New Houston ISD board of managers members are pledging to earn families’ trust amid outcry from segments of the community who view board members as little more than rubber stamps for state-appointed Superintendent Mike Miles.
The public will get its first look Thursday at the new board of managers, which is made up of nine Houstonians appointed by the Texas Education Agency to oversee HISD on an at-large basis, replacing elected board members who each represented geographic areas. Board members are adamant, however, that the nature of their appointments — which can only be reversed by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath — and the elimination of the geographic representative system will not affect their ability to govern the whole 189,000-student Houston school system effectively.
“This board is really focused on identifying that every single child in this district has a great opportunity for education; we’re not focused on a particular district or neighborhood or the people that live close to me,” said Audrey Momanaee, a trial attorney whom Morath recommended as board president. “For all of us, the charge is that every single kid gets the opportunity to learn and that everybody in the district is represented.”
Momanaee’s recommendation as board president is expected to be ratified at Thursday’s inaugural board of managers meeting. Ric Campos, a Houston business leader, was recommended as vice president, and Angela Flowers, a longtime teacher and school administrator who will teach at a private school in the fall, was recommended as secretary.
Selected from 227 eligible applicants who underwent initial training, the incoming board is largely made up of white-collar professionals, almost all of whom have sent their children to HISD schools. Board members insist they are beholden only to Houston families, but some community members have expressed frustration that few have direct experience as educators, and fear that they will bring an industrial mindset to their children’s education.
“It’s no good at all. It’s all about privatizing education and bringing charter schools in,” said Travis McGee, a longtime education activist from Sunnyside. “As long as I’ve been involved, I never saw any of those people anywhere around education, never saw them at any board meetings. So that should be a problem for everybody.”
“The intervention is something that has happened and it’s in the past, we had no part of that (but) we’re part of going forward in the future. So I think we need to focus on what we can do in the next year or so to turn schools around quickly and to support the superintendent,” said Campo, chairman and CEO of Camden Property Trust and a board member of the Greater Houston Partnership, which has expressed support for the takeover.
Other critics of the takeover say that while fears around the takeover and its potential to drive charter school growth are well-founded, focusing their opposition on the Board of Managers is misguided, if only because they believe the new board is just a “rubber-stamping group of folks” without any real authority. Gwen Pauloski, a retired HISD teacher and education researcher, said that elected school boards have often included private sector workers, but that in the past, those boards would at least have the authority to hire their superintendent.
“My concern is that this whole thing is a red herring,” Pauloski said. “I know Morath is giving the sense that this is a board with some sort of functioning authority, some sort of independence, and I don’t think so at all. I don’t think that’s true.”
This was written before that first meeting; I’m sure I’ll have something to say about how that went. I think by and large the Board is made up of people who want to do right by HISD, but it’s perfectly fine to question their experience, their independence from Mike Morath and their ability to exercise oversight on Mike Miles, and indeed the whole process. As I’ve said, we need this to work, in the sense that it leads to good outcomes for the students and our elected Board back in short order, but that doesn’t at all mean we have to take anyone’s word for anything. Trust must be earned.
There’s another point to discuss regarding this Board.
A Houston Landing review of voter registration records shows the primary residences of seven of the nine appointed board members are in affluent neighborhoods west of downtown, leaving many lower-income parts of the district without nearby representatives. While the board largely reflects HISD’s ethnic and racial diversity, some families and local leaders are wondering how the new board members will address issues unique to communities that don’t have a local trustee representing them.
Those concerns are amplified by Miles’ early comments about dramatically reshaping dozens of schools and potentially closing some HISD campuses — actions that will be acutely felt in many neighborhoods outside of the city’s higher-income areas. They’re also informed by skepticism about past TEA interventions, including the agency’s contentious annexation of North Forest ISD into HISD about 10 years ago.
Ivory Mayhorn, president of the East Little York / Homestead Super Neighborhood, which includes North Forest High School, said the appointments were “so inconsiderate (that) if you don’t laugh at it, it’ll make you kind of wanna go do something crazy.”
