HISD Sets Some New School Boundaries, Backs Away From Others

With 139 speakers signed up to give their one minute's worth of opinions, the nine trustees of the Houston ISD began Thursday evening by dispatching one principal (Jason Catchings of Westbury High for allegedly forcing a substitute teacher to jack up grades. He and his attorney say no, he didn't.)

Then they learned that they'll probably have to give millions of dollars back to the state because of how the school funding formula shook out this year. The board then followed up that discouraging news by spending most of a very long rainy night listening to parents argue that their children shouldn't be moved to other schools just to meet the state's requirements on classroom size. And the topper? A cadre of opt-out testing supporters lined up starting just before 10 p.m. to take the trustees to task for its standardized testing policies, including the possibility that kids who don't take the STAAR test  might have to go to summer school (the district later toned that down a bit). 

One West University Elementary parent after another made it pretty clear – without anyone actually using the “I” word (idiots) – that they were befuddled and felt betrayed by a district that wanted to wade into their school with high-performing kids and satisfied parents, when there are so many failing schools in HISD.

“Why are you trying to fix what is not broken?” said parent Martin Gerard Voss in a statement echoed by many others. And parent Julia Williams said: “It's not clear to me how this proposal benefits the students.” 

“We want to believe in public education,” said West U resident Steve Brown. “We chose West U to live because of that school.” Brown predicted that if the district insisted that some of the kids might end up at the lower-performing Rice school, “some of us will choose private schools and some will move to other districts.”

Parents were of one voice about “slight overcrowding” at West U that they said they were far more willing to breech the 22-1 standard than splitting kids from the same families among separate schools, particularly if those schools aren't performing as well as West U. Others referred to a decline in property values – and hence tax income to the district – and parent Melissa Pifko said she could “foresee legal action” if HISD proceeded with its plan.

Eventually, West U parents left the Hattie Mae White administration building happy. Others were not as fortunate and it was clear as the evening went on that an undercurrent of frustration and resentment among some of the trustees grew as some board members began picking at others, or at least the parts of town they represented. Trustee Paula Harris made pointed comments about how all children in any part of town — not just one — should be "comfortable" about where they go to school. 

Versions of the same rezoning proposals that were tabled earlier this year were presented once again by Superintendent Terry Grier's administration, only this time decisions were made. Frustration extended to Grier and his troops as he reminded trustees that it was six of them who'd insisted at an October board meeting that something had to be done about the district's increasing reliance on class size waivers – but now the proposed solutions were being rejected.

Of the six rezoning proposals, four were defeated (after months of work) and two approved.

Schools that won't see their lines redrawn include Rice, Roberts, Twain and West U elementaries in one group. Another group that won't be reconfigured includes Smith, Crockett, Love, Memorial Sinclair, Steven, Harvard and Travis elementaries – mostly on arguments from Sinclair supporters who said they'd built something special and didn't want to see it diminished and trustees who agreed with that.  

A third group including Hartsfield, Bastian, Kelso and Young elementaries will stay as they are. It'll be status quo for Kennedy, Burbank, Lyons and Northline elementaries. Lyons in particular was pointed out as a school that has done well and shouldn't be disturbed. 

The schools that will see their boundary lines change include the Anderson, Tinsley and Halpin group as well as the Shadowbriar, Ashford, Bush, Askew, Daily, Emerson and Walnut Bend group. In the second case, there were several parents supporting the change as well as those who criticized it.

Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones almost always voted in favor of the rezoning, except in the case of West U but even there it was not for the same reasons the other trustees gave, She said she was concerned that blending it with Rice would mean Rice would lose its status as a magnet school and there would be even fewer magnet spots available to the children of the district.

Trustee Mike Lunceford argued that he has other schools in District 5 that “need way more help” than Rice, Twain, Roberts and West U.

Trustee Harvin Moore made his point with numbers when he talked about why Sinclair shouldn't be included in any rezoning. "This tries to solve a problem that doesn't exist. At Sinclair only five classes are over the state maximum class size. That's 11 students."

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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