Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

School days

Meet your Board of Managers wannabes

Lots of people want that gig.

[Frank] North is one of nearly 250 people who applied for positions on the prospective replacement board, which Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath plans to install in the coming months. Morath announced in November 2019 his intention to temporarily oust the elected school board, citing Wheatley High School’s seventh consecutive failing grade and multiple findings of misconduct involving current trustees, though a preliminary injunction issued last week and ongoing litigation could threaten those plans.

The applicants, according to a list provided by the TEA, represent a broad cross-section of the district, home to about 210,000 students from wide-ranging economic, ethnic, racial and social backgrounds. They include Houston ISD employees, former political candidates, business professionals, higher education staffers and advocates with children attending district schools.

Several candidates are well-known in civic and education circles, but most come with little to no public profile. Higher-visibility applicants include former HISD trustee Cathy Mincberg, former Houston Police Department interim chief Martha Montalvo, League of United Latin American Citizens leader Hugo Mojica and former HISD police chief Robert Mock.

[…]

State leaders will spend the next several weeks winnowing the list down to nine potential board members, conducting at least three rounds of interviews. Agency officials have said they want an ethnically, racially, geographically and socioeconomically diverse board of Houston residents with multiple skill sets. State law grants Morath the final authority on board selections.

The list released by state officials only includes first and last names of those who applied. The candidates’ work histories, educational backgrounds and personally identifiable information were not disclosed. TEA officials did not respond to questions about what information will be released as the screening process continues.

TEA officials wanted to install the board as early as this spring, but last week’s preliminary injunction blocks Morath from installing a replacement board while a lawsuit filed by HISD trustees seeking to stop their ouster is ongoing. Lawyers for the TEA immediately appealed the injunction ruling. A trial is set for late June.

As noted, the timetable here depends on the outcome of the litigation. The article contains more information about and quotes from a number of the applicants, presumably ones the Chron could identify either from their names or public statements they’ve made. I can understand limiting the data available about them for now, but we deserve full transparency going forward.

Morath’s big talk

But can he back it up?

In his first public comments about plans to strip power from Houston ISD’s elected trustees, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Tuesday that the district’s leaders have engaged in “chronic neglect” of children in long-struggling schools, requiring the appointment of a replacement governing board that will better direct resources to HISD’s neediest students.

In an hourlong interview with the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board, Morath said he wants the replacement governing board to close achievement gaps by improving the district’s pre-kindergarten offerings, placing more high-performing staff at low-rated campuses and re-establishing strong leadership practices during its temporary stay in power. He faulted the district’s elected trustees for failing to address achievement issues in HISD’s longest-struggling campuses, several of which have received multiple consecutive failing grades in the past decade.

“This is how you make real inroads on the achievement gap: you get very serious about resource allocation,” Morath said. “It’s about money and talent. This is, in fact, an underlying root cause as to why you have some of the highest-performing schools in the state and some chronically under-performing schools, all in the same district. It’s a tale of two cities.”

[…]

In his comments Tuesday, Morath made clear that he expects the appointed board to address a few key areas, including “a systemic investment in early childhood education” and “how we properly support teachers and incent them” to work at chronically low-performing campuses. However, Morath said he will allow appointed board members and the superintendent to craft plans for meeting those goals.

“I would expect the board to use its judgment and proceed in a strategic direction that they think, given the intel that’s coming to them, makes the most sense for the kids and taxpayers of Houston,” Morath said.

I mean, if Mike Morath thinks that his appointed trustees can make significant improvements without screwing anything up, blowing a hole in the budget, or taking action that significantly contravenes popular will, then more power to them. As the story notes, HISD already offers pre-K (even though the state has historically not paid for it) and also already offers bonuses for teachers who work at underperforming campuses. It’s not that no one has thought of this stuff before, it’s that doing it right costs money, and I don’t see any plans for the state to address that. But hey, if they really can move the ball forward and leave the district in better shape than they found it, then that would be great. I’ll need to see it happen first.

On a side note:

Morath added that the district’s four newly elected trustees, who will be seated in January, cannot join the appointed board. Three of the four election victors say they have applied or plan to apply, believing they were eligible.

I kind of figured this would be the case, since the word from the TEA all along has been that it will be two years or so before they start reinstating the elected trustees, but a whole lot is up in the air now, so who knows what could have been. I remain sympathetic to the argument that the newly-elected Board members have already solved part of the problem that the takeover is supposed to fix, but clearly Mike Morath is not. This is perhaps another aspect of the law in question that should be reviewed by the next Legislature.

Why not appoint newly elected Trustees to the Board of Managers?

It’s a perfectly reasonable question, posed recently in the Chron op-ed pages by two of those new Trustees-to-be, Judith Cruz and Dani Hernandez.

Judith Cruz

As former Houston Independent School District educators, a product of HISD, and a parent in HISD, we are personally familiar with the inequity and mediocrity that plagues large portions of the seventh largest school district in the United States. We have experienced the average or below-average schools that hover just above “improvement required” status. We resigned or put our jobs on hold and spent the last few months in 100-degree weather walking door-to-door in Districts 3 and 8 in Houston’s East End. Our aim was to give our communities the voice and policy changes to make our schools excellent. Again and again, we heard we were the only candidates who had come to meet them in their neighborhoods and in their homes. We did the work. It paid off. In Districts 3 and 8, we have a clear mandate for change by winning 64 percent of the vote over the incumbent trustees. The people liked our message and spoke with their votes for change. Democracy worked!

Dani Hernandez

We won with a decisive mandate, though the victory was bittersweet. Within hours, rumors of a Texas Education Agency takeover came true. TEA announced it would be replacing the elected trustees with an appointed board of managers. Many were shocked by TEA Commissioner Mike Morath’s timing. The announcement came with a call for those interested in serving on the new board to apply online. Wait! What? Hadn’t Houston spoken on election day? Clearly, Districts 3 and 8 not only have “interested applicants”—they had just elected trustees who weren’t part of the problematic HISD board. We demonstrated our interest months ago when we filed for election and put our lives on hold to be the change we need.

Remember that the HISD takeover is partly about Wheatley High School, and partly about the investigation that concluded multiple Trustees had violated ethics rules, as well as the Texas Open Meetings Act. Two of the Trustees named in the investigator’s report were Diana Davila and Sergio Lira, who were defeated by Cruz and Hernandez. All indications we’ve had so far suggest that the TEA will replace the entire Board with the Board of Managers, and roll the elected officials back on over time, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t start with a couple of elected Board members. If that’s on the table, then it makes sense to put Cruz and Hernandez at the front of the line, precisely because they directly removed two of the problems. I don’t expect the TEA to buy this argument, but there’s nothing inherently illogical about it. We’ll know soon enough.

HFT may join lawsuit to block TEA takeover

That’s a lot of acronyms, so just read this.

Houston ISD’s largest teachers union is considering whether to join a lawsuit filed by the district’s school board that aims to stop the expected ouster of elected trustees by the Texas Education Agency.

Houston Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo said the union is expected to decide this week whether to take part in the lawsuit, which claims TEA officials do not have legal authority to replace the district’s school board and would violate the federal Voting Rights Act in doing so. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced earlier this month that he plans to temporarily strip power from HISD’s elected trustees and install an appointed board, citing three reasons: chronically low academic performance at Wheatley High School; a state investigation that substantiated several allegations of misconduct by trustees; and the continued presence of a state-appointed conservator monitoring HISD.

“We do not feel the students and teachers are anyone’s first interest at this particular point,” Capo said. “We’re having our legal specialist looking at the Voting Rights Act and a few other things, to determine whether we could actually intervene in HISD’s lawsuit. I suspect that’s the way we would go.”

[…]

Legal experts have expressed skepticism about whether the state is violating the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the administration of elections. They noted all voters in HISD — not just black and Hispanic residents — would be impacted by the ouster of their elected officials.

The HFT likely would not have legal standing to fight the state’s authority to install an appointed board because the union cannot represent Houston ISD in court. However, the union’s lawyers could have legal standing to argue the TEA would violate the rights of voters in Houston, as long as a plaintiff resides within one of HISD’s nine single-member voting districts.

“We’re going to take care of that,” Capo said. “There will be voters. I’m making sure there’s one for every district.”

HISD trustees voted 4-1 in June to hire an outside counsel to represent the board for the purposes of the state’s investigation into potential trustee misconduct, which included allegations of Open Meetings Act violations and interfering with vendor contracts. At the time, HISD Board President Diana Dávila said trustees wanted legal clarification on aspects of the state law.

In subsequent months, the legal firm’s scope of work dramatically expanded, without another vote from trustees. The board’s lawyers now are seeing temporary and permanent injunctions that would stop state intervention. A hearing date for the temporary injunction request is scheduled for Dec. 5 in Austin.

See here for the background. There was another lawsuit filed in August as well, and at this point it’s not clear to me if these are two separate and active legal challenges, if they have been combined into one, or if the first one has been dropped or dismissed. It’s the same law firm representing HISD in this action, for what that’s worth. As I said before, I don’t expect this to be successful, but it’s not an unreasonable thing to try. I’ll be very interested to see what the HFT decides to do, and what happens at that hearing in December.

UPDATE: They have joined the lawsuit, and the state has filed a motion to dismiss.

So how are those TEA public meetings going?

About as you’d expect.

Residents of Houston ISD peppered state officials with questions Wednesday night about the potential replacement of the district’s elected school board, voicing frustration about the lack of immediate plans for students and staff during the Texas Education Agency’s first community meeting about the looming intervention.

Uncertainty about the state’s intentions with Texas’ largest school district simmered throughout the two-hour meeting at Pershing Middle School, where nearly 100 people gathered one week after Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced his intention to appoint a replacement school board. Morath’s decision is the result of Wheatley High School receiving a seventh consecutive failing grade and state investigators substantiating several allegations of misconduct by HISD trustees.

State officials offered relatively few answers about potential changes to the state’s largest school district, telling attendees that the agency is listening to residents before appointing managers who ultimately would dictate HISD’s future. While Morath has the final authority to appoint and remove board members, the chosen managers are responsible for crafting and carrying out plans for the district in coordination with the superintendent.

“This can be a frustrating part of the process, and I think that’s a reasonable place to be right now, because there’s more unknown than known,” said AJ Crabill, who serves as special adviser to Morath and previously worked as the TEA’s deputy commissioner of governance.

[…]

Crabill told the crowd that an appointed board likely would be charged with addressing one to five specific issues in HISD, emphasizing that the chosen board wouldn’t be expected to solve all of the district’s challenges.

“If our stance is that the board of managers stay in place until every single issue in HISD is solved, when will the board of managers exit? Never,” Crabill said.

Crabill shed slightly more light on the process and timeline of the state’s board selection, which agency officials first publicized last week. He said the names of applicants might be released in late December, cautioning that the agency’s lawyers must still sign off on the publication. He added that the earliest to expect an appointed board’s selection is March 2020.

That much at least is useful information. Here’s a subsequent story from the second meeting.

A crowd of roughly 75 people gathered at Wheatley High School, whose chronically low student performance has triggered the potential board takeover, frequently voiced skepticism that TEA officials understand the needs of Houston’s diverse community and come into the district with good intentions. Residents in attendance were decidedly more critical of the looming intervention than those at the TEA’s first community meeting, held Wednesday at Pershing Middle School.

