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.