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Posts published in “Day: February 26, 2008”

Breaking News: North Forest ISD confronts TEA in Defiance, votes Simpson as New Superintendent; State overturns Vote

BREAKING NEWS:
NORTH FOREST CONFRONTS TEA IN DEFIANCE, VOTES SIMPSON AS NEW SUPERINTENDENT; STATE OVERTURNS VOTE

In a dramatic meeting Monday night, North Forest ISD school board voted 4-3 to rehire Dr. James Simpson as the Superintendent of the district. This came in spite of warnings from Texas Education Agency representative Ron Rowell that the vote was overridden by the authority of the state, and had no legal status. Members of the board all evening had hurled criticism at the TEA and its representatives who are working with the staff, Henry Boening and Ron Rowell. The vote was seen as a defiance of the state’s intervention in the district, which faces financial and academic problems that it might not be able to solve on it’s own. Rowell cautioned that the district had been placed on an Academic Accreditation PENDING status, which could lead to more serious sanctions and even dissolution. After tempers flared, the sides cooled and agreed to have their attorneys meet to discuss the legal standing of the vote. However, TEA’s Rowell closed the meeting with the notice that Simpson was not the new superintendent.

MORE ON THIS STORY TO FOLLOW. SEE THE NORTHEAST NEWS AND THE NORTH FOREST NEWS PRINT EDITIONS.

Houston Police Dept. to build mounted horse facility on Little York

By Gilbert Hoffman
NORTHEAST– The Houston Police Department’s Mounted Patrol Division will soon occupy a new facility they are building at the northwest corner of Little York Road and Hirsch Road.
According to details released by the department, Assistant Chief Vicki King said that the project will be completed in about a year, and cost about $7,600,000. It has been in the Capital Improvement Budget of the City of Houston since 2004. It will replace the existing facility on the West Loop, which will move due to space requirements and the fact that the land was donated with restrictions that are now necessitating the move.
The project consists of a complex of buildings on a 10 acre site that is now wooded and not used. It sits in the unincorporated portion of the county, not the city. Some local residents have objected to the facility, because it is not residential and because it was not subject to any prior announcement or hearings regarding the use of the land. Assistant Chief King has met with the nearby Armstrong Acres Civic Club, to explain the project and answer questions and objections, she said.
Planned for the site is an administrative building, with offices, meeting rooms, and lockers for the officers. Behind that will be a horse barn that can hold 46 stalls and horses, a veterinary area, and support areas. A covered show arena, with bleacher seats for the public is also planned.

Lt. Wallace, in charge of the Mounted Patrol, explained that the public is always welcome to visit the unit, and he said that it is not unusual to have 300 visitors a day come to see the animals and the division’s activities.
Chief King explained to the Northeast News that the design of the building will include attractive landscaping and fencing, and that the public will be able to use some of the meeting rooms.
Also included will be a Kennel building for the department’s K-9 corps, and parking for horse trailers.
Site development will include fields or paddocks for the animals to exercise and graze, water tanks, public parking and staff parking.
Chief King pointed out that the site has been wooded, with drainage problems for years, and that this development will make it more attractive and healthier. In addition, area residents will have an opportunity to see the workings of the animal division that they might not have been aware of.
The buildings were designed by 3D/International, architects, and the construction contract was let in November 2007 to Prime Contractors, Inc. who just recently began to clear the land and prepare for building. It is expected that the facility will be in use by January 2009, and the department will move from it’s 3 acre site on West Loop to the new location.

Bailey calls for Regional Crime Lab

HOUSTON– The DNA section of the Houston Police Department Crime Lab has been forced to close again. The most recent closure was a result of a change in state law that prohibits testimony in state courts from analysts who are not certified.
The law was changed by legislation authored by State Representative Kevin Bailey after the crime lab was closed in December 2002. The law Bailey passed came into play when the head of the DNA section resigned during an investigation into allegations of cheating on a recent proficiency test. Once the head of the department left, the lab no longer met the qualifications for accreditation. A recently completed internal affair’s investigation revealed that she “failed to use sound judgment” while administering the August 2007 exam. Two other employees were suspended.
“It’s time to seriously consider taking the crime lab away from HPD and creating an independent lab under the medical examiner like they did in
Bexar County,” said Bailey. “It’s very clear that the City of
Houston is incapable of running a crime lab that is fair and also has a high degree of integrity. It is also clear that the District Attorney under Chuck Rosenthal’s leadership has abused his authority by knowingly using tainted evidence from this incompetent lab that is also guilty of misconduct. Removing the lab from the criminal justice system may be the only answer.”
State law specifies that physical evidence subjected to forensic analysis is not admissible in a criminal case if, at the time of the analysis or the time the evidence is submitted to the court, the crime laboratory conducting the analysis was not accredited. Historically the
HPD crime lab operated without accreditation prior to be closed in December 2002. Under new management the lab received provisional accreditation in June 2006.
“ The last time the crime lab closed we were faced with scientific incompetence and now it is a lack of integrity. We need to know that everyone is treated fairly in our criminal justice system, that evidence is analyzed correctly, and that an analyst never again takes a witness stand in a criminal trial claiming to be an expert when they are not. We were all told years ago that DNA was infallible and we wouldn’t have innocent people being convicted. Well, we forgot about human error and misconduct,” says Bailey.

