I have filed my application for the Humble ISD school board seat vacated by Heath Rushing after the election. I dropped it off at the chief legal counsel’s office yesterday and had it notarized. My thanks to all the people who urged me to throw my hat in the ring for this position and who are supporting me. Now we wait for the board to take its next steps.
Check out the just-released 2017 Humble ISD Facilities Assessment. This will become the basis for any future bond referendum. PBK created this 518-page document; it was 19 months in the making. See what they recommend for your school and elsewhere in the District.
Read with Priorities in Mind
If you read the report closely, you will see that everything is assigned a priority. Level One is the highest priority. Level One items are mission critical. They include, for instance, safety related items. Then you have Levels 2, 3 and 4 with several subdivisions within those.
Projected Costs for Future Bonds
During the presentation at this week’s board meeting on Tuesday night, PBK demonstrated an interactive spreadsheet which they were delivering with the report. It enabled people to play “what if” by clicking on rows and columns to select or deselect them. All totals were recalculated in real time.
The strange thing about the presentation, though, was that the PBK presenter said (literally) 12 different times “if the Board chooses to have a bond referendum…” Obviously, there are some sensitivities on that issue; I made it an issue during the election.
Timing for Bond Referendum
The earliest window for a bond referendum would be next May. The next window would be November, 2018. Notice the inflation rate (8% annually) built into all the cost projections. The last time we saw inflation like that was after the OPEC oil embargoes in the late 1970s. It’s possible that they’re projecting that much inflation as a cushion or safety factor. It’s also possible that they’re projecting that much inflation to add a sense of urgency to the construction (which benefits PBK).
Gobstruck by Costs
I am just gobstruck by some of these costs…more than a billion dollars for major projects plus priority one and two items…$9 million to renovate Turner stadium which was just renovated…$50 million for a natatorium to hold a swim meet. On the face of it, this is a retirement plan for every contractor within 50 miles! But we should keep in mind that this is also a wish list to be debated.
We should also keep in mind three other things. First, some of these costs are alternatives to each other. Do you want to pay, for instance, increased repair costs or just replace an aging facility. Second, documents like this typically throw bones to everyone to get them to vote for new bonds. Then, as we’ve seen before, somehow a lot of the projects are forgotten as time goes by. Third, NONE of these items includes interest on bonds. During the life of the bond, that could double or triple the costs you see in this study.
Shaping Expectations for a Bond Referendum
One of the national trends in bond elections is to narrow their scope. Instead of creating billion-dollar construction funds to cover every potential item under the sun (and then not doing half of them), many districts are issuing bonds for the construction of individual projects. That way people know exactly what they’re voting for. It takes some flexibility away from administrators, but also increases accountability and demands more transparency.
Gallup has surveyed nearly 5 million students from thousands of schools in the U.S. and Canada each year since 2009. The latest findings of their annual survey released today show a steep drop in student engagement that begins in middle school and lasts through high school.
Gallup measured engagement on nine items:
- At this school, I get to do what I do best every day.
- My teachers make me feel my schoolwork is important.
- I feel safe in this school.
- I have fun at school.
- I have a best friend at school.
- In the last seven days, someone has told me I have done good work at school.
- In the last seven days, I have learned something interesting at school.
- The adults at my school care about me.
- I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future.
Rankings on every single item declined so precipitously between the fifth and eleventh grades that Gallup characterized the drop-off as a “cliff.”
Gallup also suggested six ways to keep kids excited about school.
From State Representative Dan Huberty’s newsletter, I gleaned these highlights from the last legislative session.
Relating to public school accountability
“Last week, the House finally passed House Bill (HB) 22, which makes changes to the public school accountability system. Chairman Huberty worked hard with all interested parties to craft this legislation and is proud of the final product approved by both chambers and now headed to Governor Abbott for his approval.
Under the conference committee report, districts will be evaluated using the state A-F system, which will have three domains:
- Student Achievement
- Student Progress
- Closing the Gap
The Student Achievement domain measures student performance and includes:
- STAAR results
- Graduation rates (HS)
- SAT/ACT/TSIA, AP/IB, Dual Credit (HS)
- Industry Certifications (HS)
- Military Enlistment (HS)
- Postsecondary readiness metrics (HS)
- Associates Degrees (HS)
- OnRamps courses (HS).
