Long, Loud And Raw Houston School Board Meeting Leaves Few Happy

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In a lengthy and tumultuous school board meeting Thursday night, trustees voted 8-1 to fire Principal Mable Caleb and five other administrators and teachers from the Key/Kashmere mess, approved another 170 employee positions be cut at a savings of $4.8 million despite speakers and protestors, and voted to go ahead with a plan to turn Garden Oaks Elementary into a Montessori-only school.

Oh, and union leader Gayle Fallon in front of God, country and a roomful of people, told Superintendent Terry Grier that the school district's employees refer to him as "the employer from hell."

Grier, in turn, was pretty feisty in his own right, tackling what he said were false rumors about HISD's hiring practices. His voice trembling, Grier said it was untrue and "race baiting" to suggest that the district wasn't going to hire teachers from graduates of Texas Southern University, Prairie View A&M or the University of Houston.

"It is absolutely not true that we're not going to hire any more African-American teachers," he said. Although the district has sent recruiters to California, as it has done in past years, Grier insisted that to date it has not hired anyone from there. First chance at any jobs in HISD will be given to present employees given layoff notices, he said, but added that the district probably will hire teachers from outside the area as it has done in years past to fill all its openings.

At several points, board president Greg Meyers threatened to have the room cleared if there were any more outbursts, but that didn't happen, although sporadic whoops, hollers and clapping continued.

The meeting led off on a high note with the presentation of the Yates High boys basketball team. Team members, dressed up with long-sleeved white shirts, walked down to the front with their coaches amid applause from the entire room and the board. Board members, perhaps in anticipation of what was to come -- everyone driving in had seen the union members and their leaflets protesting the layoffs -- seemed to want to hold on to the team as one trustee after another offered his or her congratulations.

Then it was right into it. Board members had been meeting in closed session to decide what to do about the high school and middle school employees in light of the district's investigations that started with missing computer equipment; went on to uncover nepotism, questionable dealings with student activity funds and apparent cheating on the state's standardized tests and in its latest permutation uncovered evidence that employees were falsifying student records to lower the dropout rate.

Besides Caleb, the fired were Delores Westmoreland, Dean of Instruction at Kashmere and the former dean at Key, Key teacher Richard Adebayo (accused of giving out TAKS tests before the testing date), Director of Special Education at Key Jackie Anderson, and Key teachers Diana Banks and Wilma Van Ness. The vote was taken without discussion with Carol Mims Galloway, a longtime supporter of Caleb's, the only one to say they shouldn't be fired.

Next up was a parade of parents and teachers arguing for and against the transformation of Garden Oaks from an neighborhood school to a Montessori magnet as part of a $12 million federal grant application for it and other schools. As in previous meetings, supporters said Montessori works for all kids, while detractors said it is too expensive, asked what would happen when the federal grant money runs out after three years and that a lot of parents still want their children in traditional classes.

Houston Federation of Teachers union rep Zeph Capo said it was a lie that this was being done to avoid "minority isolation" pointing out there are other HISD schools that are far less racially diverse than Garden Oaks which is 70 percent Hispanic, 20 percent white and 10 percent African-American.

Grier conceded his staff had not done a good job of communicating with Garden Oaks parents initially, but said they had worked hard to turn that around since then.

For a while it looked like the against faction had gained traction as trustees voted 7-2 to separate Garden Oaks from the rest of the grant application involving Jones High, Fondren Middle School, and Whidby and Dodson elementaries. But after approving the other portion in the final vote on Garden Oaks, trustees then approved the Garden Oaks section 6-3 with Galloway, Larry Marshall and Manuel Rodriguez voting against.

With its Thursday night vote on the "reduction in force," the district will be cutting a total of 414 positions as part of a district-wide reorganization undertaken by Grier and to get ready for an anticipated shortfall next fall.

Only Galloway voted against cutting the positions, and she did that for only two (reductions due to program changes at some schools resulting in positions being eliminated and the elimination of the North and South Region alternative schools run at Ethel Young and Chatham elementaries)  of the four proposals that were put before the board. The other two that got unanimous approval concerned cutting back personnel working with homebound students and reducing the staffing in professional development services and the alternative certification department.

HFT President Fallon said the district should be placing its laid-off teachers and other personnel into other openings. She charged that HISD is being hypocritical when it tells employees that they work for the district and not a particular school meaning they can be transferred as needs arise, but when it comes to this round of firing, they are told they are being let go because that is what is needed at a particular school.

These teachers haven't done anything wrong, they don't have job performance issues, Fallon said: "They just happen to be assigned to programs being cut."

One teacher came and openly sobbed in front of the room as she told trustees of being informed two weeks ago she was being fired because her school had lost numbers. Sara Zamora said she'd missed only one half day this whole school year and didn't understand why she couldn't just be transferred to another campus.

Trustee Marshall asked Grier "Where are the generals?" The superintendent responded that all the principals' performance contracts are up on August 31 and that they would be reviewed then for cuts.

The meeting was nearing the 3-1/2 hour mark when Fallon described Grier's administration as one "that appears to think a primary goal is a high body count of ruined careers" and that there had been "a lack of common decency" shown to the laid-off employees.

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