HISD Votes to Shake Up Magnet School Funding, Although Some Ask Where It Got Its Numbers

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In the end, all the cute kids and impassioned adults in turns eloquent and stumbling as they rushed their way through speeches compressed to one-minute increments, came to nothing last night when the Houston ISD school board voted to go along with Superintendent Terry Grier's reallocation of funding for the district's magnet program.

Hurt most, of course, will be T.H. Rogers whose special blend of vanguard, deaf and multiply-impaired kids won the district so much national recognition over the years. It will lose $925,000 from its budget over three years in a phased-in adjustment.

The school fielded several public speakers Thursday night, as did Kolter Elementary and some of the other schools who will see their funds diminish over the next few years, while other schools' magnet programs receive more money.

It was a close one, though. Board president Juliet Stipeche was joined by Harvin Moore, Anna Eastman and Michael Lunceford in voting against the across-the-board measure. But trustees Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Wanda Adama, Greg Meyers, Paula Harris and Manuel Rodriguez prevailed in the 5-4 majority - Skillern-Jones referring to the present system as "40 years of inequity" and saying "it is time we leveled the playing field for every child in this district."

The meeting began with the approval of the school district's budget for the next year, which gives teachers raises of between $1,100 and $2,300 depending on how long they've been with the district and increases starting teacher pay to $49,100 to be more competitive locally. The district experienced a windfall of sorts when its projected income rose from an expected 5 percent increase to 9.5 percent thanks to increased taxable property values.

The district's funding allocation for each student will increase by $112 thanks to an amendment offered by Moore who wanted the number increased from the administration's proposal of $55 a student. Even with the increased income, a rate hike of one or two cents will be needed (as part of the 2012 bond program) and will be determined in the fall, School District Chief Financial Officer Ken Huewitt said.

During the public speaking session on magnet school changes, speakers complained that the district had not kept the community informed of what it had planned and did not seek its input. One after another argued that their school was special and that while they agreed that many of HISD's other magnet programs deserved better funding, they did not see why it had to come at the expense of theirs. Many spoke of how people have moved into Houston, counting on the school district to be there for them with good programs. A few speakers spoke in favor of the changes.

Chief Academic Officer Dan Gohl's comment at a previous meeting - that the new magnet funding program was arrived at through "algebra and politics" - was referred to and derided.

Much-respected Peggy Sue Gay, an HISD parent for 18 years who has served on several district committees including a magnet school advisory group that met last summer, said: "A vote for this is wrong. What you have in front of you is not equitable. It is a bad rush job. It is wrong. The magnet advisory committee worked last summer to make an equitable program that made dollars and sense. I have no idea where these figures came from. If you do understand then you have more information than we do and that's wrong. If you do not understand where these numbers came from then your vote for it is wrong."

A moment of humor was introduced by parent Vikram Joopelli who arrived at the podium wearing a T-shirt with a mathematical chart on graphing the effectiveness of magnet and Vanguard programs.

Paula Harris, taking up the issue of T.H. Rogers, was assured by Huewitt that the cuts will not "destroy" the school. She said, and Huewitt confirmed, that under the present system, half of all the Vanguard money in the district went to children at T.H. Rogers and the other half went to the other 14 schools with Vanguard programs.

She said she was asked how the Rogers program got so much money to begin with and said "These are very influential people who can change votes and they have made it into a special place. They do care about their children. But there are a lot of special places, there really are."

Stipeche argued that the proposal didn't have enough community involvement and still hadn't defined what is a Vanguard program what is a particular magnet. As a lawyer, she said, she wanted more methodology and thought many of the details of the new system were too vague.

"I feel very apprehensive when a figure is kind of one that is created by putting your hand in the air and seeing where the wind .. when I hear algebra and politics I at least want it to be algebra."

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