Some of you may have seen a scathing editorial in Sunday’s Chron in which various complaints were listed against the Harris County Department of Education. HCDE has been under attack by Republicans for a long time and there is a current movement by Paul Bettencourt of the Texas Senate to get rid of it.
According to former HCDE Trustee Debra Kerner, the editorial contains a lot of misinformation that she wanted to clear up. Here is her own letter-to-the-editor which, hopefully, the Chronicle will also run.
Dear Houston Chronicle Editorial Page Editor,
Regarding “HCDE draws sharp look” (Sunday, May 24, 2015, pg.1), I served as a countywide elected Trustee for the Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) from January 2009 to January 2015. During that time, I held various Board positions including Vice President. I read the article, “HCDE Draws Sharp Look” from Sunday, May 24, 2015 with intense interest and felt that as a private citizen and former board member, I had to respond. I would ask that the public consider these clarifying facts.
1) HCDE serves students, educators and school districts. Their services are provided at the request of Harris County school districts. They seek to enhance and innovate and provide services to the school districts and the residents of Harris County. All 25 of the school districts in Harris County choose to use at least some of the services from HCDE. HCDE provides even more services than are listed in the article, including Safe and Secure Schools. As told to me by the head of Region 4, all of these services cannot be duplicated by the Education Service Center (Region 4). Who would provide these services, if HCDE had to close?
2) During my tenure, HCDE underwent several audits and a Texas legislative study. These studies determined that HCDE’s education services saved taxpayer dollars and that it would cost school districts significantly more to replicate. While areas for improvement were identified, none of the studies recommended closure. The Board had always taken steps to improve the department and continues to do so.
3) One example that was noted in the article was the policy on hiring political consultants. The Board did not have the chance to vote on the Eversole contract. Once the board learned about these hirings, the policy was changed to bring more transparency to the process of hiring political consultants. While I understand, the concern about using tax dollars for this purpose, I believe it would be unfair to the students and educators served by HCDE to not give them a voice regarding the educational resources that are so valuable to them. Many school districts also hire lobbyists and political consultants to help educate legislators and others about their needs. In addition, HCDE has a group consistently seeking its abolishment. Three year olds and other students with severe disabilities cannot go to Austin to indicate the true value of HCDE, so HCDE does it for them. HCDE is a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves.
4) Ms. Vera and the Houston Chronicle have initiated countless open records request. HCDE has been compliant and constantly sought to increase transparency. Responding to these requests has been costly; however, none of these requests have yielded information that rises to the level of criminal activity. Any issues that were found, the Board had already initiated steps to improve the situation. At the same time, HCDE has continued to educate students, train teachers and provide valuable wraparound services.
5) We should focus on what HCDE is doing now. HCDE has hired a new superintendent, James Colbert, who is moving forward. The Board has made changes to address policies and procedures to ensure that things are done correctly and transparently. HCDE continues to respond to the needs of partner districts. I participated in the hiring of Mr. James Colbert and from what I’ve seen thus far, he is a true leader who is very responsive to the educational needs in Harris County. The reason HCDE has fought against additional studies regarding abolishment is that it is hard to plan for the future when the threat of closure hangs over their heads.
I was honored to serve with Trustees who truly cared about enhancing education in our county in a fiscally responsible way. It is a shame that the voices of a few are taken as fact when thousands of students and the 25 Harris County school districts find value in HCDE every single day.
Former Trustee, Harris County Department of Education
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