Several implored the TEA to stay out of the state’s largest district and allow a newly-chosen school board to rectify issues — even as state law mandates that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath must close Wheatley or temporarily replace elected trustees after the historic campus received its seventh consecutive failing grade.

Morath announced last week that he plans to employ the latter option. The appointed board would be responsible for creating and implementing plans for HISD in conjunction with the district’s superintendent.

One of the most impassioned pleas Thursday came from Tori Presley, the mother of a senior at Wheatley, who told TEA officials that negative perceptions of the campus perpetuated by the state’s accountability system are holding back the near-northeast side school. Presley encouraged Morath to visit HISD — he hasn’t publicly met in recent months with community members, instead dispatching a top lieutenant — and hear directly from the city’s residents.

“I want (Morath) to know that these kids’ education is important, to know that the kids here have a future,” Presley said after addressing questions to state officials. “The TEA just has to back off and let our community raise our schools. We have everything we need to keep our schools going.”

[…]

Opponents, including many of those in attendance Thursday, believe the board’s removal disenfranchises voters in a predominantly black and Hispanic district and unfairly places power in the hands of a Republican-led state bureaucracy. Pamela Boveland, an education advocate and HISD resident, said voters made the necessary course corrections at the polls earlier this month, when they ensured four new trustees will take seats on the nine-member board in January 2020.

“I know there has been a dramatic change in the decision-making of the board in the right direction,” Boveland said.

Ultimately, TEA officials say lawmakers have made their intentions clear: they want change in districts with chronically low-performing schools. About 85 percent of legislators voted in 2015 to pass the law mandating campus closures or replacement of the school board in any district with a school receiving five consecutive failing grades.

AJ Crabill, a special adviser to Morath and the TEA’s former deputy commissioner of governance, told the crowd Thursday that closing Wheatley is “not how we get justice for children in this campus.” In response to criticism that prior state takeovers of school boards have not resulted in improved academic results, Crabill noted that earlier interventions typically followed financial turmoil or major leadership issues.

“What the community here expects is that (an appointed board) is actually focused on student performance, and it’s not just a conversation about money or other ancillary things,” Crabill said.

I think there is definitely something to be said for the election results, where thanks to two retirements and two incumbents being defeated, there will be four new people on the nine-member Board. I’m pretty sure Commissioner Mike Morath would say that the law as written does not allow him to take that into account, though there may be an argument that one or more of the new members could be appointed to the board of managers. Again, that may be a question of what the law does and does not allow, and that would be a question for the courts to answer, if it comes up in the current litigation or if a new lawsuit is filed. As for the student performance question, I would think the TEA would not want to make that a significant part of the board of managers’ mission, because it’s not at all clear they’d be able to do much, and because overall HISD grades out very well. The potential for them to make little to no progress in their time in charge is non-trivial, and would be embarrassing for the state. At this point, we just don’t know how they will define their mission. There are two more meetings this week, so if you want to ask them about it, those are your best chances.

The LBB report on HISD

There’s less here than you might think.

Houston ISD’s inefficient, poorly organized and unwieldy bureaucracy is shortchanging the district’s 209,000 students and city taxpayers, requiring structural changes across virtually all corners of the district, the Texas Legislative Budget Board said in a blistering report issued Friday.

A 325-page performance review of HISD by the LBB, a permanent joint committee of the Texas Legislature, identified extensive operational shortcomings and issued 94 recommendations aimed at improving operations in the state’s largest public school district.

The report took particular aim at the HISD’s prized decentralized power structure, finding the model delivers inconsistent resources to students and poor monitoring of spending, while also piling on the much-maligned school board for eroding public trust and district morale.

The board also proposed several potentially controversial measures, including the formation of a “campus closure and boundary advisory committee” and suggested the district could save $26 million by shuttering as many as 40 underutilized schools. The report also called for various consolidations that could cost hundreds of jobs.

LBB officials said their recommendations could save the district $237 million over the next five years and streamline the delivery of academic services. HISD leaders are not legally required to follow any of the board’s recommendations.

In a statement Friday, the HISD administration said it is evaluating the report.

“We will seek to implement new practices and continue proven methods that maximize student achievement and promote productive and efficient operations,” the statement read.

[…]

The LBB issued several politically palatable recommendations that some community leaders, educators and board members long have sought. They include reducing administrative positions, staffing more campuses with counselors and crafting stronger budget practices.

Most recommendations involve anodyne changes to oversight and structure of the district’s many behind-the-scenes departments, including technology, contract management and transportation.

Other recommendations likely would face immediate backlash, including the suggestion that the district consider shuttering underutilized campuses. School closures have proven particularly fraught in Houston, as lower-enrollment campuses typically serve lower-income children of color.

One of the bigger shifts recommended by the LBB involves centralizing more district operations to ensure consistent, uniform practices. Currently, HISD delegates extensive autonomy over campus-level finances, staffing and programming to principals, a rarity among the nation’s largest public school districts.

Supporters of the decentralized system argue campus leaders are best positioned to know their students’ needs and craft innovative plans for raising student achievement. Opponents claim the setup leads to inconsistent student outcomes, particularly for children in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. The LBB largely sided with critics of the structure.

“Independent campus decisions result in a student experience that differs across the district, and students may not be served consistently,” the report’s authors wrote.

Jodi Moon, who studied HISD’s decentralized model as a researcher with Rice University’s Houston Education Research Consortium, said the district’s system creates “a greater continuum of successes and failures” between schools. She questioned, though, whether a district as large as HISD would see significantly different results under a centralized setup, noting that principal experience, school choice participation and myriad other factors contribute to campus-level outcomes.

“I just find it hard to believe that you’re going to find any of the larger, urban districts where there’s a lot of uniformity,” Moon said.

Please note first of all that this was a report the HISD board asked for. The LBB doesn’t do this sort of thing on their own, they have to be invited in. This report is the result of the Board seeking ways to improve.

Anyone who has paid any attention to HISD in recent years knows that there have been multiple efforts to close “underutilized” schools, and they have all foundered in the face of fierce pushback from parents, alumni, and other stakeholders. Closing smaller schools can look good on paper, but it has real effects on people’s lives and on the neighborhoods where those schools are. The Board has consistently responded to the voice of the people they were elected to represent. Whether the appointed board of managers that the TEA is about to install will take a crack at this, since they don’t have any voters to answer to, is a big and looming question as we enter the takeover era.

The centralization issue is one where I think you could very reasonably argue that any savings that might be achieved is more than offset by giving principals, who know their schools and students best, the autonomy to respond to their own individual needs. It’s far from clear to me that emulating this particular practice of HISD’s peer institutions – New York, LA, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc – is a desirable goal. Putting it another way, do you want to make the bureaucracy that much bigger? I get what the LBB is talking about, but this isn’t a simple matter, and it’s far from clear to me that the savings involved is real.

Anyway. There are good ideas in this report, and there will be opportunities to implement them. It all starts with that appointed board, which will be able to operate in a different manner than the elected board. How much of a good thing that is very much remains to be seen.

How the TEA takeover is going to work

The Chron answers your questions.

The complex process has raised several questions among community members. Here are answers some of the most common queries:

What is the process for identifying and selecting candidates?

TEA officials on Wednesday released their plan for crafting the new board, as well as criteria they will use for picking appointed managers. Those documents can be seen here, along with a link to the agency’s public application to become an appointed trustee.

TEA has opened the process to the public, offering residents a chance to apply. The process includes 12 steps, with no time frames established for when they will take place or how long they will last.

First, the agency plans to conduct community meetings and receive applications. TEA officials will screen the applications, conduct reference checks with community and elected leaders, and perform background checks. Next, governance training will be provided to applicants and phone interviews will be conducted. Finalists will be subjected to two rounds of in-person interviews and required to perform an unspecified task and additional governance training.

Morath ultimately has the power to select the appointed members. He is expected to choose nine people, equal to the number of elected HISD trustees.

State officials have not said when a new board would take power, but it likely would not happen until March 2020 at the earliest.

Who can apply?

At a minimum, the agency requires that potential board members must: be an eligible voter living within HISD boundaries, pass criminal background screenings, and commit 40 hours per month to the board in the first six months and 15 hours per month thereafter.

Individuals with business ties to the district, conflicts of interest, involvement with a closed charter school or intentions to seek other elected offices will be disqualified, state officials said.

See here for the background, and read the rest for more. A more concise version of this story is in this Twitter thread from author Jacob Carpenter. There will be four community meetings, two next week and two the week after, to discuss the impending board appointments. This is the critical first step, and everything follows from there, so if you have an interest in this, there’s your chance to get involved.

TEA announces its takeover intent

Here it comes.

In a move that is unprecedented in scope, Texas state officials announced Wednesday they plan on taking over the state’s largest school district, yanking power from Houston Independent School District’s elected school board members to “prevent imminent and substantial harm to the welfare of the district’s students.”

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sent a letter to Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan and Board President Diana Davila giving two principal reasons for the decision: the school board’s “failure of governance” and the repeated low academic performance of Wheatley High School, which received its seventh failing rating this year. In addition to appointing a board of governance to replace the elected school board, Morath will also appoint a superintendent to lead the district. The timeline of the takeover action is unclear.

“Given the inability of the board of trustees to govern the district, these sanctions are necessary to protect the best interests of the district’s current and future students,” he wrote. The decision means the state will be taking over its largest public school district, which contains more than 270 schools and educates more than 200,000 students.

Houston ISD officials still have a slim chance at averting the takeover and have two weeks to request a formal review challenging it, according to a Texas Education Agency spokesperson.

[…]

During its temporary replacement of the elected board, a board of managers has all the same powers and duties to oversee the school district. Once the state determines it has fixed the specific problems it is charged with, Morath will gradually transfer power back to the elected board.

See here and here for the background. You can see Morath’s letter to HISD here. If for some reason you want to serve on that Board of Managers, the application is here. This decision came a day after the denial of the Wheatley appeal, which was not a surprise. There is the lawsuit filed by HISD to stop the TEA from taking over, which still feels like a longshot to me but which could slow things down. Be that as it may, you can see where this is going.

I’ll just say this much. Despite the problems the Board has had, HISD is overall a pretty good-performing school district. There are problems, of course, as there always are with large, diverse urban districts that serve a population that is mostly low-income and that has a large number of non-native English speakers. I won’t defend the current Board, though after Tuesday’s elections I’d argue it’s already improved, but I’m not at all convinced that the TEA can do a better job with academic performance at schools like Wheatley than the Board has done. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong about that – I hope all of the schools improve while the TEA is in charge – but if I’m right, I don’t know what there is to be done about it. The Chron has more.

TEA recommends HISD takeover

Not finalized yet, but you can see the way it’s going to go.

The Texas Education Agency is recommending that the state take over Houston Independent School District — the state’s largest public school system — due to its elected school board’s “demonstrated inability to appropriately govern,” according to a 318-page final investigative report sent to lawmakers Wednesday.

TEA’s Special Investigations Unit Director Jason Hewitt found that school board members violated state open meetings law by discussing district business without notifying the public of their discussions, attempted to influence how contracts were awarded, and took action on district issues individually without consulting other board members. It substantiates most of the allegations made in a preliminary August report.

