Local senator targets county departments of educationSen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, has filed three bills that could affect the Harris County Department of Education. The most extreme, Senate Bill 1167, proposes abolishing county departments of education in counties with a population of at least 3.3 million.

Meanwhile, SB 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 whether a specific county department of education is no longer needed.

HCDE serves 25 school districts, including Spring and Klein ISDs, offering services from early childhood up to adult education.

Locally, Bettencourt said the Region 4 Education Service Center—which serves Spring and Klein ISDs and 18 other districts across Harris County in addition to 30 others in Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty and Waller counties—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.”

Region 4 services include professional development, behavior support, special education and transportation.

However, officials with local school districts said the department serves an important purpose.

Needs of district

HCDE provides resources and programs including adult education, business services and early childhood intervention services, said Beverly McGlasson, administrative assistant to the superintendent at KISD.

“An important resource rendered to our school district is the professional development opportunities that HCDE offers to our teachers and staff and our board of trustees,” McGlasson said. “The Superintendents’ Institute provides a venue for area superintendents to meet as we go about finding solutions for issues that affect all of us.”

KISD receives funds from HCDE for a variety of programs it would not otherwise be able to include in the budget, she said.

The total amount paid by HCDE to the district in 2015-16 was $2,328,134, of which $512,449 was paid directly for the benefit of the students, she said.

“If HCDE is abolished, the district would have to seek these services from other sources, resulting in higher costs,” McGlasson said.

SISD Chief Communication Officer Tiffany Dunne-Oldfield said services the district receives from HCDE include occupational and physical therapy services as well as early childhood education training.

“The HCDE is a valuable partner to Spring ISD, helping us serve our [students], develop staff and be fiscally prudent with our resources,” Dunne-Oldfield said.

Dissolving HCDE would result in higher costs for many school districts, Dunne-Oldfield said.

“Many districts in the area would need to look at other service providers or bring in-house the services and support that we have grown accustomed to receiving from HCDE,” she said. “We hope that will not be the case.”

HCDE Superintendent James Colbert said with 160 therapists on staff, his department makes up 54 percent of therapy services for all of Harris County. Additionally, the department’s early childhood education program, Head Start, reaches 1,300 children, and the adult education division serves 10,000.

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 with 1,100 employees, his department is about five times larger than Region 4. Many ISDs could no longer offer certain services without HCDE, he said.

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

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

Local senator targets county departments of educationTaxpayer dollars

A third bill filed by Bettencourt, SB 646, would eliminate the county department of education’s taxing authority in counties with 3.3 million or more people, but no action was taken on this bill in the Senate Education Committee. Colbert said this bill would have significantly diminished the department’s effectiveness.

“If we weren’t necessary, why would [school districts] keep renewing their contracts with us?,” Colbert said.

Colbert said last year he paid $12.85 to HCDE and thousands to his local ISD. In 2016, the department collected $20.7 million in property taxes.

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

As of press time, SB 1166 was approved by the Senate and moved to the House, while SB 1167 was still pending before the Senate Education Committee no action had been taken on SB 646.

“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.”