House Bill (HB) 31 would abolish each county board of education, board of county school trustees, and office of county school superintendent unless the citizenry decides to keep them by a majority vote in the next midterm election. Swanson’s bill aims squarely at Harris County, whose board of education is the last of its kind in Texas.
“All Harris County students have been educated by independent school districts (ISDs) since 1966, rendering the Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) an obsolete and redundant taxing entity, and the last remaining county board of education in Texas,” Swanson said.
“HB 31 gives voters the opportunity to finally abolish the entity.”
HCDE sweeps around the corners of public education by offering programs for special needs or expelled students and preschools for low-income families, among other initiatives. No longer responsible for any traditional public schools, HCDE’s nebulous mission also includes school therapy, the maintenance of a records warehouse just outside of Houston’s 610 Loop, and programs for students in drug recovery that include equine therapy and culinary arts.
HCDE’s schools draw students from surrounding ISDs, which pay annual tuition rates of $20,300 to $23,500 for a seat.
The department’s unaccredited schools skirt the definition of a public school district, thereby letting the program slip away from strict Texas Education Agency (TEA) oversight.
Doubt has festered among the board’s own members regarding allegations of irresponsible spending, including an unusually high pay raise for Superintendent James Colbert, Jr.
Don Sumners (R-Position 7, At-Large) has eyed HDCE’s constant surplus with some pessimism and has said the program’s deep pockets and low overhead make for freewheeling budget choices. Former trustee Mike Wolf (R-Position 5, At-Large), effectively asked for Swanson’s bill earlier this year.
“I call on Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and Representative Swanson 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,” Wolfe said.
State lawmakers have swung and missed at HDCE before. Swanson filed a similar bill last session that died in committee. In 2015, Bettencourt joined State Senator Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) in a bipartisan but fruitless effort to launch a sunset review of the board’s tax revenues.
“It’s the only remaining County Department of Education in Texas. It’s important to know what they’re doing and why they’re needed,” Bettencourt told The Texan in January. “At a minimum, the HCDE needs oversight from either the TEA or an Inspector General.”
In the general election, San Antonians voted to approve a program similar to HCDE in its mission though very different in its funding. Proposition A, approved by over 70 percent of voters, renewed a sales tax to fund a largely popular city education program for the disadvantaged called Pre-K 4 SA. The program offers free or reduced-tuition early education and training for teachers.
HCDE boasts a low tax rate trajectory, having voted to lower the rate for six years in a row.
“HCDE’s adopted tax rate is $0.004993 per $100 assessed property value for tax year 2020-2021,” according to HCDE’s website.
“For the average home in Harris County, valued at $167,000, this equates to $8.34 a year.”
County boards of education were established in 1911 to consolidate rural high schools in an effort to level the field between rural and urban school districts.
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