Monday, September 16, 2013

HCDE–Laws & Courts–Phooey

When the 14th Court of Appeals refused to step in to overrule Judge Emmett’s decision not to put the HCDE tax increase on the ballot this November, many hoped the fight to prevent HCDE from using Equalization Tax dollars to fund child care  was over for now. At least until Early to Rise comes back with a better worded petition in 2014.

But not so. It seems HCDE will be doing some of the work themselves. And in their usual M.O., they hid it deep inside their 723 page September 17, 2013 Meeting Agenda.

On page 632, using the term “transfer”, HCDE is asking the board to approve  $550,787 Equalization Tax dollars to be used alongside $340,000 in  Houston Endowment donations to match $1,807.943 in federal funds  for “direct child care” and “child care quality improvement” – the same type of thing the Early to Rise petition wanted a private non-profit to do.

hcde child care quality improvement

It isn't the $30 million per year Early to Rise wanted, but it is a start using the tax HCDE already collects.

The Agenda item reads:
6G - Consider approval of a certification contribution agreement between the HCDE CASE Division and the Gulf Coast Workforce Board for the period of 10/01/13 through 9/30/14. HCDE will certify $890,787 to receive matching funds from the Gulf Coast Workforce Board for the CASE Partnership Project in the amount of $1,307,943 (approximately 2,000 students served.)

hcde 6g

But can the Equalization Tax, which is collected for “the maintenance of the public schools (TEC 18.01)” in Harris County, be used to improve the quality of child care?

Just this month in the arguments put before the 14th Court of Appeals in the Early to Rise  case,  four different attorneys on the winning side stated that the law requires distribution of the Equalization Tax funds to the school districts of the county:

Found in the Statement of the Case presented by Judge Emmett’s Attorneys, we find:
The board of education shall distribute the moneys collected from the equalization tax according to the express provisions of Section 18.14, which requires that any funds collected under Chapter 18be distributed to the common and independent school districts of the county on the basis of the average daily attendance for the prior year.” Id. § 18.14-App.”
The memorandum brief by Vince Ryan, Harris County Attorney reads:
“The Legislature, through the adoption of Section 18.07 of the Texas Education Code, created a mechanism so that every county in the state could collect a countywide equalization tax to be divided among the school districts of the county
And in an opinion issued by William C Bednar, a Texas school law specialist, he states:
The concept embodied in the statute is an "additional countywide school district" funded by a single property tax to be deposited in a single "county equalization fund" to be drawn on and expended by an elected county board of education for a county program of education consisting of distribution of funds to eligible school districts for equalization of educational opportunities and the payment of administration expenses. See, Sections 17.031,18.01, 18.14, 18.26,18.28.
The tax herein provided for shall constitute a part of the school funds of said counties and shall never be levied, assessed, or collected for any purpose other than those herein specified and for the advancement of public
free schools in such counties
.. . . [Emphasis added]…

There is no purpose of early childhood education specified anywhere in Chapter 18.”
The  Texas Conference of Urban Counties brief reads:
“…equalization tax revenue must be distributed as specified by Section 18.14, Education Code. Thereafter, the common and independent school districts of the county are free to use the funds in any legally permitted manner…
There is no basis in statute for such limitation - either to permit the Harris County Department of Education to impose restrictions on the use of equalization tax revenue…”
Yet, the HCDE board still chooses to ignore Texas Statute TEC 18.14,  distributes NO Equalization Tax funds to the ISDs of Harris County and uses the Equalization Tax funds anyway they see fit – like matching federal funds for “child care quality improvement.”

They ignore it so much that they were negotiating a contract with the Early to Rise group to hand over control of  all new Equalization Tax revenue to a private non-profit – when the ballot initiative was stopped by Judge Emmett and the 14th Court of Appeals.

But talk has already surfaced about how Early to Rise can reword their next petition to force it on the ballot in 2014.

Because HCDE is so obsolete, is its own political subdivision of the state of Texas, and operates under repealed statutes, there is no longer an entity which oversees their activities.

The County Commissioners have no control over HCDE and TEA has no control over  the Equalization Tax. The Texas Legislature will not meet again until 2015, and the District Attorney’s Office is currently in flux.

So the people of Harris County have no other option but to ask the Texas Attorney for a opinion on HCDE’s activities.

Texas Statute limits who may request Attorney General opinions to:
  • the governor
  • the head of a department of state government
  • the head or board of a penal institution
  • the head or board of an eleemosynary institution
  • the head of a state board
  • a regent or trustee of a state educational institution
  • a committee of a house of the Texas Legislature
  • a county auditor authorized by law
  • the chairman of the governing board of a river authority
  • a district or county attorney

Our best bet is to ask the most conservative local person from the list above, Senator Dan Patrick – Chairman of the Senate Education Committee,  to come through for us again and ask the Attorney General three questions:

  1. May the citizens of Harris County petition under repealed TEC Chapter 18 to increase the county equalization tax, and if so, can the petition require the increase be used only for a specific purpose?
  2. Must the County School Trustees distribute the Equalization Tax funds to the ISDs according to  TEC 18.14, or may they use the funds anyway they see fit?
  3. Are the Harris County School Trustees limited to providing services to Harris County public schools or may they provide goods and services to anyone they see fit across Texas?

The citizens of Harris County need these questions answered BEFORE the next ballot petition is initiated and BEFORE HCDE spends all the Equalization Tax revenue this school year.

You can help get this done by contacting Senator Patrick and asking him to request an opinion from the Attorney General on these three questions. The more citizens who ask for his leadership in this matter, the sooner he will file the request, and the sooner our questions will be answered.

District Office:
The Honorable Dan Patrick
11451 Katy Freeway, Suite 209
Houston, Texas 77079
(713) 464-0282
(713) 461-0108 (Fax)


Colleen Vera