Finances: No. 1 Cause of Marital Discord and HISD Trustee Testiness

Categories: Education

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HISD board starts sounding like the Bickersons.
Husbands and wives play this game all the time. They're short of money and need to put themselves on a stricter budget. They agree they can get by with the worldly goods they already have until better times. Resolute and united, they pause for a smooch, and, holding hands, march forward bravely.

Until, just like the increasingly testy, increasingly discordant Houston ISD trustees are finding out, one person's "necessity" may be another individual's first choice for the discard pile. And what some people see as an "extravagant" acquisition in hard times is others' "too-long-delayed must-have."

The devil, as the truism goes, is in the details.

The fact is the Houston Independent School District is still looking to fill a shortfall of another $59 million in funds for the next school year. That number has stayed rather steady for a number of weeks, after trustees first whittled things down from an expected $171 million shortfall.

At Thursday morning's workshop, trustees were looking at a sheet of possible cuts when they were told that the previously discussed plan to add new specialized dual credit programs, a.k.a. "career academies", at Furr, Scarborough, Sterling and Kashmere high schools would cost the district $1.65 million.

Trustees Anna Eastman, Michael Lunceford and Juliet Stipeche were the most vocal about asking whether this was the right time to offer this kind of new program, considering its price tag. Board President Paula Harris and longtime trustees Larry Marshall and Manuel Rodriguez were equally adamant that yes indeed it is. Former Board President Greg Meyers was there, but didn't enter the fray. The back and forth that followed, particularly between Eastman, Harris and Marshall, wasn't always of the kindest, gentlest type, including when it moved on to include discussion of whether HISD should be installing new bus and school times to economize on transportation costs.

Which is when Marshall brought up the dreaded charge of "micromanaging" when Eastman asked for more board discussion on the plan to change bus route times.

Another point of contention was over whether the district really needs to undertake a Literacy Initiative right now that will involve working with teachers this summer to develop a program at a cost of $1.75 million that will cover all grades.

Superintendent Terry Grier spoke in favor of proceeding, arguing once again that with 70,000 HISD students not reading at grade level, there is no time to wait and what has been in place isn't working for all students.

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Margaret Downing
Terry Grier argued his case.
"We're looking to develop a program that can teach children to read, not only to read but to comprehend. One of our big challenges is the large number of kids who come into our district who do not speak English as a first language. And that's a struggle, but we can do this work," Grier said. "I want to let you know how much I appreciate your willingness to let us put money in the budget to go after what I perceive to be our most serious problem in our school district. Because if you cannot read in today's world, you cannot be successful.

And, he said, any program developed without teacher input was doomed. "If we don't find a way to engage our teachers in this, teachers will see this as just the central office trying to do things to them rather than trying to do things with them, " Grier said.

And Middle School Chief Dallas Dance told everyone that "middle school teachers do not know how to teach reading," don't even have to take a reading course to get their diplomas. The summer session, he argued, will help fill that gap.

Ah, but the costs of all these programs continued to be a sticking point.

"We closed the doors of four schools last week. We have had to rif [reduction in force] hundreds of teachers," Eastman said. "We're looking at proposing a pretty drastic change in our bell system to save money....I think the planning and looking toward something like this in the future is a good idea, but I have a real problem funding a $1.6 million increase to something right now when we still have a $59 million projected shortfall. I really struggle with my ability to go and possibly ask taxpayers to pay more tax, and I think right now we need to be focused on either keeping stuff funded that we value and that we know works, and implementing all these other new things that we're trying to do like the literacy initiative, I really struggle with being able to support something like this right now."

"Infusing a whole bunch of capital outlay and technology and furniture and supplies so we can get this program off the ground feels very counterintuitive to me. I don't think we need to stop innovation. I think we have a whole lot on our plate right now and the amount of effort and time and money that that's going to take, I believe should take precedence."

Trustee Michael Rodriguez countered: "We're trying to transform instead of reform. Tradition has been what we've been doing for a long time. As a businessman, you have to look at ways to move forward, to develop new avenues to be able to do what you should do. With these career academies we're looking at ways to prepare and move these kids forward not just for college but for the work force. Our ultimate goal is not to sit and stay status quo or to remain doing what we've been doing as traditional education, but it's to find those ways to educate motivate and move our kids forward."