The School Progress domain:
- Counts students who grow from one year to the next on the STAAR, even if they fail the assessment
- Requires that even top-achieving students are credited for growth if they maintain performance
- Rewards schools for doing well relative to campuses with similar student demographics.
The Closing the Gap domain:
- Highlights student performance based upon indicators such as race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status
- Special education status, and limited English proficiency
- Requires the performance of former special education students to be tracked
The state system will go into effect (and districts will receive their first ratings under the system) in August 2018. Campuses will either by evaluated under the default state system, or, if the district chooses, under a local accountability system developed by the district.
A locally developed accountability system:
- Must meet minimum standards set by the Commissioner
- Must use the 3 domains included in the state system
- Can incorporate new domains based on local data and district decision
- Will require districts to assign an overall A-F grade to each campus based on the 3 state domains plus any locally chosen domains, with the 3 state domains together equaling at least 50% of the total weight
- Must be approved by a peer review committee of primarily superintendents & board members from other districts who already operate an approved local system.
The first campus ratings under this system will be released in August 2019, with a model run report by TEA due to the legislature in January 2019.
Compared to the version of the bill passed by the House, the conference committee report retains the following:
- Reduces 5 domains to 3 domains
- STAAR scores account for less than 50% of accountability metrics for high schools, and could be reduced further if extracurricular indicators are found to be feasible
- Differentiates interventions between D & F ratings
- Delays implementation for campuses, with a model run in January 2019
- Removes the use of attendance as a metric.
The conference committee report also includes the following:
- Provides progressive district and state level interventions for campuses that receive “D” ratings
- Provides an overall rating for campuses and districts, in addition to separate domain ratings
- Requires TEA to build out the ability to track extra-curricular participation for possible use in the accountability system by 2022.”
Re: Public Education Funding
- “Maintains full funding of enrollment growth.
- Additional $75 million for districts experiencing rapid property value decreases (overlaps with ASATR districts)
- Maintains $47.5 million for the New Instructional Facilities Allotment
- Provides $25 million for E-Rate, which will bring high-speed broadband to public schools; an additional $1m is provided to public libraries for this same purpose.
- $1.6 billion in prekindergarten funding, with $236 million going to districts implementing high-quality pre-K
- TRS-Care – two-year solvency fix paid for with changes in HB 3976 and $350m payment.”
As I was saying…
Check out this Wall Street Journal story about the city-wide push for early reading intervention in New York and the ambitious goal they have set. It’s told through the eyes of one young student and illustrates how lack of reading skills can hamper learning in other subject areas.
During the long, brutal school board campaign, I had no time to partake in one of favorite pastimes – photographing birds in action. Each year for the last 15 years, I have tried to visit the Audubon Society’s Smith Oaks Sanctuary at High Island at least once a week from mid-March to mid-June. Yesterday, I went there for the first time this year and spent three glorious hours in the afternoon with my Nikon and thousands of waterfowl at various stages of life.
In the rookery, you can see what is easily the most spectacular display of nature in the Houston area. Thousands of herons, egrets, spoonbills, cormorants and other waterbirds gather each year to pair, mate, and raise their young. Within three months, they are usually ready to venture off on their own and repeat this cycle of life again the next year.
Beginning in March, birds congregate there and begin their courtship displays. The male does his part by building the foundation of a nest with giant sticks. Once a male and female pair up, the male gathers smaller sticks that the female weaves into a nest. By early April, the mating has started and the females are laying eggs. The male and female then take turns guarding the nest while the other forages for food. By mid-April, chicks are hatching out. The parents then need to step up their fishing to feed the hungry young. Back at the nest, the adults regurgitate their fish straight into the mouths of the young. The young grow quickly.
By early to mid-May, they are fighting for food and climbing to high limbs to strengthen their wings. By late May, they are taking short flights near their nests from limb to limb. In June, they attain the size and strength to fend for themselves. One day, they fly off and leave the nest, not to return again until the following year. Then, as adolescents, they watch and learn from the adults in the rookery. It’s home schooling at it’s finest. All without vouchers or school choice.
But woe be to any bird that fails a test. Nature shows little mercy.
Texas law allows governmental bodies to debate certain types of issues in closed session. For example, legal matters, real estate purchases, and personnel issues may all be discussed in closed or executive sessions. I found this Handbook on the Open Meetings Act that spells out in greater detail what may and may not be discussed outside of public view.
Chapter Eight details guidelines for Open Sessions and begins on Page 40 (or page 45 within the PDF).
Chapter Nine details guidelines for Closed Sessions and begins on Page 45 (or page 50 within PDF).
Download the Texas Attorney General’s OMA_handbook_2016 for future reference.
It appears to me that business items involving the expenditure of money should be discussed in open session. Even when a business item, such as a construction contract, is discussed in a closed session, a Board may not even take a straw vote. See line 1 on page 44, “…a governmental body should not take a “straw vote” or otherwise attempt to count votes in an executive session.”
Read the handbook and form your own opinions.
So … the Humble ISD school board called a special meeting this stormy Monday morning at 7:30 a.m. Purpose: to “discuss” the results of the recent school board election.
The timing of the meeting (during the morning rush hour on the busiest day of the week) raised my antenna. I figured this meeting would be a formality to certify the election results; but it appeared that somebody really didn’t want an audience there. Therefore, I figured I should attend. Here’s what happened.
Three members of the public braved a blinding thunderstorm and showed up with some questions (Mia Hoyt, Patti Pinkley and I). We actually outnumbered the school board members there (Nancy Morrison and Keith Lapeze), which they say constituted a quorum for purposes of this meeting “by state law,” although they didn’t cite which law. Not one of the other board members recently up for election or re-election was present.
The meeting notice posted last Thursday evening said, “The subjects to be discussed [emphasis added] or considered or upon which any formal action might be taken are as follows: CANVASS RESULTS OF THE REGULAR BOARD OF TRUSTEE ELECTION HELD ON MAY 6, 2017. This Notice is given pursuant to Section 551.001 et. seq. of the Government Code.” Note: that law refers to open meetings, not certification of elections.
At about 7:40 a.m., Mr. Lapeze walked in, sat down, and started talking in a voice that was barely audible from where the audience sat. There was some chit chat with the legal counsel present which I could not make out. Then Mr. Lapeze proceeded to read the results of the election, although, again, it was difficult to hear the numbers.
- No microphone.
- No video.
- No formal call to order.
- No welcome to the public.
- No acknowledgement of anyone present.
- No eye contact with the audience.
- No Q or A.
- No discussion by the board.
- No discussion with the public.
- No formal adjournment.
After reading the results, Mr. Lapeze appeared to sign something,
and simply said, “Are we done?”
Without another word, everyone just got up and left the room
– without voting (as far as I could tell) and
without even a “thank you” to the audience for coming.
No one in the audience was invited to speak or allowed to say a word.
This morning’s meeting was a perfect example of why I campaigned for better communication and transparency during the last election. It’s also why I will continue to campaign.
HB 21, currently working its way through the Texas Legislature, would have finally modified school finance in Texas. The bill budgeted an extra $1.5 billion for public schools. But, according to an article this morning by the Texas Tribune, the Senate just stripped the bill of several House provisions intended to simplify funding. The Senate also cut the $1.5 billion to $530 million and put a voucher-like program in the bill favored by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick.
If the House doesn’t approve HB 21 as amended by the Senate, it appears that public schools won’t even get the extra $530 million. But the Senate packed HB 21 with provisions from other bills including $100 million in funding for charter schools. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick has also promised the House he would support the $530 million increase for public schools if his education savings account (aka voucher) program becomes law. According to the Tribune, Patrick has been “unsuccessfully advocating for similar voucher-like programs for the last decade.”
Ann Beeson, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said, “In the middle of the night, the Texas Senate voted for a voucher scheme that will rob taxpayer money from public schools and give it to private schools. What started as a good school finance bill in the Texas House turned into a voucher bill that does not help remodel our state’s school finance system.”
Follow this one closely. Austin is playing hardball with 5.2 million public school students. And it looks like a 95 mph fast ball is headed for the strike zone.
Next up for the bill? It will go to a reconciliation committee. If Patrick doesn’t get what he wants, there will likely be a special session, which no one wants.
