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Grenita Lathan

Where HISD stands today

In a holding pattern, waiting for direction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are still a lot of students doing remote school

I’m actually a little surprised it’s this much.

Nathan is among 35,127 students in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD and hundreds of thousands of students across Greater Houston whose parents opted to keep at home for the fourth and final grading period of the 2020-21 school year. Many of those students have not been inside a classroom since schools closed last March to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Nearly 250,000 students in 18 districts are learning from home in the final grading period, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of school district attendance data. Twenty-one districts responded to a Chronicle request for data, but only 18 were able to provide specific numbers for each grading period.

About 475,000 students in the 18 districts are back in schools. Among the 21 districts that responded to the Chronicle’s request, an average of about 75 percent of students were learning in person on campuses.

Those numbers vary widely from district to district. Only about 42 percent of Houston ISD students were back on campus by the fourth grading period, for example, while nearly 97 percent of students in Deer Park ISD have returned.

Statewide data from the TEA shows that districts that serve larger shares of Black and Hispanic students had fewer coming back for in-person classes. In districts where 10 percent or less of students were Black or Hispanic, about 80 percent of students returned, but in districts where 90 to 100 percent of students were black, less than half came back for face-to-face instruction.

David DeMatthews, an associate professor of education leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, said multiple studies have shown that Black and Hispanic communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, which often makes families of color more fearful of sending their students back to campuses.

“They’re more likely to know someone who’s gotten the virus, gotten seriously ill from the virus or died from the virus,” he said. “A lot of parents are just concerned that if kids go back to school in those communities, the impact could be very real and immediate for those families.”

Despite the varying attendance rates, one trend was clear among the 21 districts: More parents opted to send their children back for in-person instruction every time they were given the chance. The Texas Education Agency requires districts to give parents that opportunity each grading period.

Maybe if we were three months ago where we are now with vaccinations it would be different. Maybe if Texas had prioritized vaccinating teachers and school staff as part of the first wave it would be different. Who knows? The fact that the in-person attendance has ticked up every grading period suggests a correlation with the vaccine rate, but we can’t say for sure. For what it’s worth, our kids have been back in school since January – in HISD, you have to make a selection every six weeks – and it’s been fine for them. The eighth grader informed us the other day that they can eat in the cafeteria now instead of having to have lunch at their desks – they’re limited to three at a table made for eight, but it’s still an improvement as far as she’s concerned.

I expect that the large majority of kids will be back in the classroom in the fall, but online learning will still be available to those who still want it. Most likely, anyway.

Houston ISD leaders plan to offer online-only classes to families that want them to start the 2021-22 school year — as long as state officials continue to provide funding for children enrolled in virtual instruction.

HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, speaking Wednesday after her annual State of the Schools speech, said district leaders hope to bring as many students as possible back to classrooms by August while also remaining committed to an online-only option.

About 56 percent of HISD’s 197,000 students attended virtual classes as of February, largely due to health and safety concerns amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

While Lathan pushed for choice Wednesday, she also warned that HISD families should expect one big change in 2021-22: educators no longer will be required to teach students in face-to-face and virtual classes at the same time. As a result, families should not expect to retain the same teacher if they switch between formats during the school year.

“Our teachers teaching simultaneously has been extremely difficult this year, and we cannot continue to go on in that manner for the next school year,” Lathan said. “That’s what will look different. The option will be there, but we need to have teachers teaching in one mode.”

As the story notes, this is dependent on the next Superintendent not deciding to change direction, and on the TEA being willing to continue funding schools for online learning at the same rate. I think this may be a mostly moot point if we’re at 70%+ vaccination rate by August, and even more so if kids start getting vaccinated, but we’ll see. I think basically everyone will benefit from getting back to the classroom, but people still have to feel safe about it. Things really would be different if we had prioritized safety from the beginning.

HISD Superintendent Lathan leaving

I wish her well.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

HISD schools closed Monday and Tuesday

More effects of the storm.

Houston ISD plans to remain closed Monday and Tuesday, then hold online-only classes for the last three days of next week, as the district manages the fallout from water and power issues caused by freezing temperatures.

HISD officials announced the schedule Friday as employees continued to survey damage to the district’s 260 campuses and the city of Houston remained under a boil-water advisory expected to stretch to at least Sunday.

