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Conversation with Texas Legislators Senators Borris L. Miles and Royce West

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By Defender News Service

The 86th Texas Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. Lawmakers are tackling everything from the state budget to public education to health care and more. At the center of it all — Texas’ only two African-American lawmakers.

The Defender continues its Conversations series with Senator Borris Miles (D-Houston) and Senator Royce West (D-Dallas).

Defender: Texas ranks 37 in public education and 27 in teacher pay in America. In 2011, legislators cut public education by $5 billion. How do you plan on fighting for those dollars that were cut and ensure our public schools are fully funded and teachers are compensated and what role does property taxes play in that rebuilding? 

Borris L. Miles:We take a firm stand, don’t talk to me about property taxes until you can properly finance our public school system. We have to repair that 2011 budget. We’ve been putting back a little at a time, but it’s not enough. So right now, we are working on formulas for school finance. That is the most important thing right now, just for an urban community like ours, but for rural Texas as well. We had a school in Rio Grande Valley that had so much extra money under the Robin Hood program, they built a waterpark on their campus, while we’re here in HISD struggling to pay teachers and having enough resources. The formula is broken.

Royce West:You have to be able to work with both parties to make a difference. Until we do something about funding our public schools, property taxes is a non-issue. And when we finally do that, we have to make sure its sustainable. It makes no sense to have the state put in 30-35 percent of the money to fund our public system and the rest of it is being shouldered by local districts. We never anticipated that HISD or Dallas ISD would have to give back millions of dollars through recapture to fund other districts in Texas. We have to do something about the structure. So over the past year, a commission has been looking at public school financing and we came up with a list of recommendations, which will ultimately be placed in a bill for our consideration. After that, the Texas Education Agency can look at how it will impact various districts.

Defender: Both of you have initiatives designed to help Black males. Sen Miles, your TexStars program has given over 100 scholarships to African American men. Sen. West, your Dr. Emmett J. Conrad Leadership Program has provided college students from Senatorial District 23 with paid employment in their respective fields of study. What other efforts are underway for Black males. 

Miles:We’ve identified that if you raise the bar for African American boys, rising waters will raise all boats. But we have to focus on them because they historically and repeatedly test at the bottom on every standardized test. They’re always the highest rate of state suspensions. I’m proud to say next month will kick off my $6 mil program at Wheatley, Kashmere, Worthing and Jack Yates, where 40 boys at each school will enter into a Posse Program, where they’ll move on the 9-12thgrade in each class. Their parents will sign contracts. The school will sign and we’ll move all 120 boys through the system and onto college.

West:We believe that success should up to the person in the mirror. We need to take away all the excuses – my mama don’t love me, my daddy wasn’t there, I can’t get anyone to love me. We’re trying to take away all of the excuses in terms of failure to succeed. I’m developing a public boarding school with a STEM focus and bringing in outside industry to feed into the program to make sure the kids not only have the theory in the classroom, but also be in a boarding school at least five days a week, that has mentors that will expose them to areas of STEM.

Defender: Criminal Justice seems to be a cornerstone issue for you both. Sen. West –you focus on at risk youth and Sen Miles—you focus on second chances. What are some of the advancements being made in these areas and what are some of the things you and your colleagues have in the works?

Miles: I exist because I was given a second chance. I filed a stack of bills on second chances. One is the Comprehensive Second Chance bill to cut time and seal with the records for nonviolent offenders. Some of the things we did growing up in school, the kids today do it, they’re in the criminal justice system. We need to seal their records so they can become productive citizens.

West:. There is a bill that was passed last year called the Community Safety Education Act (SB 30). It was in response to a lot of the shootings where Black males were shot by police in traffic stops. We recognize that you have to come up with a balanced solution. It took effect Sept 1, 2018. It establishes, what are the behavioral expectations of citizens and police officers and what are the rights of citizens when they are stopped by police officers. We put it in the Driver’s License manual and police academies. We also put it in the school system where between grades 9-12 students will be tested and it has to show on their transcripts. We’ll never know the full impact of it. But we put it in with the hope that we can reduce the number of fatalities. We’ve also done a lot of work with body cameras and dash cameras. We now have a third eye in terms of what did happen, what could’ve happened.

Defender: What actions are being taken to increase the state contract dollars Historically Underutilized Businesses are receiving?

Miles: Some agencies understand, but a whole lot of them don’t. There are an assortment of bills that have been filed, but the bottom line is in order for us to get in the game and play with the state, it’s all about relationships. You have to be a member of all those different associations. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. They play by the good ol’ boy system here in 2019. And we have to understand you have to be in the room when the deals are getting cut. And if you don’t, then don’t come running to my office talking about “Man, I can’t get no contracts.” I will ask are you qualified. Do you have the capacity. Then, I’ll walk you personally into a state agency.

