Sunday, January 22, 2012

HCDE #10 – Decades of Corruption Continue

Recently, a woman contacted me who said she had been elected to the Harris County Department of Education Board of Trustees in the 1980’s. She told me a story that was so bizarre, so full of corruption, that I thought she was a nut. I took notes while she spoke, but never thought anything would come of it. Her story of HCDE was just too far out there to be true.

But that night, I stayed up late, typing  all sorts of key words into Google looking for anything that might back up her story. About 2am, I hit the jackpot! It seems the Houston League of Women Voters  keeps great records!!!! They are also civic minded enough to donate their old files to the Houston public library system. At the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, in collection # RG E 013 , buried in Box #14 - File #5 is a file entitled: Efforts to change election date, HC Board of School Trustees, 1979-1982 . In that file was the proof that her story was completely TRUE.

So, after spending a day in the library and another rummaging through historic election records at the county clerk’s office I found  that the lady I first thought was a nut, was really a patriot citizen who stood up to the corrupt Texas political machine. She may feel she lost her battle back in the 1980’s, but I now see her as warrior. A warrior who paved the way for us. Read the story, and then decide for yourself. The story of how political corruption has allowed HCDE to continue to tax, 46 years after its school doors closed.

HISTORY

HCDE had been established when the Texas Legislature put county boards in charge of running local schools in 1889. When independent school districts were allowed to  break away from county control starting in the 1910’s, the county boards found themselves losing their power. So politicians came up with the county “Equalization Tax”  which would be overseen by the county boards and  used “for the maintenance of public schools”. But it required the approval of local voters. In those days, only voters who had paid their poll taxes were allowed to vote. So even though the population of Harris County was over 200,000 in 1935, fewer than 15,000 voters had paid their poll tax and were qualified to cast a vote. That means that fewer than 15,000 people participated in a tax levy vote 77 years ago that  now affects 1,358,313 households.

By 1966, all students in Harris County were being educated by  independent school districts each overseen by their own board of trustees. As other county education boards  across Texas closed their doors, HCDE  continued to tax and operate quietly in the background attaching themselves to LBJ’s new federal programs as an excuse to stay open.

Some  citizens complained about paying the county an education tax when the county no longer ran schools. They argued that the “Equalization Tax” had been an illegal tax because everyone did not have the right to vote on it in 1935. Texas politicians saved HCDE  by passing Texas Education Code 18.02(a) which said no matter how the “equalization Tax” had been put into place, it was “validated in all respects, regardless of whether or not such actions were duly and legally taken in the first place; and all such equalization funds….are hereby in all things validated.” And some people think Chicago is the hotbed of political corruption!

STEALTH OPERATIONS

By the 1970’s it was hard to find  a citizen in Harris County who even knew what HCDE was let alone paid attention to who was serving on the board. As today, HCDE had 7 trustees, 4 elected from precincts following the county commissioner boundary lines and three at-large positions. Each served 6 year terms. Elections were staggered so only two seats were open when elections were held by the board itself every other year.  Early codes allowed a county board to select their own election dates  and HCDE usually chose the first Saturday in October of odd numbered years.

For decades, the HCDE board and its election process went unchecked. With no one watching, board members began appointing their own replacements. Elections, when held, had serious issues- issues which just happened to help incumbents maintain their seats. By 1977, when the League of Women Voters finally took a close look at the HCDE board, their records show that of the 7 board members, “ 5 members had originally been APPOINTED to fulfill unexpired terms, one had served for 42 years and one had been assistant county superintendent immediately prior to running.” They produced the chart below:

                                          “Harris County Board of School Trustees 1977”                          
Position       Name                               Appointed              Elected                Precinct                   Expire
1                  Mrs Mark Carter                                                     1935                       2                                    1977
2                  Edgar A Reeves                    1974                                                         4                                     1977
3                  Clyde D Thomas                   1973                                                         At-large                    1981
4                  A W Thompson                     1962                                                         3                                     1981
5                  Madeline Griffin                                                    1973                     At-large                   1979
6                  Reginald Hancock             1975                                                        1                                     1979
7                  Dr C Dan Proctor                  1962                                                        At-large                   1979


Some examples of problems the League of Women Voters found in HCDE’s elections:

