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EduLege Tracker 11-16-17

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EduLege Update Volume V, Number 80
November 16, 2017
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

‘F’ stands for Flooding, not Failing…

School superintendents whose districts bore the brunt of Hurricane Harvey’s force—and aftermath—are pleading for the state to suspend the grading policies that will be issued next year based upon student performance on standardized tests.

The Texas Legislature, in regular session earlier this year, passed an updated system for rating schools and districts using a system of A-F grades, with the first grades for districts set to roll out in August 2018.

“We don’t mind taking the exams but we don’t want to be…publicly humiliated over something we had no control over,” said Superintendent Joseph Patek III of the hard-hit Aransas County school district.

While his district was closed for six weeks to repair hurricane-related damage, about 200 students did not go to school anywhere, and instead spent that time helping their parents clear debris from their homes, Superintendent Patek said.

Superintendent Patek said he's fine with his students taking the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness tests next spring, but doesn't want his district to be castigated if it receives low ratings. "We just don't want to be hammered if our students don't perform," he said.

Charlotte Baker, Director of the Region 3 Education Service Center in Victoria, which was also severely hit by Harvey, expressed the concerns of school administrators another way: "F stands for flood, not a failing district."

Despite the pleas of local educators, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told members of the House Public Education Committee that he doesn’t have the authority to suspend STAAR testing requirements and if he does, the state could lose some of its federal education funding.

The commissioner also testified that delaying STAAR testing dates could create further difficulties for affected districts, including pushing the last day of school further into the summer.

Currently, 5th- and 8th-grade and high school students must pass the STAAR to advance to the next grade or to graduate, although students who fail can appeal to committees of their teachers and parents.

Also, if a school does not meet academic requirement for five consecutive years, the state can close it or replace the district’s school board with an appointed board of managers. According to the Texas Education Agency, there are 23 campuses in school districts in Harvey-affected counties that fall in this category.

“Kids are resilient. Are they resilient enough to overcome this? I don’t think so. Teachers in the classroom and principals leading those teachers…are struggling mightily,” Superintendent H.D. Chambers from the Alief school district warned the committee.

Some members of the committee, including Representatives Morgan Meyer and Linda Koop, both Dallas Republicans, said they were concerned that the next spring’s STAAR test scores won’t be an accurate representation of students’ performance.

“You had such a life-changing circumstance, I don’t know if these tests can really be that accurate for these displaced students,” Representative Meyer said.

While the committee hearing was underway in Austin, Superintendent Mary Gonzales was back home in Refugio, where Harvey damaged every classroom in every school, and where much of the small Coastal Bend community was leveled by the hurricane. Much of her day is spent overseeing the district’s ongoing disaster recovery efforts.

Student testing is important, but this year it is not the priority for the Refugio school district, Superintendent Gonzales said.

"If we were graded based on our response to Hurricane Harvey and how we have provided for our children, we have to give ourselves an A,” Superintendent Gonzales said.

Let the good times roll…

The 2018 election season is officially underway in Texas.

Candidates have begun filing for next year's March 6 Republican and Democratic primary elections, when Texas voters will begin to decide who should hold a U.S. Senate seat, most of the statewide offices in state government, all 36 of the state's seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, 15 of the 31 districts in the Texas Senate and all 150 positions in the Texas House of Representatives.  

The filing period continues through Dec. 11.

One of the biggest stories, thus far, of the 2018 election is the decision by Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, not to seek re-election.

Another major election decision came earlier this week from State Representative Dan Huberty, R-Humble, who chairs the House Public Ed Committee.

Chairman Huberty decided to file for re-election, after a period of uncertainty over whether he would run for another term in the wake of Speaker Straus’ decision to step down. Chairman Huberty already faces a primary challenge from Kyle Stephenson.

There is still some suspense on at least two fronts: Recent retirement announcements by four Texas congressmen have opened up seats for which the fields are still taking shape, and Democrats are still hoping to fill out their statewide ticket with serious candidates, particularly for governor.

* * *

Governor Greg Abbott has made good on his promise to actively push for a more conservative Texas House, endorsing the Republican primary opponent of a top ally of the outgoing Speaker.

Governor Abbott has endorsed Susanna Dokupil in the Republican primary against West University Place state representative Sarah Davis, a four-term incumbent who has been a key House budget writer, a strong backer of public education and an outspoken social-issues moderate.

Representative Davis notes that in 2014, she was by far the top Republican vote getter in her legislative district—receiving 61 percent, compared to Governor Abbott's 50 percent and 47 percent for Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. Democrat Hillary Clinton easily carried the district in last year’s presidential election.

