Houston has a special election for a school board seat on the ballot this year.
The Houston Chronicle endorsed Anne Sung for the open seat: “Anne Sung is the only candidate who will be prepared to do a good job immediately.”
A candidate forum last night demonstrated why Sung earned their support—rather than believing she already knows all the answers, Sung has the training and experience to know how ask the right questions and how to evaluate the responses.
Three of four candidates attended the panel:
- Anne Sung, an HISD graduate with
twothree degrees from Harvard University, experience as an award-winning classroom teacher, and a history of advocacy in the public education policy arena;
- John Luman, a lawyer and lobbyist who left large-firm practice “by mutual agreement” several years ago after “misrepresentations to the court” triggered an unfavorable outcome for his client; and
- Victoria Bryant, an HISD graduate and pharmacist who is active in the business and medical communities and engaged as a board member for several education and business organizations.
The fourth, Danielle Paulus, was a no-show, just as she was for the paper’s endorsement screening interviews.
One question demonstrated why Bryant should be immediately disqualified from board service. The candidates were asked whether they had actually attended any HISD board meetings.
Bryant said she has not ever attended one, explaining that she would not have a voice at such a meeting so there would be no reason to go. She said she did not think anyone should “antagonize” the board while they were trying to work.
Bryant will be very, very surprised to see what a school board meeting actually looks and sounds like once she bothers to show up to see what the job she’s running for actually entails.
That leaves Luman and Sung.
Luman answered that he has attended “a” school board meeting. “I sat in the back,” he assured the audience, presumably so they would know he is a cool kid.
He also explained that he has met with four trustees: Anna Eastman, Greg Meyers, Mike Lunceford (who just announced a 12/31/16 resignation date), and Harvin Moore (the outgoing trustee whose resignation prompted this election).
Sung answered that she has attended numerous school board meetings, as they are central to the focus of her civic engagement.
Sung also has met with eight of the current trustees, who represent a greater diversity of opinions and experiences than the four Luman has consulted:
Greg Meyers is the only board member Sung has not met with, although she has spoken with him.
Another question illustrated how each candidate would would conduct outreach in the district and who they believe should provide input.
Luman listed the people he has been speaking to “to get up to speed” in response to the question of how he would conduct outreach in the district:
- The Texas Education Agency
- “Morath out of Dallas” (also known as Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath)
- The groups that have endorsed me, which included a list of business people and former school board members
Notably, Luman did not mention parents.
Sung explained that trustees should seek input and listen to diverse constituencies. She outlined steps she would take:
- Holding forums in schools across the district to reach HISD parents and families
- Talking to teachers, principals, and school leaders to understand how board policies were affecting them
- Education policy experts
- Surrounding school districts to learn what they are doing to set benchmarks and be accountable
One question pointed to the recent Texas Education Agency mandate that the Houston ISD’s board and superintendent, who are ultimately responsible for the district’s chronically low-performing schools, “undergo leadership training or face serious sanctions, which could include trustees being forced from their elected positions and the closing of campuses”
Asked what that training should include, Luman responded by explaining why the rest of the board needs to learn what he already knows how to do:
Luman: Said the board should learn to treat students as the school board’s prime asset, and teach board members how to negotiate and learn to get along rather than behave in a ‘my way or the highway’ fashion. As a lobbyist and attorney, he explained, he understands how to negotiate and get people to agree. He did not explain what they should be agreeing about, and he did not acknowledge that sometimes, boards must work even when people cannot all reach agreement.
Sung responded by suggesting how a board, working as a team, could learn together how to do their jobs better:
Sung: Said the training should include a review of best practices from boards operating successfully in other diverse school districts with high numbers of students living in poverty. Board members should learn to work together and disagree respectfully, she said. They should also receive help understanding the budgeting process and learn how to read the budget at a detailed level, a suggestion based on her observation that some members seem not to have a complete grasp on the highly complex process.
HISD’s budget came up again and again throughout the night—everyone understands that there simply are not enough funds, and may soon be even fewer, thanks to recapture, for board members to promise any radical expansions of programs.
