The Insider

School Daze
HISD trustees are meeting on Friday to call an election on the issuance of almost $600 million in bonds to finance the construction of new schools and repair existing ones. The bonds would require a tax-rate increase of nearly a dime for district property owners over the next five years -- a tough sell under any circumstances, but the politics surrounding the proposal are taking on an especially Byzantine complexity.

District Superintendent Rod Paige and board president Paula Arnold want the election held before a performance audit of HISD, to be supervised by state Comptroller John Sharp, is conducted this spring and summer and made public in October. That audit was mandated by legislation sponsored by state Senator John Whitmire in a paroxysm of HISD-bashing last year. At least nine applicants, including a team headed by Gilbert Herrera, who performed a study that was highly critical of the structure of the Houston Community College System, are interviewing in Austin for the audit contract, which will be awarded next month.

At least one crucial source of support for the bond issue, the Greater Houston Partnership, is resisting giving it its blessing. One person who has sat in on Partnership meetings on the proposal explains that officials of the business group suspect the Sharp report will reveal "an awful lot of money there within the district that has not been used." Another source with an interest in the audit contract points out that it won't take much digging to produce material that opponents of the bond issue could make good use of, such as HISD-produced figures showing that while the number of students in the district barely increased from 176,000 to 184,000 between 1985 and 1995, annual spending skyrocketed from under $400 million to approximately $1 billion in the same period.

There's also the question of whether Mayor Bob Lanier will come out strongly in favor of the bonds. Paige and Arnold visited with the mayor last month on the issue, and also ran the funding proposal by mayoral chief of staff Jimmie Schindewolf. But Lanier is said to be wary of the size of the tax increase the bonds would require. While the mayor used his state of the city speech in January to plump for improved public education, he's also known for issuing faint praise for politically risky proposals -- remember the zoning ordinance? -- and then sitting on his hands while they slowly expire.

Strictly by Chancident
After a year of turmoil in its top ranks, the University of Houston System has one final bit of administrative shaking out to do, and the system's board of regents is expected to meet Monday for a bit of April Foolery that won't have officials of the smaller campuses in the system smiling. The regents are set to consolidate the jobs of system chancellor and main campus president into one position, a job that current volunteer Chancellor Bill Hobby terms the "chancident." The prospect has already resulted in a protest march by UH downtown students, including part-time scholar and state Senator Mario Gallegos, to a hearing before the regents. The protesters contended that such a consolidation would mean the downtown campus and other UH branches at Clear Lake and Victoria would lose their separate missions in a system dominated by the main campus.

The other option before the regents is to scale down the system staff while retaining a diminished chief operating officer, a post Hobby titles "chancellor lite." That proposal currently has less support among the regents, who believe it makes more sense to centralize authority in one position.

If the regents go through with creating a chancident, it will end a long-running fight by main campus faculty to downsize the system bureaucracy and make the university's original southeast Houston location the center of the system. "Can you imagine anyone seriously arguing that the Texas A&M branch campuses should have equal clout with the main campus?" asks one faculty member favorably disposed toward the consolidation.

Meanwhile, a bevy of ousted UH administers have migrated, much like spawning salmon, back to their pool of origin -- the UH School of Education. Among the chiefs-turned-Indians who are settling in there are former system chancellor Alex Schilt, former provost Henry Trueba, former senior vice chancellor Dell Felder and former campus vice presidents Sharon Richardson and Grace Butler. In addition, former main campus president James Pickering will be taking up residence as an English professor. The ex-honchos' new salaries will be based on their old administrative pay, making them far better remunerated than most of the professors with whom they'll be rubbing shoulders again.

Revenge, Served Warm
Failed political candidates routinely stiff their consultants on bills, but Sherwin Roden of W.C. Management may have set a new tradition for the March 12 Democratic primary. After his business relationship with state representative hopeful David Jones went sour, Roden activated his phone bank in the final days of Jones' campaign against incumbent Ken Yarbrough in northwest Houston. "This is W.C. Management," announced the phone interviewers to a select calling list of voters who previously indicated they were inclined to vote for Jones. "We'd like you to know that on February 24, Misty Jones, [David Jones'] wife and campaign manager, wrote us a hot check, No. 557, on their First Interstate Bank account." The phone bankers then accused the Jones campaign of taking a computer disc of voter names and addresses compiled by Roden and turning it over to a competing mail house. The spiel concluded with the declaration that Jones was not fit to hold public office.

Jones, who lost rather decisively to Yarbrough, claims the phone script was "erroneous and malicious." The bounced check, he says, was inadvertent and not a deliberate "hot" check, while the computer disc in question was taken to another mailing source because Roden did not have time to do the work. Still to be resolved is the matter of another check for $2,000 Jones wrote to Roden for phone bank services and then stopped payment on after the telephone blitz began. Both sides are now mau-mauing about taking the bad blood to civil court, where the voters in the jury box are fewer and not susceptible to telephone persuasion.

Just Three Words...
Democratic Party types were raising their eyebrows last week over the Chronicle's endorsement of schoolteacher Victor Morales in his runoff with Congressman John Bryant to pick the party's U.S. Senate nominee. The Hearst-owned Chronicle could hardly be expected to endorse Bryant -- the Dallas congressman actually had the gall to question Hearst's purchase of the Post, and he favors raising the minimum wage, an anathema to the Chronicle editorial board. But the paper's very strange endorsement of "normal guy" Morales served only to expose the emptiness of his campaign (for more on Morales, see David Pasztor's report on page 5). As the Chronicle editorialized, "Morales has summed up his political program in three words: education, education, education. There is much truth in what he says." Future candidates should note that if they're capable of articulating such deep truths, they, too, may be in line for the paper's nod.

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