Tale of Two Districts: Analysis of the two cheapest trustee races in Houston ISD.

Houston ISD has nine trustees that represent nine separate geographic districts. These nine districts are different in so many ways. Among them, resources is certainly a major one. Resources in the community. Resources in their schools. And apparently, resources spent on school board races.

Of the nine districts, six have trustees up for election, and so far this year, campaign contributions to 19 candidates in those six elections have totaled almost $300,000. $294,127.37 through September 30th, to be exact.

But each of the districts don’t have the same kind of money flowing through their campaigns. 

District 5 (Cheben, Deigaard, DeRocha, Shafer) has raised the most overall: $67,555. However, District 7 (Luman, Sung) has raised the most money per candidate with $61,383 being split by just two candidates.

When you compare these six districts by campaign contributions, you see there are really two distinct kinds: expensive ones and cheap ones.

Districts 1, 5, 6 and 7 have garnered between $60,000 and $70,000 per race (so far) making up almost 90% of the campaign contributions districtwide while only representing about 65% of the candidates running.

On the other hand, Districts 3 and 9 have garnered a mere $36,272 total across seven candidates. And one of those candidates, incumbent Board President Wanda Adams, is responsible for two-thirds of that amount ($23,075) by herself. The other six candidates in those races have only raised about $2200 each on average.

In the District 3 race, which is a special election called to fill the two-year vacancy created by the passing of Trustee Manuel Rodriguez, we have four candidates (Lira, Perrett, Reyes, Rodriguez). Even though there are four candidates, District 3 has the lowest total amount of contributions in any district: $9,147. That’s about $2300 per candidate. Of course, the special election was only recently announced, and so theoretically these candidates have had less time to fundraise than others. But even when comparing these contributions to the contributions made to other campaigns in just the last two months, they are still shockingly low.

What does this mean? It means that in these districts, it is much easier to win favor and influence. It costs less money to be more important to a given trustee’s win or re-election. It means that it’s easier for influences outside the local communities (such as vendors or political groups) to get the attention and loyalty of the trustee.

So as we did in District 1 already here and here. Let’s take a look for notable contributions in Districts 3 and 9.

In District 3, we only found one notable contribution among all candidates, and that contribution was to Jesse Rodriguez. Arturo Chavez, an architect at Page which is a large architecture firm that does a significant amount of business with HISD, gave Mr. Rodriguez $1900. In the last year alone, Page has been paid over $750,000 by HISD. Mr. Chavez’s contribution to Rodriguez is just $100 less than the $2000 threshold at which board policy would require a trustee to recuse themselves from a vote due to conflict of interest. This $1900 is large but not huge relative to many donations across HISD. However, for District 3, it’s massive. This single $1900 donation represents 20% of all the money given to all candidates in the District 3 race so far. Certainly notable.

First, they were all disclosed as being received on the same day—October 9th, the last day of the reporting period. Second, there are only 11 contributions that total $23,075.  No other candidate has such a high average donation amount. And just 5 of those donations amount to over $20,000. $15,000 came from Houstonians for Great Public Schools and one of its major backers. $4,000 came from two major law firms that do business with HISD and $2500 came from the Realtor lobby. All of these donations represent significant interests outside of District 9—the high-stakes testing and charter schools lobby, HISD vendors and lower property tax lobby. To understand more about how these donations were shocking, watch this video that compares them with her own statements about ethics and campaign donations.

That wraps up analysis of Districts 3 and 9. Outside of the significant vendor contributions to Adams and Rodriguez, the most notable thing about these campaign finances is their size. A close watch on the 8-day and after election reports will be important to see what additional influences might capitalize on the opportunity these inexpensive races present.

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Donors, Vendors & Expectations: HISD District 1 Campaign Finance Analysis Continued...

In part two of our District 1 coverage, we have Monica Richart and Elizabeth Santos. (We covered the pro-testing, ed reform candidate, Gretchen Himsl, last week.)