1967 Election
  • No notice of elections were put in the press
  • The only notice given was a paper notice hung in the County Court House, Bellaire and Southside City Halls. 
  • North Forest ISD was only allowed one polling place and HISD only 2-3 polling places
  • The total votes cast in every race in the HISD polling places was the same – 17
  • 3 persons received a total of thirteen write-in votes but these did not appear anywhere in the tally sheet
  • For Precinct 1 candidate – the 17 votes from HISD made up the total vote
1969 Election
  • The election order did not list any polling places
  • HISD had 3 polling places but none were in Precinct 3 therefore no votes were cast in HISD for Precinct 3
1971 Election
  • Humble and Huffman were listed as precinct 4 although they were actually Precinct 2
  • Cy-Fair was given 6 polling places listed for precinct 4 although half of district was Precinct 3
1973 Election
  • Election order did not list the two at-large positions # 5 and # 7
  • No polling places in La Porte or Deer Park were designated for Precinct 1 but votes for the Precinct 1 candidate were cast in both districts
1975 Election
  • Neither of the polling places in HISD were designated for precinct 3. Neither were within Precinct 3. No votes were cast in HISD
  • Almost all of Cy-Fair was within Precinct 3 but only 2 polling places were designated for 3.

Because of the federal Voting Rights Act in the late 1960’s, the Texas Legislature passed laws putting more restrictions on local elections in the 1970’s. Some say there was confusion at the time because the Legislature made changes when they met every other year and it was difficult for local officials to keep up. But, in looking at the records, the League of Women Voters argument  that HCDE's behavior was intentional seems valid. HCDE was holding elections at a time when  fewer people were going to the polls, they were not publicizing the elections, they did not offer enough polling locations in certain areas, they did not list polling locations, and there were serious issues with their election processes.

In contrast, when the League looked at Dallas, the only other remaining County School Board in the state,  they found no election concerns.

In 1977, a citizen named Ms. Lorraine Burling, spoke to the HCDE Board and asked them to consider moving their election date to November when more people were already going to the polls -- a simple idea that would solve many problems. But, the documents imply that the board wasn’t very nice to Ms. Burling – gosh, do I know how she felt. Must be like the treatment I get from the current HCDE board. Anyway, that is when Ms. Burling requested help from the League of Women Voters. And boy, did she get it.

OUTSIDE PRESURE

The League went to the Department of Justice to try to make HCDE follow election law. Just as today, HCDE tried to pick and choose under which laws they operate . The HCDE attorney, Richard G. Sedgeley, actually argued that the Texas Education Code covering county school board elections  did not apply to HCDE. The board ignored it all and voted to hold their next election in January of 1978. 

The US Attorney General objected to the HCDE election and declared the January election “legally unenforceable.” HCDE asked the DOJ for “reconsideration on the grounds that …  the department did not understand the process and methods of the board’s elections.” HCDE defied the courts and held their election on Jan. 21, 1978. Jeremy Schwartz, attorney for the Justice Department, was quoted as saying,” The push to hold the election is a blatant disregard for Federal Law.”

HCDE called in their political allies. The Texas Congressional delegation accused the DOJ of trying to bankrupt HCDE by requiring them to hold elections when the polls were already going to be open in November. (Does that argument make any sense to anyone???) HCDE got lots of political allies to write letters in support of the wonderful job they do. The same HCDE pep-rally stuff they are still relying on today.

The League of Women Voters kept up the fight but the HCDE board’s behavior didn’t change. It took time, but finally the Courts stepped in and required HCDE to re-elect the 5 board members who had been seated from illegal elections in both 1978 and  1980.

In the Consent Decree and Order of Civil Action No H-80-143, United States of America v. County School Trustees of Harris County, the new election was set for the following November. The Court also mandated that the “Defendants (HCDE Board Members), their agents and successors in office, and all persons acting in concert with any of them” were forbidden from “conducting future elections of County School Trustees pursuant to procedures, including choice of date for holding such elections, that have not been precleared pursuant to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.” How embarrassing for the citizens of Harris County to know they are forced by corrupt politicians to pay taxes to an organization that can’t be trusted enough to even hold board elections.

