The Other Story of Five Houston ISD Trustees That Conspired to Secretly Hire a Superintendent

"The more you listen to the five Houston School Board members who bypassed an open selection process to fill the superintendent’s post, the more you realize they fell into a common trap.

Yes, like far too many in positions of power, they convinced themselves that they’re different—that oversight and review, an open process, is only necessary for the bad guys. 

They convinced themselves they’re good people out to do only good so skipping the usual steps wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

“There has to be a recognition that what the trustees did ... [is] combining to do significant damage. A fight that has nothing to do with educating children is distracting from that task. And it is creating an unnecessary and harmful schism between the black and Hispanic communities."

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Houston Independent School District v. The State of Texas: We're all in this together now.

The bravery of the parents of Ruby Bridges and Sylvia Mendez and others are the reason the community was able to stand before Houston ISD trustees earlier this week and remind them that "separate is never equal” and demand they not take a step backward in the history of school equality. 

The testing-based school accountability movement got its start just after schools were forced by the courts to integrate, and that wasn’t an accident. The country somehow did just fine without “school accountability” when white kids went to school with only white kids. 

For decades, there has been a need to continually justify less investment in all public schools while bolstering the investment in just some schools—specialty schools, suburban schools, private schools. That justification needed a plausible basis other than race, and standardized testing—with its appearance of science and fact while behind the scenes only being correlated with race and class, not teaching—is just what that movement needed to get the job done.


So, now that the cases are laid out and the battle lines are drawn, who will fight against the movement that is hell-bent on destroying the right to a quality education for everyone?

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8 Reasons Why the Houston ISD Should Not Charter Its Schools

Ultimately, the move to charter these four schools represents the district abandoning its commitment to children. It is an admission by district leaders that they cannot teach the Black and Brown children in these high-poverty schools.

We should reject that idea. The voters of Houston ISD are capable of electing our own leaders who are able to govern our schools.

Democracy matters. Our voices at local school board meetings matter. The policy work we have done as a community over decades matters. Students of color and students living in extreme concentrations of poverty shouldn’t have to give up democracy in order for their schools to be receive adequate funding. 

Don’t be fooled. No true change in schools comes without community engagement, and sustainable, true change comes when people affected by the change lead the way. It doesn’t come from the top down, from a mandate by state government or the mayor’s political backroom. 

It comes from the bottom up. It comes from students, parents and the community. 

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What We Stand For

Privatization is a way to justify less government funding in public education. Privatization is a way to justify the new-era segregation of our schools with a legal separate-but-equal system. And privatization is a way to distract from the social justice questions of our day like the root causes of poverty, the need for universal healthcare and systemic discrimination in our criminal justice system, to name just a few
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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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Every Day Discrimination

Ultimately, if your family has the wrong combination of members or doesn’t conform to certain gender roles, you are excluded at these GOMM events. This exclusion is hard to reconcile in a public school setting, particularly one such as ours where our district and campus have committed to be free from discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, religion and other manner of diversity.
This example of exclusion and bias is not what we want for our kids.
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Remarks to HISD Board on School Improvement Plans

Will you approve plans that focus poor kids on tests and punishes the teachers that spend their days educating them while the HISD PR machine highlights the amazing things happening in a just a fraction of the district's “good” schools?
And when the TEA pushes you to do things you know aren’t right for kids — things you know furthers inequity in this district, will you fight? Will you put your the weight of your positions and some of the millions this board spends on lawyers each year into this battle?
I’ve read all 34 of the elementary school improvement plans. In 23,066 words, the word data is used 349 times. The word art is used just twice. The word music, not once.
The school chiefs know every principal and teacher that didn’t hit their goal on the last snapshot but can’t tell you if they’re complying with this district’s new mandate on physical education. These improvement plans and the measures of success you give these administrators matter.
Two questions: What are your values? And will you fight?
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Recapture: Just a bit more complicated than “vote no.”

If we let politicians oversimplify the problem to it being only about Houston keeping its money, we do Texas and its children a great disservice. If we advocate for keeping our taxes but ask someone else to come up with a solution for adequately funding the charter school students in our midst or the rural and suburban students far away, we dare the system to break down even further.
We must be really careful. Not only is the immediate cost of recapture to Houston on the line—the difference between $162 million and $192 million dollars this year, but so, too, is the battle to adequately fund public education in Texas. 
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