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Texas Education Agency

Meanwhile, the HISD Board of Trustees is still a thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet your Board of Managers wannabes

Lots of people want that gig.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

TEA appeals takeover-delay injunction

This isn’t settled just yet.

Texas Education Agency officials said they filed an appeal Thursday to overturn an injunction by a Travis County judge blocking it from replacing Houston ISD’s trustees with a state-appointed board of managers.

The appeal was sent to the Austin-based Third Court of Appeals, and if a panel of judges sides with the agency, it could resume its work to strip Houston ISD’s board of power.

If the injunction is upheld, the TEA would not be able to move forward until a lawsuit by the Houston ISD board of trustees has been decided. Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy on Wednesday set a hearing date for June 22.

[…]

Shepherd ISD, a small school district just south of Lake Livingston also is targeted for a board takeover by the TEA. That district also sought a temporary injunction this year to stop the education agency takeover. On Thursday, Travis County District Judge Karin Crump denied that application for an injunction.

HB 1842 was not the TEA’s only potential option to replace Houston ISD’s board. It could sanction the district over the state investigation. State law also allows the TEA to take over the board if a district has had a TEA conservator for two or more years.

HISD attorneys argue that the TEA’s investigation was biased and that because the TEA conservator was assigned to one campus, and not the district as a whole, her presence would not trigger a takeover.

The injunction by Judge Mauzy also blocks the TEA from acting under either of those rules.

See here for the background. The conventional wisdom seems to be that while the Third Court of Appeals may uphold the injunction, the all-Republican Supreme Court may be more favorable to the TEA. Make of that what you will. Time could be a factor, depending on how long it takes each court to hear and rule on the appeals. Honestly, I hope this gets decided on the merits in a timely fashion. Whatever the outcome, having some extra clarity on the law would be a good thing.

HISD gets another injunction

In state court this time.

A state judge Wednesday evening immediately blocked Texas from taking over the Houston Independent School District until she issues a final ruling on the case, complicating the state’s plan to oust the district’s school board by March.

In doing so, Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy preliminarily sided with Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, in a legal battle that will ultimately determine whether Texas can indefinitely seize power from its elected school board. At a hearing Tuesday morning, lawyers for Houston ISD argued that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath exceeded his authority in nearly every step in the process of deciding on a takeover.

[…]

Mauzy also denied Morath the ability to strike down the injunction on appeal. The trial is set for the morning of June 22, months after the state intended to seat a board of managers.

In the ruling, she said Houston ISD proved it needed the injunction because once Morath takes action to remove power from the elected board, the district would then have no recourse.

At Tuesday’s court hearing, Houston ISD’s lawyers challenged Morath’s reasons for the planned takeover, accusing him of inaccurately interpreting state law and skipping procedural steps to get the results he wanted.

“They don’t get to ignore the law and take over the district just because they think [the Texas Education Agency] could do a better job,” said lawyer David Campbell.

See here for the previous update, when a federal judge denied HISD’s request to halt the takeover but said they could file in state court. I’m still not betting on HISD prevailing, but they haven’t lost yet. Now the TEA needs to figure out how this affects their plans. Check back in June, this is going to be interesting. The Chron has more.

Morath’s big talk

But can he back it up?

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

On a side note:

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

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

HISD attempt to stop TEA takeover denied

Possibly only a temporary setback, however.

A federal judge on Wednesday denied Houston ISD’s request for a preliminary injunction and dismissed its lawsuit aimed at stopping the Texas Education Agency from replacing the district’s elected board, delivering a temporary victory to state officials.

However, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled that HISD could still argue parts of the lawsuit in state court and did not reject a Voting Rights Act violation claim brought by the district’s largest teachers union, keeping the possibility of legal intervention alive.

In a 13-page ruling issued late Wednesday, Yeakel found that HISD officials could not legally bring federal due process and voting rights claims against the Texas Education Agency, and that allegations of First Amendment rights violations by the agency did not warrant issuing a preliminary injunction.