TEA did not respond to a request to comment on the board’s selection or confirm the appointed members’ place of residence. The appointed board is scheduled to hold its first public meeting Thursday evening.
In interviews over the past week, Miles and four of the new board members said they will connect to communities without geographic representation through outreach and engagement.
Board member Janette Garza Lindner, who lives in Houston’s affluent Heights neighborhood, described spending eight hours on the phone the day she was publicly announced as a board member. People were eager to help her capture the voices of children and families who are “not heard,” she said.
“It’s important they get to know us, and we get to know what their perspective is on the challenges in the district and what they want to see to improve education for their kids,” Garza Lindner said.
Board member Cassandra Auzenne Bandy, the lone representative with a primary address on the city’s lower-income northeast side, said she will have “boots on the ground” in the district. She added that she has reached out to community members and former board members for insight and collaboration.
“You wouldn’t be able to tell me, as a fourth-generation HISD student, that I don’t represent my community,” Auzenne Bandy said. “I have ties all around Houston through my family and friends. And I believe that I personally do represent HISD, and I believe our board does, because we’re all parents. We’ve all had children that have gone to school.”
HISD elected trustee Judith Cruz, who technically remains in office but had all of her powers stripped last week, said the previous board setup made it easy for trustees to get into a “single-member mindset,” with members mostly focusing on their own community. She said the district might benefit from a collective vision for all neighborhoods in HISD.
At the same time, Cruz said it will require “intentionality” to ensure her region has a seat at the table. Cruz represented a mix of neighborhoods, including largely lower-income areas on the city’s east and northeast sides.
“When you’re from that community, you usually have a shared understanding of the different needs that you can bring and share as you’re making decisions,” Cruz said. “They’re going to have to go to communities that they haven’t necessarily visited.”
Like I said, trust must be earned. This is the sort of thing that we the public can and should keep an eye on and raise our voices over if these promises are not being kept.
Although there has been a lot of community outrage expressed about this board — all appointed by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath — replacing an elected board, [Michelle] Cruz Arnold pointed out what she said was one benefit, particularly considering the fact that some former elected trustees either exerted illegal pressure on vendors or in a few cases, collected payoffs to steer contracts to certain businesses.
“As a board one of the things that makes us unique is that we are not elected. We didn’t have to run for elective office, we didn’t have to raise funds, we didn’t have to campaign so that puts us in a slightly different predicament. We can make decisions differently.,” she said, adding that she was not saying appointed is better than elected, just that it’s different.
“We are very committed to meeting the exit criteria as quickly as we can so we can return the district to an elected board. As quickly as we can but doing it the right way, of course. We are committed to governing this district in the way that this community deserves,” Cruz Arnold said.
“As part of that effort we will look at board policy to make sure that board policy lives up to the vision and the values of the community and that it is done in the best interests of the community and students and where it doesn’t, we’ll make changes,” Cruz Arnold said.
I’ll be honest, I have no idea what she’s trying to say here. I’ll be generous and assume she just didn’t express herself well. But this kind of gets at what has nagged me about the way the TEA went about the appointment process. We the stakeholders of HISD are just now, a week after the takeover and the appointment of this Board, learning who these people are and what they have to say for themselves. If you really want to talk about the difference between an elected Board and an appointed one, in the former case we have had months to get to know the folks who will ultimately wield this decision-making power over our schools, our teachers and principals, and our kids who attend those schools. To be sure, not everyone takes advantage of that opportunity, and some candidates (*cough* *cough* Dave Wilson *cough* *cough*, yes I know he ran for HCC Board but it’s the same principle) do their best to obscure who they are. It’s still the case that more than two months in advance of the process to pick them, we know who’s in the running and can try to suss out what we need to know about them.
Contrast that to here, where there were hundreds of applicants, with no way to confirm their candidacy if there were any questions about their identity, and we never knew who was even in the running until we got the finalized list. It was like waking up to find out you have a new stepmom when all you knew before was that your dad had joined EHarmony. I want to give these people some grace, but I need them to understand why the general public is so suspicious. And then to act accordingly.