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The digital divide

Online learning is great, if you can get online.

The lack of access to technology among students — commonly referred to as the “digital divide” — has come into sharper focus in recent weeks as school districts across Houston transition to online-based learning amid widespread school shutdowns.

Districts throughout the region are scrambling to equip tens of thousands of children with computers and internet access, jockeying with each other to secure coveted devices in high demand during the pandemic. In the meantime, many districts are providing those students with rudimentary paper materials, asking families to return completed coursework to their schools or take pictures of completed worksheets and send them to teachers.

“This has been on the education docket for, gosh, probably at least 20 years,” said Alice Owen, executive director of the Texas K-12 CTO Council, an association that supports school district chief technology officers. “It’s been a struggle for people to realize that this is an important piece of learning for students if we want to keep them competitive on a global scale.”

Educators and advocates long have warned about the digital divide facing American children, with the nation’s most impoverished children suffering most. The ubiquity and declining cost of computers and internet access has helped shrink the gap, but stark disparities remain.

In the Houston area’s 10 largest school districts, about 9 percent of households — nearly 142,650 — do not have a computer, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates. Nearly twice that number — about 267,250 households — lack broadband internet access.

Three of the region’s largest and most impoverished districts — Alief, Aldine and Houston ISDs — face the greatest shortages, according to Census data and estimates from district leaders.

[…]

Despite extensive warnings about the digital divide, state and federal legislators have not allocated nearly enough funding to schools to cover costs associated with providing laptops, wireless internet devices and broadband services to all students at home.

Districts can obtain some technology and internet access at steep discounts through a federal program known as E-Rate, but the benefit does not extend to take-home computers or wireless hotspots for students.

“If we want our kids to be competitive and stay up-to-date with tech, we need to be investing in our students for the future,” Owen said. “We’ve got to get over the way school used to be run, and we need to think about the ways that schools are run in the future.”

In a letter sent last week to the top four ranking members of Congress, 35 Democratic senators called for providing $2 billion in E-Rate funds that would allow schools and libraries to deliver wireless internet devices to students without connectivity at home.

“Children without connectivity are at risk of not only being unable to complete their homework during this pandemic, but being unable to continue their overall education,” the senators wrote. “Congress must address this issue by providing financial support specifically dedicated to expanding home Internet access in the next emergency relief package so that no child falls behind in their education.”

Maybe addressing this could be part of Infrastructure Week, or maybe it can be its own item. As the story notes, HISD and some other districts issue laptops to high school students – my daughter has one – which helps with those students, but obviously only goes so far. Charters are not exempt – KIPP reports a similar issue with its students. This is, plain and simple, an issue of poverty. If fixing the underlying issue is too hard, then maybe we can agree that all students need to have the equipment required for an education, and provide them all with laptops and Internet access. The choice is ours – are we going to learn from this crisis, or are we going to face the same problems the next time, without the excuse that we didn’t know any better?

No school accountability ratings this year

No surprise.

Texas public school districts and campuses will not receive accountability ratings in 2020 due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, state education officials said late Thursday.

The announcement is a mere formality after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last month canceled the state’s annual standardized tests, commonly known as STAAR, which largely serve as the basis for calculating accountability ratings issued in an A-through-F grade format. All Texas public schools will be labeled “not rated: declared state of disaster” for 2020.

“While we continuously work to ensure our ‘A-F’ accountability system paints an accurate picture of school performance, these unprecedented circumstances have forced all of us to change and adapt,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement.

[…]

State officials have not yet decided if or how state accountability ratings will be issued in 2021.

Under Texas’ current accountability system, many ratings are partially based on students’ year-over-year growth, as measured by performance on state standardized tests. With no tests administered in 2020, the Texas Education Agency cannot use its current method of evaluating academic growth.

Districts and high schools also are partially rated on measures of college, career and military readiness from the prior year’s graduating class. Many exams used to measure post-secondary readiness have been canceled or changed for the Class of 2020, which would significantly impact academic accountability ratings in 2021.

Terry Faucheux, an associate with the Austin-based education consulting firm Moak, Casey & Associates, said state officials likely would need to make several tweaks to the current accountability system before ratings could be issued in 2021. If state leaders move forward with an accountability framework next school year, she expects to see a proposed system no later than February or March 2021.

