It’s a safe bet that HISD board meetings and workshops have never gotten so much attention. First, HISD held a budget workshop on February 1 where HISD’s Chief Financial Officer Rene Barajas presented additional details of what Superintendent Richard Carranza called a “developmental” plan for the next year’s budget.
Immediately following, board members held an agenda review where HISD’s Chief Academic Officer, Grenita Lathan shared preliminary plans for the district to partner with outside organizations to improve some of HISD’s lowest performing schools.
Superintendent Richard Carranza again sounded support for the Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) budget model which is more centralized and reserves the bulk of funding for specific positions that all campuses are required to fill. The superintendent said that the weighted system, which refers to the Per Unit Allocation (PUA) model of funding, in which a school’s budget is derived from allocations of money attached to different student categorizations, works well with a well-funded system – but not for HISD in the present environment.
HISD’s Chief Financial Officer Rene Barajas said that in the initial exercise to come up with a zero deficit budget for the 2018-2019 school year, meaning HISD would cut 10 percent of its budget – or $208 million of a $2 billion budget in a worst case scenario – the cuts would potentially be split 56 percent from departments and 44 percent from schools. To make people understand the cuts from a PUA perspective, a slide of anonymous campuses were listed with their total decrease in funding, which would be a $403 cut per student.
“We’re almost there,” Superintendent Carranza said of the effort to finalize a new FTE system, noting that there are ongoing meetings with area principals to try to nail down a final draft that works for all. “[The FTE model] is still subject to creativity and innovation,” he said. “Within an austere budget environment, we want to make sure that every school has essential functions, essential personnel.”
Board member and former teacher Elizabeth Santos said that she was concerned about some aspects of the FTE model and gave the example that principals with higher numbers of special education students or higher percentages of students with discipline issues might need more counselors.
“We can’t have our community fall through the cracks one more time,” she said. “We need to meet principals where they’re at.”
Board members Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Diana Dávila asked why the FTE model was the only one that the district was looking at as opposed to also looking at adjustments in the PUA model. Vilaseca said that she is concerned that the FTE model looks at the school rather than the student.
“What’s the end goal in mind?” Dávila asked, saying that perhaps the real issue was not the PUA model itself but the oversight of it.
Superintendent Carranza reiterated that the end goal is equity, maintaining that with the current PUA system administrators don’t have sufficient resources to run a school. Earlier in the workshop, Carranza also said that all principals may not be equally equipped to make decisions in a PUA system, as 60 percent of them have less than 5 years’ experience.
“FTE will address those needs up front,” he told Dávila.
When Vilaseca questioned why so many changes were being made at once from a system and organizational perspective, putting “stress on a system that’s already stressed,” The superintendent said that what is being felt is the “weight of status quo” and that an FTE model would address essential questions about “what do you protect, what gets prioritized?”
Board member Sue Deigaard brought up a point that was the subject of a recent editorial in the Houston Chronicle. She cited verbiage from a board policy passed just last November, that stated “closing achievement gaps [requires] unequal resources for unequal needs.” The policy backed a decentralized approach where principals have control of their allocations. Deigaard advocated for another performance audit, stating that the last one was done 20 years ago, and suggested such an audit might find additional cost savings through efficiencies.
When Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones asked Board attorney David Thompson of Thompson and Horton to clarify what was the responsibility of the board and what was under the purview of the superintendent, Thompson stated that the superintendent would “develop a proposal within the policies that are adopted by the board.” He said that the policy sets parameters for the superintendent and that it is the board’s responsibility to approve the budget.
“So when you adopt the budget you will be able to hold the administration accountable, if you will, for the policy direction that the board has articulated,” he said.
Skillern-Jones, who has said that she is in favor of the FTE system, believes smaller schools would have to close with the cuts implemented within the PUA system.
“I don’t think any community deserves to have a school at the expense of someone else’s school,” she said.
Partnerships and closings
At the agenda review, a main topic was the plan for the 15 lowest performing HISD schools. According to HISD data, the 11,332 students in those schools represent a little over five percent of the total HISD student body. Nine of the 15 schools are predominantly African American, and four are largely Hispanic. Nine out of 10 students are classified as economically disadvantaged. A little over three percent are classified as Gifted & Talented.
House Bill 1842, which passed two sessions ago, mandated higher consequences for low performing schools, which could include closing the school, turning the school over to a board of managers, or turning the entire district over to a board of managers. The 2017 Senate Bill 1882 directs school districts to collaborate with charter schools to elevate failing schools.
HISD Chief Academic Officer Grenita Lathan said that partnerships were being explored for Dogan and Mading Elementary Schools, Henry Middle School, and Kashmere, Wheatley, Worthing, Madison and North Forest high schools. These partnerships with outside organizations would allow HISD teachers to remain in the schools and would not require any students to leave. A close and restart model was proposed for Blackshear, Highland Heights, Hillard and Wesley Elementary schools, as well as Woodson PK-8 and Cullen Middle School. In this model, HISD teachers would leave the schools and would many of the students, as the schools would reopen with just one grade – although Lathan said there was ongoing discussion with TEA about the particulars.
The Leader asked Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones about the timetable for district changes and she referred the query to HISD Chief Student Support Officer Mark Smith and Lathan. There was no answer by press time. However, Lathan said during the agenda review that applications for partner agreements were due to the TEA by April 30, pointing to an April vote by the board. Historically, the board votes on the budget the third Thursday of June. In past years, there has been a March board vote too on the School Resource Allocation Handbook, which provided information on decentralization and how schools are funded. It is unclear if that vote will take place.