[…]

Yeakel, based in Austin, said claims that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath exceeded his authority on multiple occasions prior to deciding to replace HISD trustees could be heard in a Travis County court, where he remanded the case.

See here for the previous update; as promised, this was a quick ruling from Judge Yeakel. HISD could now pursue this in a state court, where I don’t think they’re any more likely to get a favorable ruling, but in for a penny and all that. In addition, Judge Yeakel wrote that his initial approval of the Houston Federation of Teachers joining the lawsuit was in error, because they have separate claims from the ones HISD was bringing. He said they should file their own separate lawsuit, which centers on Voting Rights Act claims; as the story indicates, that is what they plan to do. Again, based on the North Forest experience, I don’t think this is going to win the day, but there’s no harm in trying. So, while this was a win for the state, it’s not over yet. The Trib has more.

HISD and HCC results

From the HISD runoffs:

Early election results showed Houston ISD school board candidates Kathy Blueford-Daniels and Patricia Allen with comfortable leads in their runoff races Saturday, as they aim to fill the final two seats on the district’s closely watched governance team.

With absentee and early votes counted, as well as 38 percent of precincts reporting, Blueford-Daniels, a retired postal manager, led City Council aide John C. Gibbs by a wide margin, mirroring her strong showing in the November general election.

Allen, a retired HISD administrator, appeared poised to break away from management consultant Matt Barnes after the pair each earned about 30 percent of the general election.

The two victors Saturday will join two newcomers who defeated incumbents in November’s general election. Judith Cruz and Dani Hernandez easily topped Diana Dávila and Sergio Lira, respectively, each earning about 64 percent of the vote.

Blueford-Daniels was leading by about 25 points as most voting centers had reported. Allen was up by about nine points. Congratulations to them both, and all the best in what should be a very challenging next few years.

And some very good news from the HCC races.

Monica Flores Richart

Early results in two Houston Community College Board of Trustees runoff races show Rhonda Skillern-Jones with a commanding lead, while Monica Flores Richart and Dave Wilson are locked in a tight battle.

With absentee and early-voting results tallied, as well as 38 percent of precincts reporting, Skillern-Jones, who has served on the Houston ISD school board for the past eight years, comfortably led longtime educator Kathy Lynch-Gunter in the race for District II. Skillern-Jones entered as a clear favorite after taking 45 percent of the general election vote to Lynch-Gunter’s 25 percent.

In District I, Flores Richart, a lawyer, held a slight lead over Wilson, who resigned from his HCC trustee seat in August and switched districts ahead of the race. Flores Richart nearly emerged from the general election with an outright victory, earning 48 percent of the vote to Wilson’s 32 percent.

[…]

The two winners will join newcomer Cynthia Lenton-Gary, who ran unopposed, on the nine-member board. A fourth new trustee will join the board next year if current HCC Board chair Carolyn Evans-Shabazz were to maintain her strong early lead Saturday in her Houston City Council race. Evans-Shabazz will have to resign her seat to join the council.

Flores Richart built on her lead on Election Day. May we never be cursed with Dave Wilson again.

Carolyn Evans-Shabazz is on her way to winning in District D, so we’ll have a new Trustee in her place early next year. With Neeta Sane running for Fort Bend County tax Assessor, we could have two new HCC Trustees before the 2021 election.

Chron overview of the HISD runoffs

We had overviews of all the Council runoffs, but there are other races to consider.

Kathy Blueford Daniels

Voters in parts of Houston ISD return to the polls next Saturday to complete an overhaul of the district’s much-maligned school board, which will have four new members seated in January.

Runoff elections in District II, which covers large swaths of northern Houston, and District IV, home to parts of downtown and south-central Houston, pit four newcomers promising to refocus attention on students following months of acrimony on the board. None of the candidates earned the necessary 50 percent of the vote in November’s general election to win outright.

In District II, retired postal manager Kathy Blueford-Daniels, who earned 43 percent of the vote in the Nov. 5 general election, looks to hold off city council aide John C. Gibbs, who trailed with 22 percent.