“It would be a very difficult lift to get that past the Legislature and federal government to scrap STAAR altogether and not do accountability for another year,” Faucheux said.

STAAR tests were waived three weeks ago, and at this point it seems likely that schools will not reopen till the fall, so this was just acceding to reality. The Lege will have the task of figuring out how to do accountability ratings in 2021, given that 2020 was basically a wash. Depending on how big a fight that turns into, it could have a ripple effect on other business the Lege needs to attend to, not least of which is redistricting. Expect the next session to be quite the whirlwind.

If you’re wondering what effect the cancellation of accountability ratings for 2020 might have on the ongoing takeover of HISD by the TEA, which is currently held up in court, the answer is basically none, though if Wheatley had made standard this year it might have increased the level of skepticism that a takeover was called for. Any districts that were in peril of the same fate will get a one-year reprieve, as HISD did to a limited extent following Harvey.

STAAR testing waived

This had to happen, given everything else.

In an unprecedented move, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday he would waive testing requirements for this year’s STAAR exam, as many schools expect to be closed at least through the April testing window, due to the new coronavirus.

He also said he would ask the federal government to waive this year’s federal standardized testing requirements, which apply to all states. According to the state, as of Sunday afternoon, 569 school districts had announced closures due to coronavirus concerns. Texas is not alone, since more than 30 states have closed schools due to coronavirus, affecting at least 30 million public school students nationwide.

The federal government has previously said it might give out targeted waivers from testing for areas where the COVID-19 disease has had significant impact.

The state will not mandate that districts offer the exam, but some superintendents may want the test data to see how their students are doing, according to the TEA. Agency officials are working to support those school districts, if necessary.

[…]

State leaders are giving schools more leeway than they have in the past, showing the increasing seriousness surrounding the COVID-19 disease.

When Hurricane Harvey decimated Houston-area and Coastal Bend communities in 2017, [TEA Commissioner Mike] Morath hesitated to give them a break on testing or accountability requirements, arguing that doing so would harm student learning. He argued that getting rid of state testing requirements would violate federal requirements and put federal funding at risk.

Eventually he agreed not to hold poor STAAR results against schools and districts, though he did not waive the requirement that they test students.

“Accountability results have been waived for Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Harvey. But never has testing itself been waived,” said Dee Carney, a longtime school accountability consultant in Texas. “It’s absolutely an unprecedented event requiring extraordinary measures of our schools and our teachers and our communities.”

It is not clear exactly what the implications are for students who need to take certain state tests in order to graduate from high school or move on to the next grade. Morath said he would send more specific guidance on student testing and school accountability this week, likely before Thursday.

So three things here. One, given the likely closure of schools through the rest of the academic year, this was basically inevitable. There’s too much disruption, and the test results would be essentially meaningless. Which was the same argument lots of people made following Harvey in 2017, but this time the message was received. Two, this is going to be a months-long, if not years-long, experiment in unprecedented actions and figuring things out as we go, because what else can we do? And three, we just may find out that some of the things we’d been doing all along we can do without, or do differently, and some things we’d never done before become new habits. That’s what happens with big disruptions. Maybe one result of all this is we’ll completely re-evaluate the need for high-stakes testing like we have now. Or maybe we’ll decide we need even more of it. I don’t know what will happen, but I’ll bet that five years from now when we look back on all this, we’ll be amazed at how different things became.

Schools could be closed for the rest of the academic year

Lots of school-related news on Monday.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told school superintendents and lawmakers Sunday to be prepared for long-term school district closures, potentially through the end of the school year, especially in areas where the new coronavirus has spread.

According to individuals who participated in two separate conference calls with the commissioner, Morath said he would still leave the decision up to local superintendents. This comes as hundreds of school districts announced they would suspend classes for at least a week, with concerns about COVID-19 spreading through their communities.

Morath suggested superintendents consider telling parents sooner rather than later that closures would stretch beyond a few weeks. The extended school closures would be a burden for low-income and working parents, who would more likely struggle to keep their children home for long periods of time.

The state has already said school districts with prolonged school closures due to coronavirus concerns may avoid financial penalties, as long as they can prove they are teaching students remotely. But not all school districts have the experience or resources needed to offer remote instruction, and many students lack access to consistent internet at home.

