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HISD trustees approve legislative agenda for coming Austin session

November 9, 2018

Houston ISD’s Board of Trustees voted 7-2 Thursday to approve a series of potential actions they would like to see lawmakers pursue during the 2019 Legislative session.

Among their most sought-after goals: an overhaul of school finance, additional dollars for school safety and rewriting a law that could compel the state to take over control of the district next fall.

Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said the bulk of their requests boil down to one issue: more money.

“For all of these things we have here to advocate for our students, it’s going to cost money,” Skillern-Jones said. “And I have heard that our lawmakers want to re-appropriate current dollars - that’s just not sufficient. We need to increase the dollars.”

Topping their wish list are wholesale changes to the state’s school funding system, much of which has remained untouched for more than three decades. School districts across the state have clamored for changes to the largely reviled system, but new laws governing school finance have failed to pass since Texas’ Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the current system is lawful but in need of transformation.

Some school leaders blame the system, and a lack of state aid, for growing budget deficits. A Chronicle analysis found that seven of Houston’s 10 largest school districts passed budgets that included deficits of more than $1 million in the summer of 2017. At least nine say they may have to dip into reserve funds within the next three to five years if revenues do not increase.

Houston ISD is expected to trim $83 million from its budget and pull $18.6 million from its reserve funds this year. Budget officials said taking funds from its reserves was necessitated by the district’s recapture bill, which so-called property rich districts pay the state to help subsidize districts that have lower property values. The district could end up paying $272 million in recapture at the end of this school year, according to district estimates.

Trustees also raised concerns about campus safety and security, which is expected to be a focus of lawmakers in the wake of the Santa Fe High School shooting in May that left 10 dead and 13 injured. While the priority list asked for additional dollars so HISD could station a police officer at each of its campuses and add more security infrastructure to buildings, some trustees worried those changes could lead to an increase in student arrests for misbehavior.

Trustees Anne Sung and Sergio Lira expressed a need to strike a balance between securing schools and addressing students’ social and emotional needs. Sung expressed concerns about unintended consequences of increasing the district’s police force.

“If we move towards a campus police officer at every school, what training is included?” Sung said. “How do we make sure we’re not increasing the school-to-prison pipeline?”

Another priority approved Thursday was a major change to HB 1842, a state law that mandates the Texas Education Agency takeover any district where at least one school failed to meet the state’s academic standards for five or more years, or close the struggling campus.

Those sanctions nearly affected Houston ISD this year, before accountability ratings showed four long-struggling campuses improved their accountability ratings enough to meet the state’s academic standards. Several other campuses, which received accountability waivers due to Hurricane Harvey this year, could trigger the law unless their ratings improve when students take the STAAR test next spring.

Rather than using one campus as the threshold, trustees asked lawmakers to change the mark to any district where 10 percent or more of their schools were labeled as failing for multiple years.

That proposal worried Trustee Sue Deigaard, who ultimately voted against the priority list with Trustee Jolanda Jones.

“It’s not that I don’t have concerns over it, but I don’t think it sets us up to be successful to go to Austin and advocate for our district and students,” Deigaard said.

Trustees also approved the 2019-2020 academic calendar, which will see students return on Aug. 26, 2019, and finish up their school year on May 29, 2020. Students’ last day of classes before winter break will be Dec. 20, 2019 and they will return on Jan. 6, 2020. Spring break will last from March 16 through March 20, 2020, and schools will be closed the entire week of Thanksgiving.

Trustee Elizabeth Santos proposed moving a one-day fall holiday from Sept. 30 to Oct. 9 so it would coincide with the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Trustee Jones worried moving the date could show favoritism for one religion over others and questioned whether trustees would consider closing schools on the Islamic holiday of Eid.

Trustees ultimately voted 4 in favor, with four abstentions, to move the fall holiday. Seven trustees voted to approve the 2019-2020 calendar, while Trustees Wanda Adams and Skillern-Jones abstained.

shelby.webb@chron.com

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