When asked whether they would ever consider advocating for a tax increase, Luman immediately said no, he would never consider raising taxes.
Sung gave a much more nuanced answer, explaining that she could not in good conscience promise never to consider raising taxes. If, after cuts and adjustments, the system was still not working, and if the state legislature were unwilling to provide relief by raising the per student allotment or adjusting the Robin Hood formula, she said the board would need to at least consider how raising taxes might allow them to fulfill their obligation to students.
One comment Luman made, which seemed to be a jab at Sung’s experience, reveals how shallow an understanding he has of how the school board should function. Discussing the role of board members and his qualifications to service, he said:
“This job isn’t about teaching or micromanagement.” Comparing teachers to mechanics, he said you “don’t put a mechanic in the board room,” implying you shouldn’t put a teacher on the school board.
The analogy is a simplistic and inaccurate one. Students aren’t widgets, schools aren’t machines, and pulling lever A does not guarantee outcome B.
In order for a board to properly oversee the superintendent, it must be able to understand the impact the superintendent’s policies have throughout the district.
Sung responded to the implication that her extensive education experience somehow makes her less qualified to serve on the board by demonstrating that she has actual policy knowledge and professional experience that is relevant to the job board members are required to perform:
“It’s easy to receive a report that looks great,” she said, with colored graphs and pictures. But you have to know what questions to ask to evaluate what it is really saying, or what it isn’t saying, to get beyond the pretty graphs.
Luman, at the end of the evening in response to a question about what the district needed to do better, seemed to say he was comfortable with 15%-25% college readiness attainment among HISD graduates. [The moderator pointed out that 15% was the aggregate rate, but that 60% of Caucasian students and only 6% of Black and Latino students graduated college-ready.]
He referred to a successful apprenticeship program in a nearby local district, and said the district needs to make sure that the A and B schools have the funds to make kids college ready, and the rest need to explore partnerships so that the 75% to 85% are ready to get into the labor force.
Was he implying that HISD needs to settle for providing better vocational training for the majority of its students, giving up on its goal of college readiness for the majority of graduates?
While not every student needs to attend a four-year college or university to be successful, Houston needs far more than 25% of its high school graduates to be ready to succeed at college if our city is to have a strong economic future with a workforce prepared to fill the jobs that will be available to secure a stable future for themselves and their families.
The Houston Independent School District will have a greater impact on Houston’s economic and civic vitality than any other single entity.
If HISD cannot find a way to provide adequate, let alone excellent, education to a largely low-income and minority population of students, employers will leave, as they won’t be able to hire the workers they need, and the workers they have will not have the option of sending their own children to public schools.
HISD’s Board of Trustees has become a sparring ring so brutal that two trustees have elected to walk away from their service a year before their terms would have ended at an election period.
Now is not the time for amateurs, ideologues, or dilettantes—and Luman has revealed throughout the campaign that he is all three of these things.
Voters should know that until his candidacy was announced, Luman’s most prominent school advocacy activity was as the head of a neighborhood group formed to oppose an affordable housing project. Several times throughout the night, he brought up his work preventing the project from moving ahead as an example of the kind of leadership he brings to the table.
Briargrove Elementary is already overcrowded. Neighborhood students are not guaranteed a spot at the campus. That has been true for several years, but Luman did not elect to organize at that time. The fact that he did not get involved until hypothetical kids in a not-yet-built development might at some point add to the school’s wait list exposes that opposition to the project was not just about overcrowding and cost, but also about who would be doing the overcrowding.
He has shown he will listen to those who agree with him, and advocate for the best policies for his own family and his immediate neighbors, which are great ways to feel good about yourself and make friends, but horrible ways to be an effective public servant.
Anne Sung was involved in public education long before she became a parent. She has a track record of engagement with and advocacy on behalf of public school students. Her education and work experience are more on point than any other current member of the board or candidate for the open position.
The trustee position will be the second to last item on the ballot for voters in HISD District VII. A nonpartisan race, it will not be covered if a voter selects a straight ticket ballot. District VII voters, and the students in the schools their taxes support, will be best served by Anne Sung. Let’s hope enough of them go to the end of the ballot to make sure they get that chance.