-Felicia Cravens, Contributing Writer
File this away under “This is How They Get Ya”…
In the Spring of 2011 while the Texas Legislature struggled to balance the state budget, school districts across Texas afraid of budget cuts fired back; not solely with lobbying efforts, but also with dramatic scenes staged for the news. For instance, during school hours little children were given apple cutouts, and asked to write “Please don’t fire my teacher” and other messages to send to the Capitol. Those little apple cutouts were made into a huge display in the corridors of the Capitol building. While that seems a small thing, it’s nothing new to use children as political pawns. The techniques have been perfected, and they work. Parents who thought things were fine in their districts were suddenly barraged with threats that their child’s teacher would be laid off, that their band budgets would be slashed, that their schools and classrooms would be so overcrowded that no learning could possibly take place.
In 2011 in Katy, a “small community” of 250,000 people just west of Houston, the budget battle was highlighted in a very specific way – the district walked teachers out of their classes and gave them their termination notices in the middle of the school day, standing by with substitutes in case the teachers did not feel able to return to class.
This, in turn, sparked a walkout by students, protesting both the layoffs, and the manner in which they were done. This happened right before a school board election, and resulted in the election of three new board members.
But when the dust settled, the district was already hiring back as many of the teachers as they could, saying they expected to bring back 214 of the 267 teachers that were let go.
So either someone at Katy ISD is very bad at budgeting, or the entire layoff scheme was a political stunt. You be the judge.
Fast forward to March 2012. The Katy ISD Board holds a scheduled work study meeting, usually used to prepare members for upcoming items at the regular board meetings. At this meeting, however, there is an action item on the agenda. The five board members in attendance (one had been on his sickbed for months and had not been in attendance all that time, another was out of the country) are scheduled to take action on a major policy and budget item – namely extending contracts for some administrators to two-year contracts.
No big deal, right? Districts want to keep people that are good, and giving them more job security is a good way to do that.
However, there’s one problem; the extensions would push the contracts into the next legislative budget session. This would mean guaranteeing employment for administrators during a period when the district would not yet know how much they were going to have to pay salaries. It would essentially protect certain classes of district employees from worries about layoffs when the next budget came out, but leave teachers and support staff more vulnerable than ever to potential layoffs and budget cuts.
Seeing a vote of 3-2 coming on an issue that had seen no opportunity for public comment, the two dissenting members of the board, Bill Proctor and Terry Huckaby, walked out of the meeting in order to deny the board a quorum and the ability to pass the item until a future meeting.
The strategy, while sound, did not work in the end. Soon after the walkout, the board reconvened with the horribly ill, perpetually absent, visibly frail member being driven to the board meeting and helped into his seat in order to establish a quorum and vote for the measure.
Apparently there is another meeting scheduled next week, which brings up several questions:
- Why couldn’t something as important, and potentially controversial, as contract extensions have waited a mere week? What’s the rush?
- Why could the board not have simply discussed the contract extensions, then vote later once the public had an ample opportunity to review the proposal?
- Why was a board member struggling with a horrible illness exploited in this way in order to pass a controversial policy?
- What is the urgency in passing special contract extensions ahead of 2013 budget figures, given the emotional layoffs just one year ago?
The leadership and the Board of Katy ISD have a lot of explaining to do, and the next election is right around the corner on May 12th.