Some here already know I am running for HISD Board of Trustees Position VI. This post explains why I am running, and how the race is one with a realistic path to victory. Houston ISD is currently a failing district. A short list of the most pressing problems the district has is:
The district is under threat of Texas Education Agency takeover from both a sustained history of failure as well as a consequence for the walking quorum with the whole interim superintendent fiasco.
Taxes are at the maximum allowable level.
The district has run a budget deficit for the past five years.
The special education program is in conservatorship status.
60% of the students read below minimum competency level.
This isn’t an exhaustive list. That would be more than anyone can digest in a single setting.
This is an especially long post. A significant amount of the information here, in a less fleshed out form can be found on my campaign web page https://degeyterforhisd.com .
Stopping Critical Race Theory and 1619 Project is a Threshold Question
You probably noticed that Critical Race theory and the associated 1619 project were not listed as problems in the district. That’s because anyone who claims to be a republican should be opposed to these two issues. I am firmly opposed to CRT and 1619 project in public schools. However, the state legislature passed House Bill 3979 prohibiting teaching these issues in schools. Let me be clear – stopping critical race theory is a threshold question, not a ranking question. If someone doesn’t oppose critical race theory they shouldn’t be labeling themselves a conservative. This race is about what else does a candidate bring to the table.
Opposing Common Core
I’m the only candidate in the race that opposes common core. The IVoterGuide questionnaire lists the distinct difference between me and my opponents. (HISD district VI is about 80% down the page.) Common core is the source of the new math that students are being taught. This is number theory rather than arithmetic. However, common core isn’t just a problem with math. In the English and Language Arts section one of the areas to be taught is “global citizenship.” (See the link below.) Common core is just as much a threat to indoctrinate our children as critical race theory. I’m the only one in this race that’s opposed to common core.
Bringing Solutions to the Table
However, to be an effective board member a candidate cannot simply oppose bad ideas. A good candidate also brings solutions to the table. A good candidate has to be able to explain how they are going to be able to solve problems and leave everyone better off. This is where I am distinctly different than my opponents. I not only want to cut taxes, but have common since, actionable plans on how to actually cut taxes. I’m the only candidate with a plan to bring extra money into the district without involving taxes. I’m the only candidate with a plan to get the special needs program out of conservatorship status.
Budget Deficit & Tax Cuts
The M&O tax rate is at the highest allowable rate allowed by law. Not only does this raise red flags in the presence of sustained budget deficits, but this is bad public policy. What happens if there’s a significant shock to the local area that means the district needs a transient increase in revenue to account for the situation? We just experienced Hurricane Nicholas, and we got lucky. What if it was Alicia?
The risk isn’t so much the physical damage, but the change to attendance. When Rita and to a more pronounced measure Ike caused devastation back home many people simply didn’t return. They were able to find similar work where they evacuated and simply stayed. This caused a drop in attendance and in turn a drop in the revenue from the state.
The district budget is $2.2 billion, so the budget deficit, while problematic, isn’t a significant amount of the budget in terms of a percent of the budget. The problem is even easier to address than it seems at first glance since the deficit is reported as a combination of the M&O and I&S deficit. If we address each area separately the budget deficit can be addressed and tax cuts realized without inflicting pain on the district.
Voters approved a HISD bond back in 2012. Municipal bond rates have significantly dropped between 2012 and now (https://www.munibondadvisor.com/market.htm) which affords an opportunity for HISD to refinance the bonds to achieve cost savings. Additionally, refinancing the bonds via a new bond issuance gives the district to address the criticisms the outside audit identified with the last bond issuance.
The district has run a budget deficit for six budget years now, counting this budget cycle. The debt service has been in deficit for all six years. In the three most current budgets the debt service figures are as follows:
Year Interest Deficit
2019-20 139.2 MM 52.7 MM
2020-21 127.1 MM 48.1 MM
2021-22 122.7 MM 26.3 MM
The average municipal bond interest rate in 2012 was a tick under 3.75% and was 2.26% on September 30th. For simplicity’s sake let’s use 3.75 and 2.25 which is a 40% reduction in bond interest rate. Using this 40% reduction would have realized the following savings and deficit on the three most current budgets as follows:
Year Interest Deficit
2019-20 83.5 MM 3.0 MM surplus
2020-21 76.2 MM 2.8 MM surplus
2021-22 73.6 MM 22.8 MM surplus
This simple action changes the I&S portion of the budget from deficit to surplus, without extending the life of the bonds. I’m simply talking about refinancing the bonds at the new lower current rates.
