Although responsible for fewer than 2,000 children on any given day, the Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) employs a school superintendent with compensation comparable to superintendents in much larger Texas school districts.
As the last remaining county board of education in the state, HCDE has not been responsible for operating any public schools since 1966, but does operate four alternative schools for students with intellectual or behavioral disorders, substance addictions, or who have been expelled or adjudicated.
These four schools, which are not accredited by either the state or any private agency, have a capacity for approximately 300 students at a time. Local school districts contract for seats at a cost of $20,300 to $23,500 annually per seat.
The department also uses federal grants to operate Head Start programs serving about 1,500 children.
In a 5-2 vote last December, board president Eric Dick (R-Position 2, Pct. 4) joined ranks with the board’s four Democrat trustees to approve a 23 percent pay raise for Superintendent James Colbert, Jr., bringing Colbert’s base salary to $290,000 per year.
The board also extended Colbert’s employment contract through 2023 and doubled contributions to his retirement accounts from $20,000 to $40,000 per year.
In addition to his base salary, the HCDE superintendent receives a $900 per month car allowance, and a monthly salary supplement equal to his contributions for retirement and healthcare to the Texas Teacher Retirement System (TRS).
Superintendent salaries of $250,000 and up are not uncommon in Texas urban and suburban districts, but are usually associated with large student populations.
Republican trustees Don Sumners (Position 7, At-Large) and Mike Wolfe (Position 5, At-Large) voted against the contract extension and raise.
“HCDE is a school district with four special schools that, as I recall, have less than 300 total seats,” said Wolfe. “So the Superintendent’s contract of close to $300,000 is excessive in the extreme, considering that many major school districts have tens of thousands of students.”
According to the Texas Education Agency, nearby Aldine ISD compensates its superintendent $287,798 per year to oversee schools with nearly 67,000 students. Harris County’s Spring ISD pays $267,582 to manage a student population of 35,385, and Houston ISD pays Superintendent Grenita Lathan $345,060 to oversee 209,772 students.
In response to the revised HCDE superintendent contract, State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) told The Texan, “No one is getting a 23 percent raise in the real world.”
Board president Dick defended his vote for the superintendent’s raise since he says Colbert has done a good job.
“He has continued to increase how much we leverage a nominal tax rate into providing a large amount of services. We also have continued to reduce the tax rate and actually increased services! I know of no other organization that is able to do that,” Dick wrote to The Texan.
As the last remaining holdover from the 19th Century Texas public school system, HCDE continues to levy property taxes for “support of public education” despite operating zero public schools.
The department also operates a “procurement service” known as Choice Partners Cooperative, and maintains a warehouse for records management and storage for other government entities.
Due to these extra business activities, HCDE has accumulated surplus funds. Although other trustees have warned that the accumulated surplus funds allow for unrestrained spending, President Dick maintains that HCDE should “serve as a role model for other organizations.”
“I say this because for every tax dollar collected, HCDE is able to turn it into five. Think about that for a minute: if Houston ISD took a lesson from HCDE our tax bills would be drastically reduced,” wrote Dick.
Bettencourt, who has repeatedly introduced legislation to allow for state oversight or reforms of HCDE, dismissed the idea that the department could serve as a role model.
“The HCDE is a taxpayer-supported enterprise using tax subsidies to run several businesses. The model could not possibly be adopted by any school district, much less Houston ISD,” said Bettencourt.
Trustee Wolfe also pointed out that although HCDE levies local property taxes on Harris County residents, the department also exerts pressure on taxpayers throughout the state.
“Taxpayers across the state of Texas are underwriting HCDE with the taxes they pay, due to the fact that every HCDE employee, including HCDE’s Choice Partners Cooperative employees, are part of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas,” explained Wolfe.
“Every single Texan across our state is subsidizing the last standing county school board in the state.”
According to documents provided to The Texan, HCDE budgets for 1,082 full-time employees, all of whom are covered by TRS.
The only other remaining county board of education was abolished by Dallas County voters in a 2017 plebiscite authorized by the state legislature.
Wolfe, who is not running for re-election to the HCDE board, is calling for state legislative action on the HCDE in the next session.
“I call on Senator Bettencourt and Representative Valoree Swanson (R-Spring) to continue their hard work to reform the Harris County Department of Education, and to give the voters the opportunity to vote on abolishing the HCDE.”
A copy of the superintendent’s contract can be found below:
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.