UPDATE: LAWSUIT DISMISSED BY FEDERAL JUDGE 9/6/12
Read all about it at:
The Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) is refusing to drop its lawsuit against Harris County claiming that HCDE’s own failure to report their redistricting boundary line changes to the County Tax Assessor before the primary election is somehow the County’s fault. HCDE is asking a federal judge to void the primary election results of two out of the three County School Trustee races.
A quote from HCDE’s superintendent, John Sawyer, on chron.com:
“… I’m not going to be responsible for swearing in candidates that may not be elected legally,” Sawyer said. “I just can’t do that.”It certainly sounds noble. But, I suggest people look more closely at just how much respect HCDE has for operating “legally” within the Texas Education Code before believing that HCDE’s purpose behind this lawsuit has anything to do with respect for the rule of law.
Lets start with Texas Education Code (TEC) 18.14(a-b) which directs the HCDE Board of Trustees to distribute the county property tax they collect to the Independent School Districts (ISD’s) in Harris County according to the number of students enrolled per district, after paying the administrative costs of the board and superintendent. In the 2011-12 school year, the total tax collected was approximately $18 million .
How much did each ISD receive this year?
Public Records show $ 0.00. That’s right - ZERO. HCDE spent ALL the funds and distributed NONE to the ISD’s in Harris County. As a matter of fact, when a request for documentation showing HCDE’s compliance with TEC 18.14(a-b)was filed, HCDE’s response was,
That is how much respect the HCDE Superintendent and Board of Trustees have for the rule of law when it comes to TEC 18.14(a-b).
Another law, Texas Education Code 18.28, specifies that the local property tax collected by HCDE is to be used for the ‘equalization of educational opportunities’ in our county and that no part can be used in any school district that does not levy a tax for school purposes. Yet, the HCDE Superintendent and Board of Trustees have approved HCDE as a “service provider” for government entities and non-profits all over the United States.
HCDE claims there are 26 ISD’s in Harris County, but boasts over 400 clients nationwide. That means that about 7% of HCDE’s clients are paying 100% of the property taxes to support the board, administration, infrastructure and overhead so the other 94% can reap the benefits. As you read the examples of HCDE’s client list below, a list that no one could possibly mistake for a list of Harris County “public free schools,” you will see for yourself just how much respect HCDE has for the rule of law as it applies to TEC 18.28. Current HCDE clients:
- Angelina & Neches River Authority
- Apple Valley, MN
- Arlington, Texas
- Ashford United Methodist Church
- Association of Christian Schools International
- Austin Community College District
- Awty International School
- Bastrop County
- Bethany United Methodist Church Weekday School
- Brunswick City School District, Ohio
- Catholic School Cooperative
- Cenikor Foundation
- Central Texas Council of Governments
- Columbia Basin College (WA)
- Comanche Electric Cooperative Association, Inc.
- Coryell Central Appraisal District
- Dallas Housing Authority
- Devereux Foundation
- El Paso Housing Finance Corporation
- Las Cruces Public Schools
- Las Cruces, New Mexico
- Metropolitan Library System of Oklahoma County
- Metropolitan Transit Authority
- Midland School District, Arkansas
- Minneapolis, MN
- Muleshoe Area Hospital District (MAHD)
- Neighborhood Centers Inc
- North Little Rock School District
- O'Fallon, Missouri
- Our Lady of the Lake University of San Antonio
- Park Board of Trustees of the City of Galveston
- Raindrop Foundation
- Rogers, MN
- Region 1,2,3,5,6,11,12,17,19 Texas Educational Service Centers (ESC)
- Tallahassee, Florida
- Tamarac, Florida
- Texas Forest Service
- University of Texas System
- Westerly Public Schools, Rhode Island
- Weymouth, Massachusetts
Another law, Texas Education Code 18.26, states that the education tax collected by HCDE is part of the school funds of our county and can never be used for any other purpose. But the HCDE Superintendent and Board of Trustees have re-arranged the wording of other laws to claim they are justified in useing local property taxes to manage the operation of statewide grant programs for the Texas Education Agency (TEA).
First read the actual wording of these two laws:
TEC 17.31(a) “ The county school trustees or county boards of education shall provide all information requested of them by the commissioner of education or any other person associated with the central Education Agency; they shall also exercise all other functions conferred upon them by the statute and may perform any other act consistent with law for the promotion of education in the county.”
11.301(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....