This is more important than it seems at first glance. In her interview with Off the Kuff trustee Deigaard indicated a belief that it was time to start considering new bonds. Trustee Guidry went one step farther and indicated support for a new bond. With two votes already present for a new bond we are well on the way to having another bond issue being formulated. Refinancing the current bonds gives options to explore without issuing a new bond.
The M&O deficit can also be addressed without causing pain to the district. While the 2021-2022 budget was in horrible deficit to the tune of 105 million, the two budgets prior were 20 million and 19 million M&O deficit. This can be addressed by starting with a zero based budget – every department must justify a budget rather than starting from last year’s budget. Additionally, addressing the special education issues will increase district funding (more on this later.) The combination of zero based budgets as well as increasing income to the district from appropriately addressing the special education services will bring the M&O into surplus status. Once surplus has been achieved tax cuts need to follow.
Special Education Conservatorship
The special education program is in conservatorship status. This is especially important in this race because the incumbent is on the special education committee and cites that as one of the reasons why she should be reelected. The program is not in good shape, and the sad part is the problems are correctable with a little bit of planning and forethought.
The Texas Education Code Chapter 48.102 grants multipliers to funding for educating the special education population. The district is already in conservatorship status for not appropriately identifying students who are in need of special education services. Appropriately identifying and assisting the students brings extra income into the district while addressing the conservatorship issues. It helps both the district and the student.
The special education population also presents a second way to both better serve the students as well as improve the district’s finances. The district is required to provide services to the special education population through their IEP. The district needs to switch to a Medicaid fee for service model in order to charge Medicaid for services they give to the special education population. The School Health and Related Services program allows school districts to charge Medicaid for services given to special education students via their IEP. The district has approximately 200,000 students and a 7% special education population. That’s around 15,000 students. That’s a significant amount of money being left on the table.
Not every student is receiving Medicaid. However, some of these students are simply from a lack of utilizing the programs available, namely the Medicaid Buy In for Children program. Texas has favorable laws for disabled children. If the family income is all earned income a disabled child is Medicaid eligible if the family income is up to 300% of the poverty line. This is an area my nonprofit deals with. It’s something that is very simple to process and I already have contacts in HHSC to deal with a potential influx of applications. This also can be done a minimal to no cost for the district since HHSC has programs to pay for the screening for Medicaid eligibility. This is simply a matter of political will to take advantage of the programs that will help both the students as well as the district.
Outside of the financial benefit to the district from appropriately identifying and serving the special needs community taking common sense steps to address special education needs helps get the district out of conservatorship status. Covid has caused student decline, and the district needs to be proactive with makeup services. This is where getting students back on campus and the fee for service model comes into play. Having the students on campus makes makeup services administered in a more efficient manner. The makeup services also creates extra income in the fee for service model which funds the makeup services. This is a simple, common sense action that can be taken to bring HISD to the fore in planning and administering makeup services.
The second area of concern is the identification of eligible students. Again, the tools are already in place to assess if students need assistance. As a simple screening threshold measure look for areas of poor performance on standardized testing that is administered. Not global poor functioning, though, but look for students who have an area of deficiency in one area relative to the other areas tested. This is a screening measure that piggybacks on preexisting requirements. Identifying students who have relative areas of weakness on standardized testing is a minimal cost method of identifying students who need help and addresses some of the concerns that landed the district in conservatorship status.
Gifted and Talented
Special education isn’t just the special needs population. The gifted and talented students also receive a multiplier. HISD needs to make sure that these students stay in the HISD system. This last session the state legislature changed the law to allow community colleges to offer four year programs. This creates an opportunity for HISD and Houston Community College to collaborate to help the gifted and talented students. HCC already has an established dual credit program where students take college level courses while attending high school. HISD needs to actively reach out and partner with HCC to expand the program offerings. The students are already present and the instruction cost is already incurred by HISD. Expanding the dual credit offering will bring some cost sharing by HCC helping the instruction costs. HCC benefits by having more students in the HCC system so they are more likely to continue on as a HCC student after they finish with HISD. This not only helps the gifted and talented students but will help to reduce class sizes allowing for more student-teacher interaction in the classes that are not dual credit helping raise the educational performance of all students.
