REMEMBERING VIRGIL GANT

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On Sunday, June 26, this year, Rebecca Decker (board president) called me in tears to tell me that Virgil Gant, our longest-serving board member and my friend, had died earlier that day. On vacation with his wife and grandson, high winds buffeted the trailer he was hauling, flipped his vehicle, and instantly caused his death.

Annually, our Communications Department places a large group photo of our trustees here at the Education Support Center. This year, that photograph is extraordinary. Our trustees decided to gather around a framed photo portrait of Virgil.

This beloved man, age 68, served as a school board member here for 16 years. He graduated from Texas A&M and served his country for 28 years, rising to the rank of a Navy captain, including two tours of active duty in Vietnam. Here in Pearland he was known as a financial planner, prominent in the Boy Scouts, and a member of the Rotary Club. He was the school board president when I was hired. He and I always saw eye-to-eye. He had my back and told me so.

He was very proud of having influenced Rebecca to run for the school board — and even prouder when she was named president in May of this year.

The thing I always told others about Virgil was that he did so many acts of kindness and benevolence without telling anyone except those who needed to know. Boy Scout leadership can tell you about that. Pearland Rotary can tell you about that. Kids in Africa can tell you about that. St. Helen’s Church can tell you about that. Others I don’t even know can tell you about that.

I remember how excited he was about completing the famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela walk/pilgrimage in Spain. When he came back, he told me all about that arduous journey — and urged me to watch the Martin Sheen movie made about that same trek. Virgil was a man of faith.

On the night of his death, I prayed that God would somehow let me know that Virgil was fine. While I’m certainly no mystic, I had a dream that night that Virgil was climbing a beautiful evergreen tree way up in the air. If you saw Virgil’s physique, that paints an unusual picture. But it gave me reassurance.

I was leaving for a solo trip down I-10 to Arizona shortly thereafter. I had read newspaper reports about exactly where the accident occurred on that long lonely road near Ozona. One article said it happened at mile marker 343. I was listening to music on my car stereo. Just then, the song “Rise Up” by Andra Day began to play. This was of considerable comfort to me. If Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be in paradise with him that very day, I should have no doubt about Virgil Gant, a strong man of faith.

One postscript: At the large funeral service for Virgil, his wife (Dr. Debbie Gant, well-known pediatrician in Pearland) came up to me and told me she wanted to do what she could to help the school bond pass — because it was what Virgil wanted and worked on. Yesterday (Tuesday, Nov. 8) I visited the polling site at Tom Reid Library. There sat Debbie under a “Back the Bond” tent, holding up a sign and urging folks to vote for our schools. Maybe Virgil is smiling up there. We sure miss him down here. . . .

 

(In)Effective Tax Rate Notices

Texas law mandates nonsensical language for school boards to use when they set the annual tax rate. The forced wording gives inaccurate information to taxpayers, falsely implying that the tax rate and available maintenance/operations revenue have greatly increased.

Despite keeping our tax rate identical to the rates of the last decade, we must use the following state-authored language when setting the tax rate in August 2016: “Move that the property tax rate be increased by the adoption of a tax rate of $1.4156 per $100.00 valuation, which is effectively an 8.70 percent increase in the tax rate.”

The mandatory resolution accompanying that decision also stated: “This tax rate will raise more taxes for maintenance and operations than last year’s tax rate. The tax rate will effectively be raised by 1.68 percent and will raise taxes for maintenance and operations on a $100,000 home by approximately zero dollars.”

That language, dictated by the Texas Legislature, is confusing and contradictory:

  • Our actual tax rate has remained constant over the past decade. We did not raise it at all in 2016.
  • The reason for the language comes from a calculation of what is called the “effective tax rate.” That rate attempts to calculate how much the proposed local tax rate will bring in compared to the previous year, given the increase in local appraisals (the tax base) this year.
  • But here is what makes that calculation absurd: The state’s current funding system for public schools lowers the state’s maintenance and operations funding for each school district in proportion to the amount that local tax revenue increases.  Therefore, local citizens do NOT see the benefit of increased local tax revenue for annual maintenance/operation costs.
  • Thus, the state fails to acknowledge its role in essentially confiscating local taxes by lowering state aid accordingly.
  • Decisions by the state a decade ago froze in place the revenue formula for each Texas school district. If you lived in one of the fortunate few districts that had a good local tax revenue year in 2006, you have reaped that advantage since then. But Pearland ISD has consistently received as much as $1,000 less per child than the average school district since then. So each time the state has increased public school funding in the last decade, such increases were simply placed on top of the frozen formula from a decade ago. The net result is greater inequities than ever across Texas.
  • So what “new” help do we get from the state this year to fund its many mandates and keep up with inflation? We received $8 more per student! We also receive “per student” funding (at a continuing lower level than other districts) for our increased student enrollment.
  • Our Texas Supreme Court was recently compelled to rule on school finance lawsuits. It proclaimed our funding system “byzantine” but “constitutional.”  The court also said it’s really none of its business and it did not want to “usurp legislative authority.” (So it’s unlikely the legislature will soon take meaningful action.)