This is not unexpected. At this point, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t happen, though obviously if that’s the case then there will be wildly disparate effects on the students, between those who will have access to online instruction, and those who will not. Maybe – stay with me here – that should be something the Legislature addresses going forward. You may now be thinking “How can they possibly do the STAAR test if no one is at school?” I say to you, keep reading.

Shepherd ISD update

They’re the other district being taken over by the TEA due to failing performance.

Four days after a court order temporarily stopped Texas from taking over Shepherd Independent School District, elected school board members voted to effectively cede their control over the four-school East Texas district. They also fired the lawyers who got the takeover halted without a directive from the full school board.

With Friday’s school board vote, Texas education officials are poised to appoint their own board of managers to oversee hiring, budgeting and operations in Shepherd ISD, a result of the long-standing academic failure at two of its schools. It would be Texas’ first state takeover as a result of a 2015 law requiring harsh penalties for districts that fail to improve long-struggling schools.

“I’m opposed in principle to this,” said Mike Courvelle, the loudest school board voice in disagreement with the decision. “Once the state comes in…we’re granting them total control.”

The Third Court of Appeals in Austin, which issued an order Monday that temporarily blocked the takeover, must still give the state permission before it can appoint a new board. Almost all the discussion Friday on the school board’s votes happened behind closed doors in executive session.

Courvelle did get one win Friday: He and his colleagues unanimously tapped internal candidate Dianne Holbrook to serve as the district’s new superintendent, refusing the option chosen by the state. They did so knowing the state would likely overturn that decision.

“We know her. She’s here. We trust her,” Courvelle said. “We expect it to be a short-lived decision anyway.”

Jeff Cottrill, the Texas Education Agency’s representative in Shepherd, agreed with the latter part of Courvelle’s statement. “We look forward to the Third Court of Appeals bringing resolution to this litigation so the state-appointed superintendent Dr. Jason Hewitt as well as the board of managers can begin serving and uniting this community around improving student outcomes,” he told The Texas Tribune after the vote.

See here for the background. The stopped-and-to-be-restarted takeover situation is somewhat of a comedy of errors, stemming from miscommunication between the Shepherd board and the attorneys representing them. That’s not very interesting to me, and I expect that by mid-week or so the initial court order will be lifted. Of greater interest to me is this:

Shepherd’s takeover is due to a 2015 state law intended to hold school districts more accountable for improving their schools, instead of allowing them to languish in a state of low academic performance for years. If one school fails for five or more years, Texas is required to either shut down the school or take over the entire school district.

The same year the law was passed, Shepherd ISD’s primary and intermediate schools, which serve about half the district’s students, received their first failing grades.

Those schools would fail for four more consecutive years: a cohort of students attending elementary schools where less than a quarter of them can read on grade level.

When Ronnie Seagroves took over as principal of Shepherd Intermediate School last year, it had already been considered a failing school for years, not just for its poor academics but also lack of student discipline. Principals came and went, without providing vision or direction for the school and its students, he said.

Seagroves is working hard to turn that around by encouraging collaboration among teachers, providing more individualized instruction for students, and greeting students each day at the school’s entrance. But that same cohort of students who spent each year in a low-performing elementary school is now attending the middle school, which has received failing grades for the last two years.

So how likely do you think the TEA will be to reverse this trend? I suppose the preliminary question to that is, what caused this problem in the first place? Was Shepherd a more-or-less OK school system that suddenly took a nosedive? Was it that when a different (maybe more precise, maybe more random) measuring system was put into place, problems that had been there all along were suddenly exposed? Is there some other potential cause that may not be so readily identifiable? I’m skeptical that the TEA can and will do any better, but if they can at least identify the problem here, then maybe that can help other districts in the future. Whatever happens, I hope it’s done in a transparent manner, so we can learn from it one way or the other.

School could be out for awhile

We got the news on Thursday that HISD schools were going to be closed until March 31 due to coronavirus. (This week is spring break, so the kids got an extra day off before the start of break, then a week and a day after it.) But there’s a very real possibility that schools will remain closed well after that.

Houston schools could remain closed well beyond the end of March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, requiring unprecedented efforts to deliver meals and educational materials to hundreds of thousands of children, several local superintendents said Friday.

One day after nearly all Houston-area districts canceled classes through at least next week, local education leaders said their staffs were crafting contingency plans under the assumption that schools will remain closed long-term. Public health experts have said the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is expected to last months with the potential to infect millions of Americans.

