HISD Trustees Prove They Can Go Hours Without Peeing

Houston ISD board members resolutely stayed anchored at the board room table for hours Monday, picking through programs, considering projections (What if there's a 3.3 percent tax hike? How about a 15 percent cut in the homestead exemption?) and trying to decide what they want to spend their money on now that the federal stimulus money disappears at the end of this school year.

And then, even though there was good news that Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett had whittled their remaining shortfall down to a measly $58 million (well, they started with a $171 million estimate), Superintendent Terry Grier's administration trotted out a recommendation that starting next fall the district embark upon a new community college/high school five-years-to-get-your-associate's degree program at four high schools at a cost of between $200,000 and $400,000 a year at each school, or a total of $800,000 to $1.3 million for the first year (trustees were assured initial costs are the highest and would drop off after that).

And despite trustee Anna Eastman's repeated concerns about whether now was the time to be embarking upon additional projects, the subdued reaction to the proposal in general means it will probably be up for a vote at the next board meeting on May 12. Let it never be said that Grier and his advisers don't dare to dream big. Or that this board isn't ready to go down that path with him.

In terms of savings, Grier's staff's recommendations include the savings of about $2 million in benefits (fewer employees = fewer benefits costs), cutting back on the teacher bonuses by about $4.6 million, taking the ASPIRE program down to around $25 million (Manuel Rodriguez questioned why not more) and completely dispensing with high school Stanford testing (this after all the debate about the best time of year to give the test, one that is supposedly more rigorous than the TAKS?).

At the same time, the recommendation from Garrett and others was to pick up and increase the cost of paying for all kids to take Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate Exams from $1 million to $1.45 million, paying for it with Title 1 funding.

Several other programs funded by stimulus money including Twilight School Funding, Campus Online and Summer School at Full Funding would also be covered with Title I dollars, although summer school will be operating with about $4 million less in funding than in previous years.

Also, the board approved Thursday changing the summer school week to a four-day one, and in fact, the whole district will "move to a four-day work week over the summer, excluding police, construction workers and some food service workers. The summer meal program will be operated on the usual five-day schedule at selected campuses," an HISD press release announced later in the day, adding that it would save the district $1 million.

Teach for America costs would decrease by $100,000 to $600,000 and would be covered by Title II funding. The General Fund would be tapped for $1.75 million for the Literary Initiative and $1.35 million for Project Grad that had been paid for through the state's High School Allotment (the state's legislators have canceled that check).

Initially, the district had projected losing 7 percent of its Title 1 money from the federal government. Garrett has revised that to 3 percent, although she acknowledged the loss of funds was likely to bottom out at 1 percent or less. The national cut turned out to be 0.2 percent, but Garrett said there will be more students qualifying for Title I, raising their costs.

The new hybrid college/high school program would go in at Scarborough, Sterling, Furr and Kashmere. The program includes specialization at certain campuses -- a continuation of the aviation program at Sterling, a wind energy program at Furr.

Chief High School Officer Aaron Spence said often students who take and pass dual credit courses in high school don't follow up by enrolling in community college to get their associate degrees. So to increase their "comfort" factor, most courses would be taken on the high school campus, Spence said.

Trustees are still dealing with a far from settled funding situation. If, for instance, Rep Scott Hochberg's House Bill 2485 passes, HISD will lose $173.6 million in state funds in 2011-12 and $217.3 million in 2012-13. If Senate Bill 22 from Florence Shapiro passes, HISD will see a reduction of $109.3 million in 2011-12 and $126.8 million in 2012-13.

Trustee Larry Marshall lit up some of the discussion when he complained that he didn't understand "why Apollo 20 isn't on this list" of programs that the district will assign new funding sources such as Title I or general funds. Garrett said that was because Apollo 20 was built on a private fund-raising model -- although it has already used general funds -- and that's why it wasn't included in this proposal.

Trustee Manuel Rodriguez said, "There are other low-performing schools in the district that could also use additional help. Let's not forget those other schools."

Which is when Grier jumped in. "Anybody who says that's happening is just misinformed or just mean-spirited and wants to be untruthful. That's just the bottom line. Just stop just a second and reflect. I can't imagine anybody in Houston, Texas wanting us to continue to have failing schools, schools that are either failing or unacceptable. We have nine failing schools. "

"When you have schools that fail, these schools didn't fail overnight. We're not going to set back and watch schools get worse and worse and worse without intervening. "

"We want all of our schools to be on an upward trend. We have kids in our very best schools that need help. But I can promise you it's a lot easier to get help when you're surrounded with children with means. Our biggest challenge in our district is fighting poverty. You look at the achievement gap between free and reduced and non free and reduced. "

"We're not going to leave out our other schools and we're not leaving them out now."

Anna Eastman was next: "Apollo 20 is a pilot program, one we haven't seen to fruition yet and this board member has reservations about growing that."

She went on to endorse the idea of spending money where it is needed but added: "I'm concerned as we're sitting here about cutting things and changing funding, and we're at this pretty admittedly desperate time in public education and trying to figure out who we're going to lose, who we're going to cut, and I know that I personally as a trustee am getting a lot of questions when we're looking at closing schools with declining enrollment and we're also opening three new schools: a girls' school, a boys' school and DeVry Academy, and then this is another four new ideas that are going to require extra revenue."

"How we're going to sustain that and the needs around Apollo when we're also making all these cuts? None of us wants to shut down what we're doing or stop offering excellence to our kids, but I just feel like these conversations are in contradiction to each other. "

Carol Galloway questioned the need for a budget item setting aside $1.15 million in signing bonuses, given that HISD and other Texas districts have fired so many teachers that teachers are desperate for jobs and don't need any extra incentives to come to work. She also questioned the efficacy of the Teach for America teachers and their ability to work at tough schools.

"When you lose three people out of five at one school, I don't think it's very successful. Teach for America may be good in some areas, but it's not a fit for every school."

HISD's Chief Human Resources Officer Ann Best said the retention rate for TFA teachers, who don't come to the district through traditional education degree channels, "is very similar to teachers trained in traditional areas. "

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing