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Board of Managers

HISD decides against appealing TEA takeover to the TEA

The decision makes sense, whether or not the headline to this post also makes sense.

In a close vote, Houston ISD board members decided late Monday to bypass its final appeal of Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s decision to takeover the district.

Earlier this month, the board overwhelmingly voted to end the lawsuit against the TEA. They still had the option to file an appeal to the state agency,  considered a last-ditch effort at preventing state intervention. These appeals hearings are not held in court but rather by a committee the commissioner selects and often do not go in the district’s favor. The board ultimately voted 5-4 against the measure.

“When it was time to give up the legal fight because we didn’t have a legal basis to continue, I was on board with that,” Trustee Myrna Guidry said. “This is an appeal that is given by the commissioner himself, giving us one more opportunity … The outcome is on the commissioner, but I believe we should take the appeal so we as a board have done everything we possibly can.”

Last week, the TEA hosted a series of informational meetings about the state intervention, which was met with outcry from the community. Shortly after the TEA’s takeover plans were announced on March 15, the community rallied in opposition to the intervention. This type of response is worth listening to, said Trustee Patricia Allen.

“I’ve heard the voice of the people. I’ve been to the community meetings. My opinion as a trustee is to listen to the voice of the people,” Allen said. “This is not a ‘must’ on the part of the commissioner. We can appeal and the commissioner can decide.”

[…]

Trustee Judith Cruz agreed the district should not spend any more money on legal counsel regarding takeover issues.

Others said they felt their chances of success with an appeal were too slim to pursue.

“Whether we file an appeal or not, there is no changing in the outcome,” Board President Dani Hernandez said. “It’s time to make a smooth transition.”

I lean in the “not worth it” direction, mostly because asking the TEA to reconsider its own decision seems highly unlikely to work. I get where Trustees Guidry and Allen are coming from, though. There might be some symbolic value in making the TEA defend itself on the record. Basically, I agree with Campos, I don’t have a quarrel with anyone’s vote on this.

There will still be HISD Trustee elections this fall

Just a reminder, in case you needed it.

Although the state is preparing to appoint a board of managers this summer, local elections for Houston ISD trustees will still be held as scheduled in November.

The Texas Education Agency announced plans to replace the district’s top leadership following chronic low academic achievement at a Fifth Ward high school and prior school board mismanagement.

It’s unclear what the elected-trustees’ roles will look like once the board of managers is appointed, but they will likely serve in an advisory position, although they will have not voting power.

After about two years of the board of managers running the district, a transition timeline may be announced if HISD reaches certain goals, and elected-trustees will be phased back into the board over the course of at least two years.

Four of the nine Houston ISD school board trustees are up for re-election in November and confirmed the plan to run again.

Trustees must file their candidate application by Aug. 21.

The rest of the story is about those four incumbents – Kathy Blueford-Daniels in II, Dani Hernandez in III, Patricia Allen in IV, and Judith Cruz in VIII – and their reasons for running again in spite of it all, which mostly amount to “someone needs to represent our district” and “I know what’s going on”. I will remind everyone that Hernandez and Cruz ousted two of the former Trustees who had been involved in that Open Meetings Act issue.

What I wonder about at this point is whether anyone will file to run against any of them. Anyone can make a case for themselves as being the better alternative, but who would want the job? It’s just going to be a placeholder for some number of years, and there’s an excellent chance that future voters will hold you responsible for anything unpopular that the Board of Managers does. It’s easy enough to see why the incumbents want to stay. It’s not at all clear to me why someone else would want in right now. We’ll see.

Don’t forget the teachers

I hope the Board of Managers has a plan for this.

Teachers had been shuffling in and out of Traci Latson’s classroom all day the first day back from spring break, trying to make sense of the news that broke that Houston ISD, the largest district in Texas, would be taken over by the state. 

The effects of the soon-coming state intervention won’t be felt overnight. The current elected board and superintendent will be in place until the end of the school year to avoid further disruption. Then in June, a new board and superintendent will be appointed by TEA Commissioner Mike Morath.

In the meantime, Latson, a teacher at Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School, and her peers throughout HISD, have questions: How will this affect curriculum? Will schools close? What major changes will this board make?

“They’re just nervous, and they don’t know what to think,” Latson said of her peers. “We’re stuck in limbo hell.”

The Texas Education Agency started holding public hearings this week to try and quell some of these anxieties, but the first one was chaotic, interrupted by shouting and leaving many questions unanswered.  In the first days back from the takeover, attendance among both teachers and students seemed to be fairly normal, multiple teachers told the Chronicle. The attendance rate for students was about 90 percent.

Latson has spent nearly three decades as an HISD teacher. She taught some of her students’ parents, and in another classroom one of her former students is now the one teaching the lesson plans. Despite her history with HISD, she has began to peruse other job postings.

“I don’t want to leave HISD. I love working in the city, I love our children, and, for the most part, I have been pretty happy with the district,” Latson said. “So, it does sadden me to even admit to myself that it might be time for me to leave.”

[…]

Although there is much left unknown in the district, teachers can likely count on having their jobs next year, said Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. Contracts typically go out in May, which are binding for the next academic year.

Teachers actually have a great deal of job security, Anderson said, given the persistent teacher shortage compounded by the pandemic.

“I don’t care who runs the district. Somebody’s got to teach,” Anderson said. “It’s not like teachers are beating down the door. We started the school year with a teacher shortage that still exists.”

Houston ISD still has a vacancy rate of about 3.2 percent with roughly 336 openings, despite having one of the leading starting salary in the region at $61,500.

The district made an effort to persuade teachers to stay by awarding nearly $3.3 million in sign-on incentives for the 2022-2023 year to new teachers.

I don’t blame anyone for feeling adrift and insecure about what the future of HISD is. It would help greatly if the TEA held actually informative meetings rather than having PowerPoint shows that tell people things that are already publicly available, and it would help if Commissioner Morath could get his ass into town to talk to people. As long as there’s such a dearth of information, given how unprecedented this takeover is, it’s natural that fear and speculation would fill the void. The TEA owns all of this. It’s time they started acting like they understood the responsibility they have taken for themselves.

This is not how you win hearts and minds

I don’t know what the TEA hoped to accomplish with its public outreach meetings about the HISD takeover, but it probably wasn’t this.

Houston community members were irate Tuesday night as state education officials tried to explain the process of taking over their school district. State officials did not take questions about the effects such a move could have on Houston Independent School District, which is the largest in Texas, but did try to recruit community members to replace the existing school board.

About seven minutes into the Texas Education Agency’s PowerPoint presentation on the impending HISD takeover, parents and community members erupted in shouts directed at TEA deputy commissioner Alejandro Delgado.

“We got questions,” attendees repeatedly yelled. “Y’all tryna take our community.”

It was the first meeting that the state agency held in Houston since it announced on March 15 that it would replace the district’s current superintendent, Millard House II, and its democratically elected school board with its own “board of managers” in response to years of underperforming schools, mainly Phillis Wheatley High School.

[…]

The TEA official attempted to finish his presentation without interruption, but community members would not stand down. They were upset that they had to write their questions down on index cards and then TEA officials would choose which questions to answer.

“This meeting was rodeo-grade BS,” said Houston ISD parent Travis McGee. “The community should have been able to speak.”

McGee and other community members were also upset that the TEA commissioner himself didn’t show up to the meeting.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, took the podium once the TEA could not take control of the meeting. She said she believes Morath has the ability to not take over the district and instead continue monitoring improvement within the schools.

“The board of managers will not be responsive to teachers, parents or children. I do want the school board to be responsive to you,” she told the audience.

The community meetings were mentioned in the earlier story about the requirements that HISD must meet to get out of takeover jail. I don’t know what I would have expected if I had been there, but 1) Mike Morath really needs to be at these things and talk directly to the people, it’s flat out disrespectful not to, and 2) “Rodeo-grade BS” is an excellent expression that I plan to borrow at some point. Stace, Campos, the Chron, and the Press have more.

PS – In re: that Press piece, I take issue with this:

Asked a direct question about why TEA thought it should take over the district, Delgado made the mistake of beginning his answer with a reiteration of all the good things about the district (like a boss talking to a disappointing employee before lowering the boom with a “but”) before starting to get to the point. The crowd, exasperated, shouted him down yelling “Answer the question.” Which he then tried to do but by then it was a lost cause.

(For the record, Morath determined HISD was in need of intervention after years of some low-performing AKA failing schools that didn’t meet state academic standards and board members that were not only dysfunctional but one convicted of corruption. Others engineered an aborted administration takeover in a private meeting in apparent violation of the Open Meetings Act. And while most of the board has switched out in subsequent elections, some members of the especially troubled times remain.)

Only two current members of the Board were there for the cited dysfunction. Only one of those two was involved in the Open Meetings Act violation. The other has not been associated with any bad behavior. Four of the five trustees associated with that Open Meetings Act violation were defeated in their subsequent election. I know that Margaret Downing, a longtime reporter of HISD doings and the author of this piece, knows all of that. I don’t know if she was just presenting the TEA’s case as they would present it without any additional context or if she chose to give it this shading. I don’t care for it either way.

UPDATE: The Chron editorial board was not impressed.

On being on the Board of Managers

When the TEA takeover of HISD was officially announced, I noted that the coverage included a link back to a list of people who had applied for the Board of Managers in 2019. I noted that there were some familiar names on that list, including three current Trustees, all prior to their eventual elections, as well as some other recognizable names.

I reached out to one of those people from the list, who I know in real life. I was curious if they had ever heard back from the TEA the first time around and if the TEA had gotten back in touch now that they were in the Board of Managers business again. They said they never went through the interview process back then because the injunction came down before that could happen, and that the TEA did reach out again via email last week about submitting another application; the deadline to do that is April 6, in case anyone reading this is interested.

I asked what motivated them to apply back then and whether they’d do it again now, and got this response:

My initial interest was really just fascination with the process and wanting to see how the interviews were going to be conducted. I never really thought I would be a serious candidate for the position. But, as you know, often times with these type of things people who are actually qualified just don’t apply because they don’t want to deal with all the BS and you end up getting a list of candidates who have extreme views one way or the other. I suspect given all that has happened that is what will be the case this time. It’s hard for me to see any real qualified candidates, wanting to deal with all the current discord between the superintendent, board, TEA, Union, community, etc.

I share that concern, though I’m perhaps a bit less pessimistic about it. It’s the TEA’s problem now, but it will very much be our problem if they make bad choices, or if they only have bad options from which to choose. We can certainly disagree about whether good people should apply to be on the Board of Managers or if good people can only get tainted by the things they would have to do on the BoM, but however it shakes out this Board is going to have power over HISD for two years or more. Whatever the risks are, I hope people who care about HISD will review the job description and qualifications and consider applying to be on the Board of Managers. I don’t think there’s any way around that.

The state’s requirements for HISD

It’s their job to make it happen.

After forging ahead with a takeover of the Houston Independent School District, state leaders have outlined three conditions that must be met before transferring power back to the elected school board, a process that will likely take years.

Education Commissioner Mike Morath said he wants to make sure the underlying causes for intervention have been addressed before releasing the district from state control. Morath has outlined the following goals: No campuses should get failing grades for multiple years, the special education program should be in compliance with state and federal regulations, and the board should demonstrate procedures and behavior focused on student outcomes.