Now read the re-arrangement of words used by HCDE to justify their claim that they are allowed by law to operate statewide programs:
“HCDE is directed under Sec. 11.301 (formerly Sec. 17.31), Texas Education Code, to perform functions conferred upon them by the Commissioner of Education. “
Really???? Who could possibly read the first two laws and come up with that statement? Certainly not someone who respects the rule of law so much that he has to sue to void primary elections just to make sure everything is “totally legal”!
HCDE would argue that TEC 18.26, which does not allow school property tax funds to be used for any purpose other than for the “advancement of public free schools in our county,” is not being broken here because TEA provides grant funds for the statewide programs so local funds aren’t an issue. BUT, the state director(s) reports directly to the HCDE Superintendent – whose office, salary and benefits (from his iPad to his travel expenses) are paid out of Harris County local property taxes. All the operations of the statewide program(s) from personnel to office supplies are approved by the HCDE Board of Trustees – whose support and operation is also funded by local tax dollars. One statewide program, Texas LEARNS, describes their organization this way:
“Texas LEARNS employs 13 full-time employees to carry out the state administrative functions. Texas LEARNS staff includes a state director, an assistant state director, seven grant service managers, a state Even Start and Family Literacy assistant state director, a policy coordinator, an administrative assistant, a program assistant, and an office clerk/receptionist. The Texas LEARNS State Director reports directly to the HCDE Superintendent.”
So, how much respect for the rule of law are the HCDE Superintendent and the Board of Trustees showing as it applies to TEC 18.26, 17.31 and 11.301?
My favorite HCDE “interpretation” of the law, oops – I mean - HCDE’s respect for the rule of law is evident in their most recent “entrepreneurial venture” into cloud computing. TEC 18.25 directs HCDE’s Board of Trustees to determine the tax rate “required for (education) equalization purposes and the payment of administrative expense” in our county.
But at their June 19, 2012 meeting, the HCDE Board of Trustees approved $1 million in next year’s budget to be used as venture capital to start a new HCDE business which did NOT even have a completed business plan to show the Board before the vote. The salary of the employee leading the program is paid by local tax dollars and the proposal to raise the $1million shown to the Board of Trustees by the Superintendent included a LOCAL TAX RATE INCREASE.
(Sorry, I can’t link to the meeting minutes because HCDE had not posted them as of 8/3/12 and did not respond to a request for public information filed on 7/18/12 to get a hard copy)
According to the discussions during the HCDE Budget Workshop on June 19, 2012, after Harris County taxpayers risk over $1million of their education funds on the HCDE cloud computing venture, a venture that has no guarantee of success, HCDE plans to provide the cloud services to any schools that want it – any schools across the United States.
It is patterned after HCDE’s “entrepreneurial venture” in construction called Choice Facilities Partners which used $284,106 of Harris County education funds for venture capital back in 2006 and now offers their services to any governmental entity or non-profit across the United States.
(Sorry, I can’t link to the minutes of the HCDE Budget Workshop because HCDE does not post them.)
That means the HCDE Superintendent and Board of Trustees have so much respect for the rule of law as it applies to TEC 18.25, that they feel comfortable using local education tax dollars to raise $1million for venture capital for a business without a finished business plan that will hopefully one day benefit students all over the country.
So, where is the respect for the rule of law in this case? Probably not in the hearts and minds of the HCDE Superintendent or the Board of Trustees.
I would like to know how the the Superintendent managed to keep a straight face when he told the Houston Chronicle that HCDE’s lawsuit is about HCDE making sure their elections are legal when HCDE seems to freely and loosely interpret the intent of Texas Education Law every single day.
But there might be a silver lining in this HCDE lawsuit.
Even though Harris County taxpayers will be forced to spend hundreds of thousands of their hard earned tax dollars to pay all the lawyers on both sides of this case, it may end up saving us hundreds of millions of dollars in the end.
Because maybe, just maybe, our County Commissioners might finally take a hard look at this organization operating under the assumed name HCDE. Maybe our County Commissioners will finally study the laws under which HCDE is supposed to operate. Maybe our County Commissioners will compare how HCDE actually operates versus what the laws say they are supposed to do. With that little bit of due diligence, they might even get behind the citizen movement to shut HCDE down once and for all – as did all our surrounding counties decades ago.
At the minimum, maybe our County Commissioners will help the citizens block the HCDE “education” tax rate increase expected in September to fund the $1 million cloud computing start up venture planned by HCDE.
Last year, it was Don Sumners, our County Tax Assessor, who came to the aid of Harris County taxpayers by bringing the real tax numbers to the Board of Trustees meeting, thus preventing a needless tax increase. But conveniently, HCDE has included Don Sumners in their opportunistic lawsuit, so this year the taxpayers will be on their own – unless, of course, our County Commissioners do their homework and take appropriate action.