By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org
HOUSTON — The Harris County Department of Education is the asexual platypus of government entities.
That name sounds as if it belongs to a government agency, but it’s really a fictitious business name for the County School Trustees of Harris County, which is like a school board, except that it oversees no public schools and is responsible for no students, and things have been that way for 50 years.
What this thing can do is tax.
It taxes the people of Houston and surrounding communities some $18 million a year. By law, it’s supposed to distribute that money to the independent school districts in the area, but doesn’t. That’s just one of many reasons to close the thing down, but it was one of the few reasons to get much interest Tuesday night from members of the Public Education Committee of the state House, who were considering a bill by Rep. Debbie Riddle to dissolve it and transfer its few functions to the appropriate agencies, redirecting its taxes directly to school districts.
“It’ll take about a year to unwind this spiderweb of bureaucracy,” Riddle said Tuesday.
When Texas went to a system of local independent school districts in the 1960s, 252 of the 254 county school boards were closed. Two lived on. The Dallas board, which became known as Dallas County Schools, focused on regional school bus services. The Harris County board had grander plans. That the board managed to survive at all was a matter of good timing. The federal Elementary and Secondary Act of 1964 created a host of new programs, from adult education to Neighborhood Youth Corps. The board dove into Head Start, adult education and after school programs — anything for which it could get a grant. These are still the board’s main programs. In 2012, the entity oversaw $15 million for Head Start, $8.7 million for after-school programs, and $4.5 million for adult education, most of it federal money. HCDE is still involved with the schools it once oversaw, albeit in a limited way. It has contracts to teach 235 students who have been expelled from their districts, plus 129 handicapped students, according to figures cited by school trustee Debra Kerner.
In recent years, the board has ventured far from its origins, turning into more of a business-services provider. One of its multi-million dollar ventures offers “a wide range of facility-related services, including construction, energy conservation and management, furnishings, fixtures, and equipment (FFE), disaster recovery, and building exteriors and grounds.” Now it’s into online education and cloud computing. HCDE has contracts with 705 school boards around the state, and hundreds more agencies outside the state, according to Riddle. All of these ventures are supported by Houston-area taxpayers, who get stuck with the tax bill if anything goes wrong.
Rep. Harold V. Dutton, Jr. asked school trustee Marvin Morris whether HCDE was “allowed to do anything you want to do.”
“So you can build anything, you can build a Walmart?” he asked. “Do you have any limits to that?”
“I don’t have any knowledge of that,” Morris answered.
None of HCDE’s big programs are authorized by statute. It has no mission and no obvious purpose. It raises the two questions you’d ask about an asexual platypus – what is it and why doesn’t it die off?
You could ask HCDE, but the board can’t even figure out how to describe itself. Here are just a few of its self-descriptions — the credit for these and many other facts in this article goes to a retired teacher named Colleen Vera, who has dug up and published a remarkable trove of HCDE records over the past three years.
At times, HCDE says it is “like a school district.” Sometimes it’s a “political subdivision of the State of Texas,” that contracts with Harris County while other times it’s actually a “county governing body.” It’s also a “primary governmental unit and is not included in any other governmental ‘reporting entity,’” except when it’s a “charitable organization.” Sometimes, it splits the difference and becomes a “Tax-Assisted Non-Profit,” before reverting back to a “local governmental entity.”
And none of those names capture the fact this entity operates more like a business, but one with the taxation power to recover from any missteps. Last year it sought a tax increase to raise $1 million in capital for a business selling server space to public schools. More than half of its money comes from fees for service and grants, at least to appearances. In 2012, it got $58 million from fees for services, grants and contributions. It competes to provide those services with the Texas System of Educational Service Centers, another governmental body that fills the role elsewhere in the state.
In 2012 it collected $18.2 million in property taxes. Under state law, the board is supposed to deduct the cost of the superintendent’s salary and office, and distribute the rest “to the common and independent school districts of the county on the basis of the average daily attendance for the prior year.”
Yet it keeps all of the money. That got Rep. Joe Deshotel’s attention. He had to ask Kerner three different times to explain why that money didn’t get distributed.
“I can’t answer that question,” Kerner said finally.
Allen Vera, Colleen’s husband, hammered that point.
“You’re supposed to collect the tax and distribute it. No maybes, ifs, and or buts,” he said. “Yet nobody has received any money.”
The bill’s reception by the committee was generally cool, although it may have been because the committee hearing was going into its 13th hour. Two Democrats — Dutton and Deshotel — were clearly concerned and asked sharp questions, while Rep. Alma Allen, who once worked for the HCDE, is still in its corner.
To the extent the Republicans spoke up, they asked mainly about who would provide the services if the HCDE were shut down. A few were so obviously wedded to the status quo they struggled to imagine that any other agency could provide adult education, or special programs for the kids who’ve been expelled. Throughout the rest of the state, regional and supplemental services are provided by the Texas System of Educational Service Centers, which also has an office in Houston.
Few paid much attention to the quality of those services, despite moving testimony by a mother named Ruth Mason. She said it took the department 19 months to evaluate her son for special education. The evaluator pretended to have spent four days with her son, when it turned out to be two hours, she said. The evaluator’s report was copied from another report done years earlier, she said.
“It’s just one more layer of bureaucracy that parents have to go through,” Mason said.
Dutton picked up on another problem that didn’t get any attention during testimony – a performance audit from 2010 that ripped into HCDE’s programs for special ed and at-risk children. The audit found low satisfaction rate, no “evidence of key indicators for measuring student outcomes or program effectiveness,” a curriculum out of alignment with state standards and more.
“Some of the findings are alarming,” Dutton said.
One of those findings was that over a two-month period, 34 percent of all Internet use was for social networking sites. It worked out to 40 page views per employee per day.
Over the years, the Legislature has done the board’s bidding on several occasions, even saving the agency the one time voters nearly shut it down. This was in 1980, when the board’s shenanigans in gaming the elections for its own seats brought a federal crackdown and consent decree. The notoriety was enough for three libertarians promising to shutter the agency to win seats on the seven-member board. When a fourth appeared likely to join them, the Legislature rewrote state law to make this school board and no other subject to the party primary system, spelling doom for the libertarians.
The shenanigans continue, with a four-member majority of the board – Angie Chesnut, Roy Morales, Jim Henley and Debra Kerner – trying to kick a political opponent off the board despite the obvious fact that it’s an elected position. They spent taxpayer money fighting it all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, where they lost unanimously.
For the children, of course.
Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.