This also follows fast on the heels of massive cuts to federal funding for the Department of Education reported in the Washington Post.
This all comes just two weeks after school board elections. Plus, the next school board meeting won’t happen until after school lets out, when parents and students head off for summer vacations. But I’m sure the timing is accidental.
At the April meeting of the Humble ISD Board, I asked how the District determined “best value” on a $2 million construction bid to renovate the roof of Kingwood Park High School. My question went unanswered and the Board voted to approve the contract unanimously.
After the meeting, I told the District’s CFO that the Board’s lack of openness deepened the level of distrust that exists within the community. I asked the CFO to send me the bid breakdown and, to his credit, he did the next day. After playing phone tag for a couple days, he explained it to me. He says the Texas Education Agency sets the evaluation criteria that all school districts in the state use, including the Humble ISD.
Seven Bids Received
Here are the bids they received on the project and the criteria against which they were evaluated.
(Download KPHS Roof Bid.)
How Best Value is Determined
Column 1 shows bidders.
Column 2 shows each bidder’s price for the basic contract.
Column 3 shows the bidder’s price for the basic package plus desired add-ons (if affordable). In this case, the add-ons were deemed affordable and the District decided to compare costs for Column 3 instead of 2. Had the bids been compared only on price, CS Advantage USAA would have been chosen. However, the evaluation factored in additional criteria. What were they and how was the final decision made?
Four people within the District’s purchasing and construction departments independently rate each potential vendor on seven factors. Each person has 100 total points and each factor has a different weight.
Column 4 shows the first factor: price; it receives 40% of the weight. Notice how the weights given vary inversely to the prices. For instance, the highest price receives the lowest score and the lowest price receives the highest score.
Column 5 factors in the reputation of the vendor. For instance, do they have good references that are current? This accounts for 15% of the total. It and the following factors receive more subjective ratings than the price by the District’s four member panel.
Column 6 factors in the quality of the vendors goods and services. For instance, “Do they always perform the job as outlined in the bid specifications?” This counts for 10% of the total.
Column 7 factors in the extent to which the goods and services recommended meet the District’s needs. This counts for 10% of the total.
Column 8 factors in the District’s past experience with the vendor. Said another way, “Did they deliver a good job on time and on budget?” This counts for 5% of the total.
Column 9 factors in the total long-term cost to the District. For instance, “Does the vendor warranty its work?” This counts for 10% of the total.
Column 10 factors in any other relevant factors. For instance, “Can the vendor install the roof before students return to school in the fall?” This counts for 5% of the total.
Columns 5-10 each have two sub-columns. The first shows the maximum points possible. The second shows the actual points awarded by the four-judge panel.
The last column shows the total points awarded to each vendor. When the District considered the additional factors, Sea-Breeze Inc. received 58.3 more points than the low bidder (371.3 vs 313), making Sea-Breeze the “best value” even though they were $156,000 more expensive. The low bidder came out in the middle of the pack; three bidders received more points and three received less.
Now that we know how the bid process works, new questions arise:
- Are these additional factors good to consider? Yes
- Do they automatically guarantee fairness? No.
- Could the process be manipulated? Yes. (See next two questions.)
- Can bid specs be written to favor a particular vendor? Yes.
- Is the process open to outside influence? Yes. (We all want to please friends and bosses. I say this as an observation on human nature; I’m not saying it happened in this case.)
- Does this process guarantee best value to taxpayers? It helps.
“Trust But Verify”
For all of these questions, we must rely on the integrity and fairness of the people managing and overseeing the bid process.
That is why financial transparency, openness, and
a willingness to communicate about bids are so important.
The motto that most CPAs use is “Trust but verify.” That’s why the District reviews the work of those rating the bidders to make sure no one tries to swing the vote. That is also why the Board should provide the public with the ability to see how it spends our tax money.
Letting the public “see” the process means increasing financial transparency in accordance with the recommendations of the Texas State Comptroller. See contracts-checklist.
It also means responding publicly and thoroughly when members of the community raise reasonable questions about multi-million-dollar contracts.
It would have been so simple to post this information online with the competitive bids. One can only wonder why it isn’t official policy and standard procedure.
In my next post, I’ll discuss the specs for this particular job.