HISD Magnet Schools to Get the Once Over, Trustees Decide

Houston ISD trustees decided to bravely step into the middle of a whole pile of poop passion today when they voted 7-0 to authorize the administration to hire an outside firm to do an audit of the district's magnet school system.

The discussion began with asterisks, as Superintendent Terry Grier, mindful of the minefield he was venturing out into, proclaimed: "Our intent is not to do away with magnet schools...with magnet transportation."

He described his administration as being "strong proponents" of magnets. And he and trustees readily acknowledged that tinkering with the magnet system might result in some parents taking their kids out of the district, if they think they can't get to the best teachers and the best schools through school choice.

But he described the situation of neighborhood kids not being able to go to the school right by where they live, because the school is filled with magnet kids being bused in from other areas and said most people would say they don't want that occurring.

And, he said, sometimes there is confusion between a school being good because it is a magnet, or being good just because it is an all round good school.

There are too many schools offering the same magnet program, he said. Some of those programs are working and some aren't.

There is inequity in both funding and implementation of magnet programs across the district, all seated at the table agreed.

An outside group, Magnet Schools of America will conduct the audit which is supposed to involve parents and trustees, as well as site visits to all schools with magnet programs, according to Lupita Hinojosa, Assistant Superintendent for School Choice. The cost of the audit is not to exceed $275,000.

Grier said bringing in an independent third party would remove the charge of anyone "playing politics" with the issue.

Trustee Manuel Rodriguez urged the auditors to consider the findings of a magnet peer review done in-house by HISD six years ago. The review, whose points were never fully implemented, included recommendations that: transportation funding go to all approved magnet schools, that the district should analyze the costs of a magnet program and fund it accordingly and standardize those costs, that an evaluation process be established to measure the effectiveness of each magnet program.

At present, only some magnet schools have transportation funding, and the range of magnet funding at district schools is quite wide.

"We have let schools go out and anybody who wanted to declare themselves a magnet could do it," Grier said.

Chuck Morris, HISD's deputy chief academic officer, said in other school districts when they've looked at magnet schools they often find "a lot of magnet money is not being spent on the magnet students; it's spent on a lot of other things."

He said they have not yet looked at how the magnet money is being spent in HISD.

Harvin Moore, saying that the HISD **school board** has a habit of "learning things the hard way and then doing them again and again and again," insisted that parents should be involved in the magnet discussion .(**Editor's note: We originally quoted Moore as referring to the school board. He informed us he didn't mean the trustees; he meant HISD itself.)

"There's lots of potential for assistance and team partnership. Also a lot of passion. When you touch this third rail there's a lot of shock," Moore said.

"It's too hot for an internal team to deal with," trustee Larry Marshall said in agreement. "I commend you for pursuing it. This is truly a hot issue. We cannot continue to fund failures. I think it's sunset time."

Trustee Anna Eastman said "I know people are afraid it will take away what's working for them and their children."

But she said they wouldn't be taking money away from magnet schools, but they would be redistributing it.

"We have so many math science magnets" in elementary schools, Grier said. "What is it that you are doing that is substantially different? Very few people can tell you. "

In another vote, trustees opted 7-0 to spend $1.7 million to make campus improvements at Kashmere High School. Trustee Carol Mims Galloway requested the allocation -- to go for such things as improvements to the cafeteria, weight room, recreational facilities and band instruments -- but was not there for today's vote on the item.

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