Local education experts say those criteria are reasonable and good benchmarks, although it will be important to hold the state accountable to those standards and get more clarity about how those goals will be met.

“They’re definitely achievable,” said Duncan Klussman, former superintendent for Spring Branch ISD. “The state’s now in control. It’s their responsibility to produce that result, and we’ll have to see what happens.”

Klussmann, now an education professor at the University of Houston, said the academic performance benchmark in particular is “a very strict requirement, a very high expectation.”

“The biggest challenge here is producing that level of academic outcome in a system that is as large as HISD, where you have those schools at that level,” he said. “In a system that large, it’s a very aggressive goal.”

The district has made academic progress in recent years under House’s leadership, lifting 40 out of 50 schools from the state’s D and F accountability list.

[…]

Catherine Horn, interim dean at the University of Houston College of Education, said the TEA’s outlined goals are actually similar to the current focus and ongoing efforts by Superintendent Millard House II and the elected school board. 

“Those are really important indicators of the health of schools and the health of a district,” she said about the criteria. “I think that how those goals are achieved is going to be where the real challenge and opportunity lie.”

She said she hopes the appointed board will expand on the district’s ongoing progress and not pivot in a different direction.

Additionally, it will be important for teachers, parents and the community to get more clarity in the coming months about specific plans and decisions, she said.

Teachers will want to hear from a board of managers their pathway for accomplishing those goals laid out by the commissioner and by the agency,” Horn said.

[…]

The state is now responsible for their outcomes,” Klussmann said. “They’re now the entity that we all need to look at and say, ‘This is what you’ve said you expect of the system — and we’re going to hold you accountable to those outcomes.'”

Emphasis mine in all cases. For sure, it’s a big win all around if HISD meets these goals – the quicker, the better – and gets out from under the TEA’s yoke. Let’s just keep in mind two things along the way. One is that any delays, failures, hiccups, bumps in the road, what have you, are 100% the responsibility of the state of Texas. You wanted this, you got it. And two, HISD had already done a lot of the hard work to make this task easier for them, while already doing most of what the TEA says they need to do. The TEA will get credit if and hopefully when they succeed. But they’ll deserve a lot less credit for that success than blame for any failure that we all really hope doesn’t happen.

Federal complaint filed over TEA takeover

We’ll see if it can have an effect.

The Greater Houston Coalition for Justice this week filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that Texas is discriminating against Houston schoolchildren by taking over the majority-minority school district.

Johnny Mata, presiding officer for the coalition, outlined the allegations in a Wednesday letter addressed to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

The coalition filed the complaint on behalf of the Houston Independent School District and against the state of Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott, Education Commissioner Mike Morath and the Texas Education Agency, according to a copy of the letter shared with the Chronicle.

Mata said he believes the TEA is violating a federal civil rights law by taking control of HISD. The contentious takeover has sparked outrage and pushback in recent days among teachers, parents and community advocates who say the move is a political attempt to destroy public education. 

“They’re asking for a fight,” Mata said about state leaders. “They’re playing games, they’re playing politics, they’re catering to their base, and that’s unconscionable.”

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin. This civil rights law and others extend to all state education agencies, schools and universities, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Anyone may file a complaint with the federal education department’s Office for Civil Rights, which enforces federal civil rights laws in educational programs or activities that receive federal funding, according to the government website.

[…]

HISD may request an administrative review by the State Office of Administrative Hearings by March 30, according to the commissioner.

Mata, who is not a lawyer, said he disagrees with the state interpretation of the takeover law.

“State law is superceded by federal law and they cannot and should not discriminate against anyone,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has said she is also seeking federal intervention in the takeover by speaking with the Biden administration and other members of Congress.

A spokesperson for the federal education department confirmed that it has been in touch with Lee’s office.

“We cannot prejudge the effect of state and local decisions that have not yet been implemented,” the spokesperson said. “At the U.S. Department of Education, our most important focus is to ensure all students receive high-quality education. We always value and encourage community input in education decisions, and every school district should ensure that community rights are respected.”

See here for the background. I don’t know what the likelihood of federal action is, nor do I know what kind of timeline they might be on, or what procedural steps there may be along the way. I do feel confident that if the feds step in that the state would file its own complaint in federal court, and who knows what happens from there. It’s a lot, at least potentially. Or maybe it’s nothing, if the feds decline to act or decide they don’t have the authority. Like I said, who knows? It’s not boring, we know that much.

Asking the feds to stop the TEA takeover

Can’t hurt to ask.

U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee said Thursday she is seeking federal government intervention to halt the Texas Education Agency’s takeover of the Houston Independent School District.

Jackson Lee said she has been in contact with the White House frequently over the past years and is now speaking to President Joe Biden’s assistant secretary and the U.S. Office of Civil Rights

“I truly believe that this is a clearly defined matter of discrimination,” Jackson Lee said, adding that other districts have faired similarly to HISD but are not facing takeovers.

Wheatley High School, which received failing grades from the TEA for seven consecutive years, is at the center of the debate over the HISD takeover. While the TEA takeover remained in legal limbo for over three years due to a lawsuit from the district, Wheatley High School has since earned a C grade.

The TEA has said the performance of Wheatley High School is not the only reason for its decision to take over the district. TEA Director Mike Morath pointed to a corruption scandal in which trustees admitted to accepting kickbacks from district vendors as well as a state conservatorship the TEA had placed over HISD for over two consecutive years.

Lee said she has also been speaking with fellow members of Congress, and has distributed a letter criticizing the takeover.

The story notes that the Chron has not yet seen a copy of the letter; I’d have linked to it if there had been a link in the piece. I have previously suggested that federal intervention is the only possible means of stopping this now, given that passing a new law would take far too long and has at best an uncertain chance of happening. That doesn’t mean I think it has a good chance of success, or that the state would sit idly by if it did happen. My best guess is that the Education Department will review Rep. Jackson Lee’s letter but is unlikely to take action, unless they see a clear justification for it.

On that score, I will note that in a world where we still had a fully functioning Voting Rights Act, the TEA would almost certainly have had to get preclearance to sideline the elected Board of Trustees as they will be doing. (This thought is not original to me, I saw it mentioned somewhere else, maybe on Twitter, but I don’t remember where.) That doesn’t mean the takeover couldn’t have happened, just that it would have required more effort on the TEA’s part, or perhaps that the TEA would have gone about it differently. I will also note that if this is the scandal in question, it involved one Trustee who hasn’t been on the Board since 2020. It’s a thing that happened, but we should acknowledge that no current Trustees – you know, the ones who are going to be replaced – were involved.

UPDATE: The Greater Houston Coalition for Justice has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education regarding the takeover. I’ll post separately about that but wanted to acknowledge it this morning.

So now we start processing what happened and what will happen with the TEA takeover

The Chron editorial board points to three key items.

Still, if this takeover must happen — and Texas Education Agency announced Wednesday that it is indeed happening — we want it to work. Houston’s schoolchildren don’t have time for another failure. There’s no re-do for high school; these are precious years that even the most cynical politician shouldn’t endeavor to squander. Hear us on that, Governor Abbott.

Our skepticism and worry for the schoolchildren in the path of this takeover are tempered by other things: curiosity about how this experiment will work and even a glimmer of hope about what it could accomplish if TEA’s commissioner, Mike Morath, keeps his word to put kids first.

It won’t stand a chance, though, if there’s not some measure of buy-in from kids, parents and the greater Houston community. Right now, there seems to be largely outrage and fear. Trust, if it comes at all, will require transparency and integrity from Morath and the district’s new leaders.

So, how will we know if this takeover is really about improving schools and the future of Houston’s schoolchildren? Three things:

Leadership: Who will lead the district?
Morath said the next superintendent to lead the 187,000-student district would be appointed in the summer but the name of the person is less important than his or her qualifications and character. Ideally the person would have knowledge of Houston or at least Texas. Most important, though, is experience running a large district and overseeing a successful turnaround. The next HISD leader should be reform-minded but not for reform’s sake. Morath has acknowledged that much is working well in the state’s largest district and many kids are “flourishing,” as he told The Houston Landing’s Jacob Carpenter. The next leader should build on that and endeavor to scale it up across the district so that more kids can know the rigor and high expectations of a Carnegie Vanguard High School, the expertise of a Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions and the inspiration of a Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

As for the board of managers expected to replace HISD’s elected board of trustees in June, we implore Abbott to keep the cronies to a minimum. The state should appoint a good mix of educators, parents, business leaders – all of them ideally from the Houston area. They should have a stake in the results but be free of conflicts that could compromise their judgement. We’re glad to see that Morath, in his interview with The Landing, encouraged “people of integrity and wisdom” who are “interested in supporting kids, who truly love kids” to apply “soon” at the TEA website for positions on the board. When this takeover was initially announced in 2019, a diverse group of nearly 250 people applied to serve on the board of mangers and some underwent training. In the three years since, the process was paused by lawsuits. TEA is beginning anew, but not from scratch, given the pool of volunteers who have raised their hands to help.

Strategy: Is the plan based on evidence or politics?
We know what works in education, and no, it’s not merely more money, smaller class sizes or even parental involvement. Those things can help but only in certain contexts, as Amanda Ripley wrote in her 2013 bestseller The Smartest Kids in the World: and how they got that way. Generally, the ingredients to quality public education, according to research, are higher standards, better trained, supported and paid teachers to implement the higher standards, plus accountability to ensure that they do. The state, via the new leaders chosen, will have the space to innovate and perhaps make bold decisions that would normally be politically unpopular if an elected board were still calling the shots. But the guiding star must be best practices. What has truly been proven to work, not just in this country, but in other nations where student performance far outpaces our own.

[…]

End game: This takeover should lead to reform, not purgatory.
There’s a reason “independent” appears in the names of districts across this state. We believe, as do many Texans, that local public school should be run locally, by elected leaders accountable to the public. The TEA must outline a clear plan of action and a timeline to get the work done promptly. Morath told The Landing that he doesn’t expect state control over HISD to last longer than the typical two to six years. But how will we know when the problems that triggered this takeover are solved? It should be clear to all based on clearly defined standards and benchmarks that TEA sets for gauging success. The state agency has already articulated some of these: no campus should receive a D or F state rating for multiple years, the district’s special education program must comply with federal and state requirements, and, more generally, more time during school board meetings should be devoted to discussing student outcomes versus discussing administrative factors, the Chronicle reported. More specificity is needed but these terms seem relatively modest and doable.

I think we’ll know a lot from the announcement of the Board of Managers, and from the naming of a Superintendent. As I noted yesterday, three current Board members, all elected since that initial round of recruitment, were on that list of 243 names. We could get some decent selections, or we could get a bunch of hacks and cronies. The same is true for the Superintendent, and while Mike Morath says he’s bound by the law to pick someone, I don’t see why he can’t name Superintendent House as his choice. We’re in uncharted territory, if you really want to do what’s best then do the obvious here.