All the publicity helped make citizens aware of the elected HCDE board. The next election boasted three firsts. (1) For the first time 31 candidates filed for board positions (2) For the first time Blacks and Hispanics were candidates for board positions. (#3) For the first time Libertarians were running with a campaign promise of shutting HCDE down and stopping its taxing authority.

But the negative publicity caused problems for HCDE. Now that citizens realized  they were paying taxes to an obsolete entity, they liked the Libertarian campaign promise of shutting it down. As ordered by the Courts, the new election was held in November when all the polling places were open around the county. More voters participated in this county school trustee election than ever before. Three Libertarians won seats on the board.

The other four  board seats remained in the hands of political cronies and they outvoted the 3 Libertarians on every issue. But, when it came time for the next election cycle, a Libertarian candidate won the draw to be the first name on the ballot. To politically savvy people, that is considered a major advantage.
The HCDE cronies  went into panic mode. If one more Libertarian won in the next election, their positions of power were toast. All the administrators who were making big bucks off the backs of the local taxpayers would have to find real jobs. What could they do to stop this horrible tragedy???  Simple, go back to your old practices. Just do what you want. Don’t hold an election you are sure to lose.  So they didn’t.

CORRUPT LEGISLATORS

Once again, corrupt politicians in the Texas legislature protected HCDE from the will of the people. Could they have also had  personal reasons? If the people of Harris County could elect enough Libertarians to a board no one ever cared about and shut it down, what might happen if the voters liked the outcome? All the politicians in Austin would be in trouble. This had to be stopped.

So, a brilliant piece of political manipulation legislation was passed in the Texas Legislature. Texas Education Code 17.031  made HCDE board positions county offices for elections ONLY. Their excuse was that HCDE would then be in compliance with Federal election law. That sounded nice, but look closer. The clever wording of this  law meant that HCDE board candidates are now chosen through the party primary system - that means Republicans and Democrats - the only school board system in the state to be selected by party! Wow, totally new idea. It also meant that  with the majority of voters in Harris County voting straight party , a Republican or a Democrat was always likely to win. My goodness, that would mean that Libertarians would be at a major disadvantage when running for the HCDE board. I am sure that didn’t even cross the minds of the Legislatures drafting the bill.(Sarcasm intended.)

But, the Legislature didn’t stop there. They made one last addition to the bill requiring ALL board members to be re-elected  in 1984 following the party primary system. Wasn’t that a clever way kick out the Libertarians and give the old political cronies back their power? Did it really matter that they used their power to overrule the voters of Harris County?  Their political cronies sure didn’t think so.

So, on November 6, 1984, the entire HCDE board was up for election, just three years after a federal court had required a do over of 5 of the 7 . Only this time they all had to go through the primary process so only Republicans and Democrats would be on the ballot. All the Libertarians were forced to give up their seats by corrupt political maneuvering and the people of Harris County were forced to continue to pay taxes to an obsolete political entity. And as corrupt politics works, three of the candidates on the 1984 ballot were from the original 1977 board, and 2 were even unopposed.

Now, under the extra protection of the political parties, HCDE could go back to the business of spending taxpayer money. Board membership became long term again. Two examples: Carl J. Schartz(D) elected in 1986 just retired from the board an (R) in 2011. Angie Chesnut (R)  first ran in 1992 and is currently the board President.

In the meantime, the Texas Legislature was busy reforming the state’s education system and stopped funding the outdated county education boards. HCDE was saved by their political cronies again when Texas Education Code 17.94 was worded this way: “After December 31, 1978, no state funds will be used to support the offices of…county school superintendent or a board of county school trustees or a county school board… but the offices and boards may be supported by ad valorem tax revenue…” That meant the only two counties that would still have a county board were the two that had passed the “Equalization Tax” – Dallas and Harris Counties.

Sec 17.95 (b) reads: “After December 31, 1978, if at any time all school districts within a county become independent,…the county board of school trustees or the county school board, shall be automatically abolished as of the date the last common or rural high school district becomes independent.” Somehow, HCDE’s political friends say this law does not relate to HCDE because all the Harris County school districts became independent in 1966, long before 1978.

So the Harris County property owners and businesses  had to pay taxes to HCDE for another couple of decades.

