Home Education The Kinders: Example of Big Money Influencing Houston’s School District

The Kinders: Example of Big Money Influencing Houston’s School District

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Houston, Texas, Independent School District has a governing body of nine individuals known as “trustees.” These trustees, along with the superintendent, make the executive decisions affecting Houston ISD’s students. Houston ISD is the seventh largest school district in the nation and the largest in the state of Texas, with nearly 216k students enrolled in the 2015-2016 school year.

These individuals serve four-year terms and possess a large amount of power; their decisions will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of Houston families, along with the future of Houston’s next generation. This election, in particular, is very important, because Houston ISD could potentially lose its autonomy to the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

There are six trustee spots on the ballot for the election on November 7th, 2017: district one occupied by Anna Eastman; district five occupied by Mike Lunceford; district six occupied by Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca; district seven occupied by Anne Sung; district nine occupied by Wanda Adams; and district three occupied by Jose Leal.  

Candidates include: Gretchen Himsl, Monica Richard, and Elizabeth Santos for district one; Kara deRocha, Sean Cheben, Sue Deigaard, and Susan Shafer for district five; Daniel Albert, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, and Robert Lundin in district six; John Luman, and Anne Sung in district seven;  Wanda Adams (incumbent) and Karla Brown in district nine; Carlos Perrett, Jesse Rodriguez, Rodolfo Reyes, and Sergio Lira in district three.

HISD trustees are politicians. Just like all other politicians, they must run campaigns, and to run a campaign, you have to raise money. These campaigns typically have an operating budget of around $10,000.00 to $30,000.00. Because these campaigns are relatively inexpensive to run,  the desires of the person making contributions have the potential to influence the decision making of elected trustees very easily.

This is particularly concerning when taking into account individuals who own or work as a high-ranking executive for an organization that does business for Houston ISD can contribute to trustee campaigns. Houston ISD has an operating budget of roughly $2 billion. A $2,000, $1,000 or even $500 contribution can affect the decision making of those controlling that massive budget. These campaign contributions have the potential to affect other things: policy decisions, and even the naming of a school.

In 2019 HSPVA, a well known local high school, will be moved from its home campus in Montrose to downtown. Along with the new building will comes a new high school name: The Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The Kinders are the wealthiest couple in the Houston area. Richard Kinder, chairman and CEO of Kinder Morgan, has a net worth of 6.4 billion. The Kinder Foundation made two financial commitments to the construction of HSPVA’s new school building: the first in the amount of $5 million and the second in the amount of $2.5 million.

The Kinders issued an ultimatum the HISD board of Trustees, telling them to either accept the terms of the contract that day or the offer was off the table. This effectively forced the school board into accepting the terms of the contract, and thus the name change of HSPVA. This left little room for discussion, and no room for the school board to negotiate the terms of the contract.  

Further, the Kinders donated $2k to three trustee candidates. These trustee candidates, if they win, would be inclined to retain the agreement to change HSPVA’s name to the Kinder High School For The Performing and Visual Arts or KHSPVA. 

Renaming HSPVA to Kinder HSPVA can be reversed. Sarah Terrell started Kinder Give it Back, an organization dedicated to retaining HSPVA’s name.

In April, 2017, in response to a petition asking the Kinders to please give back the name and take a theater name instead, Richard Kinder sent a letter to HISD. Decrying the “controversy which could negatively impact the institution,” he wrote that the name was “not the primary reason for our gift.” He then offered to release HISD from the naming rights provision of the contract.

It is this legal offer, virtually unacknowledged by HISD, that keeps the contract in play, even as the Kinder Foundation and HISD both continue to refer to the new school as Kinder HSPVA on their websites. Sarah explains more below.

How did the Kinders get the naming rights to HSPVA?

“In October 2016 the Kinders presented the board with a completed contract, exploiting a never-used policy allowing for the sale of names of facilities, but not intended for renaming established schools. They announced the name change six days before the next HISD board meeting, surprising the public and a majority of trustees. On the day of the vote, to prevent the issue being tabled, the Kinders issued an ultimatum, saying they would withdraw the funds if the board did not vote. The offer ‘expired’ that day. HISD was not involved in negotiating the contract.” —Sarah Terrell

And the Kinders have what you might call an insurance policy, to try to make sure the institution does in fact get renamed after them?

After our petitioners asked the Kinders to give back the name, they sent HISD a letter offering to rescind the naming rights but still provide the funds. They have never actioned it or offered any compromise, such as their name on a theater. It seems the offer was just for PR value, and the trustees have never even acknowledged the letter. Now they donated $2,000 to each of three candidates in this school board election: Gretchen Himsl in District One, Sue Deigaard in District Five, and Holly Flynn Vilaseca in District Six. These candidates are potentially the front runners. If they win, the Kinders will have three people on the school board with reason to favor retaining the Kinder name on HSPVA.” —Sarah Terrell

Why did the Kinders pay $7.5 million if the school only needed $5 million for opening day?

“The Kinder naming rights contract provides $5 million to the construction of the new school,  less than 5% of the total cost of the school including the valuable downtown land near Discovery Green. The other 95% comes from taxpayers, who are also responsible for all ongoing costs—teachers, building maintenance, etc. The Kinder contract provides for an additional $2.5 million for unspecified purposes to be paid in 2018.  HSPVA doesn’t need the money for the building, but it was needed by the Kinders—to reach the minimum amount in the naming rights policy for consideration of a name. The Kinders would never demand the Museum of Fine Arts change its name to the Kinder Museum of Art.  And they would never tell the MFAH board, here’s the contract, take it or leave it, it’s non-negotiable and you have six days to decide.  Why do they treat the general public so differently from their peers on the MFAH board of trustees?” —Sarah Terrell

But why is it a big deal to have the building renamed after the Kinders?

“The name of the school is valuable intellectual property, and not the same at all as the name of a building.  Would Disney sell its name? Among public schools, at least in Houston, HSPVA’s name is at a Disney level.  It’s the only HISD school with long-standing national name recognition.  Under the Kinder contract, everything must say Kinder, the building near Discovery Green, diplomas, theater tickets, radio announcements, official documents, social media handles, website, EVERYTHING will say Kinder.  And this contract awards the name permanently. Even if the school is rebuilt in another location, the contract requires must continue as Kinder HSPVA.” – Sarah Terrell

We are currently awaiting to hear back from the Kinders for comment. If you would like to sign Sarah’s petition to reclaim HSPVA’s name, click this link.

Further articles about the Trustee Elections and money Trustees have accepted, alongside issues facing Texas students will be written and released in the near future.

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