2018 may prove to be the most pivotal year in Houston ISD's history. If our city comes together like we did after Harvey, I know we can overcome the challenges before us. Read on to learn more - and then take action to strengthen education for our children in HISD.
As the HISD Board grapples with complex issues, I will seek to improve educational outcomes for all students and to strengthen HISD for the long term, and I will be honest with all constituents about the challenges we face.
Recapture and a Broken State School Finance System
HISD may owe $260 to $310 million in recapture to the State of Texas in 2018-19, meaning our local property taxes are used to prop up a state school finance system the Texas Supreme Court called "undeniably imperfect", with "shortfalls in both resource and performance". (Background reading on recapture here and on school finance history here.)
Last year the Texas Education Agency agreed to recognize local option homestead exemptions in calculating recapture, meaning that districts like HISD that offer the exemption to home owners owe the state a reduced recapture payment (for HISD, roughly $50 million). However, this decision has been challenged legally. The lawsuit is expected to be heard sometime this year, but hasn't yet been scheduled.
What you can do:
Contact members of the Texas Commission on School Finance. They will make recommendations to the state legislature by December 2018 for policy changes to the state school finance system. Urge them to update the state funding formula to reflect the true costs of educating low income students, English language learners, and students with disabilities. This will help both urban districts like HISD (with 80% low-income students and 30% English language learners) and poor rural districts that the recapture system was originally created to help.
Last fall, HISD rehabilitated and relocated schools in record time, reopening 284 campuses within a month of one of the largest natural disasters Houston has ever faced. While we negotiate with insurance companies, FEMA, and state and federal agencies for funds we need to rebuild and repair flooded schools, it is important to note this is a slow process. HISD is still receiving FEMA payments from Ike.
One way that TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has promised to help Harvey-affected districts is to calculate 2018 recapture payments based upon 2018 (post Harvey, thus lower) property values instead of 2017 (pre Harvey, thus higher) property taxes. He has not yet agreed to hold districts harmless for reductions in student population. This is important because families often move out of districts after a hurricane, seeking unflooded homes, and because the state calculates district income based upon the number of students.
What you can do:
Email TEA Commissioner Mike Morath (firstname.lastname@example.org) and ask him to fulfill his pledge to hold Harvey-affected districts harmless. Urge him to reduce recapture payments to reflect lower property wealth and to also hold districts harmless for reductions in enrollment.
HISD Budget Deficit
Factoring in the impact of recapture and Harvey, HISD administrators initially projected a $208 million deficit for the 2018-19 school year. Based on TEA's recognition of the homestead exemption and the Commissioner's promise to reduce recapture payments to reflect lower property values, the district is now budgeting for a reduced $115.6 million deficit. The district is mid-way through an 8-month process to identify priorities and to minimize harm to students and schools. This year's cuts follow on cuts the district made in 2011 during the great recession and further cuts made in 2016 when the district entered recapture. While a 5% cut this year will be far less harmful than a 10% cut, the brutal truth is that there is no way to completely shield our district from losing people and programs that provide important educational services to students.
One step the district is taking to streamline operations is to move to uniform start times for elementary, middle, and high schools for the 2018-19 school year. This will allow buses to be reused for multiple routes and should save the district several million dollars annually. To find more opportunities to increase our efficiency and effectiveness, I have asked the Superintendent to order a comprehensive performance audit of HISD.
What you can do:
Vote! Since devastating cuts to school finance in 2011, the state still has not restored funding to pre-2011 levels, even as the number of students has grown in Texas. Early voting has started for March primary elections. Find your polling location here. Vote for candidates who will commit to fixing our broken state school finance system. Information about candidates here.
Get informed! HISD will hold a board workshop on its budget on Thursday, March 22, at 11am. These are open for the public to observe. Email me to tell me what questions are important to you.
To Centralize or Decentralize?