Then in 1995, the Texas Legislature made a major overhaul of Texas public schools. The talk was that the two remaining obsolete County School Boards were going to be abolished by the Legislature. But as corrupt politics would have it, the cronies won out over the people. Even though the Legislature removed the chapters related to County School Boards from the Texas Education Code, the  Legislature saved HCDE again by adding Sec 11.301 which reads:

Sec. 11.301 Application of former Law (a) A school district or county system operating under former Chapter 17, 18, 22, 25, 26, 27, or 28 on May 1, 1995, may continue to operate under the applicable chapter as that chapter existed on that date and under state law generally applicable to school districts that does not conflict with that chapter….

So the Harris County property owners and businesses were forced to pay taxes to HCDE for yet another couple of decades.

Then came the great awakening of American citizens called the Tea Party. Many citizens of Harris County started paying attention to where their tax dollars were going. A fiscal conservative on the HCDE board , Michael Wolfe, started speaking for the people who elected him by questioning some of HCDE’s spending and the necessity of continuing HCDE’s taxing authority. Just as in the 1980’s, the board cronies panicked. What if someone listens to him and they realize we are throwing away tens of millions of taxpayer dollars every year? They will shut our playground down. What can we do????

NEW LEVELS OF CORRUPTION

This time, HCDE  tried something new. Four board cronies simply voted to remove Michael Wolfe from their board. It didn’t matter that elected public officials can’t just vote out other elected public officials. But, they are HCDE. Laws have never stood in their way. They thought they could intimidate him to resign or get a judge to throw him out. Then, just like the board of the 70’s, they could appoint a replacement. Someone who thinks like them. Someone who will keep his mouth shut. What a plan!

But it  backfired when Michael Wolfe didn’t honor their illegal vote and just leave quietly. Instead he fought all the way to the Texas Supreme Court and won by a unanimous vote.

Quoting the Statement of Facts in the case(Cause No. 01-10-00302-CV), “… the Harris County Department of Education and four of its trustees, out of a total of a seven member board of trustees, Angie Chesnut, Roy Morales, Jim Henley, and Debra Kerner are at political odds with Relator, Michael Wolfe, another trustee at the Harris County Department of Education and voted to remove him from office.”

How sad for the citizens of Harris County that four of their elected County School Trustees, Angie Chesnut, Roy Morales, Jim Henley, and Debra Kerner care so little about the taxpayers that they threw  away $50,000 collected with the “Equalization Tax” on legal fees to play their political games.  All because Michael Wolfe stood up to the HCDE political establishment and spoke up for the taxpayers. But I found one bright side to this case. It is comforting to know that the Texas Supreme Court Judges are a lot more honest than the people we send to our legislature.

MOTIVATION????

But why do politicians protect HCDE? Why are they willing to waste millions upon millions of local tax dollars keeping the doors open to an institution that they closed in 252 other Texas counties back in1978? Could it be because HCDE is a great political stepping stone to bigger and better things?  We could ask current board member Roy Morales if it helped in his race for Houston Mayor.

Could it be a great training ground for those trying to get their start in Harris County politics? We could ask Sheila Jackson Lee’s daughter who is currently a candidate for the board.

Or could it be about something as simple as money? We could ask the Mayor of Katy, Don Elder. He fist served on the Katy school board before moving up to HCDE. He got elected to the HCDE board  and served for ten years, two terms as board president. He moved on from HCDE to serve on the Katy City Council before being elected Mayor of Katy. 

How does Don Elder make money from his service to the HCDE board? It is simple. When he left the HCDE board, his other board friends voted to hire him as a HCDE “consultant” and gave him a contract that paid $95,700 in 08-09 alone . In 09-10 his contract increased to $99,180. Not a bad gig.  http://choiceenergypartners.org/html/contact.php  shows that Don Elder is still on the HCDE consultant payroll .

So which side do you think he is on when it comes to the question of shutting down the obsolete government entity called HCDE?

So here we are in 2012. Regular citizens trying to stop unnecessary taxation by an obsolete board. And it seems that nothing has changed. HCDE still doesn’t think the taxpayer matters  and they can pick and choose the laws that apply to them.

