HISD Trustees Ask for More Data Before They Make Tough Decisions

It was another lengthy trek through the budget for Houston ISD trustees this morning as board members considered good news -- the shortfall from the state may be several million dollars less than first thought (but still a lot) -- and not so great: employee positions will still have to be cut, summer school hours will be decreased by an hour and a half a day for most kids and there's still that list of schools that could be closed.

Trustee Anna Eastman repeatedly asked for more information than just the names of 37 schools and their present-day enrollment numbers before board members vote on whether to shut them down. Trustee Michael Lunceford also asked for more information as to whether the schools have increasing or declining enrollments, what other nearby schools would be able to take on more students if these schools are closed, and whether the schools are operating at capacity or have empty rooms. To date the only schools specifically named for closure consideration were Grimes, Love, Rhoads and McDade.

Trustee Larry Marshall wanted to know what each piece of property was worth and pointed out that the state is looking to sell off prison property to raise funds. He also pointed out that "some of these structures are obsolete and not in our best interest to continue to operate."

Marshall also maintained that the real history of some of these small schools was that they were set up to avoid integration. "Wherever they found a pocket of blacks, they were built."

Board President Paula Harris warned again that with the district needing to perhaps cut another $60 or so million, hard choices were going to have to be made and soon.

According to Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett, the number of Central Office employes has declined by 20 percent in the last decade versus 5 percent for school-based employees. In reviewing the budget, Garrett said they are considering cuts to the police and maintainence force, but warned that they might result in a lower level of service. The position of chief innovation officer -- that has never been filled -- will be cut with board approval.

Trustee Harvin Moore pointed out in the meeting that some announced cuts to central office are really misleading to the public because they actually concern things like students going to science class at classes in the museum district.

At least for now, the proposal to cut funding for student trips to the museum district has been shelved. Part-time HISD teachers conduct science classes there and at the last school board meeting, several people addressed the board, arguing that the program should be retained.

Garrett said the senate finance bill is looking at a 7-8 percent cut in funds, which for HISD would amount to a cut of $105 million to $119 million -- a lot, but still less than the $160 million HISD had projected. In addition to that, HISD projects added costs of $11 million in the next year.

In other business, the board briefly heard from Superintendent Terry Grier about the possibility of moving summer school to July rather than a June start, which would enable it to use the Stanford test as a promotion tool. He said he'd like to do that, but his staff didn't think they could get it ready for this summer.

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