For paying off debt early, there is a silver lining for Pearland ISD:

  • The other portion of our tax rate called “interest and sinking” is used to pay off district debt for facilities. It’s like paying the mortgage on your house. Since the state gives very little help for such purposes, we can use all local I&S tax revenue without any corresponding penalty/decrease from the state. So as values increase in our district, we collect more I&S revenue at the same tax rate. That helps us keep our tax rate reasonable and can be used to pay off debt early, saving millions. (That was done in 2015 and will happen again in 2017.)
  • Families and businesses flock to high-performing school districts like Pearland ISD.  The website WalletHub just rated Pearland’s educational system fourth best in the entire state — and that ranking helped designate the City of Pearland as among the top 10 cities for families in Texas. Such accolades draw families and businesses who share the tax burden. So while people in Pearland do see their tax appraisals go up, the market value of their houses also increases. In the same way, this benefits many local businesses.

Despite accolades for high achievement and financial efficiency (including a five-star rating from the state comptroller) in Pearland ISD, much of what the local citizens giveth, the state taketh away. Thus, the tax rate language dictated by the state obscures that truth.

SCHOOL FUNDING CRONYISM

The Texas Supreme Court recently and unanimously ruled that the state’s school funding system is constitutional. They stated: “Our Byzantine school funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements. Accordingly, we decline to usurp legislative authority by issuing diktats from on high, supplanting lawmakers’ policy WISDOM with our own.”

Having served as a public schools superintendent for the past 24 years, I will now translate that statement :

“Despite glaring school funding inadequacies and inequities, we, the Supreme Court of Texas, hereby hope our executive and legislative cronies are pleased. After all, we deferred to their WISDOM! Realizing our decision flies in the face of all common sense, we waited until we won our own Supreme Court election primaries in March and until a day when the media was distracted. We received the perfect gift on May 13, when the feds declared that boys have access to the girls’ bathrooms! Thank you, President Obama!”

The evidence for the unconstitutionality of our funding system is so overwhelming I wrongly predicted there was no chance the Supreme Court could overturn the findings of the district court. Boy, was I wrong. It took tortured language and 100 pages, but our Supreme Court found a way.

Austin legislative/judicial/executive cronies are breathing a sigh of relief and can instead issue loud cries against federal dictates about bathrooms. I see a stampede toward the nearest TV camera.

You must read with some caution my next prediction since I’m unable to fathom the incestuous relations among state cronies. But here goes: Legislators will wring their hands and tell us there is little they can do about funding. Both the sky and the price of oil are falling! However, those seeking national office will simultaneously tell us the Texas economy is the strongest and fastest-growing in the country. Though we’re near the bottom of all 50 states in school funding per pupil, we’ll be told money is not the answer.

Here’s the problem: There are seven inches of expensive state and federal regulations found in every school district’s administration offices. Who put them there? Answer: The very same legislative/judicial/executive branches telling us money is not the answer!

Do not look to either political party for salvation. These regulations have grown, not withered, during the past two decades by the so called party of “small government.” Significant deregulation of public schools allowing funding adequacy and efficiency is a pipe dream.

Meanwhile, our society has expanded the role of educator from classroom instructor to lifesaver and parent. Teachers are now like the ancient Israelites commanded by Pharaoh to increase the quota of bricks (graduates) — and find their own straw (money).

So this is the future as I see it: We’ll continue to be told the public schools aren’t doing enough, that Texas ought instead to provide additional government funding to charter and private schools. We’ll be told those less regulated environments will accomplish more. In the meantime, our own Pharaohs (including the Texas Supreme Court) will continue to add new inches of expensive special interest regulation to the state’s public schools, calling them “reforms.”