The other two items will flow from the first. A decent Board will want to follow best practices and implement genuine improvements – and here I will say that I’d like to hear what that Board ought to do that wasn’t already at least being discussed by this Board – and want to get out in a timely fashion. The first of these should again be clear to us from the beginning, the second may take time to become clear, though having clear objectives and metrics to determine them up front will help a lot. The less we hear from Greg Abbott and the usual crowd of enablers the better. I do actually think Mike Morath wants this to work, if only for his own legacy, and the best way for that to happen is for him to be more or less left alone by Abbott. Like I said, go put your own name forward for this Board if you can. Let’s put that first principle to the test now.

And keep up the pressure wherever you can.

With the news today of the Texas Education Agency taking over Houston Independent School District, Democrats in the Texas House warned that Houston ISD was set up to fail through a lack of funding and state support and that it could be the precursor to other state takeover attempts of districts around the state for political reasons.

“When it comes to TEA, you can’t be the arsonist and the firefighter,” said Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat and chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

Democrats argued during a Wednesday afternoon press conference that school funding in Texas has lagged behind inflation for years, that teachers are paid so poorly they’re leaving the profession in droves and that retired educators are languishing in poverty because of the lack of inflation adjustments to their benefits over the last several decades.

The underfunding has brought huge challenges for schools, especially those in large school districts like Houston ISD where there are many children from lower-income families, they said.

They pitched a plethora of fixes, including increasing the basic per-student funding number by far more than Republicans have proposed, shifting the funding model from one based on attendance to one based on enrollment and giving retired teachers significant benefit bumps.

Although Democrats are the minority party in both the House and the Senate, Martinez Fischer said he believes the House will need to vote on certain measures that require 100 votes to pass.

Since Republicans don’t have enough votes to do that on their own, he thinks he has leverage to press for some priorities — with investment in public education “at the top” of that list.

One bill they said they hoped to win bipartisan support for was brought by Rep. Alma Allen, a Houston Democrat and vice chair of the House Public Education Committee. It would give the TEA the option to decide against the takeover of school districts, as is happening now with Houston ISD. The agency says its hands are tied legally, and it must move forward with the takeover.

As we have discussed, there’s not much that can be done about the current situation other than holding Morath and the TEA and the future Board of Managers to the promises that have been made about what the goals are of this whole thing, but using whatever leverage Dems have to pass the takeover modification bills is a good use of their time. At least we can try to prevent this from happening again. The Trib and the Texas Signal have more, as do Stace, who fears that any good people on the Board of Managers will be tainted by the bad things it is likely to do, and Campos, who encourages “good, smart, and decent folks to sign up”, have more.

The TEA takeover has begun

At least the suspense is over. That’s the extent of my optimism about this.

State education leaders notified the Houston Independent School District on Wednesday that they are resuming the process of stripping all power from the district’s elected school board and giving it to a soon-to-be appointed governance group – a long-anticipated move that faces strong opposition from many Houston-area politicians, educators and families.

The announcement, which largely stems from a state law mandating sanctions against districts with chronically low-rated campuses, follows a Texas Supreme Court ruling in January that lifted a temporary injunction blocking the elected board’s ouster. It now sets the stage for the largest state takeover of a public school district in modern American history, while also throwing the future of HISD into further doubt after years of board dysfunction and leadership upheaval.

“In each of these cases, we have to look at what is in the best interest of students and what are the root causes that require state intervention in the first place,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said. “In this particular case, it’s about the leadership at the top. Making sure that we have a school board that is focused on ensuring that all kids in Houston, not just some kids in Houston, have access to great schools.”

The replacement governance team, known as a board of managers, will assume responsibility for setting HISD’s budget and districtwide policies, among other tasks. State leaders have not announced who will serve on the board of managers, though Morath told the Houston Landing this week that he expects to name replacements and transfer control to them no earlier than June 1.

Morath also confirmed that he plans to replace HISD Superintendent Millard House II – an authority given to him when appointing a board of managers – with a yet-to-be-named district leader once the replacement board takes power.

Boards of managers in Texas historically have held power for roughly two to five years before transferring authority back to elected trustees. Morath said he sees no reason to expect the HISD board of managers’ reign would extend beyond that range.

The state’s planned takeover is primarily tied to a state law passed in 2015 with bipartisan support. The law mandates one of two sanctions – the appointment of a board of managers or closure of low-rated campuses – in any district with a school that fails to meet state academic standards for five straight years. HISD’s Wheatley High School triggered that law in 2019 when it received its seventh consecutive failing grade.

In moving to replace HISD’s elected board, Morath has also cited the prolonged presence of a state-appointed conservator in the district and a state investigation that found multiple instances of trustee misconduct, such as violations of Texas’ open meetings laws and improper attempts to steer vendor contracts. Morath has the legal authority to install a board of managers on both fronts – though he’s not required to do so.

[…]

Morath said state officials will soon reboot their process for identifying replacement board members, an undertaking they began in late 2019 before the issuance of a court injunction. He reiterated a commitment to appointing a replacement board composed of HISD residents, and added that he would “prefer people who do not have ideological blinders, one way or the other.”

“They need to come in with wisdom and eyes wide open and make decisions in a very complex environment that are in the best interest of kids,” Morath said. “And this requires people that can think very, very clearly. That have an understanding of creating a culture of servant leadership and systems leadership. There’s not any specific agenda other than what is in the best interest of kids that we want to see pursued.”

However, hundreds of attendees at several recent protests opposing the takeover have voiced fears about Abbott’s education commissioner appointing managers who will push for charter school expansion and other policies favored by Republicans.

“Ultimately, I am really confused about what the end game is for Morath and Abbott,” state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said earlier this month. “If your objective is to make sure schools are run correctly, this is not the right way to do it. The takeover of school districts in the past, in my experience, have been school districts that are completely dysfunctional.”

Ultimately, the appointed board will have some incentive to implement policies that curry favor with local residents. If the board of managers defies the popular consensus in HISD on major issues, the elected board could immediately reverse those decisions upon retaking power in the coming years – a scenario that would cause even more disruption in a district craving stability. Morath said he expects the replacement board to remain engaged with HISD residents, leaders and trustees.

Elected board members will retain their seats, though they will not hold any power. Board elections will continue uninterrupted, with four races still scheduled for November.

“We don’t know who’s going to be on the board of managers, what connections they will have to the community, so I’ll be making sure they have somebody letting them know what the community wants and playing an advisory role,” HISD Board President Dani Hernandez said.

Much of this article is taken from their interview with Morath. Heck of a scoop, I guess. We did have some indications of this late on Tuesday, as there were takeover docs briefly posted on the TEA’s website; they were later removed from view as this was apparently jumping the gun.

The Chron story on those prematurely-released documents also included a link to the list of people who had applied for the Board of Managers in 2019, which was the last time we went through this exercise, before the HISD litigation put it all on hold for what turned out to be three years. Of interest, and as a reminder that there’s been quite a bit of turnover on the HISD Board since then, three of those applicants are now incumbent Trustees: Patricia Allen, Kathy Blueford-Daniels, and Judith Cruz. Current HCDE Trustee Amy Hinojosa is in there as well. I recognize some other former candidates, and a parent of some former classmates of my daughters. I wonder if Morath had any favorites from that list, if there’s anyone that the TEA will encourage to apply again. Be that as it may, I’d say anyone who’s mad about this ought to apply to be on the Board themselves. May as well make sure there are at least a few people we can trust in the process.

On a related note, here’s another story about how state takeovers of school districts usually don’t accomplish anything worthwhile, not just in Texas but around the country.

From Massachusetts to Mississippi and California to Kentucky, state officials in recent decades have increasingly responded to school districts struggling with poor academics or financial woes by usurping local control and pledging to turn around the schools.

But these state takeovers, according to a recent study, are mostly ineffective.

“The best evidence we have shows that takeovers don’t often achieve their intended results, don’t improve student achievement and don’t yield better outcomes for kids,” said Josh McGee, an economist at the University of Arkansas. “There are cases where we have seen improvement — but those are few and far between.”

McGee, associate director for the university’s education policy office, was referencing a 2021 study conducted by Beth Schueler from the University of Virginia and Joshua Bleiberg at Brown University. In the first cross-state comparison of its kind, the researchers examined all state takeovers from 2011 to 2016 and, on average, found “no evidence that takeover generates academic benefits.”

The study shows varying results among districts across the country. In general, state takeovers are far from uniform since officials making different policy choices within different contexts. Research shows that some schools appear to have benefited from takeovers while others have tanked.

The TL;dr of this is that the situations in which state takeovers tended to do best are those with school districts that are well below standards. HISD, with its overall B rating and 94 percent of schools rated C or better, does not meet that criteria. The main issues with schools that perform poorly are poverty and other socioeconomic factors, which are best dealt with via greater resources. I’m sure you can surmise what the odds of that are with HISD. Beyond that, and again stop me if you’ve heard this before, most state education departments don’t have the experience or the tools to make a difference. The best you can say is that they don’t really do any damage while they’re in charge.

We’re in uncharted territory here. I encourage you to read that Houston Landing interview with Mike Morath, and their FAQ about what it means. Whatever else I might say, he just doesn’t sound like he’s thrilled to be in this position. I don’t know if that means anything, but it was my impression. The takeover happens in June. In the meantime, apply to be on the Board, make a pledge to hold that Board’s feet to the fire, and let’s try to finally knock Harold Dutton out of the Lege next year. The Chron, Reform Austin, the Press, and the Trib have more.

HISD ends lawsuit against TEA

A formality at this point.

The Houston Independent School District board voted on Thursday night to end its lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency, effectively ending the district’s legal fight against an attempted state takeover. 

The motion passed with support of eight of the nine trustees following a brief closed session. Trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels, who represents District II which includes Wheatley High, voted against the measure.

Superintendent Millard House II said he does not know what the board’s decision will mean for the state’s takeover effort because that agency has made no announcement or decision.

“That was a board decision in an effort to get to the table to have conversations with TEA,” he said in an interview following the meeting. “There hasn’t been conversation.”

Dani Hernandez, board president, said the board remains committed to students and student outcomes.

“We are now at the point where it is time for us to move forward,” she said during the meeting. “It is in our students’ and our employees’ best interest for us to end this lawsuit between HISD and TEA and navigate and build relationships between all the parties. … We look forward to bringing both organizations to the table soon for the best interest of children.”

The district is withdrawing from the lawsuit to “end further expenditure of district resources, as there is no further legal recourse,” according to the motion.

[…]

In theory the district could file for a rehearing and continue the legal battle. HISD did request more time to file a motion for a rehearing in late January, but never ended up following through on it.

Given the Texas Supreme Court decision, the board’s decision to stop putting resources toward the lawsuit makes sense, said attorney Christopher L. Tritico, who has represented three Houston-area districts — North Forest, Beaumont and La Marque — in takeover hearings.

“A rehearing is one in a million, and it’s just not worth it. I think they are making a prudent decision in public funds at this point in recognizing the decision is over,” Tritico said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t conceding that they think the commissioner is right, they just don’t have any legal maneuvering.”

I agree with the Board’s actions here. The one trustee who voted against was Kathy Blueford-Daniels, whose district contains Wheatley. I can’t blame her for that.

We have reached the weekend and still no word from the TEA. According to Campos, “there was supposed to be a meeting in Austin yesterday that had to be postponed”. No rush, y’all, take all the time you need. The Press has more.