In District IV, the race between retired HISD principal Patricia Allen and management consultant Matt Barnes figures to be close after Allen received 31 percent of the general election vote and Barnes snagged 30 percent.

[…]

After narrowly missing an outright victory in her five-candidate general election, Blueford-Daniels enters the runoff as the favorite to replace incumbent Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who is seeking a seat on the Houston Community College Board of Trustees. Blueford-Daniels and Gibbs both graduated from District II high schools in the mid-1970s — Wheatley and Booker T. Washington, respectively — and serve as community activists primarily on the city’s northeast side.

Blueford-Daniels said her managerial experience and dedication to reforming a dysfunctional school board should propel her to victory.

“I want to be that conduit between the administration and HISD, to find out what people in the community want for their children,” Blueford-Daniels said. “I know we won’t be directly engaged with administration and the schools, but I think I can relate to them.”

Gibbs said his deep ties to the district, burnished as a community outreach liaison for Houston City Councilmember Michael Kubosh for the past six years, give him the edge over Blueford-Daniels.

“You need to know personalities and people and issues that are indigenous to those particular schools and communities,” Gibbs said. “I know what the issues have been, and nobody is looking at the systemic problems that have to be solved.”

Blueford-Daniels and Gibbs both advocate for returning more vocational programs to high schools in District II, many of which have ranked among the lowest-performing in the state in recent years, and fostering more stable leadership in the principal ranks.

The candidates differed on applying for the potential state-appointed board, an option open to all candidates and elected trustees. Blueford-Daniels said she does not plan to apply, preferring to use her time without power to build trust among the elected trustees. Gibbs, who declared in October that he supported state intervention, said he plans to apply for the position amid concerns that an appointed board could close campuses.

Both Blueford-Daniels and Gibbs have run for Council before. I’ve interviewed her before, but have not met Gibbs and don’t know anything about him beyond what I know from stories about this race. I do know that I disagree with his cheerleading for the TEA takeover, and on those grounds I’d vote for Blueford-Daniels.

In the other race, I interviewed Barnes in September, and I didn’t realize until reading this story that Patricia Allen is the daughter of State Rep. Alma Allen. Both have applied or will apply to be on the Board of Managers. I feel like both would be good Board members.

HISD lawsuit to stop TEA takeover has its day in court

We’ll see how it goes.

As Houston Independent School District fights for its independence, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel gave little indication Thursday of whether he would tap the brakes on the state’s plans to strip power from the elected trustees and install a new governing board.

However, Yeakel complimented the district on a “well-presented” case and said he plans to rule quickly on HISD’s request for a preliminary injunction. An injunction would stop the state from making moves to upend management at the state’s largest school district until the court hears and decides the full case.

David Campbell, an attorney arguing on behalf of HISD, said the state’s attempt to appoint a board of managers to oversee the school district is like “bringing an elephant gun to shoot a mouse.”

[…]

“This case starts and ends with Wheatley High School,” said Emily Ardolino, assistant attorney general in the state’s general ligation division. She said the commissioner has a mandate to take action and much of what the state is challenging is not reviewable by the courts under state law.

Yeakel questioned whether the decision to take over the entire governing body of the school district was an overreaction to the failing performance of one in more than 280 schools.

“Texas law provides for this,” Ardolino said, adding government intervention is mandated by state law. She argued the current board has been characterized as “dysfunctional” by one of its members and said disarray in meetings has exposed racial tensions. She pointed to a state investigation that found HISD trustees were unilaterally taking actions that required board approval. The appointed board would serve for a matter of years, not indefinitely, according to the state’s defense.

See here, here, and here for the background. You know my opinion of this, so let me just say I appreciate that Judge Yeakel will give a ruling quickly. Whatever happens, best we know it soon. The Trib has more.

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

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

Judith Cruz

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

Dani Hernandez

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

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

HFT may join lawsuit to block TEA takeover

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how are those TEA public meetings going?

About as you’d expect.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The LBB report on HISD

There’s less here than you might think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the TEA takeover is going to work

The Chron answers your questions.