Despite the governor’s endorsement, Representative Davis predicted that voters will reject Ms. Dokupil, whom she described as "a wholly owned subsidiary of the extremist group Empower Texans."

Empower Texans is a group led by Michael Quinn Sullivan and largely bankrolled by Midland oilman Tim Dunn. For several election cycles, it has banded with Texas Right to Life, Texas Eagle Forum and other staunchly conservative outfits to weaken the coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans that elected Representative Straus as House Speaker.

No way to survive…

La Vernia school superintendent Jose Moreno has resigned.

A joint statement from the La Vernia School Board and Dr. Moreno says that the former superintendent will “serve the district in a different capacity” and assume “other interests.” The agreement was reach on a 4-3 vote by the board.

"The Board of Trustees expresses its sincere appreciation to Dr. Moreno for his efforts and leadership while serving as superintendent of this great school district and its wonderful students, parents and administrators,” the statement read.

The circumstances surrounding Superintendent Moreno's resignation are unclear, but it comes on the heels of the sexual assault and hazing scandal within the district's athletic programs that rocked the city.

Thirteen students have been arrested on sexual assault charges in connection with the scandal, which dates back to the 2014-2015 academic year. Authorities have previously said at least 10 students were victimized.

More recently, La Vernia and superintendent Moreno have had other serious issues with which to deal. One La Vernia student was killed, and three others were injured, in the shooting at the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church earlier this month.

They want answers. Now…

Some Dallas County Schools bus drivers are threatening to walk off the job, believing that their jobs are in jeopardy, following the vote to disband the financially troubled transportation agency.

Fifty-eight percent of Dallas County voters chose to close down DCS, as a result of a series of financial and ethical missteps. The Dallas school district and other local schools will operate their own student transportation programs, beginning with the start of the 2018-2019 school year.

Until then, DCS drivers and buses are to provide student transportation to the eight Dallas County school districts.

Some DCS drivers says that if they don’t receive some job assurances soon, they may boycott—a move that could leave thousands of Dallas students stranded without a ride to school.

“It's a good chance that we will totally stop running the buses,” threatened DCS driver Pete Peterson. “I can't say what percentage, but at the same time, if I don't know my fate how can I continue to drive one of these buses?”

Scott Layne, Chief of Operations for the Dallas school district, is urging the drivers to be patient, while the logistics of the bus takeover—and the salaries of drivers—are negotiated among the affected districts.

“I have no authority to tell you anything right now," Mr. Layne said. “We need you all. We do. You know we need you."

In the meantime, school districts in Dallas County hope the bus drivers continue to show up.

More name changes…

Five Austin campuses, including three high schools, with names that are tied to the Confederacy will be renamed by August.

Austin school administrators have already met with the affected campus principals and Campus Advisory Committee members for each school, and will now begin meeting with community groups and students to gather feedback.

According to an administrative proposal, “naming committees” will be created in January; the public submission of new school names will begin in February and the Austin school board will vote on the name changes in March.

In May 2016, the Austin school board voted to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary.  After months of contentious community feedback, trustees voted to rename the school Russell Lee Elementary, after a critically acclaimed Depression-era photographer.

At the time, Austin trustees said the issue wouldn’t be revived, unless the community asked to change the names of the other schools.

But in August, after a rally by white supremacists, who fought removal of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, Austin school board president Kendall Pace said she wanted the district to replace the names of all of the district’s Confederate-named campuses, as well.

* * *

Its name may have changed—slightly—but North East school district in San Antonio says a local high school’s mascot will still be called the Volunteers, and its colors will remain red and gray.

In October, North East trustees voted 5-2 to rename Robert E. Lee High School as the Legacy of Educational Excellence, or LEE High School.

Administrators have inventoried everything from uniforms to gymnasium floors to team uniforms, and Superintendent Brian Gottardy says the cost of the name change—including jettisoning things directly associated with the Confederacy and with General Lee—will total approximately $300,000.

While the use of “Lee” will be phased out and replaced with LEE over time, the school’s logo, which portrays a caricatured Confederate soldier dubbed “Grumpy Gus” will have to be replaced. So will the names of the school’s spirit teams, the Rebel Rousers and Dixie Drillers. A new school song will also be sought.

To all TSPRA Members: Have a safe, peaceful, and enjoyable Thanksgiving Week, and EduLege will return on Monday, November 27…  

                      - Andy

EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.