“We’re planning as if we’re going to have to do school remotely for the remainder of this (school) year,” said Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre, whose district serves about 78,400 children.

For now, no area school districts have canceled classes past March 30, the date when Houston and Fort Bend ISDs are scheduled to return to school. Many district leaders said they plan to reassess their calendars next week, when updates about the virus are available.

However, several education officials said they expect the continued spread of COVID-19 and growing public awareness about its potentially devastating effects likely will prompt extended cancellations.

“If we’d had this discussion two days ago, I think we’d have said (school closures) would last a couple weeks, maybe to the first week of April,” said Curtis Culwell, executive director of Texas School Alliance. “I think the reality that’s beginning to sink in is, this could be longer than that.”

[…]

The Texas Department of Agriculture received a federal waiver Friday allowing districts to serve school meals off-site and to small groups, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement.

On the academic front, districts are grappling with multiple challenges in providing high-quality instruction, including lack of access to technology among lower-income and rural students, inexperience with remote learning tools, concerns about attentiveness among elementary-age children and the delivery of special education services.

The Texas Education Agency told district leaders Thursday evening that they must commit to “supporting students instructionally while at home” to avoid extending the school year.

Here’s the HISD announcement, in case you missed it. I have to say, I have no idea what to expect at this point. I don’t see any way that the overall coronavirus situation is better or noticeably under control by March 31, so I do believe schools will be closed longer than that. How much longer, and what the schools do about it, that’s the big question. This could wind up being a mostly lost year from an educational perspective, which is another scary thing to contemplate. And with all this disruption, does it make sense to proceed with STAAR testing as if nothing else were happening? State Rep. Jon Rosenthal thinks we should cancel the STAAR for this year, and I’m hard pressed to see the argument against that. How can that test mean anything in this context? Again, I have no idea what to expect. It’s going to be a super bumpy ride, and we’ll have to do it in our own spaces. Hang in there.

The other TEA takeover

A preview of things to come, perhaps.

The Texas Education Agency announced a new appointed board and a new superintendent Friday for a tiny East Texas school district with two schools that had failed to perform well for years.

Although the state’s takeover of its largest school district, Houston Independent School District, is tied up in court, no such roadblocks existed preventing the takeover of Shepherd ISD, about 60 miles northeast. Shepherd ISD’s elementary and intermediate schools had failed to meet state academic standards for five years, which required the state to either close the schools or seize power from the school board, under Texas law.

“The Board of Managers is comprised of members of the Shepherd ISD community who are committed to service on behalf of the students of the district and the community,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a letter Friday.

He also appointed Jason Hewitt, the director of the Texas Education Agency’s Special Investigations Unit, as superintendent over the district, replacing Rick Hartley, who had headed Shepherd ISD for just over three years.

[…]

The new appointed board — which includes a former Shepherd ISD school board president as well as members of the community — will have power to make hiring and budgetary decisions for the school district; the elected board will still be in place but will no longer have control over Shepherd’s schools. Eventually, the state will transition power back to the elected school board, once the schools improve.

Charles Minton, Shepherd’s mayor, heard the news late Friday afternoon. He has one child in the high school and another in the middle school, which is a target of the state’s intervention.

The tiny East Texas town has been split in half by the news, with some angry at the loss of local control and others open to giving the state a chance to turn the schools around, Minton said.

Shepherd ISD had also sued to stop the takeover, but they were not successful. The new Board of Managers was to be officially seated at a meeting on Monday. Their task in this small, rural ISD is going to be a lot different than it is in HISD, but it’s still in its way a test of how it might work (or not) here. The past track record of state takeovers isn’t great, but maybe this time there will be more focus and more resources and the results will reflect that. Or maybe it will be another idea that doesn’t actually address the real causes of the poor performance and we’ll find ourselves back where we started, with more kids having gone through the system in the meantime. Not much to do but see how it turns out.

UPDATE: Hold that takeover!

State officials planned Monday night to swear in a board of managers, appointed by the Texas Education Agency, that would take control of hiring, budgeting and operations — a penalty for years of poor academic performance in two schools. The elected school board would lose all its power, until the state decided otherwise.

