in Houston, Texas
Big school districts in Texas spent $227 million last year on disciplinary programs: Report
Tuesday, Oct 30, 2012, 09:38AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
money

Taxpayers in 11 of the biggest school districts in Texas spent $227 million during the 2010-11 school year to protect and punish children, according to a study by a non-profit group calling for less expensive alternatives.

Texas Appleseed intends to present its study, Breaking Rules, Breaking Budgets, before a joint hearing to discuss public school disciplinary policies before the state Senate Education and Criminal Justice committees Tuesday morning at the Capitol.

The report concluded the 11 districts surveyed spent $140 million in a single school year on disciplinary and juvenile justice programs for suspended and expelled students, Associated Press reported Monday afternoon. Campus police and security and monitoring equipment and personnel cost another $87 million.

The school districts surveyed - Bryan, Conroe, Cypress-Fairbanks, Dallas, Fort Bend, Fort Worth, Houston, Humble, Northside, Plano, San Antonio - educate a quarter of the roughly 5 million students enrolled in public schools in Texas. There are about 1,050 school districts in the state.

In its report, Texas Appleseed, volunteer lawyers and other professionals promoting social and economic justice, offers alternative disciplinary programs it contends are more effective and less expensive.

Districts could maintain higher federal funding reimbursements by raising their average attendance by suspending only students who threaten staff and student safety or damage to the school.

Atlantic Philanthropies, the Houston Endowment, the Public Welfare Foundation and The Boone Foundation helped fund the Texas Appleseed study.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of money by flickr user 401 (K) 2012 athrasher, used via a Creative Commons license.

Double-dipping Ysleta ISD superintendent also gets sweet housing deal
Monday, Jul 30, 2012, 04:29PM CST
By Curt Olson
cash

Taxpayers might soon think they need a better deal from Ysleta Independent School District Superintendent Michael Zolkoski.

Besides collecting nearly $250,000 — and a pension — Zolkoski gets a a taxpayer-owned home with rent that hasn’t risen since he arrived in 2009, as the El Paso Times chronicles today in rich detail. Additionally, Ysleta ISD maintenance workers do everything for Zolkoski from replacing the garbage disposal to sweeping the patio.

Zolkoski pays $1,300 a month in rent, for a total of $28,600 since September 2010. The district paid more than $20,000 in maintenance and remodeling over the same time, the newspaper determined through public records.

Comparable properties suggest the rent should be between $1,700 to $2,000 per month, the newspaper found in interviews with a real estate agent, a trustee who owns nearby rental properties, and a search on Zillow.com.

Zolkoski issued a statement but declined to answer questions from the El Paso Times on the Eastridge neighborhood home: “This is a win-win situation because the district has a guaranteed monthly rental income on this house, and it met our family needs better than any other home we looked at.”

The district bought the house in 2003 for Superintendent Hector Montenegro, who got the house rent-free, though his salary was tens of thousands of dollars lower than Zolkoski’s. The district tried and failed to sell the house when Montenegro left.

When Zolkoski arrived in 2009 he said he would pay for utilities and maintenance, which included the backyard pool. Ysleta ISD agreed to pay for “necessary” repairs, the Times reports, but the next year in a closed session sweetened the terms, agreeing to maintain the pool, keep up the yard and spray for pests, all without increasing the rent.

The Times has shed light recently on Zolkoski’s other benefits.

Zolkoski, who earns a salary of $243,600, is a double dipper, collecting a paycheck and a pension. Ysleta ISD has paid more than $88,000 to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas since 2009 for penalties owed TRS for employing someone who retired in 2006.

As sweet a deal as he’s getting, Zolkoski amazingly has considered walking. Zolkoski reportedly sought and failed to win the top job with Dallas ISD.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of 'Cash Money' by flickr user athrasher, used via a Creative Commons license.

Houston ISD trustees sit out controversial votes rather than vote against colleagues
Tuesday, Feb 21, 2012, 08:22AM CST
By Mike Cronin
Man who wasn't there

Many Houston school-system residents have expressed frustration that three board members abstained from the vote earlier this month that extended Superintendent Terry Grier’s contract through June 1, 2014.

But abstentions, or simply avoiding one’s seat during a Houston Independent School District board vote, are a tactic commonly used by HISD trustees.

Rather than be on record as opposing an issue, board members sometimes register an abstention during a vote or ensure they leave no record of their position by being absent when a vote takes place.

Yet parents, former HISD trustees and national experts say board members should abstain only when a valid reason exists, such as a conflict of interest or a lack of information to make an informed decision.

