I don’t know what happens next, but there’s a lot more of this to play out.
The Texas Supreme Court cleared the way Friday for the state to potentially take control of the Houston Independent School District, which state education officials say has been plagued by mismanagement and low academic performance at one of its high schools.
Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath first moved to take over the district’s school board in 2019 in response to allegations of misconduct by trustees and years of low performance at Phillis Wheatley High School.
Houston ISD sued and, in 2020, a Travis County district judge halted Morath’s plan by granting a temporary injunction. The injunction was upheld by an appeals court, but the TEA took the case to the state’s highest court, where the agency’s lawyers argued last year that a 2021 law — which went into effect after the case was first taken to court — allows for a state takeover.
The Texas Supreme Court sided with TEA on Friday and threw out the injunction, saying it isn’t appropriate under the new law. The decision could allow TEA to put in place new school board members, who could then vote to end the lawsuit.
TEA told The Texas Tribune that it is reviewing the court decision. The agency didn’t immediately respond to questions about whether it has plans to install a new school board right away.
The Texas Supreme Court also remanded the yearslong case back to a trial court.
Houston ISD’s lawyers have already said they would welcome returning to a trial court so the temporary injunction can be considered under the updated law, adding that the district has been ready to make a case for a permanent injunction since 2020.
Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II said in a press release Friday that the district’s legal team is reviewing the court’s ruling. He also touted the school district’s recent improvements, including at Phillis Whitley High School. The historic school received a passing grade last year from TEA — like a majority of the district’s schools — for the first time in nearly a decade, prompting a celebration at the school.
“There is still much more work to be done, but we are excited about the progress we have made as a district and are looking forward to the work ahead,” House said in the release.
Judith Cruz’s time as a Houston ISD trustee and as the school board’s president has been consumed by this fight. She was elected as a trustee shortly before Morath’s takeover attempt, and her term as president ended Thursday, the night before the Texas Supreme Court’s decision.
Hours after the ruling, she told the Tribune that it’s still too early to determine whether or how TEA would implement a takeover — as well as how district officials would respond to such a change. She said she hopes any potential changes would cause the least amount of disruption to students in the district. Houston ISD trustees will continue to serve as elected representatives for their community, she said.
“Whether elected or appointed, the focus should always be the children,” Cruz said.
Houston ISD trustee Daniela Hernandez, the board’s current president, said the community has generally supported elected representatives instead of appointed ones, citing the pushback that TEA saw from local parents when the state agency first attempted the takeover.
She added that both the board and the school district have changed for the better since 2019.
“We have been in an upward trajectory, and we can keep on improving,” Hernandez said.
The takeover case has been long in the making. Education Commissioner Mike Morath first made moves to take over the district’s school board in 2019 after allegations of misconduct by trustees and Phillis Wheatley High School received failing accountability grades.The following year, HISD sued and a Travis County district judge provided the district some relief by granting a temporary injunction, bringing the Texas Education Agency’s plan to a halt. An appeals court upheld the injunction, but the TEA took the case to the Texas Supreme Court.
The justices heard arguments from both TEA and HISD in October over whether Morath had the authority to appoint a board of managers. The state argued that he does under a bipartisan law, enacted in September 2021, known as Senate Bill 1365, that gives the education commissioner authority to appoint a board of managers based on a conservator appointment that lasts for at least two years. The law became effective after the case was first taken to court.
The state appointed Doris Delaney to be a conservator for Kashmere High School due to its low academic performance in 2016.
HISD’s counsel argued that wasn’t enough to count under the law. The purpose of a campus conservator is to help make an improvement and Kashmere High School now has a passing rating, HISD’s lawyers said in October.
The latest Supreme Court opinion says that the school district failed to show that the TEA’s actions would violate the law.
“Because Houston ISD failed to show that the Commissioner’s planned actions would violate the amended law, the Court vacated the temporary order and remanded the case for the parties to reconsider their arguments in light of intervening changes to the law and facts,” according to the case summary.
The court’s opinion is here; I have not yet read it. One point I made in that last update is that seven of the nine Trustees that were on the Board at the time of the TEA directive in 2019 are now gone; Cruz and Hernandez replaced two of the members that the TEA had cited in their open meetings investigation. Replacing the Board now would be largely taking out trustees who had nothing to do with the original problems, and the one school whose then-failing grade was the fulcrum for the TEA is now passing. Whatever you think of the takeover idea or the conditions under which it was imposed, things are very different now and it just feels wrong to me to impose this now. I assume that will be the argument that HISD makes when the case is remanded back to the district court. I also presume that the TEA will wait until that court holds a hearing before taking any action. We’ll see. Reform Austin and the Press have more.