A Houston-area school district spent millions in tax dollars to fund and fully staff a high school campus that had no students in the last school year. This would’ve slipped under the radar, but for a retired teacher’s keen eye on local government.

Colleen Vera is a Harris County Department of Education hawk, and rightfully so. Vera has been following the HCDE board’s actions for years now. At a recent board meeting, she posed a question after noticing something amiss in the board’s new 2018-2019 budget proposal. She asked about the attendance of a new recovery high school that HCDE opened last year.

The Fortis Academy opened last spring as an alternative recovery school for Houston-area students suffering from drug addiction. HCDE operates alternative schools and other business ventures and charges local ISDs a fee for their students to attend.

In April of 2017, the board approved the original development plan for the recovery school and “startup” funding of $950,000. At the time, HCDE superintendent James Colbert, Jr. said they performed a feasibility study to determine how many of the 25 area school districts would be interested in the project. According to HCDE staff, 14 were interested.

“We’ve had a number of school districts that heard about the concept and have been biting at the bit to know when they were going to have access to it,” Colbert said. “I think the biggest issue we’re concerned with is the waiting list… there’s going to be a priority on seats.”

On top of the startup funding, HCDE budgeted $1.1 million for the campus in the 2017-2018 school year. As of June 30, they’ve spent $871,645 of that on staff and operating costs — without ever filling one seat.

During the approval of the project, Trustee Erica Lee-Carter asked her fellow board members to “make history” by passing the item. To her credit, they probably did make history by spending over a million dollars without servicing a single student.

Trustee Don Sumners, who previously served as both the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Treasurer, expressed concern during the original meeting. “My apprehension about it is we would spend a lot of money to open a school that wouldn’t have any students,” he said. He insisted upon doing a feasibility study before moving forward.

He was right. Today he thinks it’s a “field of dreams” project.

Trustee Mike Wolfe shares similar frustrations. “We should have named it Fort Knox Academy if we were going to pour all of this taxpayer money into it and just let it set there like Fort Knox with the Superintendent showing off his shiny plaything without even a handful of students signed up to enter its doors come August,” he told Texas Scorecard. “The citizens of Harris County deserve better than this.”

The superintendent chalked up the lack of enrollment to Hurricane Harvey and hesitation from area superintendents because the program is new and untested in Harris County.

However, Hurricane Harvey hit after the start of the school year, so if the school intended on servicing students in the 2017-2018 year, there should’ve been enrollment by that time.

Secondly, during the original meeting Colbert reassured the board that at least 14 area school districts were interested and were “biting at the bit” to get in. The school’s budget showed that the district projected $200,000 in “customer fees” last school year but recovered none.

“Some of us questioned why they were investing millions without getting written commitment from the ISDs of Harris County to guarantee they would buy seats in a drug recovery school,” said Vera.

To make matters worse, HCDE is planning on reopening the campus’ doors at the start of the 2018-2019 school year next month and has budgeted another $1.3 million for the campus. The current enrollment is two. Sumners said the administration expects to have 30 students by the end of the year and eventually grow to 100, but so far has failed to produce a plan on how that will happen.

Vera says that the recent changes by the legislature in regards to Dallas County Schools has HCDE officials scrambling to become relevant. “They know they are next on the chopping block, so they are trying to become necessary,” she said.

For numerous past legislative sessions, bills were filed to close the last two remaining county school districts in the state: Dallas and Harris. Last session, the bill for DCS passed, allowing Dallas County voters to decide the future of their school district.

Now, HCDE seems to be looking for other ways to increase its value to taxpayer.

Fortis Academy’s failure to launch should concern taxpayers and spur greater oversight. This is just one of many HCDE projects, and without watchful eyes and tough questions it could easily happen again.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.


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