Harris County Department of Education debates $54,000 sign purchase featuring trustee's mother's name

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Harris County Department of Education Trustees this week debated spending more than $50,000 on new signs for an office and warehouse building on Houston's northwest side. (KTRK)

Harris County Department of Education Trustees this week debated spending more than $50,000 on new signs for an office and warehouse building on Houston's northwest side. The district maintains the signs are needed. Some trustees and a few critics question the inclusion and cost of adding a name of a trustee's mother to them. The building was named for her earlier this year.

First off, we should probably remind you that the Harris County Department of Education is a government agency. If you live in Harris County, you pay taxes to them - not much, but it's still your money. The building at 6005 Westview already has a sign, but HCDE leaders say it's an old logo.

More on that below, but first, the signs are a little contentious since they include the building's new name - the Ethel Wolfe building, named for HCDE trustee Michael Wolfe's mom.

The board approved the naming decision earlier this year, but it was back in front of the board on Wednesday because of how much the signs cost: $53,886. Trustees need to approve any expenditure more than $50,000.

Ethel Wolfe was a Houston teacher. A former colleague called the former English teacher "well known and respected by students." (Click here to the full letter.) Ethel Wolfe was also a board member in Cy-Fair ISD, but her connection to the Harris County Department of Education is only through her elected son, Michael. He also headed the move to name the agency's headquarters for Ronald Reagan years ago. No other district building has a name - their policy forbids it.

"I do not think the public perception on this is good. It gives an air of self-serving, that we don't need to have," said HCDE Trustee Diane Trautman.

HCDE constituent Kara DeRocha reminded the board that, in nearby Houston ISD, schools are named for military heroes and teachers who saved lives.

"I am sure Ms. Wolfe was a wonderful person, but does she meet that high of a threshold?" DeRocha asked.

Matt Miliel, another constituent, pointed out Trustee Wolfe's fiscally conservative record on the board. Wolfe has in the past questioned classroom and Head Start spending.

"It's so shameless. I know nothing about her and have nothing against her, but [the spending] is so hypocritical."

The sign plan adds Ms. Wolfe's name on three new signs. Wolfe says he will get the money solely for the letters to spell his mom's name donated.

"I've got private donors who will get the $3,400 donated, that still brings the other part over $50,000," Wolfe said.

HCDE administrators suggest the new signs are needed to update the agency's logo.

Which brings us to our logo confusion. We found the old version on the warehouse building in question. HCDE gave us a copy of the new one, which removes a date and initials and instead spells out the department's title.

On our visit, ABC13 found another logo in the back of the boardroom, yet another on the Powerpoint in front, another on the outside of the HCDE administration building and yet another just across the street.

The only sign HCDE asked the board to replace is the one with the trustee's mom in the name.

In the end, board members punted and pushed the $54,000 taxpayer-funded sign to a future meeting. The acting chairman said it was to seek consensus.

The trustee who moved to postpone wouldn't talk to us.

Trustee Wolfe told us the signs are needed.

"Taxpayers will bear no cost for the inclusion of my mom's name." He continued, "It is a breath of fresh air that the trustees honored a teacher when so many these days are wanting to refight the American civil war."

The decision will likely be back on the table next month.

TRUSTEE MICHAEL WOLFE STATEMENT ON SIGNS

Dr. James McSwain, the Principal of Houston ISD's Lamar High School, who was my mom's principal for the entirety of her teaching career said it best when speaking of Ethel Wolfe:

"Naming buildings in the field of Education is more than simply honoring the memory of someone we admire. It is about making a statement for the future of kids. By this practice, we hold up examples of people to emulate. Often, we think of politicians or others of great notoriety. This is an opportunity to highlight the contributions of a teacher - one who spent her life each day making a difference in the lives of students. I can think of no one better as a model for the lives of young people."

Taxpayers will bear no cost for the inclusion of my mom's name on this signage.

I have privately raised the $3,400 which is needed to pay for the inclusion of my mom's name on the updated signage. Any amount above that is for updated signage that HCDE's Superintendent insists is necessary for the building, regardless of the naming that was proposed by HCDE Vice President Eric Dick and approved by the Board this past January.

I have heard from dozens and dozens of people who support honoring my mom with the naming of that building, well over 100 people in fact. Honestly, I believe that it's a breath of fresh air that HCDE's Board of Trustees honored a teacher when so many these days are wanting to refight the American Civil War.

Sincerely,

Mike Wolfe
Harris County School Trustee
Position 5, At-Large


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