By Gilbert Hoffman North Forest Publisher
North Forests new Multi-Service Center was the site of a public meeting last Saturday, June 28, to hear an update on the current status of the North Forest ISD from leaders of the educational community.
The featured speaker was Ron Rowell of the Texas Education Agency, but also present to speak and answer questions from a large audience of parents and citizens were NFISD superintendent William Jones, NFISD Board Vice President Alan Provost, and officers of the NEEF (Northeast Education First) advocacy group, including Robin German Curtis.
Additionally, although not present, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee issued a strong statement calling for a new Board of Managers and the reassignment of special education children to other districts.
The meeting was moderated by NEEFs Paula Settles, who also ran a question and answer session later with Albert Coleman.
The main speaker, TEAs Ron Rowell, who has led the team that is trying to correct problems at NFISD, made a four part presentation, reviewing the problems, situations, and outlook for the future.
He broke his talk down into the history of TEAs involvement with North Forests problems, the academic failures, the financial problems, and the interaction with the community.
Rowell pointed out that all his presentation material was public information, available on the TEA website.
He stated that in 1996 TEA was involved in an onsite audit of finances, and possible misuse of state and federal funds. This matter was eventually sent to the Harris County District Attorney in 1997 for investigation and action, he noted.
In 1999, PINGS reports (attendance) were audited for irregularities in reports sent to TEA. In 2000 this data was checked again, and rated as unacceptable to the state.
In 2001 a monitor was assigned by TEA, to review financial reporting and expenditures. That monitor was removed in 2002, but in 2004 a Review Audit was ordered of the districts cash flow. In 2006 it was determined that Expenditures reported on FEMA funds was inaccurate, and funds were withheld, leading to a $17 million deficit for the District.
In Academic matters, Rowell said the record had not been good, but that some improvement had been noted.
He noted that in the 05-06 school year, of eleven campuses, 8 had been rated Unacceptable based on TAKS test results. In 06-07, this had improved to 5 Unacceptable, and one was even Recognized. In 07-08, there were only 2 Unacceptable campuses, but both of these were the high schools.
He noted that Oak Forest Middle School, which looked like it would close after test results this winter, now may be on track to have an Acceptable rating on their test scores, and if this is true, which will be determined in the next month, then the school will not be forced to close as originally thought.
The problem at the high schools is serious, he noted, and cited graduation statistics. Of a total of 650 seniors at the two schools, only 216 graduated this spring, approximately 400 did not graduate. He stated that at the new North Forest High School (consolidated for the fall), there will be more discipline, more homework, and more accountability by the staff and students.
He noted that TEA currently sends an adviser to help with teacher training, and another to help with financial matters. In addition, two conservators are permanently assigned to govern financial and academic matters. With their assistance, the District has reduced its indebtedness from $17 to $11 million, but indicated that this effort is not enough, and the district may be faced with a rollback tax election in the fall to raise additional money to keep the district financially sound. The current tax rate is $1.04 per $100 assessed valuation, he said, and this might need to be raised to a maximum of $1.17 per.
Rowell said North Forest MUST start to pay back its debt. However, he said a call for a Tax Rollback Election in November would be a matter for the NFISD Board of Trustees to decide and vote upon.
Rowell pointed out that one of the factors leading to the financial problems is too large a staff for a decreasing student body. In 1993-94, for example, he said there were 13,132 students and 1538 staff. In 2006-06 there were only 8957 students, but almost as much staff at 1420 persons.
On community involvement, Rowell said it is imperative that parents help get the kids off the street and back into school. Average attendance at the high schools was only 88%, well below the state average. The increased attendance rate is important because North Forest needs in income, and the kids need the education, Rowell commented.
Rowell vowed that TEA has not had any discussion about Consolidation with another district, and the district will be open for the 2008-09 school year.
He said that TEA wants to make NFISD the best we can for the 2008-09 school year.
Superintendent Jones reveals new plans
Speaking next, Interim Superintendent William Jones spoke about several plans he will implement for 08-09 to solve some current problems.
He noted that graduation problems include low TAKS scores, attendance problems, students taking wrong courses for graduation, and some students that didnt pass required classes for graduation.
He said that new initiatives will include Home Visits by teachers, administrative staff, and the Mayor of Houston Bill White, to invite students back into school that have dropped out;
Increased discipline at the High Schools;
and working with the District Attorneys office and a special prosecutor, to enforce attendance requirements. This will include reopening a courtroom at Smiley to hear these cases.
Jones said this attendance enforcement has been used successfully at Cy-Fair, Katy, Pasadena, and will be shared with Galena Park.
Jones noted that a new computer reporting system needs more time and training to work properly. He also reviewed in detail the current results of TAKS scores in all grade levels, with very notable improvement in almost all categories and all grade levels.
In summary, he called for more collaboration to solve the Districts problems, and said he anticipated a total school population of 7600 students, with 1500-1800 in North Forest High School.
Robin Curtis made a slide presentation of the state of the NF District, and NEEFs attempts to work with the district to bring improvements in the quality of education.
After reviewing a litany of problems, including turnover of superintendents, she called attention to the ongoing transfer of students out of the district, problems in the special education department, and possible consolidation or closure.
At this point, audience comments pointedly asked for intervention in governance, and improvement in the quality of food served in the schools.
Provost reveals complaints, constraints
In his comments directed to the audience, Assistant Board President Alan Provost complained about irresponsible reporting by the media, and interference by TEA with the boards work. He said that without the TEA, the District would have the right superintendents and staff at this time.
Provost also revealed that in spite of what TEA said about keeping the district open, direct comments had been made to him by several legislators, including State Senators John Whitmire and Rodney Ellis, who indicated they wanted to close the District to save the state money and problems.
The audience asked questions of all the speakers by submitting cards. Among the comments, were the problems with getting up-to-date information from the Administration, including academic goals and time lines to accomplish these.
Jones said that information was always available, and invited the public to call him at 713-491-1050.