At the same time, the leaders of a few suburban Houston districts, including Katy, Klein and La Porte ISDs, announced plans to resume in-person classes Monday. While parts of those districts remain under a boil-water advisory, they are expected to face fewer water issues heading into next week compared to HISD.

In an interview Friday morning with CNN, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said district officials remained “very concerned” with water problems that could impact campuses next week. HISD could use unboiled water to flush toilets and run sinks, but the district would need to boil water for drinking and food preparation.

“If the water issue hasn’t been resolved, we can’t (reopen campuses),” Lathan said.

Safety is the first priority, and if the schools can’t open safely then they can’t open. This has other effects, mostly with food service for the students who need it, but there’s no real choice. Hopefully everything will be ready for the following week. What HISD and other districts will do to make up for the lost time, I have no idea. I’m guessing there will be some guidance from the state, but we’ll see.

And speaking of the rest of the state:

The winter storm delivered another blow for parents, teachers and students already struggling to get through this academic year, as COVID-19 has destabilized the lives of many Texans. Already students were failing multiple classes learning virtually, feeling increasingly anxious and depressed, and worrying about their loved ones. Now, some families still don’t have power or water and some schools, given the damage to facilities, are unsure when they are going to be able to take students back in person.

Districts across the state are surveying their buildings and finding broken pipes, soaked classrooms and other major property damage, as rising temperatures thaw pipes. The Texas Education Agency said school districts still dealing with electricity outages and other issues next week can apply for waivers to provide completely virtual instruction or, in some cases, close completely.

The destruction may indefinitely delay in-person instruction — and more crucially may prevent schools from serving as immediate lifelines for their most vulnerable families. As temperatures plummeted over the last week, many schools could not serve as warming centers for their communities as they have done during past disasters. Some also could not distribute free meals to students, with staff members unable to leave their homes and refrigerators full of spoiled food.

The state doesn’t provide funds for building construction and repair – the districts do that themselves, via their capital budgets and bond issuances – so this is going to cause further need in many districts. The forthcoming federal COVID relief package, which will provide money for local and state governments, may help with this, but the state may need to find a way to assist as well. If this isn’t an issue in the legislative session already, it needs to become one.

HISD Superintendent search is back on

For now, anyway.

Houston ISD trustees kicked off their long-delayed search for a permanent leader Monday, choosing three superintendent search firms to interview later this week.

The initial move comes as the state’s largest district seeks to fill a position that Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan has held since March 2018, when Richard Carranza abruptly left to lead New York City public schools. HISD’s search has been delayed because of the looming threat of state sanctions, a state order that temporarily halted the first search and lingering uncertainty about the trustees’ ability to hire a quality candidate, among other issues.

Trustees are scheduled to reconvene Wednesday and possibly Thursday to select from the three firms: Austin-based JG Consulting; Illinois-based Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates; and Nebraska-based McPherson & Jacobson. Board members opted against interviewing GR Recruiting and the Texas Association of School Boards’ Executive Search Services.

“I prefer to interview three and give those three more time with us,” Trustee Dani Hernandez said.

HISD trustees have not released a proposed timeline for completing the search. School boards typically take multiple months to choose a lone finalist.

As the story notes, the previous search was halted by conservator Doris Delaney, who cited the investigation into allegations that five HISD Trustees had violated the Open Meetings Act when they voted to bring back Abe Saavedra as interim Superintendent and force out Grenita Lathan. The recent Third Court of Appeals ruling that affirmed an injunction against the TEA takeover stated that TEA officials failed to follow their own procedures in conducting that investigation, which sort of brings us full circle.

The injunction did not explicitly say HISD trustees could resume the superintendent search, leading to uncertainty about the board’s authority. However, trustees are interpreting the injunction as giving them the power to restart their search, and TEA officials have not moved to halt the effort.

“Because of the turmoil, it’s been hard to know what has been the long-term vision (for HISD),” Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said in November. “This process will help provide space to hear that, as well as the vision of others, as we do what’s best for kids.”

The potential for a bigger mess if the Supreme Court overturns the lower court rulings is very present, but one way or the other, the district deserves the opportunity to hire a new leader. Let’s just hope this results in less chaos and not more.

More on the Lathan non-hiring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

HISD Board declines to hire Lathan permanently

A national search will be conducted, with still-interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan encouraged to apply.

Houston ISD trustees voted Thursday against committing to Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan as the district’s long-term leader, opting instead to launch a national search before filling the position.