“We elected board members to represent us,” said Nellie Naidoo, 41, a mother of two HISD children who lives in Trustee Harvin Moore’s district and a member of the group Parent Visionaries. Moore voted for Grier’s extension.

“They knew what they were getting into when they took the position,” Naidoo said. “There should be no wavering. It’s either yes or no. We’re looking upon them to make the right decision for us.”

Board President Mike Lunceford said at the board meeting earlier this month that he couldn’t support Grier’s extension because it would continue beyond his own term, which ends next year. Lunceford chose to abstain rather than vote against the superintendent’s extension.

“My goal this year is not to have the board degrade into brash public arguments but to resolve our conflicting viewpoints in a positive way,” Lunceford said. “My opinion is it is up to the individual trustee to vote the way they want. But, again, once the vote is taken, the issue is over. Now, over time positions can change and then, at that point, there needs to be a reevaluation of those issues.”

But Gene Maeroff, who is the author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy
and founder of the Hechinger Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York, said the most important role of a school board is to select the superintendent.

“Nothing ranks above that,” said Maeroff, who also is the school board president of Edison Township public schools in New Jersey. “If a board member abstains from that vote, that is very, very questionable behavior. That person has an obligation to put on record where he or she stands.”

Moore said that he felt there are several valid reasons for a board member to abstain, one being that’s it’s too soon to vote on a particular issue.

That was essentially the reason given by some of my colleagues, and I respect that,” Moore said. “We all feel that both the superintendent and the board must improve on some very important areas. Some of us believed that commitment is enough to vote, while others felt they wanted to wait longer. Abstentions are not no votes, and they shouldn’t be construed that way in this instance either.”

Trustee Anna Eastman, the only board member to vote against the contract extension, said it is the responsibility of elected officials to explain the reasoning behind their votes.

“Our votes may convey a variety of different messages and its incumbent upon us to communicate what those votes mean,” Eastman said.

Donald McAdams, chairman and founder of Houston’s nonprofit Center for Reform School Systems, agreed.

“We urge trustees not to abstain,” said McAdams, who was an HISD trustee from 1990 to 2002. “And if they do, to be very clear why they’re abstaining. We say the same thing when a board member votes no. When you’re at the table, explain why you’re voting no. But then after that, say nothing else.”

That’s because school boards must move on after votes, no matter how contentious the disagreement leading up to it, McAdams said.

The primary reason is that unlike other elected bodies, a school board is legally considered one thing, a singularity, “a body corporate,” said McAdams, 70, who raised two children who attended HISD schools.

That means a school board functions as all three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. It leads and makes decisions. It sets and votes on policies. And it hears appeals.

Even if the decision is a 5-4 vote, that decision is final and individual trustees should abide by it, McAdams said.

“Otherwise, you’re undermining the board if you’re campaigning against (a decision) after it was taken,” McAdams said. “When you’re on the school board, you’re responsible for the functioning of that organization. It has to flourish and thrive. You’re a trustee. You represent the owners, namely, the voters.”

By contrast, a member of Congress who is on the losing side of a vote must continue politicking to be reelected in the next election. And other public entities also have many types of representatives, be they presidents, senators or judges.

“But on the school board, you are the only representative,” McAdams said.

Also, McAdams added, continuing opposition to a decided vote impedes the superintendent from doing his or her job, specifically because the superintendent answers only to the board.

Aside from a conflict of interest, only a lack of information on the issue at hand is a legitimate reason to abstain, said Maeroff, McAdams and some HISD board members who voted for Grier’s contract extension.

“Rhonda (Skillern-Jones) was within her rights to abstain because she did not have sufficient information to make an informed vote,” said Trustee Manuel Rodriguez.

Skillern-Jones and Juliet Stipeche are the other board members who abstained from last week’s vote. The meeting was Skillern-Jones’ first. She was elected to her inaugural term on the board in November.

Skillern-Jones publicly stated that she could not cast an informed vote on Grier’s contract extension because HISD staff did not provide her with data she had requested on the superintendent’s performance.

Stipeche said that, “an abstention is a way to demonstrate that a trustee is not fully on board with the action, but is not prepared to vote no. But the trustee is still willing to work with his or her board colleagues on other issues in the future.”

Rodriguez continued that “abstentions should not be used, in my humble opinion, if you’re not in agreement with the action. If you’re opposed to it, then vote no.”

But Rodriguez employed the tactic of not being seated during a vote, despite being present at the board meeting, at least three times last year.

