When the Board of Trustees at the Houston Independent School District (HISD) voted to close Dodson Montessori and repurpose Jones High School at their March 13th board meeting, at the recommendation of Superintendent Terry Grier, they probably didn’t anticipate the consistent backlash they have received from members of the African American and Latino communities in Greater Houston.
On Monday, a group of organized parents and community activists asked students and parents to stand up to HISD, by calling for a boycott of Dodson Montessori.
Lead organizer for the event and HISD parent, Loretta Brock, felt that the boycott was a success and is planning to have "rolling boycotts" take place at other schools in the near future.
"We have to stand up for our children and let them know they matter," said Brock. "The only thing that HISD understands is money, so we have to hit them where it hurts; in their pocketbook."
According to figures from HISD, nearly 60 students from Dodson were marked absent on Monday, which is almost two times the normal student absentee average. The state of Texas funds HISD based on student attendance and according to the district, each absent student costs the district roughly $35 per day. The boycott seems to have worked and is definitely an attention-getter.
Longtime HISD critic and parent Travis McGee has twin first graders at Dodson Montessori and is tired of the lack of accountability at HISD and wants immediate changes at every level.
"Because HISD had already closed the schools in my neighborhood down, we were forced to go to Dodson," said McGee. "It’s almost as if we’re running out of options really, because once you get through chasing after a school that you believe is best for your child, they end up closing that one. I’m mad as hell about this and won’t stop until something is done about these gangsters."
To a large degree, McGee and other HISD critics have a major point. As of December 2010, HISD had 66 schools that they were considering closing or consolidating. As of March 2011, the list went down to 37 with 80% of those schools being predominantly minority schools. Now, the district has seemingly taken a different approach that consists of knocking off these same schools one-by-one.
If you take a look at every traditional Black community from the North, South, East, or West, you will see that there is low-enrollment; limited programs; lack of leadership stability; and a crippled feeder pattern. Many people argue against, what they believe, are flawed and disingenuous reasons to close Dodson and other schools within the district.
According to Brock, the minimum enrollment guidelines that are applicable to a comprehensive public school are not applicable to Dodson because it is a Montessori specialty school. Dodson already has over 218 applicants waiting to come to the school for the upcoming school year and many applicants were turned away and placed on a waiting list because they were told the school had no more space to accommodate them. With the recent board vote, the plan is to combine the 430 students at Dodson with Blackshear Elementary; a school that has 30 less students than Dodson and is considered academically unacceptable. The campus’ Montessori program will also move to Blackshear Elementary.
Some important facts to know about Dodson is that it is currently not underperforming, whereas Blackshear is; and Brock states that Dodson was named in a grant application but did not receive their share of grant funds, per the principal at Dodson, while in a meeting with Superintendent Grier. Allegedly, the grant has a sustainability component which would have required the school be kept open. If true, withholding this grant money from Dodson would help avoid any roadblocks when it comes to closing the school without any red tape issues.
So, when you look at Dodson, one can come to conclusion that the vote to close Dodson had nothing to do with low-enrollment, but rather the land in that area.
Speaking of which, the fix appears to have been in well before the board vote this month, because letters were sent to homeowners in the area at the beginning of the year, informing them that they would have their homes taken by eminent domain.
Gordon Anderson is extremely upset about the decision to close Dodson and having his mother’s home taken away from her by HISD.
"On January 15, my mother received a letter from the office of HISD real estate property manager Gary Hansel, informing her of the district’s intent to condemn and demolish her perfectly livable home for the stated purpose of relocating the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice and related facilities to her neighborhood," said Anderson. "This assertion to the ‘right to eminent domain’ over our property is, at least in part, nothing less than a naked land grab, or as stated in the Corporate world, a ‘hostile takeover’ at best."
Another key point to note is concerning current board president Juliet Stipeche, who voted for the closure of Dodson at the March board meeting, and is a graduate and was the valedictorian of the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. At the December 12, 2013 board meeting, the minutes reflect that the HISD Board of Trustees gave authority to the district for an eminent domain claim during their closed session that the public had no access to.
During that closed session, the board gave the district "Authority To Obtain Surveys, Appraisals, Due Diligence Studies, And Environmental Studies, And To Negotiate, Execute, And Amend Necessary Contracts For The Purchase Of Properties Fronting On The Southwest Corner Of Scott And Pease Streets For The New High School For Law Enforcement And Criminal Justice Site Within Approved Amounts, And Approval Of Resolutions For The Initiation Of Eminent Domain Procedures, If Necessary, For The Acquisition Of Properties For The New High School For Law Enforcement And Criminal Justice Site, With The Properties To Be Utilized For A Public Purpose, Namely, For Grounds Or Additional Grounds For Public School District Building(S) And Appurtenances Or Additions Thereto, Playgrounds, Athletic Fields, Green Space, And/Or Parks In Connection Therewith."
If the board decided to give the district the authority to spend money and move forward with sending homeowners eminent domain letters in January, two months before the board even voted on the closure of Dodson, one can’t help but come to the conclusion that the decision had already been made behind closed doors without the full public being made aware. More importantly, many are asking whether Board Trustee Stipeche should have recused herself from voting on the closure of Dodson, considering her ties to the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, and understanding that the board had already gone behind closed doors and had already voted to move the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice to the site where Dodson now sits.
Through this Dodson boycott, Brock believes that the parents and students are beginning to understand that there is an attack on their communities and are planning to stand in unity, while planning additional boycotts and developing strategies to not only get the attention of Superintendent Grier and his board members, but that will also lead to a reversal of the decision to close Dodson.
In addition to that demand, community activists continue to reiterate their desire to see Superintendent Grier fired and the district held accountable for the roughly $4 billion in bond money that voters approved and taxpayers are responsible for paying over the next several years.