in Houston, Texas

Houston ISD says City of Houston owes big bucks for crossing guards; will the school system get out of the crossing guard business?

Wednesday, Mar 30, 2011, 07:31AM CST
By Lynn Walsh
Crossing guard

The Houston school system says the city of Houston owes it hundreds of thousands of dollars for providing school crossing guards -- but the city says it can’t pay any more than it has already paid.

The Houston Independent School District says the city still owes more than $400,000 from its most recent invoice alone, sent in January. The unpaid bills come at a time when the school system faces possible budget cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars, along with employee layoffs, due to the state's budget problems.

The past-due crossing guard bills and the new city drainage fee together are worth the equivalent of 75 teachers' salaries, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said. He's even tossed out the question of whether HISD should “go out of the crossing guard business” at schools and make the city provide them.

But the city points to its contract with the schools, which says the money it reimburses HISD and other school systems for crossing guards can be drawn only from one particular pot of money funded by a $5 fee on parking tickets and a $1.50 surcharge on vehicle registrations. That pot of money doesn't cover the complete costs of crossing guards, and the city says there's not much else it can do.

The amount HISD has asked to be reimbursed is "more than the revenues the fund takes in,” said Janice Evans, a spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker.  
 
"Parents would not be particularly excited about the idea of HISD going out of the crossing guard business," said Jay Aiyer, parent of a student at HISD's Pin Oak Middle in Bellaire. "Someone is going to have to deal with the issue. I am not sure whose responsibility it is, but someone has to take care of it.”

HISD Controller Kenneth Huewitt estimated the district is getting about 80% of the money in the crossing guard fund, while the rest goes to other school districts that operate within the Houston city limits. He says he’s still talking with the city to try to work out a solution.

The Houston school district employs more than 600 crossing guards at 187 schools -- all but 11 of the guards are stationed at elementary schools -- and the total cost of providing those services is about $4.4 million for this fiscal year, documents from HISD and the city show. Crossing guards are paid $15.82 an hour, HISD Police Chief Jimmy Dotson said.

That’s how much the school system will ask the city to reimburse it for this fiscal year. But given the city’s recent track record of not paying it all back, the school system is setting aside $3.2 million this year to cover what the city probably won't pay.

That projection is roughly in line with how much the city expects to be able to turn over to the school systems it must reimburse: The total budget for the city’s crossing guard fund, formally known as the Child Safety Program, in fiscal year 2011 is only $3.38 million.

The city says its hands are tied.

“Perhaps the most important point to make is that as stipulated by HISD’s contract with us (the City) and the Child Safety Program payments can only occur to the extent the funds are available,” Evans said.

Plus, “these funds do not belong to the City,” she added. “We are simply the administrators of them. The city is a pass-through organization - 100% of funds received are distributed.”

The city ordinance authorizing the reimbursements to HISD and other school districts says the payments "shall be expressly limited to the monies available in the fund.” School districts apply for the funding annually and are supposed to be reimbursed quarterly, the ordinance says.

That's little help to the school system.

The city "just has a certain responsibility to pay for it,” HISD Trustee Harvin Moore said. “... This is their problem. This is real simple, I think.”

But the outlook for getting the additional money isn't good.

“This year for revenue, they are already a couple hundred thousand dollars below what they thought they were going to get, and that is why we are having to make some adjustments," Huewitt told trustees in February. “When I asked them (the city) about next year, they said it is probably going to be about the same.”

HISD said the district was in the same situation last May. The city was behind “a couple of quarters,”  Huewitt said. After the district contacted the city, it wrote a check to the district.

"They gave us what they could,” Huewitt said. “It was a considerable amount but it didn’t catch up ... Each year stands on its own. Whatever they fund you for, for that particular year, if they have a windfall the next year, they are not going to go back and make up for what they shorted you for in the previous years.”

Beyond eating the costs, HISD's options are limited.

Grier has suggested to trustees that the district write a “nice letter” to the city stating that the city is required to provide these services and “we as a district are going out of the crossing guard business and we (HISD) would like you (the City) to assume the responsibility that your charter mandates.”

It’s not clear how serious Grier and other HISD administrators are about the school district “going out of the crossing guard business.” An e-mail message sent to Grier after the trustee meeting in February to inquire about the situation went unreturned.
 
However the money or labor is found, parents say crossing guards at a must-have at many Houston schools.

“There are plenty of kids who walk in my neighborhood, and their safety is important,” said Martha Jenkinson of Bellaire, who is the PTO leader at Bellaire High School.

HISD doesn’t have any crossing guards at its high schools, but Jenkinson said the younger children still need help. “If money is the issue, at some point, you have to say, ‘Are there other ways to do it?’ Can you think outside the box? Maybe we are going to be looking for volunteers … Let’s find out how we can do more with less and how we can come together as a community. Let’s think about, ‘What is my share to keep kids safe?’”

Garrett told trustees she'd seen the crossing guard program run entirely by the city. She said she prefers the current setup -- in which the schools manage the crossing guards but the city reimburses the costs -- because the school district is more efficient about staffing changes that may be needed at schools.

“In my mind, the best way is to get them to fund it,” she said. “But in the end, if they won’t fund it, then we need to give it back. But it does come with inefficiencies as far as two governments dealing with each other.”
 
***
Contact Lynn Walsh, Lynn@TexasWatchdog.org, 713-228-2850 or on Twitter @LWalsh.

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Photo: A crossing guard at work at Houston ISD's Field Elementary School in the Houston Heights, by Lynn Walsh/Texas Watchdog.

Comments
Judd Bingle
Wednesday, 03/30/2011 - 10:36AM

Harvin Moore rarely takes responsibility for district actions that short-change the kids and the taxpayers.

Unlike the city of Houston which is trying to deal with its budget shortfall, Moore continues to complain

about the state, the city, teachers....Message to Harvin Moore: Although Republicans like to

blame everyone else but themselves for all the problems they've caused, you, Mr. Moore, are supposed

to be non-partisan. Man-up and stop whining...www.houstonisdwatch.com

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