He left his seat during a vote on a standardized-bell schedule for HISD at the June 9 board meeting. Former Trustee Carol Mims-Galloway did the same thing during that meeting. Galloway retired at the end of her term last year. Skillern-Jones was elected to replace her.

And during the May 12 board meeting, Rodriguez left his seat twice. Once, during the vote to consolidate Stevenson elementary school into Memorial and Love elementary schools. And once, during the vote to consolidate Grimes, Rhoads and Carter elementary schools into Carter Woodson PK-8 school.

Of those absences, Rodriguez said, “They were not intentional.” He or another board member might have gotten a phone call he or she had to take, or they might have needed to go to the restroom. “I don’t see that as something done purposefully,” Rodriguez said.

Grier became the Houston Independent School District superintendent on Sept. 11, 2009, after leading the San Diego public schools. He succeeded Abelardo Saavedra.

He is the highest-paid HISD employee, earning a $300,000 annual salary. HISD is the seventh-largest school district in the nation. It has a roughly $1.6 billion budget and educates about 203,000 students.

Grier earned an extra $69,000 last month due to performance bonuses built into his contract.

This story was last updated shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday to add that Naidoo is a member of the group Parent Visionaries. 

***

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

Photo: (The lower half of) the poster for the 2001 Coen Brothers film The Man Who Wasn't There, including the lower half of the face of star Billy Bob Thornton. 

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View primary source docs used in story on Texas state budget cuts and teachers
Thursday, Feb 16, 2012, 01:40PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Texas teacher rally

Texas Watchdog made formal public information requests of the 10 largest school districts in Texas for teachers and other education profession staffing for the 2010-2011 and 2011-12 school years.

We used information provided by the districts to build this story showing that relatively few teachers were actually laid off following state budget cuts to education last year.

The Houston, Dallas, Cypress-Fairbanks, Northside (San Antonio), Austin, Fort Worth, Fort Bend, North East (San Antonio), and Arlington independent school districts responded to our requests. You can find the data here, as well as a comparison on teacher staffing in 2011 and 2012 here.

The El Paso Independent School District asked for an extension to respond to our request, but did not comply.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of a 2011 rally in Austin to oppose reductions in education funding by flickr user Phil Ostroff, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Houston ISD school board extends Superintendent Terry Grier's contract
Friday, Feb 10, 2012, 05:07PM CST
By Mike Cronin
TGrier

The Houston school board approved extending Superintendent Terry Grier’s contract during last night’s regular monthly meeting by a five-vote majority – the slimmest possible margin to pass the motion.

Grier’s contract terms stated that board members could vote to terminate the superintendent in December. Or, trustees could vote to extend his tenure.

Speaking for the majority, Trustee Harvin Moore made the motion to extend the superintendent’s contract through June 1, 2014.

“It’s important that we signal that Dr. Grier is on the right course, and that we stay on that course,” Moore said, explaining why he wanted to extend the superintendent’s contract at this juncture, rather than wait until closer to December.

Voting with Moore were trustees Greg Meyers, Paula Harris, Lawrence Marshall and Manuel Rodriguez Jr.


Trustee Anna Eastman was the only board member who voted against the extension. She praised the superintendent’s passion and said that though she wanted to be a part of the majority, she simply wasn’t there at this moment.

Eastman spoke about concerns that have remained with her since November 2010.

“I wanted to hear the same passion and zeal from the people on the ground,” Eastman said. “But I fear the culture of the (school-district) organization is struggling.”

Board President Mike Lunceford and trustees Juliet Stipeche and Rhonda Skillern-Jones abstained from the vote.

Grier became the Houston Independent School District superintendent on Sept. 11, 2009, after leading the San Diego public schools. He succeeded Abelardo Saavedra.

He is the highest-paid HISD employee, earning a $300,000 annual salary. HISD is the seventh-largest school district in the nation. It has a roughly $1.6 billion budget and educates about 203,000 students.

District data show that Grier did not meet HISD goals set for student achievement in 16 out of 24 categories, though he narrowly missed the mark in several.

The school board uses an evaluation form that consists of data measurements in categories such as the increase in student college readiness; recruiting and retaining the best teachers and principals; and improving the public support and confidence in HISD schools.

Grier earned about $69,000 in extra money last month due to performance bonuses built into his contract.

Grier’s extension is sure to set off fireworks among many HISD parents, teachers and school administrators. His two-year tenure has been a rocky one.

Some object to his intense focus on standardized tests to measure student progress and data-driven analyses to judge teacher and principal performance; a recent profile of Grier in Texas Monthly called him “the most hated man in Houston.”

