HISD: Terry Grier -- Budget Crisis Detailed, 25 Magnets Proposed to Be Slashed

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The Houston school district suggested sweeping changes to nearly every detail of its infrastructure last night in light of the budget crisis it faces, from cutting down the number of crossing guards that lead children to school to the schools themselves. In a standing-room-only board meeting, more than 300 parents, students and teachers in the HISD system were delivered the unequivocally bad news. Board President Paula Harris acknowledged that it was going to be a "tough meeting."

Melinda Garrett, the district's chief financial officer, laid out the detailed plan for funding cuts across the district. Although there was no voting last night, Garrett said the budget may come to a vote March 10. That way, she said, schools can prepare for the teacher layoffs that need to happen.

Garrett said the district is planning to budget for a $5 billion loss of state funding over a period of two years. If it's lucky, the district will come up short $171 million -- and that's being hopeful. "This assumption is not worst-case," Harris said of the budget proposal.

The district plans to save $412,000 by cutting annual trips to the museum for third and fourth graders. It will save another $270,756 by axing the number of police at each school. These measures were the first of many to draw protestations from trustees. "It doesn't make sense to cut enrichment," trustee Harvin Moore said.

A controversial part of Grier's plan includes changing the start and end times of each school to maximize transportation potential and cut down on salary expenses. Currently, the district has 19 different start times, causing what chief operating officer Leo Bobadilla called "inefficiencies." School days would be shortened by fifteen minutes to more than two hours in some cases.

Calling a reduction in the school day "unacceptable," Moore said that instruction should be the last thing affected by the crisis. "We'll have to make cuts, but which cuts? We need to think about this pretty hard," he said. Trustee Manuel Rodriguez Jr. recommended opening a cafeteria or gymnasium to house students before school who couldn't change their schedules to accommodate the new school day. Grier said it wasn't possible. "It's another cost, a supervisor cost," he said. "There's no doubt this impacts many routines," Bobadilla added.

Throughout the recommendation, Moore reiterated to the audience that the budget cuts were being made because of a failure of the state to shore up money for HISD, not because of money mismanagement at the school district level.

"Whatever we come up with, we want to make sure we convey to the state what will happen if they don't act," he said. Melinda Garrett agreed. "We have to wait. If we don't, everyone in Austin will think we just rolled over," she said. The school board said they are lobbying in Austin for more funding.

Other ways to scrounge for HISD include increasing taxes and reducing the homestead exemption, which could create $23 million by cutting it five percent. But Moore warned that once homeowners and taxpayers agreed to take on the state's financial responsibility, there would be no going back. Another way would be to temporarily cut the salaries of teachers, but such a measure is illegal in Texas.

"You can't touch any teacher salaries, and that's the bulk of the money in this district," Garrett said.

Grier's axe swung next at Project GRAD, a college-prep and scholarship program serving economically disadvantaged high school students. Under the proposed new budget, all funding to the program would be cut. Trustees Larry Marshall and Anna Eastman vehemently objected, saying that those who had signed a contract to be in the program deserved to stay in until graduation.

Chief of Staff Michele Pola acknowledged that Project GRAD deserved a great deal of credit, but said that it was essentially redundant. "Those are now things that HISD is doing and reinforcing," she said. "We as a district reach out to dropouts each year." Other chopped programs include Teach For America summer school, Reasoning Minds and Duke TIP.

Two hours later, the budgetary discussion ended. "I just hope the state steps up," Garrett said in closing.

Next, Pola charged into an equally unpopular part of the evening: magnet closures, consolidations and funding changes. Although she distributed the heavy packet of specific magnet school cuts to board members, she withheld it from the audience until the end of her presentation. When the package was finally handed out, the proposed changes were startling.

Grier plans to strip 25 schools of their magnet status: nine elementary schools, eight middle schools and eight high schools. In the same breath, the plan calls for the formation of 13 new magnet programs in already-existing schools.

Here is a list of schools up for demagnetization: Elementary: Burbank, Cook, Elrod, Herrera, Law, Patterson, Valley West, Wainwright and West University. Middle: Attucks, Deady, Dowling, Fleming, Henry, Ryan, Key and Welch. High: Austin, Chavez, Davis, Lee, Madison, Sharpstown, Wheatley and Worthing.

All of the magnets would be more closely monitored than they have been in the past, Grier said. Troubled schools would be placed on a yearlong probation. If they underperformed in the second year, they'd lose half of their magnet funding. In the third year, they'd lose all funding, transportation and their magnet status.

While the board members and audience were grateful to finally see specifics, few were itching to finalize the cuts. "This stands to change the landscape of the entire Houston Independent School District," Eastman said. Moore acknowledged that the proposal was "way better than what we got before," referring to the Magnet Schools of America audit that suggested HISD slash about half its magnets. But the plan needed heavy review and shouldn't be voted on until the fall, he said.

By the end of the board's recommendations, the meeting was over three hours old. "I think we could wrap this up on Monday," said Marshall, drawing looks of disbelief from the audience.

Ignored by the board and the 123 speakers from the public eager to unload their frustration, Marshall didn't pursue a postponement.

Parent after parent lamented the proposed changes to HISD. Many objected to the dissolution of Project GRAD. "How is it possible that we can fund the Apollo program, a fairly new program, for millions of dollars, and we can't find money for Project GRAD?" asked Jeff Davis High School grad Hugo Mojica, referring to Grier's controversially timed Apollo 20 program.

Others said they were skeptical of HISD's motives. "Not to be cynical," said Durwin Sharp, "but MSA left HISD with a bit of a trust deficit."

Some said funding cuts portended a brain drain to private schools. "My fear is that if you demagnetize or destrengthen any of the magnet schools, many people who have the ability to send their children to private school will do that," said Bruce Coffman, who has a student at Poe Elementary.

Dana Teal is a parent of a child at math-and-science-themed Valley West, one of the schools suggested for demagnetization. "You cut my kid's magnet program, and I'm not done," he said, pounding his fist on the lectern. "I'm gonna fight."

Many parents didn't feel the magnet system was broken to begin with. "Change for the sake of change, Dr. Grier, has hit this district's morale lower than it has ever been," said Rachel Dvoretzky, mother of two HISD students at Lamar and Travis Elementary. "Don't think the kids don't notice what's going on."

Harris moved to adjourn a little before midnight. Everybody left armed with details, but few -- if any -- left happy. Moore managed to end on a wry note, however. "Even if you don't think you find the Board of Education lovable," he said in closing, "you almost spent the night with us."

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