass, then as in last year, additional meetings will be scheduled to try to make the deadline. 
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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.
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