Monica was first to announce her candidacy for District 1 back in the spring after a lengthy period of exploring support for a run over the prior year. Though Santos has received more endorsements, Richart received an early endorsement and campaign contribution from Texas Latina List. 

Texas Latina List is a Fort Worth-based political action committee focused on getting progressive Latina candidates into office in Texas. Its activity this year has been focused in DFW with only two endorsements outside of the Metroplex: one in San Antonio and Richart in Houston. All of Texas Latina List’s contributors this year are from the DFW area except one: Houston ISD board member Anne Sung.

Richart has two other institutional donors of significance disclosed so far. 

The first is Theron Strategies which is a newly formed company run by Adrian Garcia. Garcia is the former Harris County Sheriff who resigned to run for Mayor and then later ran and lost against Congressman Gene Green in the Democratic primary. In addition to Theron Strategies, Garcia recently formed Latino Democrat PAC which also endorsed Monica. No donations from this PAC have been registered yet.

The second institutional donation to the Richart campaign is from Perdue, Brandon, Fielder, Collins & Mott which is a large law firm and main competitor to Linebarger, Goggan Blair & Sampson. Linebarger has massive contracts with both Houston ISD and the City of Houston for collection of delinquent property taxes. Linebarger is a ubiquitous campaign contributor throughout the district, city and state and often subcontracts "services" to politically friendly firms such as Mayor Turner's law firm and Marc Campos (campaign consultant to other District 1 candidate, Gretchen Himsl).

Linebarger and Perdue are the two main firms that provide this property tax service in Texas. We’ve seen Perdue lawyers in attendance at Houston ISD board meetings recently, and trustee Manuel Rodriguez attempted to get the board to review and consider changes to Linebarger as its sole vendor when it was up for renewal this past year.

The final notable contribution on Monica Richart’s early campaign finance filing was a personal donation from Jason Spencer. Spencer and his wife live in Houston ISD District 2 and both held at various times the positions of Communications Chief and Chief of Staff under HISD’s last superintendent, Terry Grier. Both Spencers left HISD shortly after Richard Carranza began as superintendent. Jason Spencer now handles communications and government relations for Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzales. Helen Spencer is Chief Information Officer for the Harris County Department of Education which is a major partner and vendor for Houston ISD. In the last year, Houston ISD paid Harris County DOE over $3 million for various services.

During the first half of 2017 (the period for which campaign finance contributions are on record), Elizabeth Santos raised significantly more money than Monica Richart, approximately $11,000 versus a little under $6,000. Even while taking in twice as much money, we have found little to note in the contributions to Santos' campaign.

We consider campaign contributions notable when they are from people or institutions with vendor or political connections, as these contributions suggest potential influence in the future by someone seeking to do business with or seeking to influence the policy decisions of the school board. The size of a donation is notable to us when it's $1000 or more from someone other than family. So far, Elizabeth Santos has no contributions from anyone tied to a current or potential Houston ISD vendor, and she has only one non-family individual who has contributed $1000 or more, a parent in District 1 and a Santos campaign volunteer.

In the interest of transparency, we’ll write about one donation that has yet to be disclosed in public filings—ours.

After all of our research and after Elizabeth Santos made public commitments early on to refuse money from HISD vendors, we were compelled to donate and support such an independent campaign. We live in District 1 and have been disappointed in our representation these past few years. After attending almost every board meeting for the last three years, one thing is clear to us—there are significant influences on this board other than parents and students and the average voter. The HISD board has relaxed its campaign finance ethics standards, fired its independent auditor, spent millions of dollars defending a corrupt former trustee and fought endlessly with bond contractors who assert that HISD has a pay-to-play culture. We cannot sit by while trustees and their votes are clearly bought and sold to the highest bidder; we must seize the opportunity to support someone actively pushing back against that influence.

So, when new fundraising disclosures are filed next week, Ben & Sarah Becker will show up as a $1,000 contributor to the Elizabeth Santos campaign. Indeed, we hope that will register as a notable contribution.