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

What is the process for identifying and selecting candidates?

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

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

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

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

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

Who can apply?

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

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

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

TEA announces its takeover intent

Here it comes.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

TEA recommends HISD takeover

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

In the meantime, there’s this.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endorsement watch: Miscellania

We cover three endorsements today: HD148 (I presume the Chron is not endorsing in HD28), HISD IV, and City Council District C. Endorsements for the constitutional amendments were in the print edition on Saturday, I’ll run them on Tuesday. That leaves the Mayor and Controller, and I assume those will be in today’s print edition, and will have been online as of later in the day Saturday. I’ll get to those on Monday.

For today, we start with HD148 and the Chron’s recommendation of Anna Eastman in HD148.

Anna Eastman

Voters have their work cut out for them in making a choice because there are 14 candidates for the job, including 11 Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent — all of them appearing on a single unified ballot.

We recommend voters choose Anna Eastman, who was a respected member of the HISD board for eight years before she stepped down this year. Her HISD district included 75 percent of District 148.

Eastman stood out as a smart, dedicated member of the board who generally favored enlightened policies.

Should she win the House seat, she has a laundry list of issues she wants to tackle, including, of course, education, starting with improved teacher pay.

There are fifteen candidates running for this office, unless one of them has dropped out and I missed it. Not sure if the Chron knows something I don’t know or if they just goofed on the math. Either way, I agree that there are a plethora of good choices, and I’m kind of glad I don’t have to pick just one. My interviews with ten of these candidates can be found here, and a look at their 30 day finance reports is here. If you’re in HD148, who are you voting for?

Meanwhile, in another race with a lot of credible candidates, the Chron recommended Abbie Kamin in District C.

Abbie Kamin

Houston City Council District C is home to one of the city’s most vibrant and prosperous neighborhoods, the Heights, and neighborhoods hit hardest by Hurricane Harvey. It’s also home to some of Houston’s most engaged residents, so it’s no surprise that so many candidates are competing to represent the district on City Council.

Council member Ellen Cohen, the city’s mayor pro-tem, faces a term limit and is not in the race.

To replace her, voters should choose Abbie Kamin, a bright, thoughtful civil rights attorney. Three other candidates also stood out as strong contenders, each impressing the editorial board during screening meetings.

Shelley Kennedy, who served under former Mayor Annise Parker on the Keep Houston Beautiful Commission and currently serves on city’s police oversight board, was compelling. So was Greg Myers, who served on the Houston Independent School District board from 2004 to 2016. Amanda Wolfe asked smart questions about Metro, and obviously has a firm grasp on neighborhood-level concerns within the district.

But it was Kamin, 32, who brought the best mix of policy smarts and a can-do spirit of compromise and team work. Those skills, as much as determination to fight for her constituents, are absolutely essential to success as a member of the Houston City Council.

Kamin is also a fundraising machine, and has a record of achievement that makes you realize how big a slacker you were in your 20s. Again, there are a lot of strong candidates in this race, and with 14 candidates anything can happen.

Finally, there’s Matt Barnes in HISD District IV.

Matt Barnes

In a 2018 op-ed published on these pages (“Houston ISD’s misdiagnosis and the cure” ), Matt Barnes issued a clarion call to Houstonians, asking qualified candidates to run for the Houston Independent School District board of trustees. “Those of you who are as angry as I am about young people growing up unprepared for adult life: Get ready. The cure to HISD’s governance problem starts with us running (and voting) in 2019.” After his preferred candidate decided to pass on this race, Barnes tossed his own hat into the ring for District 4 that is held by outgoing board member Jolanda Jones. The district includes the Third Ward, where Barnes has been a resident for 20 years.

Barnes, 48, is well-suited in experience, temperament and commitment to be an outstanding trustee. His professional background includes more than 20 years of involvement in education from pre-K to university, including his recent position as CEO of Educational Makeover, an organization dedicated to providing free coaching to parents. Not only is Barnes familiar with the dividing line between board of trustees and management, he also has served on several nonprofit boards. To prepare for this race, the radio talk show host immersed himself in data about the district and has staked out his priority for enhanced student achievement, early literacy. While the candidate does not support a takeover of the board by the Texas Education Agency, if the change does occur, Barnes promises to be a “bridge builder” between the appointed board and the community.