But his fans say they support his efforts to improve the nation’s seventh-largest school system, where four out of five of the some 200,000 students are on free or reduced lunch programs -- and they support Grier’s broader goals of reform, even if he has rubbed some folks the wrong way.  

Grier’s board backers repeatedly spoke during last night’s meeting about HISD being “on the right track” under the superintendent’s leadership.

“The data tells the story,” Meyers said. “This superintendent has followed his charge. He’s put together a staff that’s doing what’s right for kids.”

Marshall, the longest-serving member with 15 years on the board, said he’s had the good fortune to work with 12 superintendents throughout his career.

“We’re proud to say that (Grier) is our superintendent,” Marshall said. “Dr. Grier has made a difference. Our role on this board of education is to make sure we get a return on our investment. The superintendent is that investment.”

Harris added that, though the data are important, so is the way people are being treated within HISD, and how the public perceives the district.

“Dr. Grier has surrounded himself with great people,” Harris said. “Yes, there’s always room for improvement, and we still have an open dialogue with the unions, parents and staff. People won’t always walk away happy, but we’ll always have an open dialogue because Dr. Grier demands it.”

Still, an August survey showed that district-parent dissatisfaction with the superintendent has increased under Grier. About 70 percent of parents said they were strongly or somewhat satisfied with the superintendent in 2007 when Saavedra was chief.

This year that number sunk to 58 percent. The feeling among the general population followed a similar track, falling to 47 percent this year from 57 percent in 2007.

And parents who believe HISD is strongly or somewhat on the right track plunged to 54 percent this year from 79 percent in 2009, showed a survey conducted by Creative Consumer Research based in Stafford, Texas. Among the general population, those numbers dropped to 44 percent from 58 percent.

Skillern-Jones repeated during the meeting what she said during campaign season: She would not weigh in on Grier’s future until she saw all the data. She said she still hasn’t received some of those data, despite requesting them from HISD staff.

“I don’t have the data, so I can’t make a decision,” Skillern-Jones said.

Board President Lunceford concluded the discussion before the vote by stating that the reason he couldn’t support Grier’s extension had nothing to do with the superintendent himself.

“There’s a reason we’re not a board of directors,” Lunceford said, who was elected to his four-year unpaid term in November 2009. “We’re trustees. We serve as a trust for the people. I have a problem with signing on (the superintendent) for a time period longer than I’ll be here for my constituents.”

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

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Major change could come out of Houston ISD procurement audit
Monday, Feb 06, 2012, 08:59AM CST
By Mike Cronin
Change sign

If the response by Houston schools officials to past audits is any indication, district parents and residents could see major changes to the school system’s procurement practices during the next few months.

Two separate organizations – the Washington-based nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools and the Houston accounting firm, Null-Lairson – have both examined the way the school system does business.

The council released its report of the audit it conducted in October last month. Null-Lairson is scheduled to complete its audit and issue its findings to Houston Independent School District officials during the upcoming weeks, board members and administrators have said.

HISD revised policies and changed personnel in key positions after the Council of the Great City Schools’ 2010 audit of the district’s capital facilities program found, among other things:
  • Substantial financial errors
  • The program had been operating without annual budgets, standard contract forms or budget evaluations.
  • The program had no set timelines for the completion of projects and lacked standard guidelines as to how projects would be established, evaluated and completed.
  • The program had no tracking system of amendments to projects that enlarged their scope and price tag, and that district staff had “no understanding of the impact” of such changes on costs.
District improvements based on that 2010 review were significant, Issa Dadoush, HISD’s general manager for construction and facility services, told Texas Watchdog in a phone interview.   

Among the most critical revisions in HISD procedures included:
  • Merging the previously separate construction department and facilities department. “Before, they were totally independent,” Dadoush said. “They were two silos and didn’t communicate with each other.”
  • Cultivating a pool of custodians similar to substitute teachers. “Back in 2010, it was not unusual to have 12 to 14 percent of our custodial staff absent,” Dadoush said. “We covered that with overtime, spending about $11 million annually. Since we created the (new system), we’ve saved HISD about $6 million.”
  • Re-establishing the district’s preventive-maintenance program. Now, Dadoush said, HISD is 27 percent more productive, acting on 139,000 work orders, as opposed to 110,000 prior to the council’s 2010 audit.
  • Starting an employee-evaluation process for contractors and consultants to hold them accountable. “The council’s 2010 report showed us that many employees didn’t receive evaluations,” Dadoush said. “Now, we articulate goals and objectives, and what are our performance measures, as well as the consequences for not meeting them.”
  • Hiring spot checkers to examine performance.
  • Becoming a “data-driven organization, where we analyze the cost-per-square-foot relative to others in our industry,” Dadoush said.
Though all those measures are good ones, Dadoush emphasized he and his colleagues aren’t finished yet.

