Updated 11:45 a.m. January 12, 2016: Clarification: Trustee Paula Harris contacted us today to say that she was not responsible for there no longer being a quorum at the Monday agenda meeting, and that in fact she had volunteered to stay if needed. The Houston Press had asked why there was no longer a quorum and was told by administration personnel it was because Harris had to leave.
Updated 6 p.m. January 12, 2016: With further comments from Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones and trustee Anna Eastman. See end of story.
Poised to make history in a whole different kind of way, the Houston ISD Board of Trustees Thursday night may vote to essentially gut their ethics policy by removing or significantly changing a key provision.
That provision states that a board member who accepts $500 or more in one year from particular vendor must publicly disclose that and recuse himself or herself from any discussion on contracts that vendor is vying for. Said board member also cannot vote on that vendor's contract.
You can still take the money. You just got to tell the world you did and then not vote or influence a vote for the people or business that was so specially nice to you.
Passed in 2012 after months of gnashing of teeth and countless expert ethical help, the ethics policy was designed to stop any actuality (or at least appearance) that trustees getting were getting rich off their positions or making sure that their pals are taken care of. But now, three members of the school board have asked that the matter be reconsidered, according to trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones.
Skillern-Jones presided over the board's Monday agenda meeting in which the matter was supposed to be discussed. But it was not and other agenda items were not because Skillern-Jones announced there was no longer a quorum after trustees voted on
outgoing trustee Paula Harris left after voting on Superintendent Terry Grier's bonus (more on that later). and leaving the board without a quorum.
Asked which three board members had asked for a re-vote on the ethics policy, Skillern-Jones refused to give up their names. Talk about working in the back rooms. So much for transparency.
In fact, the only thing the five trustees achieved after an executive session lasting more than an hour was to approve a bonus of $75,420.45 for Superintendent Terry Grier, who's out of here as of March 1. Normally the superintendent bonus is based upon student test scores and other data, but it was too early in the year, so a negotiated bonus was settled on instead, according to HISD spokeswoman Holly Huffman. The vote was 3-2 with Harvin Moore, Manuel Rodriguez and Paula Harris voting in favor and Anna Eastman and Skillern-Jones voting against. Board members Michael Lunceford, Greg Meyers, Wanda Adams and Juliet Stipeche did not attend.
Asked if she'd ever known a board to rescind its own ethics policy, Skillern-Jones replied: “I've never seen it done, but we've rescinded other policies.”
Trustee Moore, a longtime opponent of re-votes to change board decisions, said after the meeting: “I think it's confusing to the public. When an elected board makes a decision, they should not go back on it. As far as I know, we have a very good ethics policy, one of the strongest of any school district, of any governmental body.”
And asked if she thought the ethics policy would be significantly changed, trustee Eastman said after the agenda meeting: “I don't know and I'm very disappointed that it's even being considered. The campaign finance section only triggers a disclosure; a trustee can take as much money as he wants but there has to be a recusal from discussion and abstention from voting.”
The ethics policy isn't the only one up for a do-over. Trustees voted earlier this year not to exempt all students at the second grade level and younger from suspensions. Instead, it voted to strongly urge such suspensions be avoided, but concluded that teachers and principals should still have the power to remove disruptive students from a class. Now it's back on the agenda.
There's a proposal to add ten new magnet programs at Atherton, Crockett, Hartsfield, Kashmere Gardens and Stevens elementaries; Dowling, Key, and Ortiz middle schools and Kashmere and Westbury High Schools – some of whom we're told didn't even formally apply for magnet status.
Also up for reconsideration: a new funding policy for those special extra people at a school – nurses, counselors and librarians. Hey, let's run through it all.
With agenda items added right and left, a veritable smorgasbord of pet projects and possible programs, this could be a testament to why a school district does not operate well with a lame duck superintendent at the helm (sort of) for the last several months.
Just in time for all this new and re-newed voting: the new board members are being sworn in at 11 a.m. Thursday, just hours before that night's meeting. Diana Davila and Jolanda Jones will take the places of Stipeche (defeated in her re-election attempt) and Harris (who chose to leave the board at the end of her term).
Don't you want to come Thursday night to hear why trustees should be able to vote on contracts for their pals? To hear them brazen it out that somehow this is a good thing? Don't you want to be there for that historically shameful moment?
And by the way, shouldn't the board be focused on its new superintendent search?
Update at 6 p.m. January 12, 2016:
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"Trustee Harris originally said she was not staying, I informed Board Services we were going to lose a quorum after closed session. When she subsequently agreed to stay during closed session, staff was not present. As for calling the meeting, I was leaving because as I stated in both closed and open; I will not continue to sit through half attended meetings and in agreement with Trustee Eastman that it is ridiculous that people who are elected will not keep their commitment to show up. In addition, with 2 new trustees and 3 absent ones the agenda items would be rehashed as always at the regular Board meeting."
"I agree that it is maddening when trustees continually fail to show up for meetings, but when Ms. Harris said she would stay, I thought we would continue and was surprised the meeting was called. I did not know staff had left. Particularly after we had kept people waiting for over an hour.
" Clearly there is a massive and consistent breakdown in communication."