Create a Culture Change
HISD has a sustained history of academic underperformance. Over 50 campuses are D or F rates, and that is unacceptably high. A culture change is necessary to correct course. Creating a culture change involves two distinct areas – stop pitting groups against each other, and create campus pride. Taking these two steps sets the district on a path of achievement rather than the path of division we currently experience.
Stop Pitting Groups Against Each Other
The current board has two mechanisms where groups of students are pitted against each other. One is the fighting that occurs with the black-brown divide, and the other is the stated goal of close the achievement gap.
Both of these are vehicles that pit students against each other. The black-brown divide is addressed by simply using objective data to distribute resources. Need knows on color, gender, creed or ideology. HISD needs to stop using race as a factor in decision making. The district already compiles significant reports regarding academic performance. Based on these reports we know that 60% of the students are not reading at STAR mastery levels, and we know which campuses these students are located. We need to use this objective data to guide resource distribution.
When I was an adjunct professor at Lamar University the disparity in public school education students had received was readily apparent. It’s important all students have equality in opportunity, but equality in outcome is never going to be achieved. Students have different potential, and that leads to different outcomes. We want all students in the district to achieve academic success so we need to change the goal from close the achievement gap to maximize student potential. The achievement gap not only pits students against each other, but it also reinforces the academic struggles to the groups who need more help. Changing the culture to maximize student potential looks at the individual student as the vehicle for improvement. The student is no longer compared against their peers; now they are compared to themselves. This changes the focus from other to personal responsibility. Continuous improvement adds up over time, and this affirming prism for improvement raises all boats.
Create Campus Pride
Stopping the pitting of groups against each other is only the first step. Once we have stopped pitting groups against each other we need to control the values that are instilled in place of the current values. Clarity of though, integrity in action, personal responsibility, and pride in accomplishment are all worthy goals that the district can focus on in order to instill a new culture on the campuses. One way to do this is to have intra campus and intra district competition to develop student skills and confidence.
My plan envisions creating a competition structure in the district that is similar to the UIL academic competition that already occurs. By creating an intradistrict structure paralleling the UIL competition the cost to implement are minimal. The competition sponsors are already in place. This opens up participation to a wider segment of the student body. Plus, this directly improves academic performance at the campuses. If a student is learning math they have learned math. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the classroom or as a function of the calculator or number theory team. The student develops skills and sees improvement and that builds student confidence. Plus, this is something that the district could seek partnerships in the community to provide for scholarships for the district wide competition winners for scholarships to Houston Community College incentivizing student participation and helping HCC without increasing costs to the district.
Path to Victory
The race is one that a conservative candidate can win. The incumbent won election last time with a tick over 3,000 votes. In 2017, when she won, a tick under 3,000 voters with strong or moderate republican voting history voted in the election. A sustained voter turnout effort is important to creating a runoff, or possibly winning the election outright.
Outside of the favorable underlying voting history I am a challenger that is well positioned to take advantage of the weakness in the current incumbent. She is on the special education committee, and that’s one area that is not performing well, but an area that’s my breadbasket. I literally practice this area of law and understand the ins and outs of how to achieve success in this area. Add to that my personal experience with Kenshin and his health issues and being involved in the system and I have a depth of experience, both personal and professional, to be able to guide for change from day one.
The incumbent is also on the audit committee, and I have common sense, actionable, plans on how to solve the budget crisis and cut taxes at the same time. Nothing I have presented here is difficult to achieve. It’s simply a matter of seeing opportunities for efficiency and acting on the opportunities. The proposals here are so simple and straight forward it begs the question why hasn’t the board already taken these steps?
The answer is simple, they have been too busy with walking quorums and politically motivated goals to take a step back and remember they are trustees who are supposed to be taking steps that leads to student improvement. The board fighting and politics have brought the district to the mess the children are currently suffering, and it takes an outsider who knows how to solve the specific problems to bring change to the district.
More Information and Endorsements
This common sense approach has earned me the endorsement of Commissioner Tom Ramsey, Constable Ted Heap, Harris County Department of Education Trustee Eric Dick, and local business owners. A list of the endorsements can be found on my web page.
Web page: https://degeyterforhisd.com
Email: [email protected]