My interview with Matt Barnes is here. I know it seems weird to be electing HISD trustees when the TEA is about to appoint people who will have the real power, but someone has to oversee those appointees and hold the TEA to its promises and responsibilities. In that sense, the HISD Trustee elections are even more important than usual. Don’t blow them off.

Endorsement watch: One more HISD, two in HCC

Some pretty easy calls for the Chron here. In HISD VII, they go with Judith Cruz.

Judith Cruz

Houston Independent School District does not need more of the same in its leadership. The embattled district must move away from the dysfunction that has tainted the current school board, from the in-fighting and public squabbles that have left its reputation in tatters and taken focus away from the needs of students.

State intervention, triggered by Texas law when Phillis Wheatley High School failed in yearly accountability ratings, will likely result in a state-appointed board of managers. But voters must also do their part by electing trustees who are well-prepared to guide the district no matter what is ahead.

In HISD’s Board of Trustees District VIII, which includes the East End and some of the city’s top performing schools, that means rejecting incumbent Board President Diana Dávila.

A Texas Education Agency investigation found that Dávila made false statements to state officials during an inquiry into potential violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act in late 2018, when she and other trustees unsuccessfully tried to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Latham. Dávila also faces accusations of improperly interfering in district vendor contracts.

Dávila, who declined to participate in a candidate screening by the editorial board, has denied wrongdoing, but the allegations and her role in the board’s missteps would only be a distraction.

Her opponent, Judith Cruz, 44, brings a commitment to rebuilding trust and transparency, as well as experience as a classroom teacher and in an educational nonprofit, DiscoverU. She began her career with Teach for America, and went on to teach ESL at Lee High School (now Wisdom) in HISD, and at Liberty High School, where she was a founding teacher.

[…]

It is time for a change in HISD. We recommend Cruz for Board of Trustees District VIII.

I expected this, based on the Chron’s endorsement of challenger Dani Hernandez in District III. Even without Dávila’s other baggage, the Chron was almost certainly going to call for a clean slate. My interview with Judith Cruz is here. Some but not all of the 30 day finance reports for HISD are up, I’m going to wait a little more before I post on them to give time for them all to appear. The Chron still has to make a call in HISD IV.

Also a trivially easy decision was to endorse Monica Flores Richart in HCC District 2.

Monica Flores Richart

Former Houston Community College District 2 trustee Dave Wilson announced in August he was quitting his seat in order to focus full time on running to represent District 1. Trouble is, he said he had moved from District 2 to District 1 seven months before, in January — and was only just then getting around to vacating an office he appeared to be no longer eligible to keep. He called Texas residency rules “vague” but there’s nothing vague about keeping a job representing a district you no longer even live in.

Now that he’s running to fill a different seat on the same board, we do not encourage anyone to vote for him.

Fortunately, the majority Hispanic District 1 on the northeast side has a really good candidate running against Wilson, and we heartily endorse her for the job.

She is attorney Monica Flores Richart, 45, who has an undergraduate degree in public policy from Princeton University, a law degree from Columbia University. She worked for U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, the Democrat who in 2006 won the heavily Republican district vacated by Tom DeLay. He got swept out of office in a Republican wave in 2008.

[…]

Richart is smart, has good ideas and strikes us as someone who can accomplish positive change in a professional way.

We endorse her for District 1 on the HCC board of trustees.

My interview with Monica Flores Richart is here. Honestly, they could have written dozens of paragraphs about what a bigoted jackass Dave Wilson is and then ended with those last two sentences above. But Richart really is a strong candidate, so better to emphasize that as well.

Finally, the Chron endorses Rhonda Skillern-Jones in Wilson’s old district, District 2.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

The District 2 candidates are former HISD board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones, longtime educator and community leader Kathy Lynch-Gunter and attorney Brendon Singh.