Wheatley’s fate

We may learn today of the TEA’s intentions with HISD. Whatever does happen, let’s remember that in the end this will affect a lot of people, and some of them are not happy with the position they’ve been put in.

Samuel Ollison, a junior at Phillis Wheatley High School, already has started working on his back-up plan.

He spends his free time looking into schools he should attend senior year because Houston ISD may be taken over by the Texas Education Agency at any moment, and he has heard rumors his school may close.

“I’m nervous, honestly,” Ollison said. “They say my school is the No. 1 factor in why TEA is taking over HISD …We just need to do better at this school because I really don’t want Wheatley to get shut down, or for the TEA to take over.”

It’s an uncertain time for students at Wheatley High School, as the 96-year-old Fifth Ward campus continues to be thrust in the spotlight for its multiple failing accountability grades that puts the district at risk of losing its superintendent and elected board. Meanwhile, rumors are circulating about what will come of a possible state intervention, leaving parents and students alike in fear of the school’s closure.

Ollison grew more concerned when read an article in which Mayor Sylvester Turner said Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath told him he has two options — appoint a board of managers or close Wheatley high school. Other public figures since have made similar comments.

State code indicates that closing a school is an option, but the TEA never has stated that it plans to. Morath has spent years pursuing the other option — appointing a board of managers, which temporarily was blocked by an injunction. However, the TEA declined to comment on the mayor’s remarks or if intends to close Wheatley.

[…]

Throughout the years, the school’s enrollment began to drop, and subsequently the dollars tied to that enrollment. By 1976, the school was in the bottom 12% for reading scores, according to a 1978 Texas Monthly article. In 1995, the Fifth Ward school had the highest dropout rate and lowest math score of the high schools in the Houston ISD.

From 2014 to 2017, it earned an “improvement required” rating from the state, and in 2019, under a revamped accountability system, the school earned an ‘F.’ Ratings were paused in 2018 for Hurricane Harvey and in 2020 and 2021 for COVID.

In 2022, the school earned a ‘C,’ but some argue that the standards were lowered.

Either way, the previous streak of failing ratings, in part, triggered a takeover battle that has been slowly making its way through the courts.

Joseph Williams took the helm of the school as principal in 2018, not long after the district was put on alert for a potential takeover. When Williams first took the job — he knew “time was of the essence.” His first priority was to improve the school’s culture and the morale.

“In some cases, there was apathy with some of the scholars,” Williams said. “We just wanted to revive the spirit. When you just keep hearing your name and its associated with this negative thing, it can kind of wear on you.”

He tightened up the attendance policy, restructured the classroom layout to make sure grades were grouped together, allowing administrators to better monitor students.

They implemented an online merit system, where teachers could award students points for good attendance or high scores. They could cash in the points they earned for snacks or a free hoodie. The school saw some modest improvements on test scores and earned a C for its most recent accountability rating. This is a point many education advocates, lawmakers, and critics of state intervention make when talking about the potential takeover.

There’s more in the story from current students and their parents, who are trying to figure out what their options would be if Wheatley is closed. I don’t think that will accomplish anything positive, especially with the school on a better path now. You know my feelings on this, so I’ll just leave this here. And I hope that tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that, I don’t have to write about what happens next in a post-takeover world.

“Shall” versus “may”

Houston Landing touches on a subject I’ve mentioned before.

As concerns grow about the Texas Education Agency ousting the Houston Independent School District’s elected board, a question with major practical and political implications has emerged: Are state officials legally mandated to take over Texas’ largest school district?

Despite multiple years of legal and legislative battles, there’s still no definitive answer to this fundamental query – setting the stage for even more litigation that could delay or derail any state efforts to strip power from the district’s school board.

A strange confluence of recent events has left it unclear whether TEA officials must, or merely may, take drastic action against the state’s largest school district due to persistently poor academic performance at Wheatley High School, according to a Houston Landing review of state law and court rulings. While the uncertainty has lingered for the past several weeks, it’s taken on greater importance as the state nears a decision on whether to punish HISD for past failings.

The murkiness stems from state appellate rulings and legislative actions in the past several months that were supposed to clarify the state’s responsibility for punishing HISD, yet failed to plainly answer one key question: Did Wheatley trigger a state law requiring sanctions against the district when it received a seventh consecutive failing grade in 2019?

[…]

HISD finds itself in legal limbo largely due to a peculiar disconnect between Texas’ legislative and judicial branches.

The saga began in 2015, when Texas legislators passed a law that said the TEA must replace a district’s school board or close chronically low-performing campuses in any district with a single school that failed to meet state academic accountability standards for five consecutive years. The bill, championed by state Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., a Houston Democrat whose legislative district includes Wheatley, aimed to punish school boards for neglecting long-struggling campuses.

However, the law spelled out specific years – including 2018 – for which schools must fail to meet state standards to trigger sanctions. And as a result of Hurricane Harvey, Wheatley received a “not rated” designation in 2018, which didn’t count as a failing grade.

Still, state officials moved to oust HISD’s school board after Wheatley fell short of state standards in 2019, its seventh consecutive failing grade without a passing mark. (TEA leaders have said closing Wheatley would not remedy the root causes of the school’s poor results.)

Wheatley’s “not rated” mark in 2018 set off a legal skirmish over whether the school technically triggered the law with its seventh straight failing grade the following year.

A Travis County judge issued a temporary injunction in HISD’s favor in early 2020, halting the takeover, but she did not elaborate on the rationale for her decision. Then, in late 2020, the Texas Third Court of Appeals ruled that Wheatley did not violate the accountability law because the “plain language of the statute” required a failing grade in 2018. TEA officials subsequently appealed the decision to the Texas Supreme Court.

While the case was pending before the Texas Supreme Court, state legislators passed a bill in mid-2021 clarifying that a “not rated” grade doesn’t count as a passing score for the purposes of calculating whether a school scored five consecutive failing grades. If a school receives four straight failing grades, followed by a “not rated” mark, it must meet state standards the next school year to avoid triggering a state takeover or campus closure. Texas legislators, however, did not make the law retroactive to the Wheatley situation.

“It was our legislative intent not to include any language that would have done that,” Dan Huberty, a Republican former state representative who helped usher the bill to passage, said in an email last week. Huberty added that lawmakers wanted to leave Wheatley’s fate to the courts – a point echoed this week in a statement by another key figure in the law’s passage, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.

Yet the Texas Supreme Court, when given the chance, didn’t clearly address the unanswered question about Wheatley.

In an October 2022 written opinion, the justices unanimously overturned the temporary injunction, finding the TEA has the legal right to install a replacement board on two unrelated matters: the lengthy presence of a state-appointed conservator in the district; and multiple findings of misconduct by some board members, including violations of the state’s open meetings laws and attempts to steer vendor contracts, following a TEA investigation in 2019. On both fronts, state law says Morath can appoint a new board, but he’s not required to.

But for reasons never made clear, the justices didn’t explicitly rule on whether Wheatley triggered mandatory sanctions. The justices seemed to defer in their opinion to the Texas Legislature’s new law, which could bolster the state’s case for mandatory sanctions, but they never issued an unequivocal directive.

I’ve noted the “shall” versus “may” distinction before. I see two ways of looking at this weaseling by the Lege and the courts. One is that this is all a very thin technical reed on which to hang an argument that the TEA doesn’t have to intervene. I wouldn’t want to have to defend that in court. The other is that despite it being very clear that the Lege wanted SCOTx to be the decider, they declined to say one way or the other if the TEA was required to act. Thin it may be, it’s an easy to grasp reason for the TEA to take more limited action, which is at least what the locals want, and probably what they would prefer given the scope of the issue.

Will they do it? Like I said, it can’t hurt to have people talking to Mike Morath to try to persuade him to back off. Maybe the bills filed to prevent the takeover, along with such lobbying efforts, are enough to push him to that way of thinking. Or maybe not. Campos is “hearing the HISD takeover will be announced on Friday”. Which, I guess, still comes down to the meaning of “takeover”. But if you phrase it that way, I know where my mind is going. We’ll maybe find out tomorrow.

Bills filed to stop the TEA takeover of HISD

Feels too late to me, but it can’t hurt to try.

State senators have filed the first bill to soften the law that triggers school district takeovers.

State Sens. Carol Alvarado, Borris Miles and John Whitmire filed Senate Bill 1662 in response to the threat of a possible takeover of Houston Independent School District by the Texas Education Agency. State Rep/ Alma Allen has filed companion legislation in the Texas House.

The bill modifies the current state law to provide TEA additional tools to address low performance ratings such as hearings before the commissioner, academic achievement plans, appointing agency to monitor, but not replace trustees, among other items. Under SB 1662, the TEA commissioner will have broader discretion to choose an alternative that does not require a school closure or the appointment of a board of managers.

Given Phyllis Wheatley High School improvement to a C and the district’s overall B rating, the TEA’s reason for initiating a takeover bid in 2019 is no longer valid, Alvarado said.

“It is unjust and unwarranted for TEA to move forward with a takeover,” Alvarado said in a statement. “S.B. 1662 offers the agency options to work collaboratively with HISD to address any current deficiencies instead of subjecting nearly 200,000 students and 27,000 teachers and employees to a takeover.”

Other leaders also made promises to get answers. NAACP president Bishop James Dixon said he plans to call a meeting with TEA commissioner Mike Morath. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said she intends to bring the issue to the Biden administration and the U.S. Department of Education.

HISD Trustee Patricia Allen said the trustees, administrators and other HISD representatives will let their grievances be known when they go to the legislator March 20.

“We have been in this fight before we even came in office,” Trustee Patricia Allen said at a community meeting at North Main Church of God in Christ in the Heights. “The board has been working since we were elected. We have a lone star governors coach, a TEA program — we have tried our best, hired the best superintendent.”

See here for the previous update, and here for my discussion of things that could be done to stave this off. As I said then, even if these bills have the support to pass and are allowed to come to the floor, it would be at least weeks and more likely months before they would take effect. Thus, unless Mike Morath is agreeable to wait it out, the legislative process is just too damn slow. I appreciate the effort, but let’s not put our hope in something that can’t work unless Morath and the TEA are willing to let it work.

Now having said that, it’s Tuesday afternoon and the TEA hasn’t taken over HISD yet, so maybe Morath is waiting until something happens to take him off the hook. Stranger things and all that. I would encourage Trustee Allen and Bishop Dixon and whoever else can get a meeting with Morath to ask him nicely if he’d at least talk to these legislators before he does anything. As with the bills themselves, it can’t hurt. Getting the feds involved has a chance of achieving something, and it could be done quickly, but it would also be super antagonistic, so let’s try the “ask very nicely for a delay” option first, since it surely won’t work if we do it the other way around. Throw everything at the wall, but do so in the proper order.

Oh, and why wasn’t a bill like this filed in the last Lege? Well, maybe there was one – I’d have to look, I don’t know offhand. That would have solved the timing issue, but only if it was allowed to pass, as with this one, and we didn’t know we’d need it because of the then-ongoing litigation. I think it’s at best a tossup whether these bills get even a committee hearing now, and I’d say that was never in the cards in 2021. That’s easy to say, and if we give credit for trying now we do have to ask what we tried then. We’re in this situation now regardless, so let’s not waste too much energy on what could have been. What it is now is what matters.