Board members and community members strolled into the district administration building Monday night planning to watch the transfer of power. Instead, they were notified that a court order had come down in Austin that afternoon temporarily stopping the state from taking any action.

The news was a surprise to nearly everyone in the building Monday night. State education officials waited for guidance from their lawyers. District employees waited for guidance from state officials. And two sets of school boards stood in the entryway to the board room wondering which would be allowed to gavel in: the one elected by residents or the one appointed by state officials.

[…]

Back in November, Jeff Cottrill, the TEA’s representative in Shepherd, had gripped the edges of a wooden podium and explained to an audience of more than 100 people that a state takeover was a necessary and prudent result of prolonged failing ratings in multiple schools. He answered hours of questions about what the loss of local control would mean for students and teachers in the small community.

Shepherd ISD sued the state over its plans, but after a Travis County state district court judge denied the district’s request to temporarily stop the state takeover, the school board decided not to appeal that decision. Still, lawyers for the state appealed the suit to the Third Court of Appeals to try and prevent it from moving forward in a lower court.

But Shepherd ISD lawyers, though many people didn’t know it, had decided to continue the case pro bono. And on Monday, they informed the appeals court of a “current emergency” since the state planned on installing a board of managers that night, an action that would be legally irreversible.

“The Court must act now,” wrote David Campbell, who is also representing Houston ISD as it fights a pending state takeover.

The court agreed and temporarily stopped the state from installing its chosen board.

No one is exactly sure what’s happening in Shepherd ISD right now. I’ll keep an eye on it.

FBI raids HISD official’s home and office

Well, this is never good.

Agents with the FBI and IRS spent hours Thursday searching the administrative offices of the Houston Independent School District and the Cypress-area house of its chief operating officer, but they remained tight-lipped about what they were seeking.

At least a dozen federal agents made their way in and out of HISD’s Hattie Mae White building on 4400 West 18th Street Thursday morning, at one point carrying several boxes and containers to vehicles parked nearby.

The bureau called the search a “court authorized law enforcement activity,” but did not elaborate.

The district issued a statement saying it was fully cooperating with the FBI, adding there was no danger to students or staff.

Federal agents also were at a Cypress-area home listed in county property tax records as the residence of HISD Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby and his wife, HISD Officer of Special Populations Courtney Busby. Security refused to allow news media inside the gated neighborhood.

A voicemail and text message left on Busby’s phone, as well as a message sent via Twitter, were not returned Thursday. It was unclear whether Busby still had access to the phone, which may have been issued by HISD.

An Internal Revenue Service spokesman, in response to questions, said the agency could neither confirm nor deny any involvement, citing federal privacy laws. Agents with “IRS” on the backs their jackets were visible at the administration building and Busby’s home.

“We were notified first thing this morning of the FBI’s presence by the administration,” HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said. “I don’t have any additional information at this time, but I certainly share the community’s concerns.”

Not much to do but wait and see what happens. If there’s something there, we’ll know about it soon enough.

HISD takes a step towards a bond referendum

Just a step. If there’s to be a bond referendum on the ballot, this year or later, they’ll have to vote again to authorize that.

Houston ISD trustees kept hopes alive for a November bond election during Thursday night’s board meeting, voting to approve spending on a facilities assessment that must be completed before asking residents to provide tax dollars for campus and security upgrades.

Board members voted 6-3 to spend up to $5 million on the assessment, which will document the conditions of HISD’s aging schools, space needs for campuses and demographic trends in the district. District officials said they will use the assessment to guide the creation of any bond proposals, which remain in the early stages of development.

[…]

Trustees and administrators who backed the assessment argued the analysis will provide vital information needed to create an accurate and updated picture of the district’s facilities needs. HISD last commissioned a facilities assessment in 2016, but the work only documented building conditions, with no alignment to academic and space needs.

Three trustees voted against the bond — Judith Cruz, Dani Hernandez and Elizabeth Santos — amid questions about timing of the assessment.

Board members and Lathan have not held extensive discussions about their detailed vision for the district since January, when four new trustees joined the nine-member board.

In addition, public trust in the district has waned over the past two years following extensive in-fighting, as well as the possible ouster of elected trustees due to multiple findings of misconduct by board members and chronically low ratings of Wheatley High School.

“It feels rushed, and I want to make sure we’re doing this the best way possible,” Cruz said.

