Friday, August 30, 2013

A Small Reprieve

August 14th I wrote about a challenge in our (very large) county, trying to prevent a Common Core-type infiltration through daycares. The week after that post, I attended the Harris County Department of Education meeting, and spoke, among several others, who addressed the HCDE board on this issue.

There’s a good summary of the meeting, if you’re interested, at Big Jolly Politics. I am the one referred to in the article this way: “I missed the name of one of the citizens, I apologize for that.” I’m apparently easy to miss, with a name that’s hard to hear. Nevertheless, I felt good about my short speech, and got approval from those near me after I sat down.
Earlier in the day was a workshop in which proponents of the program, called Early to Rise, were able to present more details about their program, and answer direct questions from the trustees. But there was no community input at the workshop. Big Jolly also summarized the workshop.
There’s good news. This past Monday, August 26, was the deadline for deciding what would appear on the November ballot. County Judge Ed Emmett decided not to accept the proposition for the ballot. HCDE didn’t have to make the decision, at least at this time, after all. Whew! Thank you, Judge Emmett.
It was not an easy position for Judge Emmett. He expected to be sued either way. He didn’t get an answer from the Attorney General on the legitimacy of an additional tax to be filtered through a more-or-less government entity to private entities. County Judge Vince Ryan had been in favor of putting the measure on the ballot and dealing with lawsuits from objectors. Emmett didn’t like that answer and hired a private attorney, whose advice he followed. I believe keeping it off the ballot was a better decision than putting it on possibly illegally, leaving the public at the mercy of someone willing to fight through the legal system after tax money is already spent. The proponents can always (and certainly will) look at alternative ways to seek what they want.
But it was never right to take tax money intended for improving school districts and give it, without oversight, to a private entity, for the purpose of training daycare providers (who have access to training in community colleges and many other places), entering homes and directing parents, and doing something indefinite about healthcare for very young children. Particularly disturbing—and the point over which the proposition was turned down—was making this an additional tax through HCDE. To review, HCDE gets 2/3 cent per $100 property value, and by law can never assess more than 1 cent. This new tax, a full additional 1 cent assessment, over and above everything HCDE already gets, would be a 150% increase, with all of the increase going only to a private entity for this one project. One would think that a public school entity such as HCDE would need more for actual public school child education than for something that isn’t even under the purview of public schools.
I wanted to share a couple of things from the meeting, mainly related to Rep. Debbie Riddle. She gave an analogy about the proposal, so we could see it in a new light. First she reminded us of how the money would be spent, which was not on actually doing childcare improvement: $400,000 on grant writing, $500,000 on evaluation services, $800,000 on best practices research, $12.6 Million for professional development and outdoor resources (I don’t know what that means, but that’s about half the annual amount), $750,000 for PR, $250,000 for tech support.
Now here’s her comparison (from my notes, so not an exact quote): “Suppose you come to me and say, ‘If you pay me $100, I’ll go out and find someone to mow your yard. And I’ll even consider letting you mow your own lawn, and I’ll pay you $25 to do it.’ That’s what this deal looks like.”
If there was a need for early childhood intervention (assuming, which I don’t, that HCDE should have its public school fingers in that arena), then why would HCDE need some outside entity to do it, rather than do their duty and find the solution themselves? This Early to Rise program was brought to them, placed on their agenda, and then attempted to be placed on the ballot, all prior to HCDE researching whether early childhood intervention needed any additional attention, let alone this huge influx of additional tax.
The trustees responded to the citizen testimony (particularly mine) by attempting to make it clear things were not settled, which seemed puzzling, because why would we have been encouraging them to turn down the proposal if we’d thought it was too late for public input? The chairman pointed out that she only learned of a proposed contract the Saturday morning previous to the meeting. The contract, which specified that if the voters approved the ballot proposition, all the money would be turned over to HCSRC, for ten years or more, indeed was made public that Saturday. But there have been discussions of the issue at least since June, so that was disingenuous. Also on the agenda was a private meeting with the lawyer the trustees hired specifically to deal with finding a way to work with the HCSRC, the nonprofit intending to manage the Early to Rise program. [The contract with the legal team was in evidence on page 453 of the full public agenda, dated August 2, 2013, well ahead of the Saturday of the public announcement of the proposal from HCSRC. It begins that the law firm in the contract “will represent Harris County Department of Education…in connection with the negotiation of an Early Childhood Services Agreement between the Department and the Harris County School Readiness Corporation.”]
So it is my suspicion that if there hadn’t been so much outcry against the program, the HCDE trustees might have moved ahead as though the taxpayers opinion mattered not at all. And we are relieved that Judge Emmett took it out of their hands, just in case.

I wanted to share this photo of Rep. Riddle, from the hallway outside the meeting. She was teaching this 9-year-old boy how to give a firm handshake. She also spent time telling us stories, and giving encouragement. I think she does that everywhere she goes. Rep. Riddle is the one who put forth the bill to get rid of the two remaining redundant county boards of education. It didn’t get out of committee this legislative session, but we can try again in a year and a half.
In the meantime, the moral or the story is: constant vigilance.

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