It's 'Big Girl, Big Boy Time,' HISD's Paula Harris Says

In a lengthy and sometimes tense board meeting that brought Houston ISD trustee Juliet Stipeche to tears, trustee Carol Mims Galloway to call for a tax increase and announce that all was not hunky dory with the board, and board President Paula Harris to tell her colleagues to suck it up and make the tough decisions, more teachers were put on notice that their jobs are gone and more school programs were added to the cut list.

According to HISD, 950 teacher layoffs have been ordered up -- 729 because of budget cuts and 221 because of job performance.

Trustees also approved a new way of evaluating teacher performance that will entail more visits to observe teachers in the classroom and more emphasis on their students' test scores. Under the old system, 99.9 percent of all HISD's rated teachers scored "proficient" or better, or in the top two categories of the scoring system. That's anticipated to drop significantly under the new formula. Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, argued against the change, saying more time was needed to evaluate it, but trustees voted 7-2 (Stipeche and Galloway opposed) to proceed.

It was a meeting driven by the trustees, with few comments by Superintendent Terry Grier.

Stipeche, expressing her uncertainties about the weight of value-added teacher scores based on student test results and the amount of student testing, said, "There's a lot more magic that goes on in a classroom other than just taking a test."

But trustee Greg Meyers and others talked about how teachers themselves said they didn't like or understand the old performance evaluation and how the administration and trustees believe the new system will be fairer, especially when teachers will be observed as many as four times on the job, instead of an impression they make in just one visit.

Under HISD's site-based decision management, principals decide who will lose their jobs and what programs will be cut at their school. Barbara Jordan High School teacher Robert Gonzales brought a group of his former and present auto collision students to the meeting to make the case for continuing the program, which his principal has ordered discontinued.

Dressed in white jump suits and holding blue ribbons won at past district and regional auto body competitions, the group made an emotional impression, particularly when deaf student Freddy Lopez addressed the board through a sign language interpreter and told trustees how much the program meant to him.

Galloway attempted to separate this program from the cut list. "We are cutting out programs that we really need."

"I was in tears when that young man [spoke]," she said. "We cannot leave a program in. It really really hurts me. It's not all hunky dory at this board. We find money for everything we want. What about the kids who're not going? Where are we going to leave them?"

But trustee Larry Marshall railed against this, saying it was an "encroachment" on the principal's powers and something the board had no business doing. Informed there was a state-mandated deadline to notify teachers that they were being cut and that the board was out of time to put its decision off further, president Harris urged the trustees to vote.

Fallon again addressed the board, saying: "I know that you see lists of categories to get rid of. Unfortunately when we look at it we get to see the people. I get to talk to the guy who both he and his wife were laid off and she's pregnant.

"How do you cut Career and Technology programs that takes a child who may not want to go to college but prepare them for a job?"

But with the district looking at having to make another $65 million to $70 million in cuts after the more than $100 million cuts it has already made, the continued discussion was just delaying the inevitable.

Saying no one else on the board wants to talk about it, Galloway said she wanted to go on record in support of a tax increase so that education cuts wouldn't have to be so deep. She was right -- no other board member picked up that baton, although it is something the teachers union supports.

"I will support raising taxes. We spent thousands of dollars incarcerating kids. Whatever means it takes. If it takes a few pennies in taxes, I am going to support that," Galloway said to applause in the room.

Susan Wingfield, an art teacher at Lamar for the last seven years, with 11 years in HISD, who received her layoff notice, asked the board why teachers were being cut when at her high school there's 26 administrators. "Who are these people who are not teaching, who are keeping their jobs? I shouldn't be losing my job." But she is, she said, because art and subjects like it are the first to go in the cuts.

Gonzales, who we wrote about in the Houston Press this week, argued against stopping his program and alleged that the cuts weren't quite as objective and based on statistics only as the trustees would like to believe. He said he had reported what he sees as violations of district policy by his principal and following that, he received his reduction in force notice.

"The budget I fear now has become a convenient tool with which a principal now can use against teachers who will not go along with these violations," he said.

But the trustees proceeded with their 7-2 vote in favor of the cuts (Stipeche and Galloway dissenting) when told they were facing a state-mandated teacher notification deadline and were essentially out of time. Administrators explained that the only other remedy would be to go back to the principals and get them to tag other teachers to lose their jobs.

Which is when Harris said the only real recourse was to "make these decisions, tough decisions, big girl big boy decisions tonight."

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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