District officials and board members, whose responses are included in the final report, dispute many of the agency’s conclusions and argued the allegations were not investigated properly. The Texas Tribune obtained a copy of the report, which is public, late Wednesday. TEA officials confirmed that they had sent it to legislators.

Hewitt recommended Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath appoint a board of managers to oversee the school district, replacing the elected school board.

[…]

Houston ISD received a B from the state this year, largely based on student test scores, but Wheatley High School failed in August for the seventh year in a row. The TEA is separately considering penalizing the district because of Wheatley’s repeated low performance.

The findings in the report are final and cannot be appealed. Morath will make the final determination on whether to replace Houston ISD’s board.

See here for the background. Remember that this is about the ethics investigation – this is the final version of the August report, which means this version was written after HISD had a chance to respond to the initial report, which also recommended a takeover. The accountability ratings issue is still pending, with the Wheatley rating being half-heartedly appealed, and that decision by Morath – a decision between replacing the Board and closing Wheatley, the latter of which everyone expects will not happen – is not due till early next year. I presume Morath has more discretion in this matter, but given that a takeover is basically inevitable at this point I’m not sure how much it matters. I suppose it may make a difference in terms of how long it may take HISD to get back in control of its own governance, and what it needs to do to get there, but in the short term it’s a distinction without much difference.

In the meantime, there’s this.

Lawyers for Houston ISD’s school board have asked a federal judge to preemptively stop the Texas Education Agency from stripping power from the district’s elected trustees and allow board members to select a permanent superintendent, the latest maneuver in a growing legal battle between the district and state.

In a motion filed Tuesday, the HISD board’s lawyers argued agency officials have discriminated against voters in predominantly black and Hispanic cities, overstepped their authority in suspending the district’s superintendent search and misinterpreted a new state law that requires dramatic intervention in districts with long-struggling schools.

[…]

In their motion for a preliminary injunction, HISD’s lawyers said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is attempting to “unlawfully supplant the democratically-elected board of trustees” and replace it with a state-appointed governance team. The district’s lawyers noted that 10 districts subject to major state intervention in recent years all serve large majorities of black and Hispanic students, illustrating discrimination under the Voting Rights Act.

“You could argue that it’s a coincidence. I think it’s not,” Kevin O’Hanlon, a lawyer for HISD trustees, said Wednesday.

In addition to discrimination claims, HISD’s lawyers argued that a state-appointed conservator overseeing the district’s operations of long-struggling Kashmere High School overstepped her legal authority in suspending HISD’s superintendent search last March. HISD has been without a permanent superintendent since March 2018, when Richard Carranza abruptly left to lead New York City’s public schools.

HISD’s lawyers claim the conservator, former Aldine ISD administrator Doris Delaney, only had the power to dictate matters related to Kashmere.

“Delaney was appointed to be a campus-level conservator over the performance of one of (HISD’s) schools, and was to implement and ensure compliance with getting the resources necessary to extract it from its low-performing status,” O’Hanlon said.

However, state law grants broad authority to conservators, including the ability to “direct an action to be taken” by a district’s board of trustees.

I Am Not A Lawyer, but let’s just say I have my doubts about the likelihood of success here. It’s worth a shot, but I wouldn’t go betting the rent on it. We’ll see how this goes, and how long it takes – would anyone be surprised if this is still in the courts when the TEA is handing power back to HISD? I don’t think it’s likely to go anywhere, but that’s just my guess at this time.

HISD’s appeal of the Wheatley rating

Not much there. You can read whatever you want into that.

If Houston ISD trustees expected the district’s administration to make an impassioned, detailed appeal to the state for an accountability reprieve at Wheatley High School — a last-ditch effort to avoid severe state sanctions tied to chronically low performance at the campus — they did not get it from Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

Instead, Lathan submitted a two-page, bare-bones case for overturning Wheatley’s failing grade to the Texas Education Agency, infusing the request with none of the emotion that trustees displayed last month when they ordered her to file an appeal. Rather, Lathan briefly recounted the reasons trustees expressed for supporting an appeal — the lingering effects of Hurricane Harvey, some signs of progress at Wheatley, the impact of sanctions on a district — that her administration believes is doomed to fail.

“I think they could have stated a very strong position and documented evidence, for example, from renowned research on the long-term effects of an incident like Harvey,” said HISD Trustee Sergio Lira, who voted to order the appeal. “I think it could have been much stronger, and I’m disappointed.”

The disconnect over the depth of HISD’s Sept. 13th appeal, obtained through a public records request this week, illustrates yet another example of the frayed relationship between Lathan’s administration and a majority of the district’s school board, which have been engaged in a year-long standoff marked by distrust and differences of opinion.

[…]

In a statement Tuesday, HISD officials said the appeal “was submitted in good faith.”

“As such, the administration stands behind the submission and has no further comment,” the statement read.

TEA officials are expected to rule on HISD’s appeal by December.

See here for the background. On the one hand, as I understand it the data is pretty cut and dried, and there’s not much in there to be disputed. No one really thinks that this appeal has much chance of success, so no real point in doing valueless work. On the other hand, when your boss tells you to do something – and the Board is the boss of the Superintendent – you do it, and you do it in a way that meets your boss’ expectations. To do otherwise is somewhere between incompetence and insubordination.

I’m not in a position to say which is the more accurate description of the situation. But however you look at it, this isn’t how this is supposed to work.

The TEA delivers its terms to HISD

As expected.

The Texas Education Commissioner has put the state’s largest school district on official notice that it could lose its locally-elected school board because of failing grades at one Houston high school.

The commissioner, Mike Morath, notified Houston’s interim superintendent, Grenita Lathan, and school board president, Diana Davila, that he may have to take action to appoint outside managers to oversee the district — or order the struggling school closed. The campus, the historically black Wheatley High School in Fifth Ward, recently had its seventh failing grade in a row.

“If the preliminary unacceptable academic performance rating assigned to Wheatley High School becomes a final rating, I will be required by TEC §39A.111 to order either campus closure or the appointment of a board managers and will notify the district of my specific decision in future correspondence,” Morath concluded in the letter.

Morath has not made a final decision and the failing grade remains preliminary until Sept. 15.

You can see the letter at the link. All signs point to the board of managers option being used, but the law does allow for the schools in question to be closed, so that got mentioned as well. Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter tweeted that there was to be a discussion of appealing the Wheatley rating at yesterday’s public meeting, though it is very unlikely to succeed. There is still the lawsuit over the ethics investigation, but even if that were to succeed it would only reduce by half the number of justifications the TEA currently has for a takeover. I’m not sure what happens next, but something will happen by the 15th. The Press has more.

UPDATE: It’s official, the board has voted to appeal Wheatley’s rating.

We await HISD’s fate

I mean, I think we know what it’s going to be, but there are still some questions.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath came to and left the Greater Houston area Thursday without addressing one of the biggest issues on his agenda: the fate of Houston ISD’s school board.

In the coming weeks, Morath likely will be forced to decide whether to replace all trustees governing Texas’ largest school district or close one of HISD’s most historic campuses, the consequence of historic Wheatley High School failing to meet state academic standards for a seventh consecutive time. While Morath was in no mood to discuss the looming decision following the release of academic accountability ratings Thursday — he hurried out of an Aldine ISD school without answering questions or making a statement on HISD — a review of comments by the commissioner, his top deputies and state education leaders offers insight into the likely process.

Barring a successful appeal of Wheatley’s grade, which became public Thursday, Morath is widely expected to strip power from the nine HISD trustees and appoint a new board of managers comprised of Houston-area residents. The process likely would take multiple months to complete, with a replacement board seated sometime in early 2020.

“These are not going to be people that live in Austin,” Morath told the Houston Chronicle in the spring of 2018, when asked about the possibility of a state-appointed board taking control of HISD. “These are going to be well-qualified people that live in Houston that just didn’t want to run for school board before, but they wouldn’t mind being appointed.”

See here for the background, with the reminder that the Wheatley academic rating issue isn’t the only peril that the HISD Board faces. I was told by someone who teaches at Wheatley that their rating basically comes down to one student. The reason for this is that there are myriad sub-categories at each school that are also included in the accountability ratings, and not meeting standard in any one of them can cause the school to get an F even if the rest of their ratings were sufficient. It’s possible Wheatley could prevail in that appeal, and by all means they should pursue it, but as noted that would still not be the end of HISD’s troubles.

At this point it seems clear that the TEA will not close down Wheatley, which is the right call, so barring anything unexpected it’s all about how they go about replacing the Board. The Chron asks some good questions about how this may play out.

Intervention must be undertaken with respect and careful attention to community concerns. New board members must reflect the district’s diversity and its values. They must understand the communities they serve as well as grasp the importance of inclusion and best practices in their governance. The panel should include experienced educators, as well as candidates with financial expertise and civic involvement. There must be a clear plan for implementation, for measuring success — and a defined exit strategy.

Parents, educators, students and taxpayers, therefore, must step up to ask hard questions and demand that the state provide honest answers. How will members be chosen? What criteria will be used to ensure that state appointees prioritize the needs of HISD students? Will there be additional financial resources to help schools improve? Will a strong ethics policy be in place and enforced?

Above all, Morath and TEA must promise — and provide — transparency. Parents need to be confident that their children’s welfare is at the center of every decision, every discussion. Houston is done accepting any less.

As we know, and as both the story and the editorial state, the history of TEA intervention is mixed at best, so we better know going in what the goals are and what the path to achieving them is. Otherwise, we’re just wasting our time.

HISD misses on accountability ratings

There’s now a second reason for the TEA to step in and take over HISD.

Houston ISD moved a major step closer to temporarily losing local control over its school board Thursday, as long-awaited state academic accountability ratings showed one of the district’s longest-struggling campuses received its seventh consecutive failing grade, triggering a Texas law requiring harsh sanctions.

Barring a successful HISD appeal of Wheatley High School’s rating in the next several weeks, state law mandates that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath now must close the historic Fifth Ward campus or replace the district’s much-maligned school board with a state-appointed governance team. Morath and the agency’s leaders have strongly suggested they would appoint a new school board if forced to act.

The state law demands action against any district with a campus receiving five consecutive failing grades as of 2018, regardless of the district’s size. Wheatley avoided triggering sanctions last year because it received an accountability waiver due to Hurricane Harvey, but the campus narrowly fell short of meeting standards this year.

HISD received a “B” grade for districtwide performance, on par with many of the state’s largest urban districts. Its overall score of 88 marked a 4-point improvement over last year.

Twenty-one HISD schools received an “F” grade, equal to 7.5 percent of all district campuses. An identical number of HISD schools did not meet state academic standards last year, though most received a Harvey waiver.

Notably, several HISD high schools met standard after struggling in recent years. Kashmere High School received a “C” grade, the first time it has met standard in 11 years. Madison, Sterling and Washington high schools also earned “C” grades, while North Forest and Yates high schools narrowly missed a “C” rating and scored “D”s.

