in Houston, Texas
Paula Harris' challenger Art Huerta disqualified in Houston ISD race; Carol Mims Galloway not seeking re-election
Wednesday, Sep 07, 2011, 06:14PM CST
By Mike Cronin
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If incumbent Houston school board President Paula Harris loses her seat on Nov. 8, it won't be due to Art Huerta.

The one-time challenger to Harris was told in an e-mail Wednesday morning – the day of the filing deadline for board candidates – that he didn't live in Harris' District IV. He says he was initially assured otherwise.

Obviously I'm upset. I'm upset at not being able to be compete. And I'm upset at not being able to run in the district I was told. I was 100 percent assured I could run against Paula Harris in District IV,” Huerta said in a phone interview.

Suzanne Harrison, the head of board services for the school district, “was very adamant” when he filed his paperwork, Huerta, who works for Shell, said. “She double- and triple-checked it. And I immediately began campaigning.”

As for the change today, “I was not given a reason. I was told by Suzanne Harrison that it was a mistake, that it was an error, that this had never happened before in her career. Whatever.

The point is, I'm not eligible to run.”

He now lives in Juliet Stipeche's District VIII, he learned, and would have to run against Stipeche, not Harris, in November.

But Huerta told Texas Watchdog this afternoon that he won’t run against Stipeche. Nor will he sue to challenge Harris at the polls.

Given the timeframe, I'd probably spend more time pursuing a lawsuit than campaigning. So I'm not going to pursue a seat in this election,” he said.

I want to make sure that people know this is not my doing. This is not due to a change in my temperament. This happened because of something out of my control.”

In the meantime, Davetta Daniels, who challenged Harris at the polls in 2007 and lost, has qualified to run against Harris again.

Harris did not return two calls for comment this afternoon. She, Stipeche and the seats of two other school board members -- Carol Mims Galloway and Manuel Rodriguez --  are up for re-election this year. Stipeche will be challenged by Dorothy Marie Olmos, while Rodriguez's challenger, Ramon Fonseca, qualified to run last month. Galloway initially filed to run for re-election but withdrew, leaving Rhonda Skillern-Jones as the only candidate for that seat, HISD said.

District spokesman Jason Spencer said the confusion over Huerta's district wasn't a redistricting issue. Instead, the mistake was due to bad maps in HISD's board services office.

Huerta “has always been in District VIII,” Spencer said. “He was never in Paula Harris' district.”

The board services maps don't account for HISD's 82 split precincts, Spencer said. Each precinct on the map is filled with one color -- even the spilt precincts -- to note which trustee district it’s in. Huerta’s precinct had been filled with the color of Harris’ district, even though not everyone in that precinct lives in Harris’ district.

Because of that, it appeared Huerta lived in Harris' district, when in actuality, he lives in Stipeche's district.

It hasn't been an issue before – to have someone file, and they live in a split precinct and not in the district that the map says they are in,” Spencer said.

The solution is more detailed maps, Spencer said.

It's pretty clear that he's not in (Harris') district,” Spencer said. “If he wants to be on the school board, he can be on the ballot in his district.

At the end of the day, it was an honest mistake by someone in board services.”

Huerta had filed his qualifying paperwork with the school district in mid-August. The school board approved the redistricting plan at a special meeting on June 23, said Harrison, who sent Huerta the e-mail.

Some HISD parents, however, were disgusted.

“I am so disappointed with what has happened at the 11th-hour of the filing deadline,” said Beth Brown, 54, a resident of District V, which board member Mike Lunceford represents. “To have this residency issue suddenly come up, it doesn't pass the smell test.”

Brown sits on the district's public engagement committee and is a former parent-teacher organization president. She has two children currently attending HISD schools.

“Where was the residency check when Mr. Huerta first filed?” Brown asked. “Who knew what and when did they know it? The children in District IV schools deserve better than this. I am truly outraged that the district waited until it was too late for another candidate to step in.”

Stipeche is out of the country. David Thompson, special counsel to the board, was also overseas on business, in a different part of the world than Stipeche. A message left with Thompson’s assistant was not returned by press time.

HISD officials approved the district boundaries based on recommendations from an outside law firm.

Jason Spencer, an HISD spokesman, did not return a phone message or an e-mail this afternoon. A message left on the HISD general mailbox was not returned.

It is unknown why HISD officials allowed Huerta to file to run against Harris when redistricting had bumped him into another district entirely. Also unknown is why HISD officials waited until the morning of the filing deadline to notify Huerta of the redistricting change.

“Your street falls within HISD Trustee District 8, not District 4 as we had originally discussed,” Harrison wrote Huerta. “I had this confirmed with the Harris County Voter Registrar this morning.”

The Houston Chronicle, in a May 19 blog post, quoted Gene Locke, the attorney hired by HISD to help draft the redistricting plan, telling the school board that day that “there’s no radical change to any of the districts.”

That same post quoted Harris describing the redistricting process as “painless.”

Nothing in state law precludes school districts from later ruling ineligible board candidates who had been approved earlier, said Jordy Keith, a spokeswoman for the Texas Secretary of State in Austin.

“It could be for a variety of reasons, not just where they live,” Keith said.

UPDATE: This story was most recently updated at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday to include more information as it came in.

***

Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @texaswatchdog or @michaelccronin.

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Photo by flickr user bredgur, used via a Creative Commons license.

Comments
Melanie R.
Wednesday, 09/07/2011 - 08:41PM

If the map @ Board Services is bad......well then, REALLY?

Sailor Blue, High and Dry
Wednesday, 09/07/2011 - 11:20PM

Maybe one of the Board members knows someone who could sell HISD some of those "more detailed maps"?

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