Retired teacher Linda Murray, 70, is on the ballot but told us she has dropped out and supports Skillern-Jones.

Skillern-Jones, 52, is the heavyweight in the field, having served eight mostly laudable years on the Houston Independent School District board of trustees, including two as president.

The Texas Southern University grad’s reputation took a hit in April 2018 when she presided with a heavy hand over a failed attempt to transfer control of 10 troubled schools to a charter school company with a questionable reputation.

The emotional meeting resulted in two people being hauled off by police and, in the end, the transfer of schools was abandoned. Skillern-Jones, who had asked the police to help quiet the protesters, accepted blame for the debacle.

[…]

There were a lot of things to like about Lynch-Gunter, 56, and Singh, 24, an HCC alumnus, but Skillern-Jones’ experience and knowledge of educational governance is hard to beat.

We agree with Skillern-Jones that her long record of public service shouldn’t be reduced to her actions during a single meeting. We urge voters to elect her to the HCC board of trustees, District 2.

You may ask, why does Skillern-Jones not get the same level of skepticism that fellow HISD Trustees Sergio Lira and Diana Dávila got? One, she wasn’t named in that TEA ethics investigation, and two I presume either the Chron didn’t consider her a part of the problem in the same way, or they decided that even with that on her record she was still the better choice for HCC. There’s one more HCC race, though it appears to be uncontested, and one more HISD race, the open seat in District IV. We’ll see what the Chron has to say about them.

Endorsement watch: Two in HISD

The Chron goes against the incumbent in District III.

Dani Hernandez

[Incumbent Sergio] Lira, who was elected in 2017 after the death of longtime trustee Manuel Rodriguez, has 30 years of experience in education, with a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies, and time spent as a teacher and assistant principal. Although his experience allows him to easily expound on the board’s policies and programs, it could not keep him from finding himself at the heart of the board’s dysfunction.

Texas Education Agency officials concluded Lira and fellow trustee Diana Dávila made false statements to investigators looking into charges that some board members violated the state’s Open Meetings Act as a prelude to the embarrassing ouster and reinstatement of interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan in late 2018. Lira told the editorial board he couldn’t comment because it was an ongoing investigation, but stressed the TEA’s findings were allegations, not proof.

Still, we agree with Hernandez that new leadership is needed in the district and believe she has the potential to provide it, quickly getting up to speed to better serve her constituents.

Hernandez, 31, became a teacher in the district through Teach for America after she graduated with a degree in sociology from Boston University. The daughter of immigrants and the product of HISD schools, she was the first in her family to go to college. After six years in the district she decided to join her family’s real estate business but never forgot her students.

“When I came back to HISD as a teacher, I saw the same challenges and the same educational inequities facing my students that I faced,” Hernandez told the editorial board. “If we want HISD to be able to graduate students who will be college ready, career ready, military ready — that achievement gap needs to shrink.”

See here for the background. I suspect the Chron will treat HISD Trustee incumbents in the endorsement process, this year and in 2021, in the same way as they treated misdemeanor court incumbents in 2018. In that case, no matter how good their record was otherwise, if they opposed bail reform they were opposed. Any Trustee the Chron deems to have been a part of the problem on the Board, regardless of other considerations, will be similarly opposed. Maybe those who are not up till 2021 will have a chance to rehabilitate themselves, who knows – 2021 is a long way off. But no one should be surprised if their tenure is held against them.

In the open seat District II race, they endorsed another teacher.

Cris Moses

In District II, home to Kashmere and Wheatley high schools — which have proud histories but have struggled of late — and North Forest High School, which came under the district’s control six years ago, voters have five candidates to choose from. Cris Moses, 35, a math and technology teacher at HISD’s Fleming Middle School, stands out from the crowded field as the right person for uncertain times.

Moses is the only teacher among the candidates, but our recommendation doesn’t hinge on the board’s need for more professional educators. The board functions best with the benefit of different skill sets and professional points of view. Moses’ leadership style singled him out. During our screening, Moses, a clear communicator, displayed an even temperament and an evident passion for kids.