In a 6-3 vote, trustees generally complimented Lathan’s lengthy tenure as interim, but ultimately concluded the district needs a deeper search for a permanent chief. Some trustees encouraged Lathan to apply for the job during the search, though it is not immediately clear whether she will.

“As the largest school district in Texas and the seventh-largest in the United States, it is of the utmost importance that we think about candidates for the permanent superintendent position by going through a transparent and thorough search process,” HISD Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said.

“We owe it to our students, our community, our constituents and the taxpayers to do our due diligence.”

HISD trustees Judith Cruz, Sue Deigaard, Dani Hernandez, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung joined Flynn Vilaseca in voting to start the search. Lathan did not address the outcome during Thursday’s meeting or immediately respond to a request for comment through the district.

[…]

Lathan enjoyed strong backing from many other HISD administrators, with about 45 of them lauding her leadership amid district instability and the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“This period now has been, by far, one of the most difficult I have seen during my tenure,” said Moreno Elementary School Principal Adriana Abarca-Castro, who has led the campus for 31 years. “I have witnessed how our superintendent, Dr. Lathan, has led us courageously, positively and (been) supportive in every way.”

Many of the city’s Black civic leaders also rallied to support Lathan, with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and state Reps. Alma Allen and Senfronia Thompson endorsing her Thursday. Lathan would have become the district’s first Black woman to lead the district if chosen.

However, Lathan’s tenure coincided with scathing state reports documenting extensive operational and special education issues in the district. One of HISD’s longest-struggling campuses, Wheatley High School, also received its seventh straight failing grade in 2019, triggering a state law that resulted in Education Commissioner Mike Morath moving to replace the district’s elected school board.

Some trustees argued HISD should not lock in a superintendent while they continue to fight in court to stop their ouster. The board’s lawsuit against the state is pending before the Texas Supreme Court.

“The TEA lawsuit has huge implications for our choice,” HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos said.

HISD trustees did not outline a plan Thursday for conducting their search, though questions remain about whether they can legally engage in the process.

See here for the background. This whole thing is a mess. The best argument for doing the national search is that this is the way we have always searched for Superintendents. Under normal circumstances, the HISD Super job is a plum – we’re a big district, we’re in good fiscal shape, we’ve got a lot of good schools, and yet there are some real challenges on which someone with vision can make a difference. We get good applicants, and just the process of reviewing and interviewing them can provide some new perspective on HISD and its mission.

Of course, these are not normal circumstances. Putting aside the current disfunction with the Board, the looming state takeover would be a pretty serious drawback for any potential applicant, and that’s before you take into account the fact that the eventual appointed board of managers might move to vacate your contract. Plus, the fact that you’d be competing against a now-multi-year interim Super for the job might be an impediment. I don’t even know how to factor in the whole Abe Saavedra fiasco, other than as another example of what a circus it has been around here. The clear downside risk of not making Grenita Lathan permanent, even on a shorter-than-usual contract, is that she might just decide that she’s had it with this bullshit and leave, and now we don’t have any Superintendent at a time when that would be really bad. I don’t feel strongly one way or the other about Lathan, but it is fair to say she has not been treated well by the Board, even with two of the instigators of the Saavedra mess being defeated in the 2019 election. I don’t know where we go from here.

HISD to consider hiring Lathan permanently

Interesting.

Houston ISD trustees are scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to name Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan as the lone finalist to lead the district, an unanticipated development amid ongoing litigation over the state’s effort to oust HISD’s elected board members.

If trustees do not agree to remove Lathan’s interim tag, they also could vote Thursday to resume their search for a permanent superintendent, which has been essentially dormant for more than a year and a half.

It is not immediately clear whether HISD trustees can legally hire a superintendent or resume their search. A state-appointed conservator overseeing the district ordered trustees to halt their search in March 2019, but a Travis County judge issued a temporary injunction in HISD’s favor in January. The judge ruled the conservator is “prohibited from acting outside her lawful authority,” but did not clearly state whether that applied retroactively to the search suspension order.

[…]

The move to address the superintendent position arose Monday, when HISD Board President Sue Deigaard placed the two items on Thursday’s meeting agenda. Deigaard said she approved the agenda items at the request of some fellow trustees, whom she declined to name.

“We’re long overdue for this conversation, and at the request of my colleagues, we will now have this conversation,” Deigaard said. “I’m trying to approach it in a way that is respectful of the diverse opinions of my board colleagues, as well as trying to be considerate as possible.”

