Lisa Falkenberg, the Houston Chronicle’s metro columnist (who also happens to be the paper’s only Pulitzer Prize winner and, best of all, a Heights resident), wrote last week that parents, grandparents and business leaders need to wake up if they care anything about the future of Houston’s public schools.
“As we speak, a plan is being devised to reinvent the largest school district in the state in a way that would have been Mission Impossible a year ago,” she wrote.
If you haven’t read Falkenberg’s Jan. 27 column, you must. For that matter, you should read all of her columns – she’s the best in the city at spelling out important issues, and this is certainly one of them.
For our part, here at this measly weekly newspaper, we’ve spent the better part of two weeks trying to inform our readers about HISD’s plan, because the results could spell drastic changes to what many of you have worked so hard to build over the past decade.
Here’s the issue: HISD must cut some spending – again. Between the real-life impacts of Hurricane Harvey (and a projected decline in property tax revenue), to a $77.5 million recapture payment to the state, to a reduction in state education funds, HISD needs to cut about $200 million in expenses.
Two weeks ago, at an HISD board retreat, word trickled out that HISD planned to “decentralize” school-based budget decisions. In the same breath, the funding for magnet schools, along with funding for gifted and talented students (GT), will be decreased based on all sorts of formulas.
Again, those are just the talking points that have been leaked to the public, obviously in an effort to take the temperature of the tempest.
But that’s just part of the issue, and as Falkenberg discovered through her reporting, it sounds like the “decentralization” may have nothing to do with the budget shortfall anyway.
If you’re thoroughly confused, get in line.
First, you need to understand what “decentralization” means. Since the 1990s, when Rod Paige was superintendent of HISD, the administrators of our public schools have made the decision to give schools an allocation of money based on the student population. There are too many factors to name, but if a school has a higher number of GT students, or has a magnet designation, that school gets more money.
Richard Carranza, HISD’s superintendent since 2016, has floated the idea of taking money back from the local schools and making more equitable allocations across all schools, regardless of student census.
In our area of town, you can see how this might fluff some feathers. The reinvigoration of schools like Travis, Hogg, Frank Black, Durham, and even our high schools, has taken a long time. As one person told me, three elementary schools in the Heights area were closed because this once was a poor-performing educational area of town. These days, we take pride in our schools. Ask the folks at Durham, who went through the ringer to obtain International Baccalaureate designation.
So why is this happening? Well, funding is only part of the answer. A shortfall in HISD’s revenue is certainly one reason. But HISD also has 10 under-performing schools that are on the brink of state takeover. And not only that, but because HISD has not fixed these schools, the entire HISD Board of Trustees is under real threat of being neutered, for lack of a better word.
Yes, the Texas Education Agency has a person sitting at all board meetings these days monitoring how the board plans to fix its under-performing schools. And though no one knows the time or day, TEA could bring in a Board of Managers to take over the current board’s work. Eventually, TEA could just disband the board and call for a new election. If you don’t believe me, ask El Paso.
That means our current HISD board needs to do something, and quick. They need more money for the under-performing schools, because money solves everything, right?
Well, maybe that’s not exactly right. In the months leading up to a huge budgetary problem, HISD decided to take $100 million from its fund balance and give teacher pay raises, just before they were forced to slash $200 million from its expense budget.
One option the board has considered is handing these under-performing schools to a private company and making them charter schools. That isn’t set in stone, but it’s an idea.
You getting a feel for the mess here?
Right now, no one knows what HISD will do. By the time you read this column (at least in print), the board will have held an informational workshop to discuss solutions. In the meantime, let me offer mine.
First, our HISD Board of Trustees has a dysfunction problem. There’s not enough time to explain it, but when elected officials resort to screaming and race-baiting, it’s a bad look to our children and not an effective way to govern. Go watch a few episodes of a trustee meeting. In my opinion, maybe it is time for the state to come in, wipe the slate clean, and let us have another shot at finding some people who know how to better spend our increasing tax dollars and better care for the education of our children.
Second, HISD has a problem with 10 schools (there are five others that could be added to that list after this year). Are we going to change an entire system, made up of 283 schools, for the five percent that need to be fixed? Is that the reason for the considered overhaul?
And last, HISD has not shown itself worthy of managing more money. Having bureaucrats dictate what happens in every local school is bad governance, in my opinion.
Look, things are broken in HISD. If schools near the Beltway can’t get the same funding as a school on Harvard Street, then we need to consider serious changes to the way we distribute the money we do have.
I don’t know much about education, but what I know is we have more than 200,000 students in HISD and every single one of them is different. It seems careless to remove all control from local schools; it’s irresponsible not to find an equitable solution.