Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier proposed a major shake-up Thursday night to the district’s popular magnet program, calling for 25 schools to lose the special status and for funding increases or reductions in others.“This stands to change the landscape of the entire Houston Independent School District,” Trustee Anna Eastman said at a meeting packed with more than 300 parents, students and teachers who showed up to lobby for their schools.
In a three-hour presentation, Grier’s administration also laid out several controversial cost-cutting moves, such as changing bus schedules, closing four small schools and ending the college-readiness program Project GRAD.
McDade, Grimes, Rhoads and Love elementary schools would have to close their doors this fall under the plan.
Grier’s proposal to end the magnet programs at 25 schools scales back the massive cuts recommended in January by consultants hired by the school board. The $269,000 audit by Magnet Schools of America proposed eliminating 55 of the 113 magnet programs.
Trustee Harvin Moore called Grier’s magnet plan “way better” than the audit but expressed concerns about proposed funding reductions to many of the Vanguard schools, which serve gifted children. Moore and a few other trustees asked that final decisions about the magnet schools not be rushed at a meeting set for next week.
“I don’t think one week is enough time for the board or the public, who we report to, to look at this,” Moore said, prompting applause from the audience.
Board president Paula Harris, who called the special meeting Thursday night to fast-track decisions on magnet schools and the budget, asked for an end to the clapping — “or we will be here all night,” she said. About 125 people had signed up for public comments, which didn’t begin until about 9 p.m.
Talk runs late
Dozens of parents and students sporting school T-shirts stayed past bedtime to address the board.
“Cut my kid’s magnet program, I’m going to protest,” said Dana Teal, whose son is in the science magnet program at Valley West Elementary. “Math and science, you shouldn’t cut,” Teal said, repeating himself for emphasis and pounding his fist on the podium. “I will fight.”
District spokesman Jason Spencer noted that the Valley West magnet program is on the chopping block because it draws only 58 students from outside the neighborhood.
Laura Richardson, a parent from Wharton Elementary, which would keep its dual-language magnet, said she was concerned about the timing of the decision. Grier has proposed cutting the funding by 40 percent next year at schools losing their programs.
“I’m certainly glad that we’re moving to get the funding in place and to have it be more equitable,” Richardson said. Grier decided to keep the magnet programs at Bellaire, Westside and Lamar high schools, though Westside’s theme would expand to science, technology, engineering and math. It’s now a technology-only magnet.
The auditors’ plan to eliminate those three programs sparked opposition because the schools hold high academic ratings and the magnet program gives students from outside the neighborhood the chance to attend with free transportation.
The eight high schools that would lose their magnet program under Grier’s plan are Austin, Chavez, Davis, Lee, Madison, Sharpstown, Worthing and Wheatley. Loss of the programs would reduce the schools’ funding, and the district would no longer provide free busing to the students who transfer there from outside the attendance zone.
The elementary schools with magnet programs on the chopping block are Burbank, Cook, Elrod, Herrera, Law, Patterson, Valley West, Wainwright and West University.
At the middle school level, Attucks, Deady, Dowling, Fleming, Henry, Ryan, Key and Welch would lose their magnet programs.
New programs, too
Grier also proposed starting magnet programs at 13 schools that don’t have them or don’t receive special funding for the specialties they already offer. Gordon Elementary, for example, would get a Mandarin language program and Kashmere Gardens Elementary would start a Spanish language program.
Grier didn’t detail how much his plan would save. The district spends about $35 million on the magnet program, including the transportation, according to Lupita Hinojosa, the assistant superintendent over school choice.
The district faces a projected $171 million shortfall in the coming school year.
Grier’s administration has proposed cutting several hundred jobs in the central office and warned that many more teaching positions could be cut. Among the more controversial cuts, which would save $1 million, is changing bus schedules.
Grier’s administration laid out proposals to change instructional schedules throughout the district, which in turn would affect school pickup and dropoff times.
“There is no doubt that this proposal will inconvenience many families,” said Leo Bobadilla, HISD’s chief operating officer.
Elementary schools would start either at 7:30 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. for a school day of seven hours and 15 minutes. All middle schools would start at 8:45 a.m. for a school day of seven hours and 30 minutes, while high schools would start at 7:45 a.m., for a 7½-hour day.
The changes to the bus pickup and dropoff times would vary by school, from about 15 minutes to more than an hour.
In another proposal sure to be controversial, Grier called for ending the district’s contract with Project GRAD, a college readiness program in about five high schools that provides eligible students with college scholarships. Trustees Harvin Moore and Larry Marshall immediately objected.
“We’re not being critical of the program,” Grier said.