“We’ve moved from a fair organization to a good organization,” he said. “We respond to about 95 percent of our work orders in a timely fashion. That means we still have thousands of work orders not responded to in a timely fashion. We want to get that number to 99 percent.

“We’re a work in progress,” Dadoush said. “We’re an open book.”

HISD officials paid about $22,000 for the 2010 council review, HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said.

District administrators are still waiting for the council’s bill for this year’s audit on HISD’s purchasing procedures, Spencer said.

The school board in October approved paying Null-Lairson up to $87,500 for the audit that firm is currently conducting.

The council’s October audit found that the ways HISD does business “lead to a perception of manipulation of and distrust in the procurement process.”

The report also concluded that “the majority of the district‘s purchasing... is awarded based on a number of weighted factors that are not always transparent or consistently applied.”

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, told Texas Watchdog that HISD’s lack of transparency in its contract-awarding methods was the district’s most serious problem.

Spencer declined to answer questions of how the district would address the council’s findings, saying that would be “inappropriate” until the Null-Lairson conclusions are released.

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

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us onTwitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feedsin your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.
Texas Watchdog's Mike Cronin interviewed on News 92 about Houston ISD paying for two audits
Friday, Feb 03, 2012, 06:06PM CST
By Jennifer Peebles
Marconi at his desk

Texas Watchdog's Mike Cronin talked with radio newsman Scott Braddock this morning about his story regarding the Houston schools paying for two audits of its procurement practices.

Cronin was interviewed on News 92 FM about his report, which noted that the Houston school system now says the review by the nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools wasn't really an audit.

Listen here
Listen to the audio of the interview in the player below.

***
Contact Jennifer Peebles at 281-656-1681 or jennifer@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @jpeebles and @texaswatchdog.

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Photo: Radio innovator Guglielmo Marconi at a desk with his equipment. Originally appeared in the March 1903 issue of The World's Work, now in the public domain and used here under a Creative Commons license via Wikipedia user Thomas H. White.
Lots of Einsteins or too low a bar? Houston ISD bursting at the seams with 'gifted' students, shelves plan to tighten standards
Thursday, Jan 19, 2012, 08:24AM CST
By Mike Cronin
Chess

Of all the challenges facing the Houston school system, here's one you probably haven’t heard about: It may have too many gifted kids.

About one student in every six in the Houston Independent School District has been identified as "gifted and talented" -- that's more than twice that of the Texas and national rates for gifted children, according to public records and a national expert.

Just what will be done about it, though, is unclear. HISD administrators in August had considered making it more difficult for students to qualify for the gifted program, but that plan was shot down after "feedback from principals" said it would be "a bad idea," district spokesman Jason Spencer said.

If the gifted criteria had become more stringent, he added, students already in the program “probably would (have been) grandfathered in.”

Peggy Sue Gay, 52, a mother of two sons educated in HISD's gifted program and a member of the district's Gifted and Talented Parent Advisory Committee, is one of many parents who complained that HISD “does not have a clear consistent path for" gifted and talented students.

“When I met with the administration in December, they admitted" they had not rectified the gifted and talented situation, "and said it needed to be addressed,” said Angela Standridge, 46, co-chairman of the committee. Her son, 14, is gifted and has an IQ between 165 and 168, depending on the test.

“I have not seen (a solution) in writing and action, but there does seem to be a dialogue. It would be most helpful if they filled the open position for a gifted and talented coordinator. It will not be on anyone else's front burner, no matter how many parents voice the concern.”

About 15.6 percent of HISD's student body has been identified as gifted and talented, according to e-mails written by HISD administrators in August and obtained by Texas Watchdog. The state rate is 7.2 percent, or closer to one child in every 14.

And even Texas’ percentage is a bit higher than the national average, which is between 6.5 percent and 7 percent, said Jim Borland, a professor who specializes in gifted and talented curricula at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York.

Chart
“Houston’s percentage of gifted and talented students is very high,” Borland said. “I haven’t come across an urban school district with such a large scale of gifted and talented students – or anything close to this.

"It makes you ask why so many kids need a form of special ed. What’s wrong with the general education system? That’s sort of the implicit message – that about one in seven students need something outside the regular curriculum.”

Each Texas school district is required to use at least three criteria for entrance into gifted ed programs -- but the districts are allowed to pick what those criteria will be.