The past history of TEA takeovers

As of Monday afternoon there’s still no word from the TEA about the fate of HISD, so while we wait we ponder what history can teach us. Assuming that history doesn’t contain anything gay or CRT-related so we’re allowed to learn from it, of course.

As rumors of a looming state takeover of the Houston Independent School District cause uncertainty and anxiety for educators and families, many are looking to previous examples of the Texas Education Agency imposing control of local school systems.

There are 15 such instances over the course of three decades, according to state records. None likely offer a case study that would compare to a takeover of HISD, the largest school district in the state and the eighth largest in the nation. Still, some have likened the potential takeover of diverse HISD to that of the other school systems, all of which served predominantly Black and Hispanic student bodies or children from families considered to be “economically disadvantaged.

“I’ve been getting a lot of calls from HISD teachers asking me for advice,” said Jennifer Jermany, a former North Forest ISD teacher who was laid off when the district was absorbed into HISD. “Our cases are similar, but not exact. My heart really goes out to those teachers because we really don’t know what is going to happen.”

[…]

Of the 15 previous state takeovers, four — Kendleton, Wilmer-Hutchins, North Forest and La Marque ISDs — closed entirely after regaining local control. El Paso, Beaumont, Edgewood and Southside ISDs remain open after local control was restored.

Progreso, Pearsall, Hearn, Harlandale and Snyder ISDs each came to a settlement or did not proceed with a board of managers.

Two districts — Marlin ISD and Shepherd ISD — still have a state-appointed board of managers in place.

Seven of those districts were predominantly Black, including multiple districts with schools significant to Texas’ African American history. Another seven of the districts taught mostly Hispanic student bodies. Only one district — Shepherd ISD — was predominantly white. Around 66 percent of students in that district are economically disadvantaged.

Of HISD’s 187,000 students, 62 percent are Hispanic and 22 percent are Black. Nearly 80 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged.

None of the districts previously taken over by TEA come close to comparing in size to HISD. The smallest of those districts, Kendleton ISD, had less than 100 students and the largest, Beaumont ISD, currently has around 17,000.

In the previous takeovers, TEA gave reasons such as financial issues, administrators violating the law, fraudulent test score data, inability of school boards to properly govern, loss of accreditation status and poor academic ratings, among other causes.

See here, here, and here for the background. Beaumont ISD was taken over because of fiscal mismanagement. That at least would be an understandable reason, with clear goals for being returned to local control. Most of the rest of the story is about the takeover of North Forest, which followed a few years later by North Forest being absorbed into HISD. They had serious, long-term issues with their board of trustees, which again is a different issue than what HISD faces. It’s also a reminder that we didn’t have any real mechanism in place at the time to track the former NFISD students as they made their way through HISD. That was long enough ago that I’d expect none of those original students are still in HISD schools. Sure would have been nice to know what their outcomes were, or how those who followed them into HISD have been doing.

Anyway. The one reason why I think HISD might maybe avoid a full takeover is that the TEA cannot possibly be prepared to handle the responsibility of running HISD, even if they outsource it to a board of managers. I don’t think they want it, and I think they will look for an exit ramp. I agree with Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo and many others that politics is at play, and I freely admit I am thinking wishfully when I say stuff like this. It’s what I’ve got, and until the TEA tells us what they’re doing we can at least hope for the best.

So is there anything that can be done to derail the TEA takeover?

Probably not. I mean, I really appreciate the engagement and the passion, but we’re at the end of the road here, a road that started almost six years ago. Sometimes you just run out of things to do.

With time seemingly running out, Houston politicians vowed on Friday to file lawsuits and legislation — whatever it takes — to stave off a possible state takeover of Houston ISD that has been in the works for four years.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and state Rep. Alma Allen announced earlier this week that they’d heard reports that the takeover could happen as early as March 6. The Texas Supreme Court gave the Texas Education Agency final authority to assume control of the school system in January but has yet to take formal action to do so.

“We as a body, as state legislators, are standing before you to say ‘We are not asleep at the wheel,’ ” state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, said Friday during a protest at Discovery Green, one of a series of events held to highlight the urgency of the situation. “We are in the process of rewriting legislation. We are looking at every lawsuit we can bring to the doorstep of the governor, and the TEA, to thwart the efforts of the TEA.”

Turner called on TEA Commissioner Mike Morath and state legislators at the protest and earlier this week to amend the law so the state doesn’t appoint a board of managers.

During their conversations, Morath did not confirm nor deny takeover plans, but cited a provision in state code that he says requires the TEA to take over a district or close a school that has failed five consecutive years.

Turner is advocating a different option. “If there is something that is not in the best interest of the kids, you can go to the Legislature now, and make any modification that is needed and we can move further down the road,” the mayor said.

[…]

Friday started with a few dozen protesters in front of the district’s central office, also wondering why HISD should be taken over by the state instead of other lower-performing districts. They pointed to HISD schools’ current ratings, which show that 94 percent of schools earn a grade of A, B or C.

“Those who cannot stand on the right side of history, don’t deserve our shopping, don’t deserve our worship, they don’t deserve our tithes and offerings,” James Dixon, president of the Houston NAACP, said. “If you can’t stand up for public schools and for education, you don’t deserve our support financially, you don’t deserve our votes and you do not deserve our respect.”

Speaking via the phone from the U.S. Capitol, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said she could not attend the protest in person but fully supported its mission.

“I’ve said to the Department of Education and to the president United States … this is a test case and we must win this case,” Jackson Lee said.

See here and here for the background. We’re where we are now because of a Supreme Court ruling, so a state lawsuit seems extremely unlikely to bear fruit. A federal lawsuit could be possible, and maybe there’s some way for the US Department of Education to intervene, but that all feels vague and undefined. Better odds than a state lawsuit, but nothing I’d want to bet on. And as far as legislation goes, we’re barely even into the committee-hearings part of the legislative session. Any bill to stop this takeover, assuming it had majority support in both chambers and wasn’t opposed by Speaker Phelan or Dan Patrick or Greg Abbott, would be at least a month away from getting signed. And even then, unless it passed with a two-thirds majority in both chambers, it would be another 90 days before it went into effect. This just cannot happen in time.

The one possibility I can see is someone convincing Mike Morath that the Supreme Court ruling just means that the TEA “may” take over HISD, not that it “shall” take it over. I don’t know what provision he’s citing, I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t know what’s in his head or what legal advice he’s receiving, but at least this is a plausible path. If Morath believes he has discretion, then we just have to persuade him to do something less drastic. How good are the odds of that? We’ll find out soon.

Superintendant House speaks about the looming TEA takeover

Not much one can say in this position.

Superintendent Millard House II said it’s business as usual in the state’s largest school system until the Texas Education Agency pulls the trigger on its rumored takeover plan.

He used the start of a school board meeting to address the rumors regarding a potential intervention by the Texas Education Agency.

“As of today, the district has not received any official notice from the TEA,” House said Thursday. “I remain laser-focused on fulfilling my duties as Superintendent alongside our Board of Trustees to provide the best possible educational outcomes for all HISD students. My team and I will continue to implement our community informed strategic plan, which is delivering results for HISD students and families.”

He vowed to keep students, families and community updated.

[…]

The mayor publicly announced on Wednesday that he is hearing rumors regarding an imminent takeover, calling on the Texas Education Agency to clarify its plans. The Supreme Court also issued a mandate on Wednesday — the final legal step necessary — to allow the state takeover, if the commissioner believes it to be appropriate.

“He’s in a very uncomfortable position,” Turner said of the superintendent. “His future, like the district, is in the hands of the TEA, and it’s unclear. If you didn’t know you were going to hold on to your job, and the power was not in your hands to decide, I think you would be reluctant to say anything publicly.”

Turner reiterated that the TEA should make a statement publicly, due to the uncertainty around the situation.

“This is what I would say to the state: if there is no intention of (taking over) state your position clearly,” Turner said. “If you intend to do it there should be a certain amount of community engagement and transparency and not hiding behind office walls.”

See here for the background, and here for coverage of a protest about the takeover. In a different story, Superintendent House says he doesn’t know what the future will bring, which is not a great place for any of us to be.

The TEA is gonna do what they’re gonna do, and it looks like we’ll first hear about it from them when they do it. This sucks and is very likely to be harmful, but we have no control over the situation. All we can do is say it loudly. So let me be as clear as I can: There’s no good reason for the TEA to step in at this point. Nearly all of the HISD Board is different than it was when the issues that led to the takeover conditions occurred. The schools whose performance triggered the takeover conditions are now meeting the needed academic standards. HISD overall got a B grade from the TEA in the last accountability ratings. There’s nothing for the TEA to fix. But there’s plenty for them to break. The TEA won the legal battle to say that they could take over HISD. Please take that victory and be satisfied with it. The Press, the Trib, and Campos have more.

So it looks like that TEA takeover of HISD is going to happen

Welp.

Mayor Sylvester Turner sounded alarm bells Wednesday when he announced that he has heard from multiple sources that the state intends to take over Houston ISD as early as next week.

“I’m talking to legislators, and what they’re saying to me is that the state intends to takeover the district, replacing the entire board, replacing the superintendent … And they intend to do it next week,” said Turner, who spent three decades as a state representative.

Turner questioned how the state would take over 273 schools successfully, and urged the community to sound speak out against the takeover.

“We can’t be silent on this one. The state is overreaching on this one,” Turner said. “It is a total obliteration of local control, and when you take it, you own it… You are destroying the public education system.”

Rep. Alma Allen, who had also been hearing various rumors of a soon-to-be takeover, asked TEA commission Mike Morath about the possibility at a Public Education Committee meeting Tuesday.

“The streets have it…that it’s going to be March 6, and there are already persons that have already been asked to take over the position of superintendent,” Allen said. “Do you have any idea (if this is true)?”

Morath did not give a timeline.

“All I will say is we’re waiting to evaluate the Supreme Court’s ruling that has not yet been finalized,” Morath said during the meeting. “What we’re going to do is going to be a mandatory action under state law, not a discretionary action.”

Houston ISD did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Texas Education Agency said: “TEA continues to review the Supreme Court’s decision in order to determine next steps that best support the students, teachers, parents, and school community of the Houston Independent School District.”

See here and here for the background. The Trib also quotes Morath at that same hearing saying they “have not made any final decision and not announced any final action”. There’s nothing here to contradict what Mayor Turner says, but it’s not totally clear what Morath means. This Chron story lays out some possibilities.

What is the TEA’s likely first step?

The Texas Education Agency likely would choose one of the following options: It could:

1) Appoint a conservator, effectively a state-appointed manager to oversee district operations.

2) Replace Houston ISD’s 9-person elected board with a state-appointed “board of managers.” If this happens, based on previous experience, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath would select those new trustees and potentially pick a new superintendent.

3) Allow the district to remain autonomous but retain a degree of oversight.

The state agency will have to release the details after they pull the trigger on the takeover.