An independent investigation into the prior failings of the HPD crime lab that cost the city more than $5.0 million was concluded in June 2007. The final report stated that over a 15-year period prior to the DNA/Serology sections closing HPD and the city failed to provide the crime lab with adequate resources to meet the growing demand for services. Crime lab management recognized as early as 1996 that accreditation was becoming necessary but training for lab analysts was one of the first areas of the budget that was reduced as funding became tight.
According to the investigative report by the time the outside audit was performed in 2001, the lab was in a shambles. The roof leaked and they had operated without a supervisor for years so no one was advocating for the needs of the department. The staff was underpaid, under trained and generating mistake ridden casework that was poorly documented. The work being performed did not meet generally accepted scientific principles and posed a major risk of contributing to a miscarriage of justice.
“It was a failure of a critical part of the criminal justice system. Lab analysts failed in both the work that they did and the work they failed to do. Innocent people like Josiah Sutton were convicted on faulty analysis while criminals were left walking our streets,” said Bailey. “The sections of the crime lab with the highest rates of faulty testing, DNA and Serology, do the analysis that is typically performed in the most serious cases such as homicides and sexual assaults.”
Some areas of the crime lab were found to be doing high quality work including trace evidence, firearms, toxicology and questioned documents.
Some areas of the lab that performed quality work, like questioned documents, were actually underutilized. The crime labs questioned documents section handled only 11 cases in 2205 and 9 cases in 2006. A police department, in a city the size of Houston, should have been generating a significantly higher level of work for the document examiner, he added.
When the director of the crime lab appeared before a committee Chaired by Bailey this past August, the lab still did not have an electronic tracking system for evidence. They relied on a paper-based system for tracking the chain of custody as well as the results of tests performed on evidence. Plans are currently underway to provide the crime lab with a modern information management system.

North Forest ISD studies plan to consolidate schools and cut staff by 300

NORTH FOREST– The board of trustees held a called meeting last Monday night, to conduct regular business and to consider a plan to solve some of the financial and academic problems that have faced this district for a while.
However, they did not take any action on the appointment of a new superintendent, which had been scheduled for a vote last Friday night. The Texas Education Agency exercised their oversight authority that day, and cancelled the meeting and vote. It has not been rescheduled.
After some preliminary ceremonial awards and accolades from students and schools, the board got down to the serious business of questioning their staff about why the district was in trouble, financially and academically. On the agenda were reports from staff members Carl Williams, on the financial report and a budget update; and Charles Houston, on an internal audit of attendance and assets. Also reporting were TEA staff, including the Financial Conservator, Henry Boening, and the Academic Conservator, Barbara Wilson. Several other TEA representatives were on hand, including Ron Rowell representing the Education Secretary, but they said very little.

To preface the reports, board vice president Allen Provost asked the secretary to read a letter from him, criticizing the TEA for their slowness and ineffectiveness in helping correct the situation, and suggesting that they might have a hidden agenda against the district’s board.
The text of this letter is included in this Northeast News, on page 4.
After this, the board grilled Williams and Houston about the lack of clarity in their reports, and expressed a frustration that problems were not flagged earlier and brought to the board for resolution.
It became clear from the discussion, that the district is still in serious financial distress, and that the problem lies with the declining student population and continuing expenses above the income level.
The next discussion centered on a report from the academic conservator, Barbara Wilson. She said that instead of new ideas and techniques, the schools needed to concentrate on basic teaching, teacher training, and to solve the absenteeism problems. She said that she had generated a manual of “best practices” that needed to be followed, and external monitors were needed to insure this, as well as retrained internal monitors.
Board member Albert Lemons gave some examples to teaching and governing techniques from his HISD experience, which were well received by the audience.
At this point, the public was invited to make comments. About 9 people spoke in their 3 minute time allotment.
Robin Curtis, representing NEEF, said “We deserve better. We demand better. Invite people in that can help us.”
Others offered advice, or asked the board to join with the public and parents in unity.
At this point, Rowell answered a board question that TEA required all unacceptable campuses to have external monitors, and to pay for them, and that North Forest was not being singled out for discipline.
Acting Superintendent William Jones took the rest of the meeting time, to explain and answer questions on his proposals from consolidation of some schools, and reduction of staff to get the current and next year’s budget into line.
Jones presented what he called Plan I and Plan II, basically referring to what had to be done immediately in Plan I, and what had to transpire before next year’s 2008-2009 school year, in Plan II.
The plans called for reducing expenses by consolidation of the two high schools, combining of Hilliard and Tidwell into one elementary, and reduction of the non-teaching staff in Plan I and the teaching staff and others in Plan II.
In addition, Jones called for reduction of all budgets immediately by 20%, the sale of some district property, including the old elementary school at Langley, unused portable buildings and vacant land, and the postponement indefinitely of the construction at Kirby Middle School. He noted that the student population is decreasing by 500 or more each year, and will soon by only about 7700. This means the 1200 staff is too many, and he suggested a total of 300 cuts by the next school year. He also pointed out that a reduced population meant that many buildings are underutilized, suggesting consolidation.
Although many of these changes are difficult, it was acknowledged that they are necessary. A preliminary vote defeated the reduction plans, 4 to 3, but another vote on them was scheduled for Monday, Feb. 25.Jones indicated that Phase I could save $7 million, Phase II $10.6 million. These savings, plus funds expected from federal and state sources, especially after the attendance audit is verified, should put the district back on sound financial footing, he said.
TEA representatives indicated that they would allow the board to continue to solve its problems.