HISD officials use a matrix which includes these factors:
  • Student scores on achievement tests in subjects such as reading, math and science and on a nonverbal-ability test;
  • Grades on the student’s report card;
  • Teacher recommendations; and
  • Obstacle points, which are “awarded to those from low-income families, English language learners, historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and/or special education,” Spencer said.
The proposal that HISD administrators discussed in their August would have raised the score students needed to earn to gain admission to the gifted and talented program by five points, to 67 from 62.

Even if the five-point increase occurred however, the percentage of HISD gifted and talented students might drop only to 13.4 percent of the student population, according to the e-mails – still much higher than the Texas and national averages. Spencer said the five-point increase would reduce the percentage to 12.5 percent.

But Spencer said that “the fact that HISD has identified a higher percentage of students as (gifted and talented) than the average Texas school district is not indicative of a problem in and of itself.”

Yet Tracy Weinberg, associate director of the Texas Association for Gifted and Talented in Austin, disagreed.

“When you over-identify gifted and talented students, you’re slowing the pace of classroom instruction and not creating a challenge for students who are truly gifted,” Weinberg said. “They don’t get the depth of content and complexity because there’s too many bases to be covered in the class.”

And it could even hurt students who normally would not qualify as gifted and talented, said Columbia’s Borland.

“The whole goal of a gifted and talented program is to identify kids who need that type of instruction and group them homogenously with kids of comparable ability,” Borland said. “The larger you make that group, the more heterogeneous you make it. If kids are misplaced, it’s not good for anybody. It could be less effective because of the unwieldy range of abilities in the gifted program.”

But parents of HISD gifted students say any plan that would cut kids out of the gifted program could hurt the pupils who remain in it, robbing them of valuable dollars precisely at a time when the district faces cuts across the board due to a looming $44 million budget deficit.

“I’d hate to see the district take dollars away from the high-performing kids,” said Judy Long, 64, a parent who has raised four HISD graduates. “We wouldn’t do this to athletes, but we’ll do it to our most gifted kids, like the best violinist. It’s crazy.”

Texas funds programs for 5 percent of students whom individual school districts identify as gifted and talented, said Long, who also serves on the district’s gifted committee. The HISD board of trustees created that committee and appointed about 18 members last year.

“The remainder of (the funding comes) from the HISD budget for kids identified over the 5 percent,” Long said.

Parents have clamored for improvements to the Houston schools' gifted and talented curriculum since administrators eliminated the top program for the district’s best and brightest in 2006.

Long said she believes HISD officials eliminated the "Tier 1" gifted and talented selection process and program five years ago to allow more minority students to access to top-notch academic and arts learning opportunities.

Though a noble cause, Long said that hurts those students who are truly a cut above the rest.

“Now that great violinist goes into a pool with lower (collective) talent,” Long said. “If we do something for the least-able students, we need to do something for those working at or above grade level.”

But she emphasized that the answer is not to take away minority students' access to gifted and talented opportunities or lower the percentage of pupils identified as gifted and talented. That would only eliminate necessary funding to students with high ability.

Instead, Long and other parents said HISD administrators should restore the Tier 1 program, which would create a curriculum for those who really stand apart from the rest of the pupil population.

But even under the current gifted program, Hispanic, African-American and low-income students are under-represented, Spencer said.

For instance, Asian students are six times more likely to qualify as gifted and talented in HISD as African-American students, Spencer said. Overall, 42 percent of all Asian students in HISD have been identified as gifted and talented, along with 40 percent of all white students.

But just 7 percent of the district's African-American students have been designated as gifted and talented.

Those numbers aren't at all in line with the overall demographics of HISD's student body, which is nearly two-thirds Hispanic and about one-quarter African-American.

The state's plan for gifted ed says a school district's gifted and talented population should be reflective of its total population, Spencer said.

HISD officials have addressed this issue in recent years by implementing universal gifted and talented testing for all kindergartners and fifth graders, Spencer said. And in high school, HISD officials provide rosters of gifted students' names to ensure identification is carried over from middle school, he said.

Organizing students according to their actual abilities is the most effective manner to teach kids, said Patrick Suppes, an emeritus professor at Stanford University who founded that school’s Education Program for Gifted Youth.

“It’s a mistake to get caught up in a single definition" of gifted and talented, Suppes said. “It’s a good idea to stratify.”

Spencer acknowledged that the district "has more work to do when it comes to properly identifying" gifted kids, and said an ad hoc committee comprising HISD principals recommended examining the current matrix to determine whether it needs refining.

If district administrators decide it does, any changes would be made in time for the 2013-14 academic year, he said.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.
 