Door #3 is the obvious choice, if we have one. My thought on trying to parse Mike Morath’s words is that the TEA and its lawyers want to read the SCOTx decision before they do whatever it is they will do. Depending on whether that decision says or implies that the TEA “shall” take over HISD or that it “may” take over HISD could be the difference between a conservator and an appointed Board on one hand, and a monitoring situation on the other. Or maybe I’m full of hopium and Morath already has a full-on takeover plan at the ready and he’s just waiting for the ink to dry on the SCOTx decision before they hit Send on the press release. Hell if I know. But if the Mayor’s threat intel is accurate, and I tend to think he has the goods, then we’ll know very soon what’s up. Reform Austin has more.

HISD in TEA limbo

No one knows how long this might take.

Houston ISD is in limbo as the Texas Education Agency weighs how to proceed with a possible takeover of the state’s largest school system allowed under a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling.

The court lifted an injunction on Jan. 13 that had halted Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s 2019 move to take over the HISD school board, after allegations of trustee misconduct and repeated failing accountability ratings at Phillis Wheatley High School.

The state agency is now tight-lipped about the possible next steps, saying only that the “TEA continues to review the Supreme Court’s decision in order to determine next steps that best support the students, teachers, parents, and school community of the Houston Independent School District.”

While the state Supreme Court kicked the decision back to the lower courts, the Texas Education Agency could take action independent of the court. Experts say a few possibilities could play out: the TEA could appoint a conservator, replace the elected board with a board of managers, or allow the district to remain autonomous.

Even when well-intended, takeover efforts cause a great deal of chaos for parents, students and teachers, said Cathy Mincberg, president and CEO for the Center for the Reform of School Systems, a Houston-based nonprofit that provides consulting services for school boards.

“My impression when you look at takeovers across the country, they have not yielded the results that people wanted,” Mincberg said. “They swoop in trying to make a huge change in the system, and sometimes that’s just not possible.”

Mincberg, who has worked with school districts during takeovers, describes them as resulting in “highly confusing times.”

[…]

Attorney Christopher L. Tritico has represented three Houston-area districts — North Forest, Beaumont and La Marque — through their takeovers and due process hearings, which he described as “not a winning proposition.”

HISD will have a right to due process hearings, per state code, a move Tritico anticipates it will take. However, that hearing will be held by the TEA and overseen by a hearing officer the commissioner selects, making it difficult for school districts to get a ruling in their favor, he said.

Action may come soon, Tritico said.

“The time they are trying to buy is over,” he said. “I expect to move forward fairly soon now. There is nothing really standing in the way of (the TEA) moving forward in what the commissioner wants to do.”

[…]

In Houston ISD’s case, some legal and education experts raised the question of whether its still appropriate for the state to attempt a takeover. They say the issues that triggered a takeover — Wheatley’s failing accountability grades and board dysfunction — are now dated after the case has been deliberated in the courts for the last four years.

Since the initial announcement of a takeover, and the following lawsuits, Wheatley has increased its accountability grades to a passing score, and most of the board has been replaced.

Mincberg, president and CEO for The Center for the Reform of School Systems, said the threat of takeover gave the issues the public attention they deserved, and resulted in the board members being voted out.

“To me the Houston (ISD) problem got fixed,” Mincberg said. “The board members who were doing things that the TEA had trouble with were turned out and the district has become a lot more stable.”

See here for the background. As you know, I am of the same mind as Cathy Mincberg. I’m not even sure what the TEA would try to accomplish with a takeover. It seems very unlikely that they would be able to achieve any measurable improvement that wouldn’t have happened anyway. That’s assuming that the takeover would be about tangible results and not political aims. It’s hard to say at this point, and won’t be any clearer until the TEA says or does something. Until then, we wait.

SCOTx removes injunction blocking TEA takeover of HISD

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.

See here for the most recent update. The Chron adds some details.

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.

SCOTx to rule on the HISD takeover lawsuit

This feels like something from another era.

The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments on a yearslong case over whether the Texas Education Agency has the authority to remove all of the Houston school district’s board members and temporarily replace them with a state-appointed board. At the center of the hearing was the impact of a law that updated the education code last year and that TEA lawyers argued cleared the path to implement the agency’s plan.

The state’s highest court took the case nearly two years after the Third District Court of Appeals sided with the Houston Independent School District and upheld a temporary injunction barring TEA Commissioner Mike Morath from taking over the board in response to the continued low performance of HISD’s Phillis Wheatley High School as well as allegations of misconduct by trustees.

The current HISD board will remain in office as long as the injunction stands. If the court were to eventually side with the TEA and overturn the injunction, state education officials could install a new board, which in turn could vote to terminate the HISD lawsuit.

[…]

Appealing the decision during oral arguments Thursday, TEA’s attorney Kyle Highful said that factoring major updates to the Texas Education Code introduced by Senate Bill 1365, which was passed last year, would “greatly simplify” the case.

For instance, appeals court justices previously ruled that Delaney’s time overseeing Kashmere High School did not count toward her time as a district-level conservator, so the state had yet to meet the two-year requirement of having a district-level conservator to trigger state law. Highful said this new law has now removed the distinction between campus-level and district-level conservators.

He also noted that while Wheatley High School has recently earned a passing grade, the school had seen years of consecutive failures beforehand.

“The court should go ahead and take the opportunity to resolve this dispute now both for judicial economy because the case has been moving up and down through the courts for several years,” Highful said, “and because the HISD students are still in need of state intervention.”

In response, HISD’s attorney David Campbell said it would be appropriate to remand the case for a trial court to consider changes to the temporary injunction based on the new law.

But he stressed that the current temporary injunction had been in place for almost three years, adding that HISD was ready to “move expeditiously” and make a case for a permanent injunction in 2020. On the other hand, he said there has been limited ability to update their arguments to take into account the new law.

“We have not tried to delay things in any way. If we could have developed facts under the new law, we would have. We haven’t been given that opportunity, because the case has been on appeal,” Campbell said.

The original talk about taking over HISD began in 2017 and was accelerated by an ethics investigation into the actions of several HISD trustees, nearly all of whom are no longer on the Board. The lawsuit by HISD was filed in 2019 and it argued that the TEA did not follow the law in doing the takeover, as noted in the story. HISD won the injunction in state court after being denied in federal court, and last year the Supreme Court ruled that the appellate court had the power to impose the injunction for while the suit was being litigated. And so here we are.

The TEA is now arguing that because the law in question that the TEA didn’t follow correctly has been changed by the Legislature so that the TEA would meet its requirements now, the takeover can proceed. HISD is basically saying that there’s no longer a need for a takeover since the two schools in question are both meeting state standards, but if we have to consider the new law then the case should go back to the district court and be re-heard with the new facts. The questioning from SCOTx seems to indicate that this might be where they go with this. In addition, as the Chron story notes, there’s another factor to consider:

It’s also important for the justices to consider that it was a mostly different board and superintendent in charge when talks of a take over began, said Duncan Klussman, an assistant clinical professor with the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies department at University of Houston.

“The system has many new board members and completely new leadership is in place,” Klussmann said. “My feeling is that at this stage this is really about whether the commissioner really has the authority to do this.”

Yes, that’s the same Duncan Klussman who’s running for CD38. The argument that the Board is different now was also made by two then-newly elected Trustees, Judith Cruz and Dani Hernandez, who had just defeated the two main players in that ethics incident. Two more of the trustees involved were defeated in 2021; only one of the five named in the complaint is still on the Board. Other trustees are new since 2019 as well. If nothing else, if the TEA does get to step in, they should put the Trustees who weren’t on the Board then on their appointed Board. That would seem to be a reasonable compromise if it comes to that, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First the Supreme Court has to decide what to do with this appeal. After that, if it’s relevant, we can argue about what comes next.

Millard House officially approved as HISD Superintendent

Welcome aboard.

Millard House II will become Houston ISD’s new superintendent on July 1, following the district’s school board unanimously vote Monday to make his selection official.

The pro forma vote follows the naming of House as HISD’s lone superintendent finalist on May 21. Texas law mandates that school boards name a lone finalist, then wait at least 21 days before formally approving their selection.

Trustees approved a contract for House on Monday, but would not immediately release terms of the agreement. House’s predecessors, former superintendent Richard Carranza and current Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, both earned a base salary of $345,000.

[…]

House has made brief comments twice in the past several weeks about his selection as HISD superintendent, largely focusing on his commitment to working in collaboration with board members and the Houston community. He has not granted interview requests made by the Houston Chronicle.

See here and here for the background, and here for the HISD statement. He seems like a good hire, he seems to know what he’s getting into, and as yet there’s no direct threat to his term from the TEA, though that could change at any time with the Supreme Court. For now, I hope that he will schedule an interview with the Chronicle as soon as possible, so that we can all get a better picture of who our new Superintendent is and what he plans to do with the job. The Press has more.

HISD may have a reprieve

For one year, if this bill passes as is and if the Supreme Court doesn’t intervene.

The Texas House advanced a meaty education bill Tuesday that dramatically reduces the stakes of state standardized tests in 2021-22 and gives Houston ISD another year to raise scores at Wheatley High School before definitively triggering the district school board’s ouster.

House members backed SB 1365 by a voice vote after hammering out a compromise that earned the support of several top Texas education organizations. The proposed legislation, which passed the Senate in early May, still needs to pass a second vote in the House later this week.

The House version approved Tuesday differs significantly from the Senate version of the bill, making the legislation’s path to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk unclear. The Senate version does not include an accountability reprieve for schools in 2021-22 and mandates the immediate replacement of HISD’s school board.

Under the House version, Texas public schools and districts would still be subject to state A-through-F accountability ratings in 2021-22, but the vast majority would not be penalized for poor performance. Schools and districts scoring A, B or C grades under the system would receive their scores, while those with D or F grades would be labeled “not rated.” Accountability ratings are largely based on state standardized test scores, as well as measures of seniors’ college and career readiness.

“Without the passage of Senate Bill 1365, schools will be expected to show two years of learning in nine months, during 2021-22, and will be penalized by the accountability system accordingly,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Kingwood.

However, districts still will face severe state sanctions, including the replacement of their school board or the closure of campuses, if any of their campuses have scored five “improvement required” or F grades since 2014 and fail to earn an A, B or C rating in 2021-22.

[…]

In essence, HISD and its new superintendent, who is expected to finalize a contract and begin work in the district next year, would have one year to turn the tide at Wheatley and notch a C-or-better grade under the House version.

The campus appeared on an upward trajectory before the coronavirus pandemic caused the suspension of accountability ratings in 2020 and 2021, but students likely will need intensive support in the upcoming school year after missing valuable in-person class time over the past 14 months.

Here’s SB1365. In its original form, it was identical to HB3270, the Harold Dutton bill that was intended to fix the law that the courts have said the TEA did not follow correctly in ruling to halt the takeover. The bill now goes to a conference committee, which could strip out the provision that gives HISD a one year reprieve, but we’ll see.

Regardless, the TEA is still pursuing its litigation against HISD, and the Supreme Court could still intervene. I think it may be more likely that they would choose to sit it out if the Huberty version of SB1365 passes, since in a year’s time either Wheatley has made the grade and HISD can continue on as is, or it hasn’t and HISD has no grounds to stop a takeover. Why stick your nose in when the calendar will resolve this for you? That’s just a guess, and I could easily be wrong. Or maybe SB1365 doesn’t pass in this form. HISD is in slightly better shape today than it was on Monday, but it ain’t over yet.

HISD names its Superintendent

Welcome to Houston, Millard House II. I hope the state lets you stay.