We were also impressed that the five candidates agreed on many of the key issues facing the district. Each understood the critical distinction between governance and management and forswore the meddling and micromanaging that has plagued past HISD boards. Candidate Kathy Blueford-Daniels put it best when summing up recent board meetings: “This is not normally how adults are supposed to behave.”

All the candidates also said that the board should make the hiring of a permanent superintendent a priority and that the new hire ought to be someone from within HISD or with strong Houston ties.

One area of sharp contrast did emerge. One candidate — John Curtis Gibbs, a community outreach liaison and director of constituent services for City Councilman Michael Kubosh — favors a state takeover of HISD. Moses, Blueford-Daniels, a retired Postal Service supervisor, and accountant Jevon German do not. Chloe A. Veal, a student pilot, remains undecided.

The Erik Manning spreadsheet as always has more info about the candidates. I have not done any interviews in this race but may return to it for the runoffs. I’m working on the HISD and HCC candidate finance reports as well, hopefully soon. I don’t know how favoring a TEA takeover will play with the voters, but everyone needs to have a plan to get the district and the Board back on track, and for holding the TEA accountable during its time in charge.

HISD’s appeal of the Wheatley rating

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Why would you run for HISD Board of Trustees this year?

It’s a good question.

As she campaigns door-to-door to become the newest member of Houston ISD’s school board, Reagan Flowers is encountering many confused voters.

They ask whether school board elections matter this year, given the growing likelihood that state officials will strip power from HISD trustees within months. They wonder what Flowers will do if she wins but does not get any authority. They question how she would change the culture of the much-maligned board.

“There’s still a tremendous need to educate people, to inform them of the process,” said Flowers, an education nonprofit executive and one of four candidates vying to represent District IV, which covers parts of downtown and southern Houston. “I tell them I’ll be your representative, your voice, making sure the needs of the district are being met.”

As November approaches and the threat of state intervention in HISD looms, Flowers and fourteen other school board candidates find themselves in the midst of a highly unusual election season, aiming to convince voters to participate in potentially diminished races.

[…]

Some candidates said voters remain confused or apathetic about the off-year school board elections. About 25 percent of registered voters cast ballots for HISD trustee in 2015, with mayoral and city council races likely boosting turnout.

However, multiple candidates said more-engaged voters are aware of the school board’s self-admitted dysfunction, laid bare during a heated October 2018 meeting, and want trustees who will cut through the tumult. Dissension over whether to retain Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan has inflamed tensions on the board in the past 12 months, creating factions that largely split across racial and ethnic lines.

“The only thing I hear about (from voters) is that they’re concerned with the in-fighting on the board and they want it to stop,” said Patricia Allen, a District IV candidate and retired HISD principal. “I’m not hearing positive things about the board takeover. But what I am hearing is, the board needs changes, that they need someone in there to focus on education.”

That sounds about right to me. The story name-checks all of the candidates, for the two open seat races (Districts II and IV, where Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Jolanda Jones will step down) and the two races against incumbents Sergio Lira (III) and Diana Davila (VIII). It’s not clear to me, or I suspect to anyone as this particular type of intervention by the TEA has never happened before, what exactly HISD Trustees will be doing once the TEA does its thing. Obviously, the goals are to improve outcomes in the schools, and to fix the problems the Board had so that it can be trusted to regain control. What that will look like in practice is something we will discover together. In the meantime and as always, please do pay attention to these races if you have one on your ballot (I don’t this time), and make good choices.

The TEA delivers its terms to HISD

As expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD has a lawsuit against the TEA over that ethics investigation

I missed the first act of this story, but that’s okay because this is where it gets interesting.

Lawyers for Houston ISD’s school board are seeking to stop the Texas Education Agency from replacing the district’s elected trustees following a state investigation into alleged misconduct, arguing the agency conducted a “one-sided investigation” that reached conclusions “unsupported by any credible evidence.”