Photo by flickr user sethstoll, used under a Creative Commons license. 

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Will Anna Eastman, Greg Meyers duke it out for Houston ISD school board presidency next year?
Tuesday, Dec 13, 2011, 10:27AM CST
By Mike Cronin
Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots

A battle for the presidency of the Houston school board appears to be looming.

Trustee Anna Eastman announced her desire to lead the Houston Independent School District governing body months ago.

“I am interested in serving as president (next) year,” Eastman told Texas Watchdog. If successful, she would replace current President Paula Harris.

But a faction of the nine trustees who oversee Texas’ largest school district – and the seventh-biggest in the nation, with a $1.6 billion budget and about 203,000 students – has asked Trustee Greg Meyers to run against her.

“I’m considering it,” said Meyers, who was first elected in 2004 and served as president last year. “We’ll see at this point. I haven’t made any determinations.”

Trustees are scheduled to vote for their next chief officer during the Jan. 12 monthly board meeting, said Suzanne Harrison, HISD’s board services manager. Trustees nominate candidates and the presidency is decided by majority vote. The board members follow the same process for each individual trustee officer position.

Meyers said he would run “only for the right reasons.” When asked for an example, he replied, “I can’t pinpoint one in particular. It’s something that has to come from within yourself.”

Yet he acknowledged that though “the board is moving in the right direction, there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Meyers did not reveal who requested that he oppose Eastman.

Instead, he emphasized that the board “frankly, is never about one person, and shouldn’t be.” If Meyers became president for the second time in three years, “there would be a delineation of what we’d want to do together as a unit, as a team to move forward in a collaborative way,” he said.

HISD board presidents serve for one year and may be elected for consecutive terms, according to district policy, but that is rare.

“In my experience, so far, the decision has been made through conversations with colleagues about why I'd like to serve and my personal leadership qualities,” said Eastman, who was first elected to the board in 2009. She served as assistant secretary last year and currently is second vice president.

Traditionally, “it has been viewed as a duty that rotated through trustees who were interested in serving,” Eastman said and several other board members interviewed for this story agreed.

In fact, it’s not abnormal for the first vice president to ascend to the presidency the following year.

But Trustee Manuel Rodriguez, who currently serves as first vice president and was board president in 2007, told Texas Watchdog he would not seek the board’s head seat next year.

To do so could continue what’s been months of controversy during Harris’ tenure.

She voted multiple times on district contracts with businesses run by a close friend. She also asked the district’s former procurement director to arrange a meeting with two vendors, records show.  

Harris did not return a phone call or an e-mail requesting comment for this story.

And Rodriguez has faced dozens of angry speakers during the last two monthly board members.

They’ve accused him of being a bigot, full of hatred, promoting discrimination and creating an environment ripe for bullying due to a campaign brochure he distributed days before last month’s election and which critics called homophobic.

In that flier, Rodriguez said voters should not choose his opponent, Ramiro Fonseca, at the polls because “(Fonseca’s) records show he spent years advocating for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender rights… not kids.”

Rodriguez apologized for the brochure the day after the election.


Trustee Mike Lunceford said selecting the board president “has never been a big deal. You don’t go up there and pontificate and promise a chicken in every pot or anything like that.”

It’s more administrative, Lunceford said. The president serves as the spokesperson for the board, has weekly meetings with the superintendent and sets the board agenda.

“It’s more a procedural position – everyone gets their shot,” he said. “You’re supposed to have equal power relative to the other board members.”

But as Lunceford himself pointed out in September, it doesn’t always work that way.

He and some other trustees said then they did not appreciate that Superintendent Terry Grier forwarded an e-mail to only Harris and Rodriguez.

“You should send it to everyone,” Lunceford said of the e-mail at the time. He is currently the school board’s assistant secretary this year. “There's no hierarchy on the board. We're all equal trustees. It's like (George Orwell's) 'Animal Farm' – no one's more equal than the others.”

In Orwell's 1945 work, a community of animals develop a system of seven commandments – the most important being, “All animals are equal.” But over time, those commandments become perverted until only one remains: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

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

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us onTwitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feedsin your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

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Young newcomers lead charge for Houston ISD ethics reform, but veterans -- like Larry Marshall -- say it's not needed
Friday, Dec 09, 2011, 02:24PM CST
By Mike Cronin
Sat Evening Post cover

In the Houston school board’s debate over a new ethics policy, it’s a case of young turks bent on ethics reform versus veterans who want no additional ethical rules placed on them.

At least, that’s how longtime Trustee Larry Marshall -- one of the veterans -- sees it.  