See here, here, and here for the background.As with the ethics investigation, in which the HISD board has a chance to respond, there’s an appeal process available for Wheatley. It should be noted, they came pretty close to making the grade, and the other three all did quite well. Which is not to say that all is wine and roses, as other schools got failing grades, and we could wind up in a similar place in a couple of years. Plus, as the Trib noted, other school districts in the same situation as HISD took advantage of the partnership provision of HB1842 to put the day of reckoning off for two more years. As we well know, that option was rejected by HISD in response to public pressure, without ever being fully explored. I thought that was a bad decision at the time, and I feel very justified in feeling that way today.

At this point, the only viable way forward that I see for anyone who wants to fight this is to explore legal action. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has been very clear in past public statements that the law does not give him any discretion in this matter. Either the failing schools (just Wheatley in this case) are closed, or a new Board of Trustees is appointed. A lawsuit could challenge that interpretation, and who knows, maybe it could succeed. I doubt it, but it’s got to be better odds than trying to put pressure on state leadership to find an alternative.

HISD Trustee Sue Deigaard wrote this op-ed about how we got here, detailing several points of failure by the Board. Perhaps if all nine Board members offered to resign on the spot, thus allowing an election of a new Board, that might satisfy the TEA. It would have to happen right now, because the filing deadline in Sunday, and we’d need to get a bunch of candidates up and running by then. This too is probably a pipe dream, but I don’t know what else there is to suggest at this time.

UPDATE: From this morning’s version of the story:

During an appearance with Morath on Thursday, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, said HISD officials did not take advantage of funding opportunities and legislative maneuvers that could have staved off intervention. He cited the school board’s refusal to surrender control of long-struggling campuses to outside entities, an arrangement that could have temporarily prevented sanctions and brought an additional $1,800 per student to those campuses.

“We’ve given them every opportunity to be successful, and they continue to choose not to,” said Huberty, who chairs the Texas House’s Public Education Committee.

I hate to keep harping on the partnership thing, but as you can see it’s going to be used against the Board. And I hadn’t even known about the extra funds for students that was available.

So what’s the goal of a TEA takeover of HISD?

The history of TEA takeovers of school districts is mixed, so we ought to be clear about what the forthcoming takeover of HISD is supposed to do.

In recent years, districts subject to state-appointed boards successfully have balanced budgets and repaired leadership fissures but mostly struggled to immediately raise student achievement.

The immediate track record of state-appointed school boards does not bode well for drastic, quick repairs in the state’s largest school district, which has been dogged by chronically low performance at several schools and allegations of misconduct by trustees. HISD could trigger the appointment of a replacement school board if any one of four long-struggling schools fails to meet state academic standards this month, or if Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath upholds his staff’s recommendation this week to remove trustees following an investigation into alleged misconduct.

However, HISD presents a unique case with no precedent in state or national education. Never before has a public school district with 200,000-plus students, relatively strong districtwide academic performance and a solid balance sheet lost local control over its governance. A replacement board likely would be tasked with addressing the district’s lowest-rated campuses and resetting governance of HISD.

Ben Melson, director of public policy for the Greater Houston Partnership, which has advocated for installing a board of managers in HISD, said replacement boards in other Texas districts have “had a lot of success in addressing very specific issues” that prompted their appointment. Districts such as Beaumont and Edgewood ISD in San Antonio, however, remain low-rated academically, each receiving the equivalent of a “D” grade last year under the state’s accountability system.

“On that front, you see student assessment results, student outcomes overall, really stay stagnant,” said Melson, who has researched the efficacy of boards of managers for the partnership. “There really was no significant increase or decrease over the time of the board of managers. It’ll be an interesting opportunity for a board of managers to have their sole focus on students and improving student outcomes.”

The possible appointment of a replacement board largely has split the HISD community, with supporters arguing the move would refocus district efforts on students and opponents decrying it as an undemocratic seizure of power by state bureaucrats. To date, public outcry about losing local control over the district has been relatively muted.

See here and here for the background. There are two reasons why the TEA will or may exercise its authority to oust the Board of Trustees: The ethics investigation that has already led to a recommendation to take over, and the need for those four schools to make standards, which may lead to the same recommendation. That suggests two obvious goals: To get those schools up to standard, and to improve the functioning of the Board. The latter seems more achievable – at least, there’s a direct path to it, by the simple expedient of most if not all of the current members stepping down. Two of them are already doing so, with a third being rumored to do so this year. No guarantees of course – maybe the next generation of Board members that get elected will have similar problems – but it’s the obvious way to go.

Bringing the four schools up to standard is another matter. Ideally, the work HISD has done already will accomplish that – we’ll know very soon one way or the other. If one or more of them don’t make it, then it’s on the TEA and its appointed Trustees to do better. As noted in the story, that’s not so easily done. The way forward is not clear. If I’m the TEA, I know what outcome I’m rooting for.

As for the reaction to the TEA stepping in, I’m not happy about what is happening, but as I said before, it’s hard to be too vehement in defense of the Board. It’s hard for me to say that – I know most of the Trustees, and I like them. For whatever the reason, they didn’t function well together. The report is unflattering. I wish none of this was the case. I have no particular reason to trust the TEA, or to think the appointed Trustees will be any better qualified or more likely to make progress on the issues HISD now faces. But this is the situation we’re in, and the aim should be to get HISD’s governance back on track. I don’t know what else to say.

Initial reaction to the TEA action on HISD

Lots of wait and see so far.

Houston-area political and community leaders offered muted response Thursday to a state recommendation issued this week to replace Houston ISD’s school board, reserving judgment until more details are known about a Texas Education Agency investigation into allegations of misconduct by multiple trustees.

One day after the state’s recommendation became public via media reports, area officials grappled with questions about the investigation while reinforcing their beliefs about the appropriateness of dramatic intervention in Texas’ largest school district. The recommendation is contained in a Texas Education Agency investigative report that circulated only among HISD officials and state lawmakers until Thursday evening, when the full document became public through a federal court filing.

The report documents multiple instances of alleged wrongdoing by trustees, varying in severity. The most serious findings include five trustees violating the Texas Open Meetings Act, multiple board members interfering in district operations and Board President Diana Dávila conspiring to steer a custodial contract to a preferred vendor. HISD officials have until Aug. 15 to formally respond to the allegations, after which Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath will decide whether to implement the recommendation made by his staff.

“In order to make an informed opinion, I need to really sink my teeth in the report,” said state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston. “I will do that over the next couple days and look to see what HISD’s response is.”

HISD trustees and community members offered few comments about the investigation Thursday during a regularly-scheduled meeting, which passed with only fleeting references to the report. Dávila, who has denied the multiple allegations levied against her in the state’s report, issued a call for retaining local control over the school district.

“The citizens of Houston should not be punished by taking away their democratic right to be able to elect, or un-elect, those that they feel do not support what’s in the best interest of students,” Dávila said.

Several other trustees have declined to comment on the report or not responded to requests for comment. As she left Thursday’s meeting, HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos said she is “waiting for due process” before commenting on allegations that she violated open meetings laws.

See here for the background. The report is here, published via the Chron, and since I haven’t read it yet I’ll not have anything further to say just yet. I will note I haven’t seen much posting about it on Facebook, though I can’t say I’ve been comprehensive. Maybe HISD will have a good response to it, I don’t know. For now, I’d say a lot of people are processing. Campos and the Press have more.

It looks like we’re getting a new school board

What a mess.

Texas Education Agency officials have recommended that a state-appointed governing team replace Houston ISD’s locally elected school board after a six-month investigation found several instances of alleged misconduct by some trustees, including violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, inappropriate influencing of vendor contracts and making false statements to investigators.

The recommendation and findings, issued by TEA Special Investigations Unit Director Jason Hewitt, will not become final until HISD officials have had an opportunity to respond. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who leads the agency, ultimately will decide whether to oust HISD’s school board. HISD officials have until Aug. 15 to respond, and Morath likely would issue a final decision in the following weeks.

In his recommendation, Hewitt wrote that HISD trustees should be replaced by a state-appointed board due to their “demonstrated inability to appropriately govern, inability to operate within the scope of their authority, circumventing the authority of the superintendent, and inability to ensure proper contract procurement laws are followed.”

[…]

In their report, state investigators outline multiple years of failed oversight and improper behavior by HISD’s much-maligned school board, which long has grappled with in-fighting and distrust. Conflict within the board reached a boiling point in the summer and fall of 2018 when trustees clashed over whether to retain Lathan, who took over as interim superintendent following Richard Carranza’s abrupt departure to become chancellor of New York City public schools.

Five board members had grown particularly frustrated with Lathan, believing she had not been responsive to their desires for the district and failed to adequately protect them from a threat posed by a community activist.

Through interviews and a review of text messages, state investigators determined the five trustees — Board President Diana Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — secretly met with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra in two separate groups to coordinate ousting Lathan and installing him as interim superintendent. The meetings took place at a Houston restaurant on the same day in October 2018, the report said. Investigators determined that arrangement constituted a “walking quorum,” in violation of state law that requires trustees to conduct district business in public.

Three days later, the five trustees voted to replace Lathan with Saavedra, offering no advance warning to the public or the other four board members about the move. Trustees reinstated Lathan within a week of the vote following intense public backlash. Lathan remains the district’s indefinite leader.

TEA officials interviewed trustees as part of their investigation, ultimately determining that Dávila and Lira falsely claimed in interviews with investigators that they only met one-on-one with Saavedra. In separate interviews, Saavedra and Flynn Vilaseca placed Dávila and Lira at the restaurant meetings, the report states.

In an interview Wednesday, Dávila said she provided her best recollection of meeting Saavedra to TEA investigators, and denied that she attempted to mislead state officials.

“They wanted us to remember things that happened six, seven months prior to us being interviewed,” Dávila said.

So in the end it will be the ethics investigation that brings down the Board. We’ll get the performance results for the schools, including the four that needed to meet standards this year, on August 15, so there may be another cause for the demise, but this one came first. This isn’t final yet – the Board has until the 15th to respond to this report, and then TEA Commissioner Mike Morath gets to make his ruling – but the handwriting on the wall is quite clear. The state is stepping in to take over the HISD Board.

The report isn’t public yet – I presume it will be by the time Morath issues his ruling – but the Chron got to see it. The other misconduct allegations reported in the story apply to Diana Davila, with Sergio Lira also being accused of not being truthful to investigators. I feel like in other circumstances, with a Board that wasn’t already under a conservator, this would be an embarrassment but not the end of the existing Board. In such other circumstances, I might be moved to outrage at the prospect of our democratically elected Board being summarily replaced, even if only for a couple of years, by state-selected trustees. I find it hard to muster any such reaction this time. I find myself resignedly in agreement with this:

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who frequently has criticized colleagues who voted to oust Lathan, said replacement of the school board is “sadly, unfortunately” in the district’s best interests.

“I think it’s tragic, but I think the alternative is worse,” Jones said.

The good news, such as it is, is that the four schools in question, which have been making progress, will probably not be closed. That was a huge point of contention with the parent groups. If that’s truly off the table, then my guess is that reaction to this will be somewhat more muted. Who is going to step up to defend the current board, and demand that the TEA leave them in place?

It should be noted that there will still be elections for HISD trustees this November. These elected trustees, along with the others that are not on the November ballot, will still serve but have much less power in the interim. At least two of the four trustees whose terms are up this year (Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who is running for HCC Board, and Jolanda Jones) have announced they are not running for re-election, with Davila being rumored to not run again as well. If the end result of all this is that in another two or four years we get to elect nine new members, and (hopefully) the sword of Damocles that is the academic standards issue is not looming over us when we do (good luck with that, whoever the TEA picks to run the place), I find it hard to be too upset about that. I’m certainly not more upset than I am about everything that led to this.

