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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Our Children Deserve the Best

Education is the neutralizer. It does not change the thoughts of a racist, and it does not render one bulletproof. Education does not automatically afford a person privileges nor does it correct the wrongs that have been done in this country. Education applies an opposition to the force of oppression. Education is energy.

The power of education is no secret, and it is coveted.  This power is so magnificent that billionaires and corporations are trying to buy and sell it. When you control the information a population receives, you control the population. Period.

Before we take another dive into the intrinsic flaws of our school board; acknowledge the importance of your education or at least acknowledge the difference an education would have made in your life. Now, apply that feeling to the children you love the most. Throughout this piece, refer back to that feeling. In this fight for educational equity, refer back to our children because this is all about them.

On April 24, 2018, I walked into the school board meeting…

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How Long is Too Long?

How long is too long for any community to be neglected for as long as ours? And when I say “ours,” I mean “We The People.” We all have the same problems—some just worse than others. An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.

All taxing authorities and ELECTED officials should be held accountable for overtaxation without any representation. As I evaluate the conditions of my neighborhood, I still see un-driveable city streets, ditches filled with trash and water (some up to 10 ft deep), so-called “affordable” housing surrounded by drug houses, high concentrations of halfway housing, no sidewalks, no zoning, school closures, a high concentration of sex offenders, an increasing crime rate, with a steadily decreasing police presence. I think all areas should receive superior services from our local government and beyond, regardless of the economic, geographic, or demographic makeup of the community. Even though we continue to be neglected, some of us still don’t VOTE for our best interests and keep electing the same people.

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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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Why Your Vote on HISD Prop 1 Doesn’t Matter

Where did all that money go? I don’t know. And you don’t either. Your vote doesn’t matter, because whether HISD has more or less money next year won’t make a bit of difference to our kids as long as parents don’t pay attention to how that money gets used. And they have to pay attention longer than one or two months to know whether anyone is telling the truth or just saying the right buzz words to get us to all calm down and go home. Who cares about who’s recapture projections are right if no one is going to pay attention long enough to find out?
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Houston ISD: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

In the end, I pray 1) that our school leaders see that repeating the past will only produce more of what we already have, 2) that Houston ISD gets the opportunity to evolve from the soul-crushing metrics of raising standardized test scores by a few points and 3) that all HISD stakeholders become invested in delivering the holistic environment and enriched curriculum that maximizes the individual potential of each and every child.
We must think bigger. Our children deserve better. 
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