The Board of Trustees of the Harris County Department of Education, unique, educational entity that serves school districts, government agencies, nonprofits, and the public in the third-largest county in the U.S., recently approved a $172.9 million budget for the 2022-2023 school year.
Annually, the HCDE serves a quarter-million students and educators through schools for students with profound special needs; the oldest adult education program in Texas; Head Start early childhood education; school-based therapy services; and afterschool programs. HCDE also offers educators professional development and certification, school safety training, records management, and a purchasing cooperative.
Yet, for all that the HCDE does, few know of the entity’s responsibilities and impact. To that point, the Defender spoke with HCDE trustee Danyahel (Danny) Norris about the approved budget and how the money is going to be spent.
DEFENDER: Where is the bulk of the money going?
NORRIS: The majority of our money is going towards operations through our general fund ($63 million) and to our programs through our special fund ($46 million). Most of our general fund goes towards payroll and other operating costs. Our special fund includes our Adult Education program (the largest program in the state), our Head Start program, our Safe and Secure Schools program, and our afterschool/summer/expanded learning programs. Another sizeable chunk ($43 million) is going towards our current capital improvements projects, which include new head start buildings, a new adult education building, and a new equine therapy facility.
DEFENDER: How much is going towards closing the “achievement gap?”
NORRIS: Much of our existence as an organization at this point is to address the blind spots in the public education space in Harris County and to help the school districts we work with to do so through our programs. So I’d argue that much of what we do helps the achievement gap in Harris County.
DEFENDER: How has the attack on CRT impacted budget allocations?
NORRIS: CRT hasn’t impacted our budget all for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, CRT is a graduate school level elective (mainly taught at select law schools) and not a subject taught by any HCDE program (or any other k-12 program that I personally know of). Also, curriculum issues in Texas are usually addressed on the state level, not the local one, through the State Board of Education.
DEFENDER: Are any funds dedicated to addressing the teacher shortage?
NORRIS: In order to address the high demand for teachers and education administrators, we have made sure that we kept our salaries very competitive, and as a result we are at the top of those in Harris County.
DEFENDER: What’s the most progressive or creative (or both) HCDE initiative funded under this new budget?
NORRIS: We have a number of innovative programs and I’d say things like our sobriety high school at Fortis Academy is a great example of seeing where there’s an area that our department has stepped in to fulfill a need not currently being addressed in the local education landscape. I would also note that among our newest and probably most out of the box programs is the equine therapy program we’re building in the historically Black Barrett Station community on the east side of Harris County near Crosby. When it’s up and running, it will allow our students, most of who are at risk and/or have special needs, to have a therapy program that has at this point, mostly been reserved for those in much higher socio-economic groups. This video (Equine Therapy: A Life Changer for HCDE Families) was a result of our pilot program and gives some insight into some of the benefits it has already shown for some of our students.