My World War II Marine Corps dad would have simply said to these Texas cronies: “Don’t shower me with spit and tell me it’s raining!”

 

The tourism lobby trumps education?

Statewide special interests undermine the common-sense decisions of locally elected leaders. For example, a few years ago the tourism industry — through the Texas legislature — decided when your child’s school year began. While new legislation now allows local officials to make some of those decisions, special interests are misleading parents and teachers into believing  vacations and working conditions will be ruined if their codified profits don’t continue. It’s not true. Allow me to give a little background:

Local Texas school board policy manuals are about four inches thick. In addition, the “Texas School Law Bulletin” consists of 1,553 thinly sliced pages. Of these seven total inches of regulations governing our schools, perhaps 2 percent can be generously attributed to decisions made by locally elected school trustees. (I won’t even include foot-long reams of federal laws and regulations.) Thus, claiming our state is the home of “small government” is like claiming Texas fits within the geographical boundaries of Rhode Island.

Even the entire Bible — consisting of  God’s commandments, man’s history and his future — is far shorter than Texas education law. It’s time to restore a little sanity.

So in 2015, the Texas Legislature took a step in the right direction by passing a law (HB 1842) titled “Districts of Innovation, allowing all but low-performing districts the opportunity to exempt themselves from a few Texas laws. Wise lawmakers realized that some of the same freedoms offered to charter and private schools might benefit public schools — and perhaps place them on a more even playing field.

Special interests are alarmed. Last week, the tourism industry asked the Texas Education Agency to curtail local control of the school calendar. They are lobbying legislators to pass new laws that further constrict local school/parental control over the calendar. And they seek to ally themselves with teacher group representatives, falsely claiming that local districts will use new powers to hurt working conditions.

Quite the opposite. Pearland ISD seeks (through this “Districts of Innovation” law) to end the school year before Memorial Day — instead of in June. We’d also like to improve working conditions for teachers by exempting them from some unnecessary regulations. We think the laws dictating overly-long teacher contract years, the length of school days and other regulations are counter-productive. We’d like to use our teacher/parent calendar committee to draft a school year preserving the local community’s interest in traditional holidays such as Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, MLK Day, spring break, Good Friday, Memorial Day, etc. In short, we’d like to build the calendar our parents and our educators deem best. Given our most recent ranking as among the top three districts in the Houston area as well as in the top 2 percent of the state (www.niche.com), we believe we have the academic performance and client satisfaction data here to inspire confidence in such local decision making.

It sounds enticing when the tourism industry touts beginning the school year after Labor Day and ending it before Memorial Day. But there are hidden unfavorable consequences in these dictates. Among these are fewer holidays during the school year, an uneven number of days for the fall and spring semester, an even longer school day and a continuing requirement for teachers to begin and end their employment year way beyond the students — even when professional duties are completed.

I anticipate the tourism industry will soon announce a “compromise” by applauding all deregulation — except that which directly affects tourism! That’s sorta like the Texas lottery founders who sold us their profit scheme as “for the kids”!

Decisions on the school calendar are best made close to home. But frankly, public schools do not have the legislative clout that special interests have. So please remain skeptical about the propaganda now underway — and help us retain our new and tiny foothold in local control. Be wary of any legislation next session that seeks to curtail, rather than expand, “Districts of Innovation.”

 

 

 

 

NATIONAL MENTORING MONTH

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Last school year our district mourned the untimely death of three students — each independently despondent over personal circumstances in their lives. We grieved partially because their deaths came without warning or outcry.

We are also aware there are MANY other students within our boundaries and throughout the nation who are experiencing academic difficulties, alienation or trauma.

Our Pearland ISD Board of Trustees and administration have deliberated over new and better ways to address these needs. In early spring last year, we devoted a special board workshop/training on that topic. Many ideas came forth. Among them, the most powerful tool we can conceive is a comprehensive mentoring program to reach students whose parents, educators or peers might identify as benefiting.

Who might benefit most? Students who are performing at academic levels below their ability, those experiencing difficulties in their everyday lives, those who might desire one-on-one interaction with a caring adult, et al.

Many research findings point out that nothing is more important to the education and well-being of a child than the presence of at least one caring adult pointing him or her in the right direction.