Marshall on Thursday night attacked fellow trustees Anna Eastman, Juliet Stipeche and Mike Lunceford, all of whom have spoken out in favor of ethics reform, as “the youngest, most inexperienced members” of the school board, who he said helped draft an ethics policy to address “assumptions that are these mythical situations that don't exist.”

His strenuous objections to the new language -- and his assertion that a new ethics policy is not needed at all -- led the school board to delay a vote on an already-weakened ethics policy revision last night.

The longest-tenured board member of the Houston Independent School District, first elected in 1997, Marshall is among the school board members who has been accused of unethical conduct. He’s been accused in civil court filings of accepting bribes and kickbacks from HISD contractors. He has not been charged with any crime.

But the retired school administrator says the accusations against him are false.

“This board has been ethical, and I am troubled why this stuff keeps coming up,” he said.

Marshall said last night he had never witnessed or heard of a trustee influencing a contract award with a vendor, negotiating a contract or pressuring a district official about a contract.

However, Marshall himself has admitted previously he set up a meeting between himself, Superintendent Terry Grier, district Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett and Dr. Kenneth Wells, a local doctor with whom Marshall had traveled to Costa Rica on a trip arranged by an HISD vendor. HISD then began the process of contracting with Wells to hire him as a consultant on health care issues.

HISD officials were about to award a $640,000 no-bid contract to Wells, despite not knowing precisely what Wells was going to do for the district.

Due in part to questions about the deal raised by Texas Watchdog, HISD officials have put the negotiations on hold.

“Marshall is calling the kettle black,” said Andy Chan, 46, a parent of two children who attend HISD schools. “There has to be a stronger ethics policy. I don’t believe there should be any sort of contact between board members and vendors.”

Chan, who lives in Lunceford’s HISD district, said trustees shouldn’t be able to influence contracts so their friends may obtain them.

“There should be multiple and blind bids,” Chan said. “The fact that cronyism continues to go on, whether it’s speculation or founded truth, you’ve got to wonder how Marshall and Harris get contracts done.”

But Marshall may have a point about the difference between his views and those of a younger generation: Eastman and Lunceford were first elected to the school board just two years ago; Stipeche was elected last year to fill a vacant seat and re-elected to a full four-year term last month. They are the three most recently minted HISD school board members.

Allied with the younger set is the school board’s most senior member, Trustee Carol Mims Galloway, who joined with Eastman Thursday night in voting against delaying the ethics policy decision. But Galloway, who first served on the Houston ISD board from 1991-98, is giving up her seat at the end of the year and retiring from a long career in public service.

Galloway sided with Lunceford, Eastman and Stipeche and implored Marshall “to just pass it.”

 

During her last-ever school board meeting, Galloway told Marshall that approving the policy would allow HISD to have something in place just in case.

 

“If it were to happen, then the administration has protection or maybe won’t feel intimidated,” she said. “Let’s just relax and pass the policy and move on.”


Six board members voted to table the ethics policy decision. Board President Paula Harris, who was elected to the board in 2007, was absent.

Harris also has been a controversial figure. She voted multiple times on district contracts with businesses run by a close friend. She also asked the district’s former procurement director to arrange a meeting with two vendors, records show.  

Lunceford reminded Marshall that Harris asked Lunceford and some of his colleagues to explore a new board ethics policy.

“We, as trustees, need to discuss it openly and publicly,” Lunceford said.

But Marshall described the efforts to revise the ethics policy as a “so-called committee that's become a monitoring system.”

In response to Marshall’s criticism of the policy language, Eastman said that the intent was to remove even the implication of pressure that the presence of a board member could bring to a meeting.

“One of the goals of this policy is to make sure that we, as trustees, would not bring in specific people that we had personal relationships with to meetings,” Eastman said.

The draft ethics policy board members had been scheduled to vote on last night already had no sanctions to enforce it.

And two changes made to it during the last week, which at least four trustees did not know about, further crippled its effectiveness.

School trustees met twice to write a new, stronger board ethics code.

But the revised policy presented to the board last night:
  • Dropped a proposed ban on trustees having direct communication "between district administration and current or potential vendors.” It would merely ban trustees from attending meetings with vendors and administrators; and,
  • Deleted a phrase stating board members must avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest “in the eyes of the general public.

UPDATE: This story was most recently updated at 5:30 p.m. Saturday to add additional comments from Carol Galloway.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.
 
Illustration: Father Time and the New Year's Baby, as drawn by artist J.C. Leyendecker for the Dec. 31, 1910 edition of the Saturday Evening Post

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