The vote came after nearly 20 students, parents and educators spoke in favor of rebuilding crumbling schools, describing outdated facilities that disappoint children and scare away prospective families.

See here for some background, and here for a preview story from Thursday, when the vote was taken. The last bond was in 2012, and it’s getting to be time to do some more capital spending. Previous bonds have passed without too much commotion, and even with HISD’s current issues I think they’d be able to get one passed this year, if they do a decent enough job presenting what it would do and get sufficient buy-in from the community. The looming TEA takeover may work in their favor, as I for one have no idea whether a board of managers could or would attempt to authorize a bond, and waiting around for another four or five years seems like a terrible idea. Let’s see what the assessment says and we’ll go from there.

No metal detectors at HISD schools

For now, at least.

Houston ISD trustees shelved a request from administrators Thursday to authorize up to $3 million for metal detectors, arguing district officials need to provide more concrete recommendations and plans for school security before the board votes to allocate money for the machines.

The board’s decision comes as Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s administration continues to solicit feedback and analyze security protocols following last month’s on-campus fatal shooting of Bellaire High School student Cesar Cortes, 19. Lathan said she has not yet decided whether to install metal detectors in some middle and high schools, but her administration wanted quick access to funds for the machines if district leaders decide to buy them.

Some trustees suggested they remain open to possibly deploying metal detectors at access points in schools, though they said administrators and the board first need to conduct more detailed conversations about districtwide security plans. Several trustees questioned why Lathan asked for authority to spend on metal detectors now, rather than waiting until she decided to purchase the machines.

“It’s so easy to try to put a metal detector out there as a quick fix,” Trustee Anne Sung said. “I just want to make sure we’re being thoughtful and utilizing a strategy.”

[…]

Lathan said the prospect of installing metal detectors has received some public support, but three other security measures top her list of potential recommendations as of now: increasing the number of police officers on campuses; bumping up police officer pay to reduce vacancies and turnover; and adding social workers to address students’ social and emotional needs.

Students attending the district’s high schools have been particularly supportive of placing more police officers on campuses, Lathan said. Her comments came after closed-door meetings with about 25 Bellaire students last month and 35 high school students from across the district earlier this week.

“I thought that was powerful,” Lathan said. “Especially in this day and time, when there’s still animosity in some communities when it comes to police officers, what I heard is, we want more police officers.”

HISD trustees have not yet held extensive discussions about specific security recommendations, many of which would require the board to authorize additional funding. Some board members have asked Lathan to present data on the efficiency of metal detectors in schools, though relatively little national research exists.

“I think we need to have a conversation on what our philosophy and approach is as a district, rooted in conversation with community members and students — which I know we’ve begun to do — but also research and policies,” Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said Thursday.

See here for the background. I’m glad we are not charging ahead with this, and I agree with Trustees Sung and Vilaseca that we need to put a lot of thought into this and do some research. And put me down in opposition to increasing police presence at schools, because the research we have on that shows that more police at schools is a key component of the school-to-prison pipeline. Too many kids win up getting citations for low-level, non-violent behavior that historically has been handled at the school level – that’s what police officers do, after all – and that has significant and long-lasting effect on the kids. Let’s take a long, serious look at other options before we go down this path, because the potential for unintended consequences is great.

HISD considers metal detectors

It’s (maybe) come to this.

Houston ISD officials are exploring the idea of installing metal detectors at the district’s middle and high schools in response to last week’s fatal on-campus shooting of a student, a step few districts in the region have taken following nationwide incidents of mass gun violence at schools.

In a blog post, Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan wrote that she will be meeting with students and community leaders to determine whether the district should increase security measures following the Jan. 14 shooting of Cesar Cortes, 19, at Bellaire High School. Authorities have said they believe a 16-year-old classmate accidentally shot Cortes while showing off a semiautomatic pistol.

“These meetings, along with reconvening safety and security council committees on every campus, will be a catalyst for increased vigilance and preventative measures in our schools,” Lathan wrote Tuesday. “Another measure the district is exploring includes assessing middle schools and high schools for metal detectors as a screening measure for entry onto campuses.”

HISD does not regularly employ metal detectors or require clear backpacks at its campuses. Aldine and Spring ISDs are the only two large Houston-area districts that use metal detectors each school day. Cy-Fair ISD, the region’s second-largest district, issued a clear backpack mandate for students following the May 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School that left 10 people dead.