HISD was one of the first districts in the country to decentralize in the 90s, pushing funding and decision making down to the campus level and empowering principals to make choices based upon the needs of their students and communities. (HERC analysis of decentralization here.) This system has been tweaked over the years, for instance with curriculum being (imperfectly) centralized to create greater consistency across the district. Unfortunately over the last ten years, while costs have risen, state funding for education has not kept pace, and the dollars available to principals per student (after teacher raises have been accounted for) has actually fallen in HISD. The district has also cut back on principal and budget manager training programs, which ensured that principals had the financial savvy to make responsible budget decisions. These changes have been especially tough on small schools and schools with high principal turnover, and across the district we see schools where librarians, nurses, and art teachers have been sacrificed for other priorities.
HISD's new Superintendent Richard Carranza, who joined the district in October 2016, has made recommendations to centralize many district functions, such as providing schools with substitutes and UIL athletics. He has also proposed to convert schools from a PUA (per unit allocation) funding model to an FTE (full time equivalent) staffing model. He says that this will create clearer standards across the district, allowing the Superintendent to reduce class sizes and to ensure each school has nurse, library, and counseling services.
As HISD reviews decisions and functions and weighs what should be centralized or decentralized, here are my priorities:
(1) We should update our system to ensure all schools and all children are winners. All schools big or small, elementary, middle, or high, should be able to meet the needs of the whole child and provide each child with a rich, high quality education. Our most vulnerable students - students with disabilities, English language learners, and low-income students - should be supported to succeed at every school.
(2) Principals should have the flexibility to tailor their schools to meet the needs of their students. HISD should create and clearly define a system for earned principal autonomy.
(3) We should be careful in the implementation of any plan, engaging stakeholders in designing the system, clearly delineating responsibilities, and emphasizing training and communication to continual improvement.
I have called for a board workshop on the relative merits of centralization and decentralization to be held no later than March 31. Our vote on this request has been postponed from February 26 to March 8, however a budget workshop has been scheduled for March 22.
What you can do:
HISD is a huge system, with a budget of over $2 billion. What should HISD be considering as we weigh reforming decentralization or shifting to a more centralized model? Help the board consider the right questions as we weigh what the district's theory of action should be. Suggest questions here and attend our board workshop on March 22, 11am.
House Bill 1842
House Bill 1842 is a behemoth of a bill passed in 2015. Most urgently for Houston, it requires that if any school currently designated by the TEA as “improvement required” for the fourth year or more, and that does not meet state standards by August of this year, then the state will either close the school or appoint a board of managers to run the school district. HISD has ten schools that could trip the HB 1842 trigger. Since I joined the HISD board a year ago, I have worked to give those schools the supports they need to help teachers teach and student learn. These school communities are working hard and showing great improvement, but many of these schools are still at risk of not "meeting standard," especially since state accountability standards are being redefined this year.
Here is what Superintendent Carranza said at the State of the Schools in February:
I will NOT allow for our schools in our historically underserved neighborhoods to be closed. An appointment of a board of managers, who by the way will most likely NOT live in our city and will NOT understand the unique needs of Houston and the urban core of poverty that exists here, is NOT the solution. Taking over our board and appointing a board of managers would affect ALL schools at HISD, not just those 10 who are improvement required and are at risk of being closed. We need to control the destiny of ALL of our schools, and particularly those that have struggled for far too long and that, frankly, WE have failed for far too long. That’s why we as a district have been exploring options for these campuses that could prevent their closure. Senate Bill 1882 gives us a few options. One allows us to partner with an outside organization like a nonprofit or a college or university. Another option is what I call a “restart” or “rebooting” of a campus. We essentially would end the 2017-2018 school year and restart the campus the coming school year with limited grades. We are still considering the options. We want our communities from those historically underserved schools to know this:
We hear YOUR VOICE.
We hear your PAIN.
We hear YOUR STRUGGLES.
We, too, share the same vision: Provide what’s best for these schools and the communities surrounding them. We want the community to CONTROL THE DESTINY of these schools, not the Texas Education Agency.
I could not have said it better.
What you can do:
Ask TEA Commissioner Mike Morath for a pause in accountability and sanctions. Our students and families not only missed weeks of school this year because of Harvey, they also are still recovering from the trauma of the experience. Here is a draft letter you can customize.