Back in 1995, when the Texas Legislature removed the laws governing County School Boards from the Texas Education Code, they added Sec. 11.302. It simply says that County School Systems that are still operating under the laws that are no longer on the books “…shall make available to the public for inspection and copying during regular operating hours a copy of the provisions under which the…county system operates that are specific to that type of …county system.” 

Sounds simple enough. Just make a  copy of the old laws and leave it at the reception desk.

But what if you don’t want people to know the laws? What if something in those laws could be used to stop your gravy train?   Then you don’t make copies for the taxpayers to read. And if a concerned taxpayer like me shows up to see the laws, you have your assistant superintendent in charge of communications inform me that everyone in that building is just too busy to take the time to show me the laws, even if I am willing to wait.  Then  inform me that I am mistaken if I think Sec 11.302 means that HCDE has to actually make the laws available for me to read and copy during regular business hours without first filing a freedom of information request and waiting for their reply.

So the battle of the taxpayer vs HCDE continues. Much seems the same as when the courageous lady who served on the board in the 80’s fought the system. The lady who first told me the story of HCDE corruption.

But things aren’t the same. Yes, HCDE may still behave as if it is above the law, but the citizens have changed. We now know that if we don’t fix the corruption in our own backyard, we have no chance of fixing it in Austin or Washington. We now know that if we don’t stop government waste  in our county , we have no hope of saving our state and nation from financial destruction. So, HCDE may use corrupt politicians to win a couple more battles, but  this time, the citizens aren’t going away.

HCDE doesn't understand.  The fight now is not about the amount of money I pay to them in my property taxes. The fight  now is about Good vs Evil -  Honesty vs Corruption -  Thrift vs Greed.  The fight now is about saving our county, so we can save our state, so we can save our nation. The citizens are awake, and we are never going to sleep again.

5 comments :

Heidi Thiess, Constitutional Conservative said...

Outstanding summary. I see how much work and research went into it. I am Heidi Thiess, a Board Member of the Clear Lake Tea Party, and running for the Texas Legislature in HD-24. Also running for election to the Texas House are Mary Huls in HD-129 and Rachel Delgado in HD-23. All of us are Tea Party leaders and are committed to bringing these corrupt cronies (among others plaguing our great State) to account and abolition. You can count on us in the Legislature, if the people of our districts decide they're ready for some heavy duty reform across Texas! We have to make it through our primaries, and then the work of reform and abolition can begin in earnest!

Dale said...

Wake up people! This is just the kind of corruption the tea parties formed to oppose. Elect the right state reps and Senators - problem solved.

Anonymous said...

I noticed this piece doesn't detail what HCDE does for this county. What is the benefit? Did you even bother to research that? This is not balanced or fair to the hard working employees of HCDE, nor does it present any of the data regarding the services HCDE provides to local school districts. This article has no journalistic credibility.

Jim Ballew said...

Don't you love the way people like "Anonymous" don't have the integrity to put their names behind criticisms? Don't you also love it how they ignore the REST of the website that details extensively not only what HCDE currently does, but gives extensive legal and historical basis for why ALL of these services are ALREADY provided for by the State of Texas? (What, Headstart can ONLY be run by HCDE when every other district in the country is doing it WITHOUT double taxation of it's residents?)

Hint to Anonymous: If you want your criticism to be taken seriously, first put your name on it. Second, argue actual FACTS instead of conjecture.

texastrashtalk said...

Dear "Anonymous",
You have missed the boat. The idea of shutting down HCDE is to stop its double education taxing authority and the waste of taxpayer money. Any actual services provided should be moved to the location dictated by current law - the Texas Educational Services Centers and Private Non-profits - like every other county in Texas is able to do. The actual teachers/therapists who serve students on a daily basis could still do their jobs, but they would be managed and paid through an entity following current law. Those who would no longer have easy, high paying jobs, are the administrators and “consultants” who currently know they are living on easy street, sucking the taxpayers dry, but just don’t care.
Do you really think HCDE saves the taxpayers money when they spend $16 million dollars in overhead to provide $2.3 million in direct student services inside Harris County? I don’t know anyone who would say that is efficient use of tax money except HCDE's highly paid administrators and “consultants” – or board members who are planning on getting their own “consultant” gig in the future.
Not ashamed of my name,
Colleen Vera

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