How long will that TEA ethics investigation of HISD take?

Could be months, but they don’t really know.

The state investigation into allegations of Open Meetings Act and procurement violations by some Houston ISD trustees could last months, a top Texas Education Agency official said Saturday, potentially leaving the district and its superintendent search in limbo.

At a town hall attended by about 50 people, TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance A.J. Crabill said state officials are still conducting a special accreditation investigation into HISD, with the most severe possible punishment resulting in school board members surrendering their powers to a state-appointed governing team. TEA officials have not provided a timeline for the investigation, which started in January, but Crabill said initial results likely are not imminent.

“My best guess is that the state is still several months away from a preliminary report,” Crabill said, while cautioning that he is not directly involved in the investigation.

Crabill’s comments came during a wide-ranging question-and-answer session, held at a downtown Houston church, that offered some clarity to residents concerned about the threat of sanctions looming over Texas’ largest school system. In addition to any fallout from the state investigation, HISD likely would lose local control of its school board if any one of four chronically low-performing campuses fails to meet state academic standards this year.

Crabill offered no hints as to whether HISD’s school board will fall out of power, telling the crowd it’s too early to predict outcomes of the state investigation or academic performance this year. He reassured those in attendance that an appointed board would hold power for only a few years, gradually transitioning back to a locally elected body.

The state-appointed board would be tasked with addressing a narrow set of pressing issues while carrying out the day-to-day functions of a traditional school board, Crabill said. In HISD’s case, the state-appointed board primarily would be tasked with improving student achievement at the lowest-performing campuses, where standardized test scores rank near the bottom in Texas and historical patterns suggest about two-thirds of graduates will not enroll in college.

See here, here, and here for the background. My understanding is that the accountability scores should be known by about August or so, meaning that we’ll know by then if the schools that must meet standards have done so or not. As is usually the case with these stories, I’m lost for much to say beyond I hope everything works out.

Achieve 180 schools showing progress

I hope it’s enough.

Houston ISD schools covered by the district’s $16 million campus turnaround plan saw modest improvements in the program’s first year — enough to outpace gains reported across the district, but not nearly enough to pull chronically low-performing schools on par with peers.

A report published this week by HISD showed the 44 schools included in the turnaround plan, known as Achieve 180, largely exceeded or mirrored district improvements in 2017-18 on several key academic and behavioral metrics, including state standardized test scores, exclusionary discipline rates and participation in more challenging courses. The improvements were reflected in the number of Achieve 180 schools meeting state standard — and avoiding the dreaded “improvement required” label — rising from 18 in 2017 to 33 in 2018.

In some areas, however, Achieve 180 schools saw little to no positive movement. Student attendance and chronic absenteeism rates remained stagnant, which district officials largely attributed to the effects of Hurricane Harvey. Out-of-school suspension rates barely moved, remaining three times greater than non-Achieve 180 schools. Highly-rated teachers did not move in large numbers to Achieve 180 schools, unswayed by $5,000 bonuses offered by district officials.

In an interview Thursday, HISD’s area superintendent responsible for Achieve 180, Felicia Adams, said district leaders were “pretty satisfied” with the first-year results, especially since some campuses implemented portions of the initiative later in the 2017-18 school year.

“These are schools that have been struggling for quite some time. To at least get out of being an ‘improved requirement’ campus was a major gain for many of them,” Adams said.

[…]

According to the district report, which analyzed student performance in 2017-18 relative to the prior year, math and reading passage rates on STAAR, the state’s primary standardized test, rose about 6 percent in Achieve 180 schools — double the 3 percent increase seen across the rest of the district.

The use of in-school suspensions also dropped by about 21 percent at Achieve 180 schools, roughly the same rate as campuses not covered by the initiative.

Perhaps most notably, about 8 percent more students in Achieve 180 schools took an Advanced Placement exam last year, while 3 percent fewer students in non-Achieve 180 schools sat for a test.

Even with the improvements in STAAR test performance, passage rates at Achieve 180 schools remain roughly 15 percent to 20 percent lower than the rest of the district. In addition, students at Achieve 180 schools passed about 14 percent of their Advanced Placement exams in 2018, compared to 39 percent throughout HISD.

Some Achieve 180 schools also fell further behind last year, including four campuses that have failed to meet state academic standards for four-plus consecutive years.

That, obviously, is the most important metric right now. The overall improvements are great, and one wonders how much more could be done with sufficient resources and some more time, but either those four schools make standard or the TEA climbs aboard. For all the mishegas at HISD this year, and with the continued uncertainty surrounding the HISD Board, Achieve 180 is worthwhile program that has generated real results. Again, as above, I just hope it’s enough.

HISD conservator suspends superintendent search

Halt!

A state-appointed conservator ordered Houston ISD trustees on Monday to suspend their search for a permanent superintendent, an unprecedented intervention in the state’s largest school district.

In a letter sent to HISD trustees, the conservator, Doris Delaney, said she is exercising her legally-authorized power to “direct an action to be taken” by a school board. HISD trustees were days away from naming a lone finalist for the district’s superintendent position, with a final round of candidate interviews scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

Delaney said she is ordering the search suspended “until the agency has completed its special accreditation investigation” into the district. The investigation, which involves allegations of Texas Open Meetings Act violations by five trustees, has been ongoing since January.

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who is not among the five trustees under review, also tweeted Monday that the investigation has expanded to include “malfeasance regarding contracts” with vendors, offering no additional details. Texas Education Agency officials said they could not comment on the ongoing investigation. Jones could not immediately be reached for comment.

Delaney’s move is a potentially ominous sign for HISD’s school board, which could be replaced by the state later this year due to chronically low performance at a few campuses or potential findings of malfeasance by trustees. If state officials replace HISD trustees, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath would have the legal responsibility of choosing the district’s superintendent, with no obligation to keep the school board’s choice.

See here and here for some background. On the one hand, I understand where Dr. Delaney is coming from. This investigation is a serious matter, and if it turns out that some number of Trustees were involved in violating the (now less potent) Open Meetings Act, one can make a good case that they have forfeited the right to name a Superintendent. On the other hand, the (resumed) search has been going on for awhile, so maybe she could have said something sooner? I wasn’t sure what to make of that at first, but perhaps this explains it.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sent Houston school officials a letter detailing an expanded role for the conservator, Doris Delaney, according to the news outlet. Her duties now include “attending board meetings and overseeing the district’s governance,” according to the letter Houston Public Media posted Monday.

You can see the letter here. That seems portentious, but maybe I’m reading too much into it. All I know is that I hope this is wrapped up quickly and favorably. I can’t take any more drama. The Press has more.

Superintendent search will continue

For the time being, at least.

Houston ISD’s pursuit of a permanent superintendent will continue after trustees rejected a motion Thursday to suspend the search amid a recently launched state investigation into potential violations of open meetings laws.

Trustees voted 5-3 to continue the search for a permanent leader to replace former superintendent Richard Carranza, who left the district in March 2018 to become chancellor of New York City public schools. Three trustees who favored suspending the effort argued the district cannot attract qualified candidates with the looming threat of sanctions tied to the state investigation, while the five opponents argued the district should push forward despite the inquiry.

“I promised my community that I would do a superintendent search, and that’s what I’m following.” said HISD Board President Diana Dávila, who voted against suspending the search.

[…]

The three trustees who supported suspending the search — Wanda Adams, Jolanda Jones and Rhonda Skillern-Jones — have all advocated for permanently retaining Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, arguing she has proven her ability to lead the district.

The trio of trustees have been highly critical of five board members who secretly communicated with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, then voted in October 2018 to replace Lathan with Saavedra. Allegations of open meetings act violations by the five trustees who spoke to Saavedra triggered a special accreditation agency investigation by the Texas Education Agency. The five trustees have denied wrongdoing.

Supporters of suspending the search argued the potential for severe sanctions tied to the investigation will limit the pool of candidates willing to jump to HISD. If state officials order the replacement of the HISD board, new trustees could immediately replace the freshly hired superintendent.

“I cannot imagine that a highly qualified candidate who is rational and sane would come here in the face of uncertainty, when they may not have a job soon,” Skillern-Jones said.

The five trustees who voted against the motion Thursday — Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — have pushed for a nationwide search. Trustee Sue Deigaard, who previously supported giving Lathan a short-term contract and simultaneously conducting a nationwide search, abstained from Thursday’s vote, telling her colleagues she is “not going to be part of this divide anymore.”

“We all need to figure this out and not continue to be divisive on this subject,” Deigaard said.

I mean, as a matter of principle it’s generally a good idea to search far and wide for the best candidate. Under normal circumstances, the HISD job is pretty plum – it’s a big district with a good financial foundation and a lot of high-performing schools, and more than one former Superintendent has gone on to bigger things. For obvious reasons, the job isn’t quite as attractive right now – the search firm says the potential of a TEA takeover has been mentioned by numerous candidates. There’s a good case to be made for Trustee Deigaard’s position of extending Superintendent Lathan for now, and resuming the search later, say in a year or so, when the immediate issues have been clarified, if not resolved. One can also reasonably argue that with so much on the line right now, it’s wiser to leave the Superintendent in place who has been doing the work to get the four schools that need to meet standards up to those standards. By all accounts, the current program for bringing the schools in need up to standard has been working well. I don’t know enough to say that I’d support making Superintendent Lathan permanent at this time, but I’d definitely support keeping her in place for the near term and revisiting the question at a later date. As I’ve said before about all things HISD, I sure hope this works out. The Press has more.

How much more danger is HISD in of being taken over?

Hard to say for sure, but they’re not in a good place right now.

The threat of state takeover has loomed over Houston ISD for months, largely due to chronically low-rated schools and mounting frustration with its much-criticized school board.

Now, another factor could give state leaders more reason to pull the trigger: a new investigation into potential violations of open meetings laws by five trustees last year.

It’s far too soon to tell whether state investigators will dig up any dirt on the five board members, but the fallout from the disclosure of the investigation is leading to speculation about what sanctions could befall the state’s largest school district.

The worst-case scenario for those who want HISD to remain under local control: investigators find extensive wrongdoing that provides cover for Gov. Greg Abbott’s administration to wrest jurisdiction over the board.

“I’m inclined to think this gives them the opportunity to really seize the public discourse,” said Jasmine Jenkins, executive director of Houstonians for Great Public School, a nonprofit that monitors HISD’s governance practices. “Part of the problem about the governor taking over is that it’s politically unpopular. It’s easier to do that if you remind the public how dysfunctional the board is.”

[…]

A special accreditation investigation allows Texas Education Agency staff members to obtain documents and interview witnesses to determine whether school officials violated laws or threatened a district’s welfare. If investigators find one-time or minor missteps by HISD trustees, TEA officials could mandate relatively light sanctions, such as additional training on open records laws.

However, more egregious or systemic wrongdoing could allow TEA to lower the district’s accreditation, opening the district to a wide array of escalating sanctions. Given that HISD already is monitored by a state-appointed conservator — one of the most severe interventions at the TEA’s disposal — some district onlookers fear a state takeover of the district’s board could be next.