In an amended lawsuit filed Friday, lawyers for the nine-member board cite several ways in which agency leaders violated trustees’ rights and failed to fully investigate allegations of wrongdoing. The lawsuit comes two weeks after TEA investigators determined several trustees violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, improperly influenced district contracts and overstepped their governance role — allegations denied by the HISD board’s lawyers.

The 49-page complaint argues that TEA officials were determined from the outset of the inquiry to oust HISD’s school board, failed to fully investigate allegations and incorrectly applied the law to their findings. In addition, the lawsuit alleges the agency is violating federal civil rights laws by only replacing school boards in districts where a majority of residents are people of color.

“TEA intends to punish the district by replacing Houston ISD’s elected board of trustees with an unelected board of managers — a sanction that is unavailable under the law and facts of this case,” David Campbell, a lawyer hired by HISD’s school board, wrote in the complaint.

[…]

TEA officials already had appointed a conservator to oversee the district due to chronically low performance at several campuses. Appointing a state board of managers is considered the next most serious sanction at the agency’s disposal. Morath has not issued a final decision, which likely will come in the next several weeks.

The HISD board’s lawsuit, however, seeks to negate virtually all of the TEA’s findings and stop Morath from replacing the board. Trustees originally filed the suit in June, seeking to preempt possible state sanctions resulting from any finding that board members violated the open meetings law. Friday’s amended petition expands trustees’ defense in response to specific allegations by TEA investigators.

Lawyers for the trustees argue that board members did not violate the Texas Open Meetings Act because they did not meet together as a group of five or talk about replacing Lathan.

“At the time of these discussions, no board members discussed any terms of employment, or any other matters regarding the potential appointment of Dr. Saavedra as interim superintendent,” Campbell wrote.

As noted, this lawsuit is about the results of the ethics investigation. That investigation began in January and expanded to include things beyond the original open meetings complaint. The lawsuit was filed in June, and if there was a story about that I missed it. I’m not going to comment on the merits of this lawsuit or its likelihood to succeed – in addition to Not Being A Lawyer, I haven’t had a chance to read the thing yet – but as noted even if this succeeds then the HISD Board is still not out of the woods because of the accountability ratings. Oh, and yesterday was the filing deadline, and none of the four trustees up for re-election had filed as of the weekend; I don’t know yet who’s in and who’s not, but will have an update on that by tomorrow. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure.

We await HISD’s fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD misses on accountability ratings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Initial reaction to the TEA action on HISD

Lots of wait and see so far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It looks like we’re getting a new school board

What a mess.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How long will that TEA ethics investigation of HISD take?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Achieve 180 schools showing progress

I hope it’s enough.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD conservator suspends superintendent search

Halt!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superintendent search will continue

For the time being, at least.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orlando Sanchez files $1 million lawsuit against water-pourer

Oh, good grief.

Orlando Sanchez

The former Harris County treasurer has sued a man for $1 million after water was poured on his head during a news conference about HISD in December.

Orlando Sanchez, who lost his re-election campaign in November, filed suit on Thursday against Steve Striever.

Sanchez and his attorney said that Striever assaulted Sanchez by “offensive physical contact” during the news conference on Dec. 28, and that he “knew or reasonably should have believed that Orlando Sanchez would regard the contact as offensive or provocative.”

“It’s not about the physical damage, it’s about the bigger effect the damage has,” Sanchez’s attorney Hector G. Longoria said. “It’s the visceral reaction it causes.”

[…]

The $1 million includes relief for past and future mental anguish, according to the lawsuit. The amount would ultimately be for the jury to decide, Longoria said.

Sanchez also demanded a jury trial and requested that Striever turn over material relevant to the incident, including any videos, documents, texts, or phone calls about the press conference or pouring water on Sanchez’s head.

See here for the background. I’ll say again, Steve Striever is an idiot who should at the least have been charged with some form of misdemeanor assault. But a million dollars? For “past and future mental anguish”? I don’t even know what to say to that. But hey, at least ol’ Orlando got his name in the newspaper again. At this rate, he’ll surpass his total coverage from twelve years as Treasurer in no time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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