Municipal governments in Texas have no primary responsibility for K-12 education. As per the state’s constitution, cities and school districts are legally separate entities. But despite its role, or lack thereof, the City of Houston is one a few cities with an internal Director of Education.
Mayor Sylvester Turner created the office in 2016 and appointed former Houston Independent School District Trustee, Juliet Stipeche, as the first director. This came shortly after she failed to win re-election to the HISD board of trustees. Compared to former and current HISD trustees, Stipeche – a longtime education advocate – has a first-rate record from her time as trustee.
Turner created this role for Stipeche during a time when the city’s financial future was uncertain and his oft-repeated “shared sacrifice” rhetoric was pretty much law around the council table.
According to the Houston Chronicle at the time, Stipeche’s initial salary was $89,000. It may not seem like much compared to the salaries of other executive-level bureaucrats who serve at the pleasure of the mayor, but her salary has grown since then and with her role came additional expenses that likely weren’t taken into consideration at the time.
City records show taxpayers have paid out more than $475,000 in salaries and benefits for Stipeche and her assistant in the 28 months the office has been operational. Stipeche’s salary has increased by about $16,000; she’s now making $105,000 annually, while her assistant makes $40,000 a year.
At the time of the appointment, one of the few council members to express concern was Mike Knox, who told the Chronicle:
“I appreciate the mayor having the ability to decide what he does with his own budget, but in these economic times, I’d like to have seen him advise the city council that he was thinking about doing this or spending this kind of money before it was a done deal and before it was a public announcement.”
There are other expenses aside from Stipeche and her assistant’s salary. Her office has spent about $25,000 on various expenditures such as hotels, a large number of parking fees, food service, and office supplies. Nearly half of the expenses were for air travel.
Instead of seeking out modest accommodations, as public officials should do while traveling, Stipeche’s credit card statements show nights at luxury hotels like Boston’s Park Plaza and three Austin hotels that regularly top the lists of luxury stays—the InterContinental Hotel, the Aloft, and the Hotel San Jose.
There are also more than a few airline charges where flights exceeded $1,000, plus an additional $3,000 in other reimbursed expenses.
In a multi-billion dollar budget, it may seem as though Stipeche’s expenses are menial. Considering Turner’s consistent berating of the voter-imposed tax cap as the reason the city cannot afford its expenses, the administration should be taking a look at its own departments and administrators to see where reductions can be made rather than looking to taxpayers to continue to fund their opulence.
It’s hard to argue Stipeche’s office is even justified.
Houston survived nearly 180 years without needing the position and none of Texas’ other major cities have a director of education, likely because education is handled by its own governing entity. While the department is tasked with coordinating with all area districts, HISD is the largest and most troubled and its current state of disarray shows the increased “coordination” over the last two years hasn’t played much of a role in fixing the ongoing problems.
To be clear, this failure should not be credited to Stipeche but rather the HISD’s board of trustees. They are in direct control of the school district, and are therefore, accountable, but what return have taxpayers seen for the creation of this office?
When Turner announced the new post he issued a press release that read in part, “The creation of this new position is meant to compliment, not compete, with the hard work of our area school districts.” The office’s purpose was to increase coordination between Houston-area districts, so the mayor should answer why increasing local government coordination requires his director to frequently travel out of town and out of state.
Council should also question if the department’s overall spending is required to advance the region’s educational coordination or are there ways to reduce the costs. If other major cities and school districts can survive, and thrive, without the need for a redundant office of education at city hall, Houston should be able to do the same.
If the past two years are any indication, the reimbursements, salaries, and expenses for Stipeche’s office will continue to grow. So, we ask again, what benefit does the city receive from spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a newly-created office of education?
There’s no doubt Stipeche’s record is one of a longtime education advocate, and she’s likely continuing that good work now. But with Turner claiming a “bare bones” budget and asking taxpayers to contribute to the “shared sacrifice” because he’s forced to “do more with less,” shouldn’t the city look at what’s going on under its own roof?
There should be no sacred cows, whether they are executive-level staff in the mayor’s office or any other of the more than 20,000 employees of the City of Houston.