Local senator targets county departments of education

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, has proposed bills that would affect the Harris County Department of Education.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, has proposed bills that would affect the Harris County Department of Education.

The Harris County Department of Education serves 25 school districts, offering services from early childhood up to adult education. However, several bills that have been filed in the state legislature this session seek to dissolve the department or eliminate its taxing authority.

Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, has filed three bills that would affect the department. The most extreme, Senate Bill 1167, proposes abolishing county departments of education in counties with a population of 3.3 million or more.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 1166 calls for the review of county departments of education in counties with a population of 4 million or more. The bill, co-authored by Sylvia R. Garcia, D-Houston, calls on the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, the state commission that analyzes the performance of and need for certain agencies, to determine if certain CDEs are no longer needed.

Locally, Bettencourt said the Region 4 Education Service Center—which provides professional development, behavior support, special education, transportation and IT solutions to 49 area districts—already serves the same purpose as HCDE.

“There’s duplication with Region 4 already,” he said. “Let’s do a complete full Sunset Review and find out what duplication exists.”

By offering shared service arrangements, education officials say HCDE helps districts save money from their own budgets in areas such as deaf educational services, professional development, instructional technology and assistance with safety and security measures.

HCDE Superintendent James Colbert said, with 160 occupational, physical and music therapists on staff, his department makes up 54 percent of these services for all of Harris County's special needs students.

Additionally, the department’s early childhood education program, Head Start, reaches 1,300 children, and the adult education division serves 10,000 learners annually, he said.

Colbert said his team seeks out new opportunities to implement professional development, but school districts often come to them first.

“We like to think of ourselves as the entity that addresses the blind spot of public education,” he said. “Just because people haven’t heard of us, don’t exactly know what we do or understand how we work, doesn’t mean you should kill it.”

Colbert said his department is about five times larger than Region 4. With 1,100 employees and 32 facilities, he said many ISDs could no longer offer certain services without HCDE.

For instance, the department is in the process of developing the county’s first of four public recovery high schools for students fighting drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, Colbert said. This program could benefit students free of charge, he said.

“Typically those services are only found in extremely expensive private schools,” Colbert said. “There are 10,000 drug-related offenses in Harris County every single year. We need to embrace that child that has a drug problem and help them fight the addiction and earn their education at the same time.”

The department already has two alternative schools for students with disciplinary problems and two that cater to students whose disabilities may interfere with their learning environments in traditional classrooms, Colbert said.

A third bill filed by Bettencourt, Senate Bill 646, would eliminate the county department of education’s taxing authority in counties with a population of 3.3 million or more. Colbert said this would significantly diminish the department’s effectiveness.

“Bettencourt’s comments aren’t very consistent with the reality that I know,” he said. “Sometimes we’re looked at as an easy target, and people don’t think about the implication it has on children. If we weren’t necessary, why would [school districts] keep renewing their contracts with us?”

Colbert said some believe it would be an easy elimination because the department only gets $0.0052 per $100 valuation in property tax. He said last year he paid $12.85 to HCDE versus several thousands of dollars that went to his local ISD.

Bettencourt said the county’s school foundation offices are undergoing an IRS audit, which he said underscores the necessity of his bills.

“We’re now going to proceed with having a hearing on the bills, and given the problems lately in the district, I would expect they’ll clear in the Senate,” he said.

Colbert said he looks forward to testifying to the Senate on behalf of his department.

“It seems like every year public education has to defend itself when all they’re trying to do is better society,” Colbert said. “I would like to hope and think that one day instead of being attacked by the legislature, we might be supported.”
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