In warning that government programs never disappear, Ronald Reagan once quipped that “a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”
Harris County may very well prove Reagan’s point, where the last remaining county board of education in the state continues to conduct elections and levy taxes 50 years after independent school districts took over the operation of public schools within the county.
Property owners in the county pay taxes to both their local independent school districts and to the Harris County Department of Education.
The current tax rate for HCDE is a half cent per $100 assessed property value for county homes and businesses, and yields nearly $25 million each year for the department.
According to archival research conducted by retired teacher and activist Colleen Vera, the board was originally authorized as the “County School Trustees of Harris County” and has existed in some form since 1876, but now operates as the Harris County Department of Education or HCDE.
Although the state began transitioning to the independent school district model in the early twentieth century, county school boards were given authority to levy a school “equalization tax” for the purpose of supporting local public schools.
Documents obtained by Vera from county archives indicate that Harris County voters approved a 1 percent county-wide school equalization tax in the 1930s.
By 1966, all public schools in Harris County were under the management of local independent school districts, but the Harris County education board continued to operate supplemental programs.
A decade later, all but two of the state’s county school boards had been dissolved.
Dallas County’s board continued to operate by providing transportation services for school districts until 2017 when undeniable evidence of corruption led voters to approve the board’s dissolution.
Now, as the last remaining county school board, the Harris County Department of Education has created ways to remain operational, although some observers, such as Vera, believe HCDE functions have extended far beyond the original purpose of supporting public education.
HCDE Alternative Schools
Although no longer responsible for any public schools, HCDE does operate four alternative schools. Two are designed to serve students with “intellectual or behavioral disorders,” one serves expelled or adjudicated youth in grades 6-12, and the most recent addition, Fortis Academy, is for high school students coping with substance addiction.
HCDE’s four schools take students from surrounding school districts, with some coming from as far away as Brenham, but these schools are not free of charge. Although HCDE collects taxes itself, the ISDs contract to pay annual tuition of $20,300 to $23,500 for a seat.
According to trustee Don Sumners (R-Position 7, At-Large), HCDE is currently offering school districts a heavily discounted tuition rate for Fortis Academy. Having opened in 2018, the school is designed to accommodate as many as 100 students, but Sumners said there are currently only about 18 students enrolled and the board hopes the discounted tuition rate will increase participation.
HCDE schools have come under scrutiny due to allegations of mismanagement and student abuse, but the Texas Education Agency seems to have limited jurisdiction over the department.
In a highly publicized incident in 2018, a TEA investigation substantiated allegations of student abuse at one of HCDE’s special education schools. But because HCDE is not a traditional school district, the agency could not directly prescribe disciplinary action or directly monitor HCDE. Instead, TEA charged the contracting school district, Cy-Fair ISD, with repairing the damage done to the student’s education and mental health.
At the January 15, 2020 board meeting, Superintendent James Colbert, Jr. reported that officials from the Texas Education Agency had made a surprise visit to two HCDE schools serving special education students a few days prior, but did not provide details about the visit.
HCDE continues to use federal grant money to operate Head Start and after-school programs, and provides other services to area school districts, such as sending temporary counseling staff.
Records Management and Procurement Services
Over the years HCDE has created other purposes for existence.
The department operates a records management and storage facility used by multiple nonprofits and government entities such as the City of Houston. In a warehouse just outside of Houston’s 610 Loop, HCDE employees (who are part of the state’s Teacher Retirement System) process, image, destroy, and store records.
Additionally, through its Choice Partners Cooperative, HCDE offers “procurement and contract solutions to meet the purchasing needs of school districts and other governmental entities.”
The cooperative generates annual revenue for HCDE, and for Fiscal Year 2019, there was a net benefit of $6 million.
These unorthodox activities concern both critics and some board members.
Budget and Bond Debt
Trustee Sumners, who is a Certified Public Accountant and former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector, says that while most independent school districts are struggling to meet budget requirements, HCDE enjoys a substantial “accumulated unassigned surplus” of nearly twice the amount recommended by the department’s independent auditor and which totals 80 percent of annual tax revenue.
This, Sumners says, allows HCDE to engage in unrestrained spending.
“With this unrestricted spending surplus, there’s no internal control due to a lack of funds. The board can add…whatever.”
In the Fiscal Year 2020 Budget, total projected revenues (stemming from property taxes, grants, and other revenue sources) are $112.9 million while projected expenditures are $128 million, requiring the use of more than $15 million of the accumulated surplus.
Despite the budget surplus, HCDE does carry bond debt, but county boards of education were never authorized by the state to issue bonds.
HCDE created a separate entity entitled the Harris County Department of Education Public Facility Corporation or PFC. This corporation issues general obligation bonds, without tax-payer approval, for the purpose of constructing facilities. As of last August, the bond debt for HCDE was $13 million.
In turn, HCDE rents these facilities from PFC for the amount of the debt payment, and thus can report that the department itself does not directly pay any debt service.
There have been numerous attempts over the years to either dissolve the HCDE or at least subject its operations to greater oversight.
Recent HCDE Elections
Efforts have included attempts to take control of the board through what used to be non-partisan elections, and after the Texas Legislature moved HCDE elections to county control in the 1980s, through partisan elections.
The 2018 elections gave Republicans a 5-2 majority on the HCDE board and at the outset, they seemed poised to make significant changes.
In January of 2019, newly elected board president Josh Flynn led a vote to end a contract with HillCo Partners, a lobby group hired and paid $220,000 per year to counter state legislative proposals that would subject HCDE to sunset review, audit, or a state-ordered plebiscite that might allow voters to dissolve the board altogether.
But Republican unity on the board quickly broke down and few additional changes were enacted. Republican Eric Dick, who did not join the vote to end the HillCo contract, began voting with the Democrat members. After Republicans George Moore and Josh Flynn resigned, Dick joined Democrat trustees in voting to replace them with Democrat party candidates.
On taking control of the board last month, Democrats elected Eric Dick president and quickly moved to extend the superintendent’s contract and increase his yearly salary from $234,514 to $290,000 while doubling the annual contribution to his 401(k) plan.
Legislative Efforts to Reform HCDE
In the state legislature, Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) has repeatedly introduced legislation to either abolish or subject HCDE to greater scrutiny, and in at least one instance he was joined by former Democrat State Senator Sylvia Garcia of Houston. In 2015, Bettencourt and Garcia tried unsuccessfully to launch a sunset review to examine how the department managed tax revenues.
Bettencourt again filed HCDE-related legislation in 2017 and 2019, including a plan to allow an Office of Inspector General to have oversight, but after passing the Senate, the House Education Committee led by Representative Dan Huberty (R-Humble) did not move the proposal forward.
Bettencourt told The Texan that he would continue to advocate for oversight and review of the HCDE, especially in light of spending and transparency concerns.
“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,” said Bettencourt. “At a minimum, the HCDE needs oversight from either the TEA or an Inspector General.”
While neither the Texas House nor Senate interim charges specifically mention HCDE, state legislative Education Committees could take up examination of the department prior to the 2021 legislative session.
In the meantime, the Harris County Department of Education continues to collect taxes and conduct business as usual.
Editor’s Note: We clarified a sentence in the original version of this story regarding HCDE’s budget surplus. The original sentence was confusing in its wording and made the projected 2020 expenditures at HCDE sound like it was deficit spending as opposed to spending existing surplus funds. Thanks to some of our astute readers for pointing this out.
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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.