West:Participation has gone up….with Anglo women. I don’t begrudge them at all. When agencies come before the Finance committee, they say ‘look, the numbers are up’ but when we delve in, we see African-American and Hispanic businesses are at the bottom. So this year the House and Senate is working together and identified about 23 agencies that we’re bringing in separately. We’re asking them to figure out which specific activities they can engage in to change the trajectory of African-American and Hispanic business participation.

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Conversations with Texas Legislators was made possible by a partnership with Houston Community College. The Defender’s Conversations and Coffee series gives the Black community an opportunity to engage up close with Houston leaders on subjects important to our community. Previous Defender guests include former HISD Superintendent Richard Carranza, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Texas Southern University President Austin Lane and Prairie View A&M University President Ruth Simmons. Other upcoming events include ‘Blacks and Browns: our common ground.’

This article originally appeared in the Defender News Network

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Philadelphia honors Patti LaBelle with a street – but spells her name wrong

DEFENDER NEWS NETWORK — Philadelphia honored singer Patti LaBelle with her very own street earlier this week. Unfortunately, the signs didn’t get her name right. The city’s Streets Department didn’t capitalize the “b″ in the legendary soul singer’s last name on the signs that were put up before Tuesday’s ceremony on Broad Street. A stretch between Locust and Spruce streets was renamed “Patti LaBelle Way” in honor of the Philadelphia native.

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Patti LaBelle (Photo by: The Heart Truth | Wiki Commons)

By Defender News Service

Philadelphia honored singer Patti LaBelle with her very own street earlier this week. Unfortunately, the signs didn’t get her name right.

The city’s Streets Department didn’t capitalize the “b″ in the legendary soul singer’s last name on the signs that were put up before Tuesday’s ceremony on Broad Street. A stretch between Locust and Spruce streets was renamed “Patti LaBelle Way” in honor of the Philadelphia native.

City spokeswoman Deana Gamble tells The Philadelphia Inquirer the city is aware of the error and plans to install signs with the correct capitalization next week.

A sign that LaBelle autographed and held during the ceremony had the correct spelling.

She thanked all the fans who came out to the ceremony and reminisced about her parents walking down that very stretch of Broad Street.

This article originally appeared in the Defender News Network.

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Lee Daniels to briefly resurrect his cancelled ‘Star’ drama series

DEFENDER NEWS NETWORK — Following news that the Fox Network cancelled the music drama Star after three seasons, comes word from producer Lee Daniels that the series will be making a comeback as a televised movie.

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By Defender News Service

Following news that the Fox Network cancelled the music drama Star after three seasons, comes word from producer Lee Daniels that the series will be making a comeback as a televised movie.

“The bad news is that ‘Star’ is not getting picked up for series,” Daniels says in an Instagram video post recently, which he captioned “Get ready for a two-hour gag!!”

In the clip, he calls the circumstances surrounding the cancellation “too long of a story to cry about.”

“The good news is: we’re doing a movie of the week to wrap things up for you all,” he says.

As was previously announced, fans were rocked by the news of the Empire spin-off getting the ax, especially seeing as how the season three finale ended on a jaw-dropping cliffhanger. The last episode aired Wednesday (May 8), just two days before the cancellation announcement.

At the time, Daniels said he was attempting to shop the series to other networks, but his efforts proved fruitless, as noted by TheWrap. Now the Oscar nominee vows to “make something real special for you to scream about with all of our cast members, even the dead ones.”

Daniels did not say when or on which network the two-hour Star movie will air, although it’s being assumed that the tele-film will be on Fox, which is also wrapping up Daniels’ Empire musical drama series next year. Reps for the network have not yet responded to requests for comment about Star’s resurgence.

The Atlanta-based Star follows the journey of three young women who form a musical group and navigate the ruthless business on their way to success. The cast features Jude Demorest, Ryan Destiny. Brittany O’Grady, Queen Latifah and Benjamin Bratt.

The sitcom averaged 3.5 million viewers for Season 3, compared to Season 2’s 4.1 mill, and hit a series low as recently as May 1, according to TVLine.

This article originally appeared in the Defender News Network.

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With conflicting budget estimates, will Texas teachers get the pay raises they anticipated?

DEFENDER NEWS NETWORK — When state lawmakers passed their landmark $11.6 billion school finance law in late May, school employees were eager to see how mandatory raises would affect their paychecks. A month later, they’re scratching their heads, struggling to decipher complicated changes and conflicting financial estimates that might not net teachers as much money as they expected.

