HISD Passes its 2016-17 Budget, Dumps Teacher Bonuses and Apollo Tutoring

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Houston ISD trustees approved a 2016-17 budget Thursday that ended the district’s teacher bonus program and the tutoring remnants of the Apollo program, instead redistributing more money to campuses with the highest number of low-income students.

In one 5-2 vote with two trustees absent, two of the district’s most historic if controversial programs established under former Superintendent Terry Grier were wiped out by a board set on a new path. And while longtime trustee Greg Meyers mourned the loss of the reforms put in place by previous boards, new trustee Jolanda Jones (now entering her sixth month on the board and still referring to herself as “a baby board member”) made clear she had little use for prior policies or the awards they won for HISD.

“We need to stop that reform train because it may have benefited our best and brightest kids, but it didn’t benefit all kids,” she said.

The budget cuts, which also include a $179-per-student funding decrease and central office cuts, were prompted by a severe reversal of fortunes for the urban district. Under the state’s court-challenged but constitutional method of public school funding, HISD is now considered a property rich district and must give money back to the state.

The state’s funding formula has not changed since 1987 but Houston has. While 80 percent of the children who attend school in the district are on the free or reduced-price lunch program, the Houston area itself has increased in value.

So facing a $95 million shortfall, interim Superintendent Ken Huewitt and his administrative staff began offering up options, and after several revisions came up with the plan approved Thursday. 

Trustee Anna Eastman, who voted against the budget along with Meyers, said she opposed cutting the $10 million in teacher merit pay designed to highlight and encourage excellence in the classroom. The program was not without its critics, though. Many teachers said they couldn’t understand it despite several revisions to its criteria. They and others decried its ties to student test scores as well.

Curiously, the budget passed with a “verbal” assurance from Huewitt that a $6 million line item that would have changed bus schedules and walking routes would not actually happen and that the administration would find the money to cover that elsewhere.

Eastman asked if the administration would then be submitting an amended budget for the board’s approval in August (trustees plan to take July off as usual) and Huewitt said 'no,' that the board would also be authorizing the administration to proceed with any changes it deemed needed without further trustee approval. In another 5-2 vote, a majority of board members (Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Jolanda Jones, Mike Lunceford, Wanda Adams and Board President Manuel Rodriguez) said that was fine with them.

The end of Apollo – originally called Apollo 20 and which targeted 20 low performing HISD schools with extra tutors and specialized approaches to learning – means a savings of $20 million. The cut means 359 tutor positions were eliminated. While the administration says most of these employees have found other jobs, the cuts still means kids won't be getting extra help.

The daytime budget meeting was sparsely attended – even by board members. Harvin Moore was a no-show and Diana Davila had to leave by 11:30. Speeches went on longer than that, so she missed the vote.. Lunceford voted by Skype, which in a total non-surprise, failed to go smoothly. Meyers commented while he understood why trustees chose to move the meeting to 9 a.m. instead of the usual 5 p.m. (several board members were attending Texas Association of School Board members training later in the day), he said he felt that by doing so a lot of people who would have liked to be there, could not attend.

While the board approved its budget, several more steps must be taken to handle how the district will send its money back to the state.

Trustees can call an election in which voters will have to approve sending the money to the state of Texas General Fund.

If there is no election or voters reject the money transfer, the Texas Education Commissioner would have the right to cherry pick commercial properties whose taxes now go to HISD and assign them to other tax districts. HISD continues to boast that it carries some of the lowest tax rates around so these commercial properties, taxed at some other district's higher rate,  might be in for a shock. 

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