[…]

The addition of metal detectors would represent one of HISD’s costliest and most significant security upgrades in recent years. While prices for metal detectors vary, outfitting all 106 campuses that serve grades 6 and higher could be costly, particularly if the district installed multiple machines at larger schools. Chicago Public Schools officials last year approved the purchase of an undisclosed number of metal detectors for nearly $4,000 per unit, with installation and warranty included.

HISD officials have not said who would operate and maintain metal detectors, which could carry additional costs.

Any districtwide purchases of metal detectors likely would require approval of the HISD school board. Trustee Patricia Allen, a former elementary school principal, said she supports the installation of metal detectors in middle and high schools, arguing the increase in security outweighs the logistical hurdles of screening students daily.

“You already see them so much, even at the football stadiums where they have lots of people going through those,” Allen said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

However, Trustee Dani Hernandez said she opposes metal detectors at schools, largely because of the message they send to students. Hernandez added that she heard backlash to metal detectors from community members following the November 2018 death of 18-year-old Delindsey Mack, who was killed in an apparent gang-related shooting within feet of Lamar High School grounds.

“We would need to figure out more about the cost, but also how that plays into the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Hernandez, a former elementary school teacher.

Here’s the blog post in question. A little back of the envelope math based on the Chicago schools’ experience suggests this would cost at least $4 million for the equipment, with likely additional costs for the personnel to operate the machines. As the story notes later, HISD will be getting an additional $2 million from the state for “safety-related upgrades”, which is both insufficient and doesn’t address ongoing costs.

Now, the additional cost this would impose on HISD may still be worth it. I’ve got two kids in HISD, and one of my older daughter’s best friends attends Bellaire, so I very much have skin in the game here, and the safety of HISD’s students is something I care a lot about. The first question is, would this be a good way to improve school security? As the story notes, the studies we have so far have not yet shown evidence that metal detectors do improve safety; there wasn’t enough data to draw a conclusion. We’ve all seen news stories of metal detectors at airports failing to detect guns. There’s already evidence that other “security” enhancements at schools, like live shooter drills, has had an overall negative effect on students’ mental health and well-being. Suffice it to say, I’m skeptical.

Meanwhile, the HISD Board of Trustees is still a thing

Meet the new Board, not the same as the old Board.

Hours after Houston ISD’s four recently elected trustees took office, enshrining the district’s first all-female school board, the new-look governing team on Thursday made its first big decision.

Trustees voted 8-1 to postpone approving a facilities assessment contract sought by the district’s administration, which would serve as a significant step toward asking residents to approve a multi-billion bond package in November. Board members will return in February to decide on the contract, giving them additional time to consider the ramifications of the deal.

Multiple board members said they wanted more discussion between the administration and trustees before spending up to $5 million on a facilities assessment. HISD likely will face headwinds in gaining support for a bond package, the result of dramatic state intervention looming over the district and a decline in public trust following months of board in-fighting.

“If it were that important, these conversations should have happened months ago,” HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos said. “To spring it on brand new board members and expect a vote is unfair.”

HISD administrators said the facilities assessment would help the district craft a bond proposal, which would involve extensive construction projects at dozens of campuses, major investments in school security and hundreds of millions of dollars in technology upgrades.

Derrick Sanders, HISD’s officer of construction services, said the delay in a facilities assessment “wouldn’t be a fatal blow, but it would be a challenging one” for placing a bond request on the November ballot.

District officials have not placed a price tag on any potential bond packages, but it would likely exceed $2 billion and come with little to no increase in the tax rate. HISD residents last voted on a bond in 2012, approving a $1.9-billion proposal. Nearly all projects financed by the package have been completed.

So the obvious question to ask here, which the story did not address, is whether there could be a bond election called by the Board of Managers. It’s been long enough since the last bond election that there’s surely a need for some capital spending, and waiting four or five years till the elected Board is fully back in place could ensure that the need is too great to be sufficiently addressed. These bonds usually pass without too much trouble – the 2012 bond got 69% of the vote – but it’s not hard to imagine a 2020 issue being controversial. I don’t know what the best course of action is here, but I hope the new Board figures it out quickly. Aren’t y’all glad you signed up for this?

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.