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By Defender News Service

When state lawmakers passed their landmark $11.6 billion school finance law in late May, school employees were eager to see how mandatory raises would affect their paychecks.

A month later, they’re scratching their heads, struggling to decipher complicated changes and conflicting financial estimates that might not net teachers as much money as they expected.

Before lawmakers voted nearly unanimously to approve House Bill 3, which drastically overhauled Texas’ outdated school funding system, they received estimates from the state on how much additional money each of their school districts would likely receive over the next two years. But the estimates came with a warning: They could change significantly once the calculations were performed using local data.

Ahead of the upcoming school year, districts are now redoing those calculations themselves — and some are coming up short. That could pose a problem for teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians, since under HB 3, school districts are supposed to use a portion of the new money on those employees’ raises and benefits. (School boards must approve their budgets by either a June 30 or an Aug. 31 deadline.)

Georgetown ISD, for example, is projecting $5.9 million in new money in the upcoming school year, much less than the $10.3 million state estimate. And it will shell out about $9 million in recapture payments, which the state takes from wealthier districts to subsidize poorer ones — not the $3.5 million the state estimated in May.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, a large suburban district in the Houston area, should’ve expected $30 million more in the upcoming school year, according to the state estimates. But school board members approved a budget in late June that projected just $14 million more, according to Karen Smith, the district’s chief financial officer.

To remain competitive as employers, both districts are going beyond the state’s requirement to use 30% of the new money to increase salaries and benefits. Georgetown ISD is including $3,000 raises for teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses with more than five years of experience. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD approved a budget millions of dollars in the red that includes $25.4 million in raises for classroom teachers, librarians, counselors and nurses and $10.8 million in raises for all other employees.

Teacher pay raises quickly became a bipartisan rallying cry during the 2019 legislative session that finished up in May. But instead of the statewide $5,000 raise many teachers advocated for from the get-go, lawmakers approved a set of guidelines for salary bumps that would end up leaving the dollar amounts largely up to district leaders.

There is not yet an official statewide summary on what compensation packages look like across school districts, but eventually districts will be required to report that information to the Legislature. Meanwhile, the state has been providing guidance on how to interpret the new law through videos and PowerPoint presentations.

Without an across-the-board pay raise mandate from the state, teachers and other school employees have been looking left and right at neighboring school districts to judge how they’re going to fare. Some report having heard nothing from their school districts so far this summer, as they anxiously monitor the news from across the state.

Sunnyvale ISD Superintendent Doug Williams found that the state’s calculation for how much more his tiny school district would receive was pretty accurate: just under $600,000. But school districts in the vicinity, which include large, urban Dallas ISD, are getting millions more, meaning they’ll be required to offer bigger raises.

To stay competitive, Sunnyvale ISD’s school board approved larger pay raises than required by law, ranging from $1,800 for beginning teachers to $2,700 for the most experienced. “We have been blessed to be able to attract and retain great teachers,” Williams said. “We just want to make sure we are able to continue.”

In some school districts, local teachers’ unions and associations are butting heads with administrators as they advocate for higher raises and larger employer contributions to health insurance. After adopting a budget with 5% raises, Laredo ISD’s officials told frustrated teachers they are waiting for more guidance from the state before they consider raising salaries further.

In Houston ISD, the teachers union successfully threatened a no-confidence vote against the superintendent if trustees didn’t pass a budget with pay raises by later this month, arguing the delay would make them less competitive for hiring. After a contentious meeting, the board ultimately approved a deficit budget containing raises of 3.5% to 8%, depending on school employees’ experience levels. The budget also increased the minimum wage for school employees by $2 an hour.

For third grade writing teacher Huyenchau Vu, who watched the Legislature’s initial proposal for $5,000 raises dissolve, a 3.5% raise means a boost of less than $2,000 a year and less than $100 per paycheck. “It goes back into paying for everything, not necessarily into a savings account,” said Vu, who just finished teaching summer school at Houston ISD and will start her third year teaching in August.

She and her colleagues have been taking notes about the higher starting salaries and raises for Houston-area districts such as Aldine ISD and Alief ISD, but not necessarily because they’re trying to jump ship. While Vu would appreciate more money, she is also worried about the sustainability of the Legislature’s funding increase and is glad Houston ISD appears to be more “realistic” in its budgeting decisions than its neighbors.

“They’re paying their teachers a lot more knowing it’s just over the next two years that we’re receiving money from the state of Texas to put into these teacher salaries,” she said. “After that, no one’s sure what’s going to happen.”

This article originally appeared in the Defender News Network

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