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who has called for state and criminal investigations into her five fellow board members, said she believes the inquiry “very well could be the cause for us getting taken over.”

“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make, to ask for an investigation from an agency I don’t even respect,” said Jones, an ardent critic of the TEA and supporter of Lathan. “That bothers me, but I can’t stay silent and turn a blind eye.”

See here for the background. Let’s see what the investigation turns up first. The five trustees have maintained they did nothing wrong and have pledged to cooperate. If they’re right on both counts, then this ought to blow over and I don’t think HISD will be in any more real danger than before. If they’re wrong, to whatever extent, that’s when things get dicey. I tend to agree with Jasmine Jenkins here: The state would, all things considered and Greg Abbott’s mini-Trump tweets aside, rather not take over HISD. They are not equipped to run a big school district, and there’s no empirical reason to believe they will get any better results by stepping in. But the board is on thin ice, and they don’t have many friends in positions of power. If this investigation gives weight to the critics, that could be enough to overcome the resistance. I sure hope it doesn’t come to that.

HISD back under scrutiny

Let’s hope this turns out to be no big deal.

The Texas Education Agency is investigating possible open meetings violations by some Houston ISD trustees last year when they engaged in private discussions that led to the abrupt ouster of the Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

TEA officials notified the district Tuesday that an investigation would begin following “multiple complaints” made to the agency over the vote to replace Lathan with former district superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, according to a letter sent to Lathan and HISD board President Diana Dávila. The Houston Chronicle reviewed a portion of the letter outlining the allegations.

“Houston ISD Board of Trustees may have violated The Open Meetings Act by deliberating district business prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting regarding the potential removal of the current interim superintendent and the installation of a new interim superintendent,” the notice read.

TEA officials confirmed they opened a special accreditation investigation into HISD, though they declined to specify the nature of the inquiry.

A special accreditation investigation gives TEA officials wide discretion to review potential wrongdoing and issue a range of sanctions. If investigators find repeated or extensive misconduct, the most severe punishment could be a state takeover of the district’s locally elected board. However, state leaders could issue nominal punishment aimed at preventing future missteps by trustees.

[…]

The investigation stems from an October 2018 vote by five trustees — Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Elizabeth Santos, Sergio Lira and Anne Sung — to replace Lathan.

The vote came with no advance warning to the public, and the board’s four other members have said they were unaware that colleagues planned to seek Lathan’s ouster.

Saavedra backed out of the job three days after the vote, citing “dysfunction” at the school board level. Trustees then voted to reinstate Lathan.

Saavedra told the Chronicle in October that he spoke independently with the five trustees who voted for his appointment prior to the vote. Some of the five trustees have said they communicated one-on-one, but they did not meet as a group.

Under Texas open meetings law, deliberations between school board members about “public business or public policy” subject to a vote must take place at public meetings. State investigators likely will seek any evidence of communications between trustees that could constitute a so-called “walking quorum,” which refers to a deliberative effort by elected officials to communicate as a group in private.

See here, here, and here for more on the Saavedra saga, which didn’t make much sense then and makes even less now. All I can say is that I hope the TEA finds no evidence of the five Trustees forming a non-sanctioned quorum, which would be dumb at the least and a violation of trust at the worst. The TEA already has the power to take over HISD if they feel the need. I sure hope we haven’t given them another reason to consider it.

HISD’s last stand

They have their work cut out for them.

Houston ISD’s four Hispanic trustees took hold of the school board’s top officer positions Thursday, led by Trustee Diana Dávila winning election as president of the much-maligned governance team.

Dávila, who has spent a decade on the board spread over two separate terms, will take responsibility for setting the leadership tone in HISD following months of governance strife that has often cut across ethnic and racial lines. Elected officers do not have more voting power than other trustees, but the board president presides over board meetings and drives the agenda.

Dávila said her priorities will include ensuring the district’s longest-struggling schools get resources needed to meet state academic standards, fighting for more education funding and restructuring board meetings to foster greater engagement and transparency.

“I’m looking to be bringing back some of those things we used to do before, making sure that we respect each other as colleagues on the board and respect the administration,” said Dávila, who served as board president in 2006.

The best thing the Board can do at this time is minimize dissension within their ranks, speak with one voice as much as possible, and find a permanent Superintendent. Accomplishing those first two should make the third go more smoothly.

This joint op-ed by Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Elizabeth Santos is a good example of what I’m talking about.

This board was divided on some high-profile issues last year. The two of us have been on opposite sides on some of those fights. But we are united in a vision for a school district where neighborhood schools are cornerstones of their communities, equity is a guiding principle of resource allocation and all students receive educations that are tailored to their individual learning needs.

To achieve that vision, all levels of government involved in making education policy must take a long-term approach that addresses the costs of educating students living in poverty, English language learners and students with special needs. Unfortunately, state funding formulas — which have not changed in 30 years — woefully underestimate these costs.

[…]

Despite all of this, HISD has fared well under the flawed STAAR regime. The district earned an 84 percent rating with 91 percent of schools meeting standard. We reduced the number of schools that could trigger automatic state sanctions from 52 to 4, and we have maintained a recognized financial rating of 90 percent and a high bond rating.

It is baffling that HISD taxpayers are required to foot the entire bill for their district and also forfeit $100 million in “recaptured” dollars — and growing — to supplement the state’s obligation to other districts, while at the same time facing the risk of being stripped of their right to elect their own governing board. That hardly seems democratic or just.

Apparently “no taxation without representation” is just something we teach in our history classes.

I agree with pretty much everything they say in this piece. I hope over the next eight months – and, ideally, a lot longer than that – we can focus on those things, and not on whatever is going on with the Board.

Give your input on the HISD Superintendent search

Public meeting notice.

The Houston Independent School District Board of Education is conducting a nationwide search for a permanent superintendent, and trustees are seeking input from the community about the qualities and traits they would like to see in their next district leader.

HISD Board of Education trustees have scheduled several meetings to gather feedback from the community that will be used to develop a superintendent candidate profile. The dates and times for the meetings are listed below.

In March, Dr. Grenita Lathan was named by trustees as HISD’s interim superintendent. Lathan will continue to serve in that capacity during the duration of the search.

The Board of Education has exercised a warranty provision with executive search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates to conduct a superintendent search at no cost to the district.

The Illinois-based firm will help trustees host a series of community meetings, including a districtwide meeting on Saturday, Jan. 19, to gather input from various district stakeholders, including parents and students, school-based staff, district employees, and business and community members. The board will then use that feedback to finalize its superintendent profile and begin searching for candidates.

Input on the search for HISD’s permanent superintendent can also be provided via an online survey on the district’s website, www.HoustonISD.org.

Click over to see the meeting schedule. There’s one in each district, plus at HISD headquarters on West 18th Street just outside the Loop. These run from the 14th through the 24th, so make your plan to attend.

The TEA could have already taken over HISD

I had not known this.

For more than a year, Houston ISD leaders have fretted over the possibility of a state takeover mandated under a recently passed law, known as HB 1842. The statute directs the Texas Education Agency to close schools or replace a district’s locally-elected board of trustees if any campus receives five straight “improvement required” ratings for poor academic achievement. Houston narrowly avoided that punishment in 2018, when six long-struggling schools met state standard. Four campuses still could still trigger sanctions this year.

However, a lesser-known law quietly has loomed over the district. Texas law states that the education commissioner may replace the school board in a district under scrutiny from a state-appointed conservator for two consecutive years — a threshold Houston crossed in September 2017. Houston’s conservator, former Aldine ISD administrator Doris Delaney, was appointed in September 2016 to monitor Kashmere High School, which has failed to meet state academic standards for nine consecutive years. Her responsibilities expanded to monitoring the district’s school board and other long-struggling schools in mid-2017.

To date, [TEA Commissioner Mike] Morath has chosen to not replace Houston’s school board, exercising discretion granted to him under the conservator law. Instead, the TEA has taken several steps to work with Houston administrators and board members: keeping Delaney in place, requiring on-the-ground assistance from outside educators, overseeing campus turnaround plans and offering governance training, among other supports. Lira said trustees have not been threatened with immediate replacement by TEA officials, and that the agency’s staff has been “willing to work with us as long as we have a plan in place.”

In a statement, TEA spokeswoman Ciara Wieland said Abbott and Morath are working in concert to help Houston.

“Any action taken by Commissioner Morath or TEA to ensure Houston ISD has been given ample time, resources and support to achieve the best outcomes for students has also come with the full support of the governor and is in alignment with their shared vision of improving education outcomes in the district,” Wieland said.

Here’s the Chron story about Delaney’s appointment in 2016. This story from July of last year mentions that she had been appointed in January to keep an eye on district governance and the then-10 turnaround schools. I’m a little surprised no one has made anything of this before now, but here we are.

It should be clear why the state has been reluctant to step in, despite Greg Abbott’s nasty tweet. If the TEA takes over, then the TEA owns all of the problems that HISD is trying to solve. That’s a much tougher task than their current advisory role. I strongly suspect that Mike Morath and the TEA really really want the four schools to meet standard this year, in part because they want the schools and the kids to succeed, and in part because they really really don’t want to be saddled with the job of running a massive, diverse, sprawling school district. That’s not their job, and there’s nothing in the track record of past takeovers by state agencies, here and elsewhere, to suggest they’ll do any better at it than HISD has done. There’s a reason why Abbott hasn’t had much to say about this since his Trumpian Twitter moment.

By far the best possible outcome is for these schools to meet standard this year. The question that matters is what can everyone do to help make that happen.

Greg Abbott to HISD: Drop dead

I have four things to say about this.

A post sent from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Twitter account Thursday lambasted Houston ISD’s leadership as “a disaster” that has failed children in the state’s largest school district — a rare public condemnation of the district from the state’s top executive.

“What a joke. HISD leadership is a disaster,” read a tweet posted from Abbott’s official account. “Their self-centered ineptitude has failed the children they are supposed to educate. If ever there was a school board that needs to be taken over and reformed, it’s HISD. Their students & parents deserve change.”

The comments come as HISD faces potentially major sanctions, including a state takeover of its locally elected school board, tied to chronically low academic results at four schools. They also come as HISD’s board of trustees has been bombarded with criticism in recent months for its acrimonious public displays and its widely-panned effort to covertly oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

[…]

The post linked to a commentary authored by three community members and printed in the Houston Chronicle that criticized Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s efforts to partner with HISD to operate several long-struggling schools. The authors of the commentary also argued for taking legal action against the Texas Education Agency to prevent a state takeover of HISD’s board of trustees.

[…]

Abbott’s education commissioner, Mike Morath, must replace HISD’s school board or close underperforming schools if any one of four long-struggling campuses fail to meet state academic standards in 2019. Earlier comments by Morath and his deputy commissioner of governance, AJ Crabill, suggest Morath is more likely to install a replacement school board instead of shuttering any under-performing schools.

1. Just a reminder, the HISD Board is composed entirely of Democrats right now. Throwing them out of office is all dessert and no vegetables as far as Abbott is concerned.