Houston ISD trustees unanimously voted Friday to name Millard House II as their lone superintendent finalist, tapping the leader of Tennessee’s Clarksville-Montgomery County School System to guide the district past a tumultuous period of instability.

House will arrive in Houston after spending four years as superintendent of Clarksville-Montgomery, a public school district home to about 37,000 students near the Tennessee-Kentucky border. House previously worked as chief operating officer of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, deputy superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma and as a school leadership consultant.

With the board’s nine members standing behind him at district headquarters, House announced his arrival Friday afternoon by focusing on his ability to lead, innovate and unite. He acknowledged the looming threat of state intervention in HISD, which could cut his tenure short, but said he remains focused on the opportunities for growth in the district.

“There are great people here in HISD,” House said. “I think we have the tools in our toolbelt to move beyond some of the drama, the issues that have plagued the school system. We’re really looking forward to building the capacity, building the united front.”

See here for the background, and here for the email sent by the Board to parents. HISD is a much bigger district than what House has worked with before, but that’s true of almost anywhere else. He seems to have good experience, and I appreciate the fact that he’s willing to come here despite the risk of the state booting him out in the near future. As far as that goes, we’ll have to see what the Supreme Court does, and whether the Lege will pass that Dutton bill. However long your stay in Houston is, Superintendent House, I wish you the best of luck.

HISD has a Superintendent in mind

They will announce this person on Friday. After that, insert shrug emoji here.

Houston ISD trustees expect to name a lone superintendent finalist Friday, three days earlier than initially planned, barring another last-minute intervention by the state.

Trustees are expected to complete their candidate interviews and agree on a finalist Thursday, then take a formal vote and publicly introduce their selection Friday, HISD Board President Pat Allen said.

The board’s selection would take over in mid-June from Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who has held the position since the abrupt department of Richard Carranza in early 2018. Lathan accepted the superintendent position at Springfield Public Schools in Missouri two months ago, after HISD board members voted against retaining her long term.

It remains unclear, however, whether trustees will get to complete their superintendent search.

Two state-appointed conservators overseeing the district’s special education department could order trustees to halt their effort at any point, a step that a different conservator took in 2019 as HISD board members closed in on naming a lone finalist. State law allows a conservator to “direct an action to be taken” by the board of trustees, superintendent or any campus principal.

See here, here, and here for some background. As the story notes, there’s the ongoing litigation over whether the TEA can take over HISD, as well as Rep. Harold Dutton’s bill that would moot said litigation, which he is quite determined to pass, standing as potential obstacles. My personal opinion is that if there is no current legal impediment to the Board naming a Superintendent, then the Board should be able to name a Superintendent. I’m sure the courts and the Legislature will defer to my opinion. Whoever this finalist is, I wish you all the best of luck, and a lifetime supply of Maalox. You’ll need both of them.

Where HISD stands today

In a holding pattern, waiting for direction.

In the winter of 2019, two committees composed of Houston ISD employees, parents and advocates issued recommendations for how the district should tackle two of its thorniest issues: campus funding practices and access to magnet programs.

Some of the proposals would require sacrifice, committee members warned, including the potential closure of low-enrollment campuses and the elimination of magnet funding to elementary schools. Yet other recommendations, such as staffing all schools with essential support personnel and expanding magnet programs to all neighborhood middle and high schools, would offer more opportunities to students with the greatest needs, they said.

Two years later, HISD administrators and school board members have implemented few of the proposals, let alone discussed them at length publicly.

The inaction, local leaders and advocates said, speaks to a pattern in the Houston Independent School District of avoiding difficult but potentially consequential reforms in recent years, leaving the state’s largest school system mired in a status quo that holds back lower-income children of color.

Despite receiving numerous studies, investigative reports and committee proposals, HISD administrators and board members have not moved swiftly to address multiple challenges. The festering issues include inequitable distribution of resources and programs, declining student enrollment, inadequate support of students with disabilities, lagging employee pay and the long-term viability of small campuses.

The reasons for the paralysis are numerous — a fractured school board, a reticent administration, the ever-present threat of a state takeover, and once-in-a-generation natural and public health disasters — but each reflect how a $2-billion bureaucracy can become stagnant in the face of calls for reform.

“It feels like HISD has been in a holding pattern, and any type of substantive change hits a wall pretty quickly,” said Jaison Oliver, a community advocate who has urged HISD to implement multiple educational and social justice reforms.

The article delves into the reasons and the prognoses from there, and you can read the rest. Broadly speaking, while the district continues to perform well overall, racial and economic gaps exist, special education is still a mess, the magnet program remains controversial, and the school board is still divided. Harvey, coronavirus, and now the freeze have caused enough disruption to make anything beyond crisis management nearly impossible to attain, and oh yeah, there’s no Superintendent but there is a continuing threat of state takeover. In some ways it’s a miracle the district is performing at all. Maybe there’s some light in the tunnel now, we’ll see. Read the story and see what you think.

HISD Board wins again in court

They’re still a thing, and Mike Morath can’t do anything about it right now.

The Houston ISD school board earned another win Friday in its effort to stave off Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s plan to replace it with an appointed board, this time prevailing in a procedural battle before the state Supreme Court.

In an 8-1 decision, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a state appellate court had the legal right to temporarily halt Morath’s move to oust HISD’s school board amid an ongoing lawsuit.

The ruling is not final victory for HISD in its fight with Morath. It merely means that the education commissioner cannot immediately move to replace trustees with a board of managers, which could vote to drop the lawsuit. The HISD board’s case remains pending, with an appeal related to the central issues of the case pending before the Texas Supreme Court.

Lawyers representing Morath and the Texas Education Agency argued that a state law precluded the courts from stopping state administrative actions — such as stripping power from school board members and appointing replacements — even if a trial court issues a temporary injunction. A Travis County judge overseeing HISD’s lawsuit issued such an injunction in January 2020.

An appellate court partially agreed with the TEA’s position, but the judges also found that they separately had the power to halt an administrative action under the state’s rules of appellate procedure, which they did in HISD’s case.

Lawyers for Morath and TEA disagreed and asked the state Supreme Court to overturn that finding, but the eight justices sided with the lower court.

See here and here for the background. This is a procedural ruling, which just means that the TEA does not get to take over HISD while the appeal of the ruling that said that the TEA did not properly follow the law while attempting to do the takeover is being litigated. HISD still has to win that appeal, and then have that upheld by the Supreme Court, to get out of the current situation. In the meantime, there’s the Harold Dutton bill that would make all of this moot, though it too would surely be subject to a lawsuit. I dunno, maybe the TEA should try to negotiate a settlement of some kind if they lose again, so we can all get on with our lives? Just a thought.

HISD Superintendent Lathan leaving

I wish her well.

Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan plans to leave the district at the end of the 2020-21 school year, ending an unusually long three-year run in the position that was marked by fallout from the pandemic, the constant threat of severe state intervention and battles with some school board members.

In announcing her departure Monday morning, Lathan said she has accepted the job of superintendent of Springfield Public Schools in Missouri starting July 1.

“The students, teachers, principals, staff, parents and community of HISD are close to my heart, and I leave knowing that they are resilient and stronger together,” Lathan said in a statement. “I am beyond honored and thankful for this amazing opportunity, and I thank HISD for all the lessons learned, the success of our students, and the commitment of our staff.”

Lathan’s departure is expected to coincide with the arrival of a permanent superintendent in June. HISD trustees are in the early stages selecting a superintendent, an effort delayed by a state order to halt an earlier search and lingering uncertainty about Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s plans to replace all nine elected school board members.

[…]

Lathan’s leadership drew mixed reviews, which often split along racial and professional lines.

HISD produced modest districtwide academic gains over the past three years and saw significant improvements at some historically lower-rated campuses, including Kashmere High School. The district launched several new initiatives, including mentoring programs for high school boys and girls, and expanded its signature wraparound services effort.

The city’s Black legislators and community leaders particularly lauded her work, pushing HISD trustees to retain her as the district’s first Black female superintendent.

Others, however, bristled at her tenure. In the past three years, HISD received blistering reports from the Legislative Budget Board, which criticized numerous aspects of the district’s operations, and the Texas Education Agency, which blasted the district’s special education department. Lathan also clashed with some trustees and employee union leaders over budget negotiations in 2018 and 2019.

As the story notes, her departure was expected given that the Board declined to hire her on a permanent basis. She wound up serving as interim Superintendent for three years. I thought she deserved a real shot at the job, but I agreed with the decision to do a national search and not just hire her outright. I think Lathan did about as well as she could have under the circumstances, but her successor will also face some steep challenges. I sure hope we hire the right person. My best wishes to Grenita Lathan in the next stage of her career. The Press has more.

TEA appeals HISD takeover ruling to Supreme Court

One way or the other, this should get a resolution.

Lawyers representing the Texas Education Agency filed an appeal Wednesday asking the state Supreme Court to overturn a temporary injunction that has slowed Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s plans to strip power from all nine Houston ISD school board members.

The filing comes nearly two months after the Third District Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that Morath did not follow laws and procedures that would give him the authority to temporarily replace HISD’s school board with a state-appointed board.

TEA pledged in late December 2020 to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. If the state’s highest court overturns the injunction, TEA leaders could install a new board that could vote to end HISD’s lawsuit.

[…]

In their filing Wednesday, state lawyers representing the state argued the Third District Court of Appeals erred in its interpretation of laws and regulations on all three fronts. The lawyers also claimed HISD should not be able to sue the state over an administrative matter.

“This case is of immediate importance to HISD students,” Assistant Solicitor General Kyle Highful wrote in the appeal. “And the court of appeals’ misinterpretations of the law endanger TEA’s future efforts to assist failing schools.”

Each of the three issues considered by the Third District Court of Appeals largely fell along technical lines.

See here for the previous update. The ruling in favor of HISD was bipartisan, so this isn’t an R-versus-D issue in the way some other recent lawsuits have been. No idea how long this may take, so just keep on keeping on until we know more.

TEA still barred from taking over HISD

Still in a state of limbo.

Texas is still temporarily barred from taking over Houston Independent School District, a state appellate court ruled Wednesday, upholding a lower court’s order.

In a 2-1 ruling, the Texas Third Court of Appeals upheld a temporary injunction that stops the Texas Education Agency from replacing the elected school board of its largest district with an appointed board of managers. The appeals court ruling sends the case back to the lower court that in January blocked the state’s takeover effort.

The appellate judges said Houston ISD had a “probable right to relief” since the TEA did not follow proper procedure and acted outside its authority as it moved to sanction the district. It also ordered the state to “pay all costs related to this appeal.”

The TEA plans to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. “While the Agency is disappointed with the split ruling from the 3rd Court of Appeals, this is only a temporary setback,” the agency said in a statement. “We are confident that the Texas Supreme Court will uphold the Commissioner’s legally-authorized actions to improve the educational outcomes for the 200,000-plus public school students of Houston.”

[…]

[T]he appellate court’s ruling Wednesday said Texas’ “proposed actions are not authorized by the Education Code.” The opinion stated that the state did not have the right to appoint a conservator to oversee the entire school district in 2019, force Houston ISD to suspend its search for a new superintendent, or impose sanctions based on an investigation, among other things.

