HISD Trustees Get Picky About Magnet Schools

Magnet talk is never easy.
Houston ISD trustees picked at a proposed policy and each other this morning in a workshop review of possible changes to the way the district handles its magnet schools and the students who hope to go to them.

During one particularly excruciating part of the more than two-hour exercise, a microphone placed too close to trustee Larry Marshall amplified to shriek level every scrape of his knife and fork against his breakfast plate (yes, being a trustee means eating in front of a room filled with onlookers who are not eating) -- made all the louder by the fact that Marshall was not happy with the proposal.

Presented by trustee Anna Eastman, who headed up an ad hoc committee asked to review the policies by Board President Paula Harris, the biggest change called for would standardize and centralize the magnet application process. Instead of filling out separate forms for each school applied to, parents would fill out one form indicating their top choices and send the form to a central location. Once one school's offer was accepted by a student, the other schools would be immediately notified not to hold a space for that student any longer, opening the spot up for other applicants.

It was difficult to determine exactly where all the magnet policy would presumably change because there was no before-and-after comparison with the present policy and regulations. There was no talk of any lottery system or ethnic breakdowns as there was in the controversial Magnet School of America report last school year. But still, there were nits to be picked, grammar to be questioned and underlying meanings to be resolved.

Trustees have once again taken up the magnet school question for the same reasons that have been in place for a while: the community perception that the application process is not always fairly applied and that special deals are made by principals and trustees, the acknowledgment that some magnet programs are terrible, and the unequal allocation of resources to magnets across the district.

Marshall repeatedly warned that meddling with the district's magnet school plan could lead to a federal court declaring that HISD no longer met its desegregation requirements. Eastman said they'd consulted board attorney David Thompson. Marshall talked at length also about the dangers of committees within the board, declaring, "I think board committees are disastrous." He also said that a member of the administration should have been present at every meeting of the committee. Chief of Staff Michele Pola was present at most but not all of the meetings, Eastman said.

Superintendent Terry Grier, normally a fan of centralization, warned that it would take a lot of work to devise a centralized magnet information system and said that hard-copy applications would still have to be allowed because not every family has access to a computer.

Trustee Greg Meyers said he was worried that by specifically placing some things into policy -- such as devising how siblings would be allowed to go to the same school -- that "Are we going to eliminate flexibility and are we going to have any unintended consequences?"

Meyers also questioned moving language about "regional needs" into school board policy. "I'm just really concerned we're opening up a can of worms here. The more that we shift into policy we truly are shifting accountability from the superintendent to us." (Causing more than a few audience members to ask, well, shouldn't trustees be responsible too?)

Trustee Harvin Moore joined Meyers in questioning the regional needs provision. Trustee Manuel Rodriguez explained this was a direct result of the series of community meetings last year -- that people said schools were adding magnet programs without community input and without thinking about what else was available in the area.

"Who gets to identify the regional needs?" Moore responded.

For a while Marshall was outraged that the proposed policy did not name magnet programs that should be shut down. Trustee Juliet Stipeche explained that the committee wasn't charged with anything that specific, rather it developed policies on establishing standards that might lead to the modification or closure of a magnet program.

Marshall also made the sweeping proposal that HISD should go back to the original number of magnet schools -- 37 -- "and cutting the rest of them." He also thought the board had voted "to eliminate several magnet programs last year." It didn't and, told it had not, he replied, "I've answered so many interrogatories I guess I'm just kind of worn down." It wasn't immediately clear whether this was a reference to the federal suit filed against Marshall and the district by a local contractor.

Taking the high road, Eastman pronounced the discussion a good one , saying: "Looks like we have some more work to do to go back and revise this."

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