2. Along those lines, remember that Abbott was just re-elected by over a million votes. He’s got the highest approval rating of any statewide elected official. He doesn’t face voters again until 2022. He could not possibly care less what a bunch of Pantsuit Nation or Indivisible members think, about this or about himself. There is no amount of activism or noise-making that will affect his opinions or his actions.

3. Again, this is why I have been extremely queasy about the all-or-nothing strategy that HISD has adopted, at the urging of some activists. I continue to believe that a TEA takeover is the worst possible outcome, and a partnership – if not with the city of Houston, then with HCC, which was never explored and now cannot be explored – for the purposes of forestalling such a takeover is a reasonable way to mitigate this risk. I understand that people have strong objections to this. I’m not here to relitigate that question, as the matter is settled. I’m just stating what my risk-averse nature is telling me. But look, none of this matters now. We’re not going to win a staredown with Abbott over this. He holds all the cards.

4. As for the litigation idea, someone is going to need to explain to me 1) on what grounds we would sue at this time, prior to a takeover, and 2) why a lawsuit filed in advance of a TEA takeover would be allowed to proceed. A lawsuit filed afterwards I understand, as then an alleged injury that the courts could correct has occurred. But before that, I feel confident that a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the issue is not ripe and no one yet has standing would be accepted. As always, I Am Not A Lawyer, so if someone knows better than me on this, please say so. The Trib has more.

Orlando Sanchez’s bizarre press conference

What a weird thing.

Orlando Sanchez

It was an absolutely wild afternoon for Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez. He planned to have a news conference across the street from the HISD administration building, but things didn’t go as planned.

Protestors showed up and completely disrupted Sanchez’s news conference. When he tried to get it started, the group would chant things like, ‘Go away, TEA’ and ‘You got voted out.’

Things really got heated when he was answering one of our questions. Someone from the group ran up and dumped water on him.

Someone from Sanchez’s team confronted the man. He ended up on the ground and police were called. Both sides claimed they were assaulted.

The news conference was supposed to be for Sanchez to call for the state to take over HISD.

“Taxpayers are fed up and it’s time for the governor and the Texas Education Agency to step up and make sure that children in HISD, which 83 percent of them are minority, get an education,” said Sanchez.

“To have somebody like that step on my toes like that when I have sacrificed so much for these kids, yeah, it’s emotional,” said HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern. “It is because it’s personal. These kids mean a lot to me; not just my five but all 215,000.”

Click over to see pictures and video. Far as I can tell, the only coverage of this fiasco has come from the TV stations; I’ve not seen anything in the Chron as yet.

Let me say up front that whoever poured water on Sanchez is an idiot, and what he did sure sounds like assault to me. It’s also terrible strategy from a public relations perspective. Sanchez’s purpose for calling the press conference was ridiculous on its face, and would have been easy to dismiss on its merits. Anyone who felt the need to attack Sanchez physically is someone who has no faith in their own political position.

Why do I say that Sanchez’s purpose is ridiculous? The law is clear that the authority of the TEA to step in only occurs after the schools fail to meet state standards. We won’t have that data for several months, a fact that everyone knows. It is entirely possible that the four schools in question, which were all granted one-year waivers due to the effects of Hurricane Harvey, could meet standards this year, as the other schools that had originally been under scrutiny and which did not get Harvey waivers did. One could easily argue that by making this needless and premature call for a TEA takeover, Sanchez is expressing a complete lack of faith in the students at the four schools. That’s an insult to them and their parents and teachers. Maybe he had some qualifiers and weasel words in his prepared text, but still, the message is clear: Orlando Sanchez expects you to fail, and so he wants the consequences of your failure to begin now.

One also can’t help but notice that Orlando Sanchez, who just got voted out of a cushy elected position where he was basically invisible for twelve years and has never before expressed any opinions about education or ideas about how to improve it, is jumping up and waving his arms in front of Greg Abbott at a time when he really needs something to do. It’s a clear grab for attention at a time when the news cycle is quiet and he can still call it in his capacity as an elected official. There’s also the rumors that Sanchez is prepping to run for Mayor (again). No such thing as bad publicity, am I right?

Finally, there will surely be litigation over the process of replacing an elected board with an appointed one – for sure, there’s a Voting Rights Act complaint to be made. There were lawsuits over the closure of North Forest ISD and La Marque ISD, and while the state prevailed in each of them, the situation with HISD, which is a much bigger district with many successful schools and is financially solvent, is vastly different. The state may well prevail in any litigation that will occur, but it will take time. There’s also the very real possibility that the Lege could modify the law in question that delays or makes less likely a TEA takeover. The point here is that in every way, this was way premature, and served to do nothing more than call attention to Orlando Sanchez. On that score at least, mission accomplished.

Recapture reinterpretation lawsuit update

This is a bit in the weeds, so bear with me.

Houston ISD likely will keep an additional tens of millions of dollars more in property tax revenues each year following a widely expected Texas appeals court decision Friday.

Judges from the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeals ruled against two small school districts and a nonprofit that sued the Texas Education Agency over its re-interpretation of statutes related to “recapture,” the state’s method of redistributing tax revenues from property-wealthy districts to property-poor districts. The ruling means that property-wealthy districts, such as HISD, will face lower “recapture” payments back to the state moving forward.

HISD officials projected the ruling would result in the district keeping an additional $51 million in 2018-19. District leaders expected the Texas Education Agency to win the lawsuit, so the already factored the $51 million in revenue into the current budget. As a result, the district will not see a windfall that can be spent on additional costs.

The plaintiffs alleged the Texas Education Agency improperly re-interpreted state law to include optional property tax homestead exemptions into “recapture” calculations for districts with wealthy property tax bases relative to their student enrollment totals.

A district court judge granted a temporary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs. However, the appellate court found the plaintiffs could not prove they were harmed by the re-interpretation because it did not cause a shortfall in the state’s Foundation School Program, the fund through which state money is distributed to school districts.

See here and here for the background. Back when we were all arguing about HISD making recapture payments to the state, HISD successfully managed to get the TEA to interpret the law over how such payments are calculated to take into account the Local Option Homestead Exemption (LOHE) that some districts like HISD offer. Taking the LOHE into account, which the TEA had not previously done, causes the recapture formula to produce a smaller bill for districts like HISD that use it. That’s where that $51 million figure comes from. A couple of smaller school districts, along with MALDEF, filed suit over this reinterpretation on the grounds that it would cost them money, which was in conflict with the Foundation School Program. The Third Court of Appeals has ruled that the smaller districts could not prove that they were harmed, so the TEA rule as now interpreted was upheld, which in turn saves HISD some money. Makes sense? Of course, if the Lege follows through on its latest plan to reform school finance, any or all of this could change in ways we don’t yet know. But for now, this is where we stand.

It really is all or nothing for HISD

I hope we’re ready for this.

Barring a change to the sanctions law, litigation or a change of heart by the board of trustees — none of which are expected — HISD will learn in August whether the district will face state penalties for the four schools’ 2018-19 academic performance. HISD leaders could have staved off sanctions for two years by agreeing to temporarily surrender control of campuses in danger of triggering sanctions.

As HISD leaders pledged to march onward with current efforts to improve academic success at long-struggling campuses, some Houston-area civic leaders envisioned a future in which a state-appointed governing board took control of Texas’ largest school district. Under a state law authored by Dutton in 2015, the Texas Education Agency must close failing schools or replace the school board in any district with a single campus receiving five straight “improvement required” ratings. The four HISD campuses in danger of triggering sanctions this school year are Highland Heights Elementary School, Henry Middle School, and Kashmere and Wheatley high schools.

Some local officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner, have expressed dismay at the idea of the state’s Republican-leaning government taking control of HISD, where all nine elected school board members are Democrats. School board members also have argued HISD does not need state takeover, pointing to successful efforts to reduce the number of “improvement required” schools and navigate significant budget cuts.

“While we have had bad board relations, we have managed to handle the two largest pieces of governance in a way that have not been detrimental to the district, but instead have had a positive impact,” HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said. “We’ve invested a lot of money in turning these schools around, a lot of resources, a lot of time. To allow those people to do the jobs they’re entrusted with is the best course of action.”

[State Rep. Harold] Dutton, however, said he is convinced HISD trustees — who have drawn intense criticism for failing to improve performance at low-rated schools and engaging in public displays of acrimony — no longer deserve the responsibility of governing Texas’ largest school district.

“I don’t have any evidence that (the state) would do better, but I do know that if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll keep getting the same results,” Dutton said. “And for me, it’s unacceptable to do that.”

One of the Houston area’s longer-serving elected Republicans, Harris County Treasurer and two-time mayoral candidate Orlando Sanchez, also called Friday for state intervention in HISD. Sanchez implored state legislators and the Texas Education Agency to take responsibility for HISD, urging them to replace the district’s school board and devote more resources to low-performing campuses.

“I just can’t watch this slow-motion train wreck continue, so I’m going to speak out as a Republican and encourage my friends in Austin to give some serious attention to this matter,” Sanchez said. “We can’t wait, and that’s all we’ve done over the past several years.”

See here for the background. I feel confident saying two things. One is that if these four schools do not meet the state standards, there will be basically no one in Austin advocating on behalf of the HISD Board of Trustees. The odds that anyone in a position to influence the outcome will be persuaded by the argument HISD doesn’t need to be taken over is basically zero. To be clear, I do think Trustee Skillern-Jones’ position has merit. HISD did get significant improvement from a lot of schools, under adverse conditions. The risk that blowing up their governance structure will do more harm than good is significant. I just don’t expect the TEA or anyone that can make the TEA change its mind will buy it. And two, for all the complaints about the people that were on the board of the proposed city partnership, the people who the TEA are likely to name to take on the HISD Board’s responsibilities are almost certainly going to be seen as even worse. The difference is that the TEA will not be susceptible to the same community and activist pressure that the HISD Board was. And nobody is going to like that.

HISD rejects partnership idea

The die is cast.

Houston ISD trustees narrowly voted Thursday to not seek proposals from outside organizations to run long-struggling schools, a decision that keeps those campuses under local control but sets the stage for a possible state takeover of the district’s school board.

Barring an unexpected legislative or legal change, four HISD schools now must meet state academic standards in 2019 after missing the mark for four-plus consecutive years to stave off major state sanctions against the district. If any of those four schools fail to meet standard, the Texas Education Agency is legally required to replace HISD’s entire school board and appoint new members, or close still-failing schools.

HISD could have preempted any punishment for two years if the district temporarily surrendered control of the four schools to outside groups. TEA leaders have previously said they do not see closing schools as a strong option for improving student outcomes, though they have not committed to either option.

In a 5-4 vote following about an hour of debate, interrupted several times by community members who vocally opposed seeking partnerships, trustees opted against directing Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan to issue a request for proposals to take control of an undetermined number of campuses. The four campuses that have repeatedly failed to meet state standard — Highland Heights Elementary School, Henry Middle School, and Kashmere and Wheatley high schools — would have been considered for partnerships.

[…]

Trustees Wanda Adams, Diana Dávila, Jolanda Jones, Elizabeth Santos and Rhonda Skillern-Jones opposed seeking proposals. Trustees Sue Deigaard, Sergio Lira, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Anne Sung supported the option.

