HISD Trustees Call for an Election on a $162 Million Payment to the State

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As expected, trustees voted 7-2 (Anna Eastman and Greg Meyers against) Thursday night to spend  $1.245 million to pay for the costs associated with renaming eight HISD schools, that had been named after men associated with the Confederacy.

Following the vote, the monthly school board meeting was disrupted for a while by upset audience members, some of whom have filed a lawsuit against the district saying it violated the law in the way it handled the renaming vote and who again argued against the name changes that had been approved months ago. 

The unexpected part of the evening was when the administration's recommendation that the district switch insurance carriers for its employees from Aetna to Blue Cross Blue Shield hit a roadblock of persistent questioning from trustee Jolanda Jones. She wanted to know why Aetna was recommended by the committee charged with reviewing the bids, but then the administration recommended Blue Cross Blue Shield for the final vote. 

She also objected to signing on to a new five-year contract when the new superintendent, Richard A. Carranza, is expected to arrive from San Francisco within a couple of weeks and will have had no input on such a long-term agreement. Jones also said she wasn't going to vote for doing business with anyone who wasn't invested in Women and Minority-owned Businesses at a level closer to the district's demographics. It was like watching a production of 12 Angry Men — by the time she was done, the vote was 9-0 against the administration's recommendation and Aetna is still on board for at least a little while longer. 

The biggest vote of the evening and many would say the most important item to Houston at large was played out to the sparsest crowd in the room. It was a pivotal decision on how to handle the declaration from the state of Texas that Houston ISD is property-rich. Because of the state's byzantine financing system, HISD will have to either send almost $162 million in local taxpayers' money to the state or stand by to see some of the district's most valuable properties assigned to other school districts by the Texas Education Agency. (Local businesses aren't too wild about the idea either; HISD has some of the lowest tax rates around.)

In addition, as trustee Mike Lunceford pointed out, losing those properties would just pile on the debt for HISD taxpayers.  "We have bonds we have sold based on some of those assets, and [without them] we're going to have to raise taxes again," he said. 

The board could decide to do nothing and hope it could lobby the upcoming session of the Legislature to change its mind — although attempts to change the school financing system in this state have failed for years — but as Lunceford put it: "If we vote it down, we're betting that the Legislature will do something right."

The other sticking point was that if trustees don't adopt one of the options offered by state law, they can't set a tax rate. The only way to get the measure before voters was for trustees to vote to send the money to the state, which gives taxpayers a chance to say yes or no to that in the general election on November 8.

So after much gnashing of teeth that the state could do this to a district that has so many kids on free- or reduced-price lunches, school board members passed the measure on a 6-0 vote (by that time three trustees had left) calling for voters to decide the issue. The measure, with admittedly confusing language (set by the state), asks voters to give the district permission to purchase $162 million in tax credits from the state. As trustee Greg Meyers pointed out, the word "credits" sounds great and voters may completely misinterpret what they're being asked to do. 

Trustees also voted to call an election November 8 to fill the unexpired term of longtime school board member Harvin Moore, who announced last week he was resigning. His resignation became official on Thursday, but because of what's called a "holdover," Moore keeps his seat through November. Trustees decided to go with the election, which will not cost as much since they'll be tagging onto the presidential election.

Among other actions trustees approved:

– Firing Sharpstown High Principal Rob Gasparello, who in recent years has had a series of ups and downs with the district. In 2013 he was accused of failing to report child abuse at his school before being cleared

In 2014 he was hauled into court for allegedly hitting some of his students, and he was ultimately cleared of that as well. The trustees took their action without comment and when asked for more explanation, none was forthcoming from HISD chief spokesman Jason Spencer.

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