While most districts replace their superintendents in a matter of months with little public acrimony — Clear Creek ISD announced a lone finalist Monday — HISD’s search has faced chaos at each turn.

Most infamously, five of the board’s nine members covertly coordinated to oust Lathan in October 2018, giving no advance notice ahead of a vote to replace her with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra. Many of the city’s Black leaders denounced the replacement of Lathan, while others decried the lack of transparency. Trustees ultimately reversed their decision the next week, restoring Lathan’s interim tag.

Board members subsequently launched a national superintendent search, nearing the selection of a lone finalist. However, state conservator Doris Delaney, in place due to chronically low performance at several schools, employed her legal power to halt the search. Delaney provided little reason for the move in her order.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath then announced in November 2019 his intention to replace HISD’s elected trustees , citing multiple instances of misconduct among board members and a state law mandating sanctions after Wheatley High School received its seventh consecutive failing grade.

HISD sought and received an injunction, but questions remained about the lack of clarity in the order. From then on, trustees never spoke at length about resuming the search or permanently hiring Lathan until Monday. The legal case is pending before the Texas Supreme Court on a procedural matter.

There’s more, so read the rest. Apparently, any three Board members can put an item on the agenda. I have no strong opinion on this – in an ideal world, we would have had a national search by now, and it Lathan had been the choice, then so be it. As it is, who knows what might happen, given the state of the situation with the TEA. Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter gives an explainer on Twitter, and also notes that Lathan wants the job. We’ll find out tomorrow.

Back to the classroom for some

I sure hope this goes well, but I remain worried.

With the novel coronavirus still top of mind, HISD will welcome back an estimated 80,000-plus of its nearly 200,000 students to classrooms Monday, becoming the region’s final large district to reopen campuses for in-person instruction.

The return will come with new safety, scheduling and teaching protocols, some of which will vary across the district’s 280 campuses. All students returning to buildings must wear masks, while staff members will direct children to frequently use hand sanitizer and wash their hands. Many schools plan to stagger bell schedules, aiming to limit hallway traffic, while most teachers are preparing to provide in-person and online instruction at the same time.

The restart arrives as many districts across the state report only sporadic cases of students and staff stepping foot on campus while infected with COVID-19, a positive early sign amid the pandemic. As of Friday, seven Houston-area high schools had reported outbreaks involving more than 10 active cases at one time, with no elementary or middle schools reaching that threshold.

However, HISD’s return comes with some risks. About 85 percent of HISD students are Black or Hispanic, two demographic groups that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. In addition, case counts and hospitalizations in Greater Houston have started creeping up in the past couple weeks after a major dip in the late summer.

“I’m a little nervous, because all of this with the virus is not good,” said Norma Vasquez Chavez, whose kindergartner and fifth-grader will attend in-person classes Monday at Brookline Elementary School on the district’s southeast side. “Every time my daughters go out, I’m telling them about using the masks, using the hand sanitizer. I’m trying to trust in them and all that the school is doing.”

The lingering concerns are reflected in the fact that about 60 percent of HISD students are expected to continue learning from home Monday, despite the district offering in-person classes to all families. Under state guidelines, HISD had until Nov. 2 to provide face-to-face instruction to all students who wanted it.

[…]

District leaders have not published metrics for when HISD will change its “gauge,” showing if and how in-person classes are held. HISD moved from “red,” which requires keeping campuses closed, to “orange,” which allows for in-person classes with mandatory social distancing, on Oct. 9, three days before staff were scheduled to return to buildings.

HISD also changed its desk distancing requirements from a mandatory 6 feet to “whenever possible,” citing “updated public health and educational guidelines.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended spacing desks 6 feet apart “when feasible” in early September.

Wheatley High School teacher Kendra Yarbrough, however, called on district leaders to reverse the switch.

“This will greatly help reduce teachers’ stress,” Yarbrough said. “Many of us are struggling currently, trying to make decisions, figuring out how do we keep ourselves safe, as well as ensure that we’re providing for our own families who are at high risk.”