Well, now Mayor Turner can quit pursuing the partnership plan he had proposed. At this point, either the four schools meet standards or we will say goodbye to the Board of Trustees for some number of years. I don’t foresee a bill getting passed to change the law that mandates the consequences, though that is a possibility that is worth pursuing because there’s nothing to lose and much to gain. While I expect there will be litigation over a state takeover – if nothing else, a Voting Rights Act lawsuit over the disenfranchisement of HISD voters seems likely – that kind of action can take years and is highly unpredictable. So it’s basically up to the students and parents and teachers and administrators at those four schools now. I wish them all the very best. The Press has more.

(On a side note, Diana Davila’s 2015 victory over Juliet Stipeche sure turned out to be consequential. I haven’t asked either of her opponents from 2017 how they might have voted, but Elizabeth Santos’ election in 2017 also looms large now. I sure hope we get to have HISD Trustee elections again next year.)

Mayor moves forward with city-led school partnership

We’ll see about this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A nonprofit formed by city of Houston leaders may seek temporary control of up to 15 Houston ISD campuses in neighborhoods with historically low-performing schools, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

The nonprofit, created by Turner’s education czar and led by Turner-appointed board members, marks the city’s effort to improve academic performance at chronically low-rated schools while helping HISD stave off state sanctions tied to academic failures at some of those campuses. The director of Turner’s Office of Education Initiatives, Juliet Stipeche, unveiled several details about the nonprofit for the first time last week in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.

In a press release Tuesday, Turner added two new pieces of information to the nonprofit’s plans: The organization is eyeing control of as many as 15 schools, and six people likely will be added to the nonprofit’s current three-person governing board. The campuses likely would be clustered in a few geographic areas, where elementary and middle schools funnel students to the same high school. Turner did not name specific schools under consideration.

[…]

HISD administrators and trustees have shown little appetite for relinquishing control of district schools, though that could change as a February 2019 deadline for submitting partnership plans to the state approaches. Trustees are expected to consider and possibly vote Thursday on authorizing Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan to issue a request-for-proposal seeking potential partners, according to the posted board agenda. Lathan has said she does not believe members of the public want outside organizations running campuses, and trustees have offered relatively little public support for the idea to date.

As HISD officials have spent the past few months making few moves on the private partnership front, Stipeche and other civic advocates have worked to form a nonprofit capable of operating HISD campuses. They have worked at the behest of Turner, who has advocated for avoiding a state takeover of HISD’s school board. It is widely believed that Texas Education Agency leaders, who would decide which sanction to impose if one of the four campuses fails to meet standard, would prefer to replace HISD’s school board rather over close schools.

The group ultimately formed a nonprofit in late November called the Coalition for Educational Excellence and Equity in Houston. City officials have not released a proposal or framework for their plans to operate HISD campuses, though Stipeche said she envisions “working through a collective-impact approach to lock arms with the community, to reimagine what we can do to support our schools.” The nonprofit’s leaders have not held public meetings, though engagement with the effected communities would take place if discussions with HISD turn more serious, Stipeche said.

See here for the previous update, and here for the Mayor’s press release. I really hope HISD will indicate ASAP what their preferred direction is for this, because if the city is wasting its time it would be best to know that quickly. If not – if there is a chance this could become a viable partnership in the event something like it is needed – then the Mayor and the powers that be at CEEE need to get moving with that community engagement, because there’s already a loud group of people steadfastly opposed to the idea. I may be overestimating their presence – I mostly see this activity on the same Facebook group pages that were busy organizing and canvassing for the 2018 election – but it’s also possible that the Mayor is underestimating it. Better I be wrong than he is.

City tries again with non-profit charter for HISD

Nobody seems to like this idea.

Juliet Stipeche

The city of Houston’s education czar and three well-connected, civically engaged residents plan in the coming weeks to seek control of some long-struggling Houston ISD schools in a bid to improve academic outcomes and help the district stave off major state sanctions tied to chronically low performance at the campuses.

State business records show Juliet Stipeche, the director of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Office of Education Initiatives, and the three board members have formed the Coalition for Educational Excellence and Equity in Houston, a nonprofit that could partner with HISD to take over campuses under a state law encouraging charter agreements between school districts and private organizations.

If an agreement with HISD were struck, the nonprofit envisions assuming control of academics, finances and governance at an undetermined number of schools. The portfolio likely would include four campuses in danger of triggering sanctions — either forced campus closures or a state takeover of HISD’s locally elected school board — if any one of them fails to meet state academic standards in 2019. In exchange, the state would provide an additional $1,800 per student in funding to the nonprofit, and it would grant HISD a two-year reprieve from sanctions if it surrendered control of the four campuses.

HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan and school board members have shown little enthusiasm for such arrangements to date, but they have not precluded the possibility ahead of a state-imposed deadline in early February 2019 to submit any agreements. The arrangements are intended to be temporary, with control over the campuses returned to a school district after a contractually agreed-upon period.

Stipeche, who served as an HISD trustee from 2010 to 2015, said the coalition will seek to engage other local civic organizations in providing resources to students who attend schools that often fail to meet state academic standards. The coalition has not yet solidified its educational framework or crafted a proposal for public viewing, Stipeche said.

“We envision working through a collective-impact approach to lock arms with the community, to reimagine what we can do to support our schools as centers of excellence, equity and innovation,” Stipeche said. “We are working on finalizing an overview of what we would like to present to the board for their consideration in terms of how we work, what our core values and vision are, and what our building blocks of success are.”

The coalition includes three founding board members: Trinidad “Trini” Mendenhall, the co-founder of the grocery chain Fiesta Mart and president of the real estate investment firm Fulton Shopping Center; Stephanie Nellons-Paige, the vice president of external affairs for Texas Central Railway and wife of former HISD superintendent Rod Paige; and Corbin Robertson Jr., CEO and chairman of the mining company Natural Resources Partners.

See here, here, and here for some background. HISD doesn’t seem to be into the idea, there’s some very vocal opposition from activist groups, and as Campos reasonably notes, the city has its own big issues to deal with instead of trying to solve the problems that HISD’s trustees were elected to solve. All of that mitigates against the city getting involved, but I find it hard to get too upset over this. Not to be all alarmist or anything, but the clock is ticking, and I don’t know what HISD’s intentions are. Obviously, it would be great if the schools could be brought up to standard this year – that is the ultimate goal, after all. Alternately, getting a bill passed in the Lege to modify the law that is putting HISD under the threat of takeover by the TEA would obviate the need for this kind of intervention. All I want to know is, what is the plan if these things don’t happen? Given what the law as it is mandates, what is the least objectionable outcome if one or more schools do not measure up? I don’t know what the consensus answer to that is, or even if there is one. I would love to see this resolved with a fully positive ending – successful schools, functioning governance at HISD, sufficient engagement by and with the parents and students and teachers and residents of the affected neighborhoods, etc. I just want to know what Plan B is if that doesn’t happen.

TEA offers to lend HISD a hand

Could be a decent deal.

A top Texas Education Agency official offered Tuesday to intensively work with Houston ISD’s much-maligned school board to dramatically overhaul its approach to governance, shifting focus toward student outcomes and away from distracting personal agendas.

The pitch from TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance AJ Crabill marks a unique olive branch to the state’s largest school district, which has struggled in recent months to reach consensus on vital issues.

“We can scrap all of what you’re doing now and redesign from scratch a governance system that honors your values and focuses on student values,” TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance AJ Crabill told trustees during a school board meeting.

Trustees in attendance offered mostly positive responses to Crabill’s offer, which would be free of charge, agreeing that HISD’s school board needs dramatic changes to restore confidence in its governance. Board members agreed in October to seek an executive coach in the aftermath of the covert attempt to replace Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, but employing a TEA official as their coach was not widely expected.

[…]

Trustees could vote as early as mid-December on Crabill’s proposal, though HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said she would not put the move up for vote if any trustee opposes the move.

HISD’s school board is responsible for setting district policy, hiring the superintendent and approving the district’s budget. The nine trustees are elected by voters in single-member districts.

Crabill’s offer came with some strings and relatively few concrete details. He said trustees must unanimously approve of his presence and “immediately resolve” any “gamesmanship” around his involvement. A few trustees, led by Jolanda Jones, have been fiercely critical of TEA leadership. Jones was not present for most of Crabill’s presentation and did not voice an opinion on it Tuesday.

Crabill said his primary goal would be moving toward trustees spending at least half of their time during board meetings focused on student outcomes. In recent months, trustees have spent significant amounts of time discussing relatively minor financial and policy matters, while occasionally engaging in deeply personal arguments.

Crabill did not outline a concrete vision for his work for trustees, but told them: “If you’re not comfortable with extreme discomfort, I’m not your guy.”

I mean, it’s worth hearing him out, if the other end of the bridge is an intact HISD with the four schools in question meeting standards. I can understand why some trustees might be leery of this, but it can’t hurt to hear the pitch. It would also be a good idea to let parents and teachers hear what Crabill has to say, since they’re going to be directly affected by whatever he might have in mind as well. See what he has in mind, and go from there. We’re no worse off if we decide to say “thanks, but no thanks”.

HISD still trying to figure out what to do with the four schools that didn’t meet standards

Don’t take too long on this.

After months with little public discussion about whether to temporarily surrender control over four long-struggling schools, Houston ISD officials are expected to start ramping up talks about any such plans as state-mandated deadlines quickly approach.

HISD administrators and trustees said they will meet after the Thanksgiving holiday to consider how they will approach the possibility of giving up control of the four campuses, which would stave off major state sanctions tied to chronically low academic performance at the schools.

The politically fraught option drew backlash from some community members in the spring, when trustees did not vote on Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s recommendation to give control of 10 campuses to a local charter school network, but district leaders say they remain open to employing the option before an early February 2019 deadline.

To date, administrators and trustees have not had extensive public conversations about if and how the district would approach surrendering control of the four campuses — even though the two sides have known since mid-August that HISD potentially faces sanctions if those schools remain under district authority.

If HISD does not hand over control of the four schools to an outside organization, and if any one of the four fails to meet state academic standards in August 2019, the Texas Education Agency must close campuses or replace the district’s school board.

“I wish that we could have started these earlier, but I still think it’s better late than never,” said HISD Trustee Anne Sung, who is helping to coordinate the post-Thanksgiving public meeting. “I think we’re starting to make some progress on having a timeline and plan for these conversations.”

[…]

Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who generally has opposed private partnerships, said HISD administrators and board members should have more transparent discussions after remaining relatively quiet over the past few months.

“My biggest concern is that I don’t want a repeat of April 24, and that seems to be what’s happening,” Santos said. “We’re going to be pushed into a corner where we limit our options. This has been staring us in the face since last year.”

See here and here for some background. I agree with Trustee Santos, we need to get this show on the road. There are options, beyond the optimal one of bringing all four schools up to standard, that would satisfy the law and avoid excessive intervention by the state. If the intent, with which I largely agree, is to also avoid partnering with a charter school, then the previously explored possibility of teaming up with a city-run non-profit, or the not-as-far-as-I-know-explored potential for a pair-up with HCC should be on the table. Even more fundamental than that, the parents and teachers and students in the schools that are at risk need to be engaged so HISD isn’t caught flat-footed by the response to their actions. HISD needs to get everyone who has a stake in this involved, listen to what they do and don’t want, and lead the way in finding the best path forward. Sooner rather than later would also be appreciated.