Mike Lunceford: "When I ran for the board, because I felt we had poor vocational training. I think it's premature to start new programs." He pointed out that Kashmere is already a year into the Apollo turnaround program, and now the district is adding in another variable at the long-troubled school.

Board President Harris weighed in: "I agree with a lot of the points here today. One of the things we have to remember is we have a $59 million shortfall. But one of the things to remember is there's still things we don't want to cut because it's good for children. If we have to close Kashmere because we didn't find a workable solution...I don't think the public trusts us."

"To say that 'Oh, we need to wait on these children, on vocational programs' and yet we vowed not to cut magnet money -- we could have but we didn't want to cut academic achievement," Harris said. "We won't say that our vocational programs need to be shored up. They're terrible. I can't sit here and say we have to focus on Vanguard...and I can't say that we can't focus on career academies."

"Either we are or we're not trying to educate all children to the highest performance levels," Harris proclaimed. "I think what we need to do is take it to a vote."

In other -- uncontested -- action, the proposed redistricting plan for HISD trustees was unveiled and unlike the city and the state efforts, there wasn't any dissension. Apparently each trustee will retain about 93 percent of his or her present district. To have a look at it, you can go to the page that the HISD Web site has set aside for this.


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8 comments
Judd Bingle
Judd Bingle

Grier has been spending money like a drunken sailor at all of his nine career stops. His first solution to everything is to spend, bring in outside consultants for pay of course, hire companies he dealt with in the past that are not even close to being appropriate to what HISD needs. Read the "Largely Lusterless Career of Terry Grier" at www.houstonisdwatch.com

Houston Business Perspective
Houston Business Perspective

What is going on at Hattie Mae White? There must be Kool Aid being offerred to some and not others. There is NO MONEY!!! Does Dr. Grier think there is a money printing machine in the back office? Board of Trustees - don't even think of asking us to pay more taxes until you have voted to terminate Dr. Grier's contract. He does not believe reforming or transforming he believes in SPENDING!! and EXPERIMENTING!! - and as he owns no real estate in Houston - he is not PAYING for anything. I will spend my money on buying out his contract and I know many others that will as well - but Ms. Harris and Dr. Grier and their greed spend run has got to end!! All Houston households have tightened their belts but Grier thinks it is Christmas morning - "let's do this and let's do that - money  oh - we'll fire some more teachers or do away with something i don't like today - and then I can play more over here." Adult ADD is not an excuse for spending all our money - FOCUS - let's get this budget under control and HISD employee morale back into this universe - stop all the talent from going anywhere but HISD!

Lhood323
Lhood323

Oh Paula,  Let me assure you that you are absolutely correct. The public, the people who voted for you and placed the welfare of our most precious resource in your care, do not trust you. If we have $1.75 million for a new literacy initiative why can we not afford the reading specialists we just fired from the district?  If we can find another $1.65 million to start new vocational programs why are we allowing existing facilities in our high schools to sit empty or understaffed?  We do not trust you because you and several of your colleges have not figured out something that the majority of the students in your district know intimately, you do not buy a new car when you can't put milk on the table.  

Gcardoza2010
Gcardoza2010

The public has accepted that there are lots of people in HISD performing below grade level. There are probably a few extra Apollo 20 math tutors willing to work with Dr. Grier and Board President Harris. Maybe they can teach them about negative numbers and spending money they don"t have.

Jcooper
Jcooper

Helloooooo..Board members wake up!!! Mutiny this captain before you all go down with the ship.

Jeroldri
Jeroldri

Excuse me, but does HISD have a budget shortfall or a secret surplus that we are not privy to? Why are we spending neccesity money on accesories? Is the entire district on a shoestring budget excluding Grier? He seems to have a endless stash of experimental pet project dollars to spend.

gc
gc

March 4, 2011 - Garrett said the district is planning to budget for a $5 billion loss of state funding over a period of two years. If it's lucky, the district will come up short $171 million -- and that's being hopeful. "This assumption is not worst-case," Harris said of the budget proposal.

pelican lover
pelican lover

Paula,The community doesn't trust you because you are letting Grier ruin the district while top administrators give jobs to their families and quality principals and teachers are leaving every  week. Now you are asking to fund more programs while laying off teachers, completely screwing up the bell schedules and preparing to ask for a tax hike. Please pull your head out.

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