This isn’t an accident. This isn’t unrelated to our research and the facts we’ve written about the other two candidates. Anyone can read the public campaign reports and find the same connections that we have found. On the contrary, our contribution is the direct result of what we’ve uncovered. If change in HISD ever had a chance, it will be when we can elect trustees that we can actually trust. And to that end, we’ve put our money where we think that trust lies—in Elizabeth Santos.

To conclude, here’s the District 1 candidates in their own words answering a question about whether they think taking money from HISD vendors is right or wrong. Spoiler alert: only one candidate commits to a higher standard.

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Donors, Endorsements and Ed Reform: Analysis of Gretchen Himsl, Candidate for HISD District 1

Now that we’ve all been able to hear the candidates’ positions on repeat at candidate forums these last few months, we thought we would kick off our campaign finance analysis. Understanding donors to trustees is important, because after the election is over, we need to know who will have access and influence with these trustees over the coming four years.

We’ll be publishing a list of notable donors for each campaign over the coming weeks and keep them updated as new finance reports are published.

Today, we start at the top of the list — District 1, Gretchen Himsl.

Already clear from her endorsement by Houstonians for Great Public Schools (Houston GPS), an organization which pushes to make testing outcomes the center of the school board’s focus and her work as an analyst at Children At Risk which is most widely known for its school rating system heavily based on STAAR scores, Gretchen Himsl is clearly the candidate most tied to the state’s accountability system. Her campaign logo even has a No. 2 pencil in it.

This pro-accountability position is confirmed with the endorsements and donations from the current HISD District 1 Trustee Anna Eastman and three other former HISD trustees: Paula Arnold, Catherine Mincberg, and Dianne Johnson. All of these trustees are pro-STAAR, pro-accountability trustees.

Paula Arnold and Catherine Mincberg were a part of the beginning of standards-based reform and decentralization in Houston ISD as chronicled in the book by Don McAdams: Fighting to Save Our Urban Schools-- and Winning!: Lessons from Houston.

To give context around the ongoing connection of former trustees Arnold and Mincberg to high-stakes, test-based education reform, take a look at Center for Reform of School Systems, an education governance consulting firm on which Paula Arnold serves as a board member along side the Godfather of No Child Left Behind, Rod Paige. Catherine Mincberg and Rod Paige serve as “faculty” at CRSS, and CRSS’s founder and chairman is Donald McAdams, a republican and former HISD trustee, who hired Rod Paige as superintendent and helped usher in the decentralization and high-stakes testing culture that HISD suffers from today.

Arnold and Mincberg are both donors to Gretchen’s campaign along with another education reformer, super conservative James Windham. Windham serves alongside Michael Williams and Rod Paige on the board of the group Texas Aspires, a staunch defender of STAAR and advocate for pro-charter, anti-teacher policies in state politics. Read Windham bash teachers, the NAACP and the rights of LGBTQ kids in his own words here.

Also, notable donations to Gretchen are lawyers from Bracewell LLP, a major Houston law firm that does business with Houston ISD, Sara Morgan, a democratic super donor and wife of oil magnate William Morgan, and Garnet Coleman, a State Representative to whom Gretchen’s husband once served as Chief of Staff.

Another interesting connection... Paula Arnold serves as Anne Sung’s campaign treasurer while Rod Paige (Arnold's colleague at CRSS) served as campaign treasurer for her opponent, John Luman, last year.

High-stakes test-based education reform is a small world.


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Election 2017

This election cycle is a big one for the Houston ISD Board of Education. There are nine, single-member trustee seats on the board, and trustees serve four-year-staggered terms. This means that, normally, every other year, four or five of the seats are up for election. This year will be different for a number of reasons.
In the past, there have been other races on the ballot with school board elections, namely city council. But, because Houston voters approved a change in city council terms in 2015, and since this is an off year for state and federal elections, there are only a few things to vote on during this election.
On November 7, the ballot will include just the HISD School Board elections, the HCC Trustee elections, and some state and local propositions. Turnout will be different than past years, probably lower--making every vote count even more than usual. 
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