The opinion was written by Judge Gisela Triana, who was joined by Judge Jeff Rose in the ruling. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas Baker wrote that Texas is authorized to take over Houston ISD, the injunction should be removed and the district’s claims should be dismissed.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. The Chron story goes into the opinion in some more detail.

To start, HISD’s lawyers argued Wheatley High School did not trigger a state law requiring the school’s closure or the board’s ouster after the Fifth Ward campus received its seventh straight failing grade in 2019. While the law is intended to punish districts with campuses receiving failing grades in multiple consecutive years, the justices found that the TEA failed to take a technical step — ordering HISD to submit a campus turnaround plan for Wheatley — that it says was required under the statute.

The two justices also ruled that the TEA incorrectly interpreted a state law that says Morath can replace the school board in any district that has had a state-appointed conservator for more than two years.

State officials appointed conservator Doris Delaney to oversee long-struggling Kashmere High School in 2016, then clarified that her authority extended to district-level support in 2019. TEA officials argued Delaney’s presence since 2016 met the criteria for triggering the state law, but the two justices ruled that only her time as a district-level conservator counted toward the two-year requirement, which thus hasn’t yet been met.

Finally, the two justices found that TEA officials failed to follow their own procedures related to a special accreditation investigation, which Morath cited as a third reason for replacing HISD’s board.

For what it’s worth, the “affirm” opinion came from a Democratic justice (Triana) and a Republican justice (Rose), while it was a Democratic justice (Baker) who voted to overturn the district court opinion. I don’t know when this might be resolved – the appeal to the Supreme Court is of the injunction, while the case itself was sent back to the district court – but until there is a final ruling that says the TEA can install its Board of Managers, I’m going to operate on the assumption that there will be HISD Trustee elections this year. I guess there would be regardless, but at least for now those elections mean a bit more, since the Board of Trustees is still running things. The Press has more.

HISD Board selects a successor for Wanda Adams

Meet Myrna Guidry.

Myrna Guidry

Houston ISD trustees unanimously voted Tuesday to appoint lawyer Myrna Guidry to the board seat vacated last month by Wanda Adams, who represented parts of south Houston.

Trustees considered eight applicants over two days before landing on Guidry, who has operated a private practice focusing on family and probate law for the past two decades. Guidry will fill the final 12 months of the term won by Adams, who resigned from the District IX position following her election as a justice of the peace.

In an interview following the vote, Guidry said the board’s decision left her “ecstatic and over-the-moon.” Guidry is the parent of a high school senior who grew up in HISD, and she has served as a guardian ad litem and family law mediator. She has not been involved in education advocacy prior to her appointment.

“I’m a God-fearing mother of an amazing child, with a wonderful husband, who is trying to do what I can to help the children not only in District IX, but in all of HISD,” Guidry said.

I had forgotten about this. Wanda Adams won the Democratic primary for Justice of the Peace in Precinct 7, and was unopposed in November. (You won’t find her in the election results page for November 2020 on HarrisVotes.com because of this – state law allows for unopposed candidates for county office to be declared the winner prior to November, and thus not need to be on the ballot.) Her term as HISD Trustee is up at the end of 2021, so Guidry will have to run for a full term this November, if HISD is allowed to have trustee elections. As the story notes, it is not clear what the TEA will do about that as part of the takeover, which for now is stalled in court. As for new trustee Guidry, I didn’t find a Facebook page for her, but her LinkedIn profile is here. Welcome to the Board, and I wish you all the best for as long as the Board is allowed to operate.

More on the Lathan non-hiring

Some sharp criticism from local leaders about the HISD Board’s decision not to hire interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan permanently.

About 20 of Houston’s leading Black elected officials, clergy and racial justice advocates called Tuesday for Houston ISD’s school board to reverse its vote last week declining to name Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan as the district’s long-term leader.

In a statement and at a news conference, many of the city’s Black leaders argued Lathan has proven herself worthy of the top job since assuming the position on an interim basis in March 2018. Some officials also questioned whether trustees were motivated in part by race, given that the board’s three Black members supported retaining Lathan while the six non-Black members voted against it.

“For several reasons, we are united in our belief that the decision not to name Dr. Lathan as superintendent of HISD was grossly misguided, and I must add, ill-motivated,” NAACP Houston Branch Vice-President Bishop James Dixon said Tuesday, surrounded by about a dozen Lathan supporters outside the district’s headquarters.

The rebuke of trustees came five days after board members voted to resume the district’s long-dormant superintendent search and forgo removing Lathan’s interim tag. The board majority argued HISD should conduct a national search — with Lathan as a candidate, if she chooses to apply — before selecting a long-term leader.

“We owe it to our students to, at the very least, take a look at the records of other candidates and other superintendents who want to apply to the school district,” HISD Trustee Dani Hernandez said Thursday. “I cannot make this decision for my community and our students without conducting a search.”

The group that convened Tuesday included state Rep. Ron Reynolds, former HISD trustees Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Jolanda Jones and several religious leaders. In addition, U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green, state Sen. Borris Miles, and state Reps. Alma Allen and Harold Dutton Jr. signed a statement in support of Lathan, according to the NAACP Houston Branch.

[…]

Board members were on the brink of naming a superintendent finalist in March 2019, but a state-appointed conservator ordered trustees to stand down. At the time, HISD remained under the threat of a state takeover of the district’s school board.

The Texas Education Agency ultimately moved in November 2019 to replace HISD’s elected trustees, citing a state law triggered by chronically low academic scores at Wheatley High School and multiple instances of trustee misconduct. HISD trustees sued to stop the takeover, and Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy issued a temporary injunction in January halting their ouster.

As part of the injunction, Mauzy ordered that the conservator is “prohibited from acting outside her lawful authority.” However, Mauzy did not state clearly whether that applied retroactively to the conservator’s order, leading to questions about whether trustees legally can conduct a superintendent search.

See here and here for the background. I don’t have a whole lot to add to what I’ve already said, but I will say this much: More discussion and engagement about this decision and the process that led to it would be a good idea. A full and honest accounting of the Saavedra situation from last year would help, too. I feel like there’s a lot we don’t know about what’s been happening, and that’s a problem.

HISD needs a bond referendum

Easier said than done, though.

Houston ISD appeared to be on track in mid-February to put a bond election on the ballot this November, taking a critical step toward asking voters for the first time since 2012 to let it borrow money to finance major facility upgrades in the district.

Two weeks later, federal agents raided the district’s headquarters. Three weeks after that, campuses closed due to COVID-19.

Once again, an HISD bond would have to wait.

As voters in Dallas, San Antonio and parts of Fort Bend County decide in the coming weeks whether to back billions of dollars in school improvements, residents of the state’s largest district will not see a bond request on the ballot for the eighth straight year, the longest absence among Texas’ major urban districts.

Despite promising signs earlier this year that HISD finally may have weathered a cascade of embarrassments, the district remains unable to garner support needed to provide students with much-wanted improvements. After approving a facilities assessment in February, a precursor to a bond vote, HISD administrators and trustees never publicly discussed seeking an election following the raid and pandemic-induced shutdown.

In addition to grappling with the novel coronavirus pandemic, HISD continues to face fallout from the abrupt departure of former Superintendent Richard Carranza, self-admitted dysfunction on the school board in 2018 and 2019, the Texas Education Agency’s ongoing effort to replace trustees and the raid tied to former high-ranking administrator Brian Busby.

“As a layperson on the outside looking in, with everything that was going on in the district, I personally would have had some reluctance supporting one,” said HISD trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels, one of four new members on the nine-person board this year. “We’re not entangled in all that controversy now, and so it’s imperative that we look at trying to do a bond every five years. We’re way overdue.”

[…]

Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who has conducted dozens of school bond polls and led a survey on voter attitudes toward HISD last year, said he would be “shocked” if the district could earn the needed majority support for a package. If a bond vote fails, HISD must cover costs associated with administering the election.

“There’s just no confidence in the district, and I have no reason to think that confidence has increased with remote learning,” Stein said. “My guess is they’re not going to pass a bond anytime soon.”

Here’s a scorching hot take: Maybe the best way to get a very necessary bond passed is to hand that responsibility to the board of managers that will (one presumes) eventually get installed by the TEA as part of its now-held-up-in-the-courts takeover. If there’s not enough faith that the elected Board members are up to the task (a proposition I’d question, but let’s go with it for now), then give the new Board a crack at it. It’s not clear to me that the appointed Board would have a net gain in public trust, since so many HISD parents and other stakeholders are deeply suspicious of (if not outright hostile to) the TEA takeover, but maybe they could earn some trust, or have a honeymoon period, or just be able to bring it up without other issues getting in the way. I’m just spitballing here. The fact remains, the schools need the capital investment. I’m open to any reasonable ideas for making it happen.

HISD being investigated over special education

Flagging this for later discussion.

Texas Education Agency officials are deep into a wide-ranging investigation of Houston ISD’s special education department, examining whether district staff violated numerous federal laws and state rules that help ensure students with disabilities get vital support while in school, the Houston Chronicle has learned.

Records reviewed by the Chronicle show state investigators have spent the past 8 1/2 months reviewing whether the state’s largest school district failed to follow about 20 special education regulations, such as properly identifying students with disabilities, delivering legally entitled services, re-evaluating students’ needs and involving parents in key decisions.

The inquiry, known as a special accreditation investigation, is the same type of review launched by the TEA in early 2019 following allegations that some trustees had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, interfered with district contracts and failed to follow their governance role.

TEA officials substantiated those allegations and Education Commissioner Mike Morath moved in late 2019 to replace HISD’s governing board. However, the district’s elected trustees remain in power pending the outcome of a lawsuit they filed to stop their ouster.

While state officials typically handle several individual special education complaints brought by HISD families each year, the current investigation dives into HISD’s district-wide performance and could produce far more serious consequences.

If state investigators find evidence of systemic special education issues in HISD, Morath could appoint an official to oversee changes in the district or try again to replace the school board. TEA officials declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.

In a statement, HISD’s administration said it is “fully cooperating” with the investigation, directing additional questions to the TEA. HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said she is “looking forward to seeing the results.”

“If there’s a problem, and it’s taken a third-party to identify the problem, then we can fix it,” Deigaard said.

The investigation marks the latest development in HISD’s troubled history with providing special education services to children in the 210,000-student district.

The inquiry also renews the spotlight on TEA’s handling of special education, which remains under intense local and federal scrutiny after the Chronicle revealed in 2016 that the agency’s arbitrary cap on the number of children receiving services led to the denial of support to tens of thousands of students with disabilities across Texas.

You should read the rest for the particulars, but that’s a pretty good summary. It is certainly the case that the TEA has dirty hands when it comes to overseeing special education in Texas, but that doesn’t mean that HISD doesn’t have its own particular problems that require a deep-dive investigation and a detailed report of the issues and how to repair them. I would hope that if the TEA is to embark on such an investigation that they would be up front about the places where they have been complicit, or at least negligent, in enabling HISD’s shortfalls. If it’s more about assigning blame and pointing fingers, it won’t be worth the effort and won’t do anything to help the kids and families that have been harmed. The goal here needs to be making the system serve the people it needs to serve. With that, let’s see what happens. You can see my previous blogging about that earlier special ed report and related matters here.