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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.