Research links mentoring to improved academic, social and economic prospects for young people — and in turn, this strengthens communities nationwide. Mentors can help equip young people to make responsible decisions, stay focused/engaged in school and avoid risky behavior.

We asked Mandy Benedix, who already oversees our renowned K-12 Grit Initiative, to lead this effort. As a two-time District Teacher of the Year with a huge heart for children and parents alike, she is ideally suited to give compassion, significance and comprehensiveness to our fledgling effort. Our new program is called RISE Mentoring, with RISE standing for Reach, Inspire, Support and Empower.

As of January 2016, we’ve signed up and trained 101 new mentors from the community and from our own employees. Right now, our counselors and others have identified about 70 more students who  could benefit and whose parents have given permission for an assigned mentor. And we have still other students being identified on an ongoing basis.

Our children will benefit from more community volunteers. So I make this pitch in January, designated as “National Mentoring Month” in America. Our RISE Mentoring Program involves contact with the student once a week, every week, for 30 minutes — for the duration of the school year. Mandy can be reached at 281.485.3203, ext. 66504. You can also visit http://www.pearlandisd.org/Page/634 or contact Mandy at mentoring@pearlandisd.org for more information.

May God bless our collective efforts!

Honoring our Veterans!

A part of our district’s “world-class goals” is to teach our students to embrace and practice “grit.” Among others, we point to a special group that practices what we preach. Each November, we honor our community’s veterans for their grit, their courage, and their sacrifice.

My own dad was a World War II Marine private who fought and was wounded in Okinawa. He died 5 years ago in his sleep, surrounded by his family, and underneath his favorite bright red Marine Corps blanket. At the funeral thereafter, a young soldier handed my mom the American flag and expressed “the thanks of a grateful nation.” (See video below.)

Thankfully, there is now a new birth of appreciation for our military, overcoming the ingratitude of the 1960s/1970s hippies. While overdue, it is most welcome.

Each of our 23 schools finds its own way to recognize and honor these men and women on or about November 11. There are special breakfasts and lunches. There are nighttime presentations and videos. There are concerts and assemblies. Hundreds of our veterans are invited, and many come.

Now let me get out of the way and let a veteran speak. This Vietnam vet attended the event at Rustic Oak Elementary and wrote to the principal thereafter:

Dear Mrs. West:

I want to thank you and all of your staff and teachers that helped to prepare the Veterans Day program at your school. Having all of the adult females in my family teaching in either Pearland or Pasadena ISD, I know what it takes to put on such a production. I applaud you for doing this for the veterans in our community.

As a veteran of the Vietnam War (1968-1969), your program now has a special place in my heart. Hopefully, I can explain this without “tear staining” the paper. I was barely 19 years old when my draft number was called. To avoid the draft, I enlisted so that I could choose my specialty training. Following Combat Medic training, I was shipped to Dau Tieng, RVN, as a Medical Corpsman assigned to Company B, 25th Medical Battalion, 25th Infantry Division. There, I saw many unspeakable things when wounded soldiers and civilians were brought to our field hospital.

Thursday evening as the children sang “American Tears,” I began to have flashbacks of some of the senseless deaths and destruction. One was seeing a fellow medic shot in the head and killed the night before he was scheduled to return home. Another was as our base camp was overrun by NVA during a nine-hour firefight that resulted in 147 NVA and 99 American soldiers killed. It was during these flashbacks and the singing of “American Tears” by the children that I, for the first time, knew why I fought in that senseless war so many years ago. It was so that these children could sing “American Tears” while I silently cried.

That song and my tears made all of the hate, hate speech and throwing of vegetables and eggs at us as I returned from Vietnam in Oakland, CA, worth it. I would do it again without hesitations. Freedom is NOT free, but American men and women in the military will give their life for your right to be FREE!

Sincerely, and with great appreciation for all educators,
CLIFF FARLEY – PawPaw to both Madelynn and Morgan

May God bless Cliff Farley and ALL of those who served our great nation!

 

FIGHTING UNWISE LEGISLATION

I’m fighting a quixotic losing battle against Austin utopians and their  media surrogates who want to place even more mandates on HEAVILY BURDENED public schools. There are literally hundreds of proposed bills each session that try to do this — and many of them succeed. In a previous blog, I described the problems with current legislative efforts to water down truancy laws by shifting the burden to schools. I recently testified in Austin against that bill as an example of unnecessary unfunded mandates and intrusive state control. But I was astounded by the cast rounded up in support of that bad bill.

The first speaker was the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. I had the very strong impression he was asked to testify by the bill’s author(s). He believes Texas is misguided and alone in its truancy efforts because of the high volume of  truancy court referrals — and because 48 states have already “de-criminalized” truancy. I sat there with my mouth open, knowing that a national report just touted Texas as having the highest graduation rates in the country for the different ethnicities. Why would we want to imitate states less successful at keeping kids in school? What qualifies the chief justice to weigh in on how best to keep kids in school? He is understandably sympathetic to over-burdened judges and courts, but fighting truancy is all about helping kids, not lessening the workload for lawyers and judges.

After the Senate passed the bill (despite the valiant efforts of Senator Larry Taylor), it was sent to the House Committee on Juvenile Justice. A similar parade of people stepped forward to praise the bill. Among them was a representative from Appleseed, an Austin-based group (many of whom are lawyers) describing itself as “sowing the seeds of justice.”

The Appleseed woman who spoke at the hearing was intelligent, unemotional, and armed with data contending that Texas is mistreating students when referring them to truancy courts rather than making schools do more. I’ve since looked up Appleseed and found their polished report titled “Class, Not Court: Reconsidering Texas’ Criminalization of Truancy.” At first blush, their findings and recommendations might seem reasonable. But they repeatedly ignore the statistical warning that “correlation does not imply causation.”

Here’s a simple example of misusing statistics in that way: More people eat ice cream in the summer. More deaths from drowning occur in the summer. Therefore, summer drownings are caused by eating ice cream. There is a positive statistical correlation between ice cream eating and drownings, but one does NOT cause the other!

Appleseed believes that truancy courts are a “pipeline to prison” and that such coercion “dis-incentivizes”  student attendance. Isn’t it more likely that the same factors leading a child to become truant remain when they are adults? Youth truancy convictions and adult criminality are correlated. But it is a mistake to say that one causes the other. Instead, lack of parental/personal discipline and poor character are more likely causes of both truancy and adult crime.

Space prohibits addressing the additional fallacies in Appleseed’s report. Their charts and graphs lead to their pre-conceived ideology, not truth. They would impose new mandates on schools apparently believing in an unlimited supply of money and labor for their brave new world.

Likewise, the Houston Chronicle has had editorial opinions touting the courage of those willing to “de-criminalize” truancy. Not coincidentally, there were well-timed “news reports” in that paper about alleged misuse of the truancy courts elsewhere in Texas. Social utopians and dictators have long used isolated stories of injustice to justify conquest and martial law. The same tactics are now being used to impose further state control over school districts.

Back-slapping Austin cronies huddle together with access to media outlets, lauding their own “enlightened” views. Far from the real battle, these board room generals seek one-sided hard luck stories to justify their heavy-handed intervention. They  ignore individual student/parent responsibility for truancy and cry crocodile tears over the economically disadvantaged. The result is a condescending, paternalistic, and unfunded mess. As a Peace Corps volunteer who taught the poorest in Africa, I can tell you that disadvantaged kids can make it to school on time — from miles away and usually on foot!

Instead, American society now cries loudly, “Fix the system!” I won’t go into the many systems school districts already have in place to help economically disadvantaged students in advance of truancy referrals. I won’t go into our schools’ cooperative efforts with local community agencies to provide food, clothing, tutorials, mentoring, and other services. I won’t elaborate on all the significant money and personnel used for these purposes. Even so, schools cannot do it alone.

We cannot adequately prevent truancy without the prompt backstop provided by the courts. That backstop is NOT the cause of truancy or criminality. The real solution begins and ends with individual responsibility — either self-generated or imposed. When that responsibility is not promptly exercised, the judiciary must swiftly coerce school attendance as best for the child and for America.

I say to students and their parents: Go to school. If you truly have a problem preventing attendance, our school district and others will render both aid and compassion. Don’t listen to those who call you a “victim.” And don’t let Papa Austin tell you it’s the “system’s” fault. Get some grit.

At the risk of being labeled an unenlightened religious nut, let me quote scripture: “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.” Truancy court is the rod. And that’s a better answer than ill-conceived legislation punishing schools for “not doing enough.”