Our kids are still doing remote learning for now, as are some but not all of their friends. The 13-year-old gave me a running commentary on Monday about how it was going – short answer, a little weird because the kids that were there in school were not also on the Teams session, so it wasn’t clear how they were going to answer questions since they weren’t loud enough to be heard by the teacher’s microphone; also, the between-class duration was confusing – but I figure they’ll work out the odd bits this week, as they did when this year’s remote learning started. The main concern, of course, is keeping everyone safe. As far as that goes, well

Five Houston ISD schools temporarily have closed due to a confirmed or presumed COVID-19 case on campus, swift shutdowns on the day after the state’s largest district resumed in-person classes.

Bellaire High School, Daily Elementary School and Foerster Elementary School canceled in-person classes and transitioned to virtual learning this week, according to HISD officials.

Emails sent by the leaders of Lanier Middle School and Westbury High School and reviewed by the Houston Chronicle also show those two schools were closed Tuesday. HISD administrators have not yet confirmed the shutdowns and initially reported only three closures Tuesday morning.

In confirming the closures of Ballaire, Daily and Foerster, district officials said they received notice of a single positive or presumed COVID-19 case at each campus. HISD’s COVID-19 protocols call for shutting down a campus for a “recommended number of days to allow for disinfection and sanitization” after learning of a positive or presumed case. Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan has said district leaders would consult with city and county health officials, the district’s communicable disease plan task force and district operations staff to determine need actions and length of closures.

And there were still more school closures later in the day. Not great, Bob. It’s early, these were based on single test results, it’s been so far so good in other districts, but with more kids back in classes now, the risk is necessarily higher, and this is happening at a time when the infection rate is increasing. We need to be prepared for the possibility that this will be a short-lived experience. The Press has more.

Back to school

How’d it go for you and your kids?

On a normal first day of school, Texas children would wake up early to cram into school buses, eager to huddle and chat with their friends in the hallways before streaming toward their classrooms.

On Tuesday, as many of the state’s biggest urban and suburban districts return for their first day of in-person instruction, there is anxiety mingled with that excitement. Many parents will not be allowed to walk their kindergarteners inside for their first day. Teenagers will be shooed away if they congregate around their lockers. Meals will be grab-and-go, often eaten in classrooms instead of raucous cafeterias. Students and teachers will wear masks, trying to stay as far apart from one another as possible even as they come together for the first time in months.

Many kids will not be entering their schools at all. Some of the state’s biggest districts, including Houston and Dallas independent school districts, will not open their classrooms for in-person learning until late September or October, and they may even ask the state for more time if the virus isn’t under control.

In-person instruction will look very different from campus to campus. Some districts will bring students back in phases, starting with those who most need in-person education, like students with disabilities or those learning English. In San Antonio’s North East ISD, no more than five students will be in each classroom this week. Other districts are welcoming back all students who opted for in-person instruction at the same time.

Only about half of Seguin ISD’s students are expected to head into classrooms Tuesday morning for the first day of in-person instruction. They will walk past thermal scanners, which can measure the body temperature of about 30 people at a time and detect fevers that may be signs of illness. Middle and high school students will sit in desks spread apart, in many cases less than 6 feet with dividers, and younger students will be separated by dividers at large round tables.

Most teachers will be simultaneously instructing 12 to 16 students in their classrooms and more at home tuning in from cellphones or laptops. Some teachers will sit in empty classrooms and broadcast lessons to 20 or 30 students. A small number who have health conditions or young children received waivers to teach virtually from their homes.

Here’s the local view.

Students in Klein and about nine districts throughout the region will get their real first taste of the new learning environment on Tuesday as those districts welcome back those who opted to come to school rather than attend online. Among them are Cypress-Fairbanks, Katy, Conroe, Spring Branch, La Porte, Magnolia and Santa Fe ISDs.

It marks the biggest return of students to school campuses in six months, after schools were closed in mid-March to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Already, students in Lamar CISD and Humble, Alvin, Dickinson, Galveston and Barbers Hill ISDs have brought some of their students back in recent weeks.

The districts are forging ahead with plans to reopen campuses despite warnings from regional health authorities and some local leaders who say it still is too early. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah recommended in August that schools remain closed until there are fewer cases of COVID-19 and less community spread. The two set benchmarks for schools to begin reopening, but with current statistics, it would take weeks to reach them.

Hidalgo and Shah only can offer recommendations, after Gov. Greg Abbott said local government officials do not have the legal authority to preemptively close campuses. Instead, he said, those decisions should be left to school districts. In some Houston-area districts, school boards, parents and some educators have argued that the benefits of face-to-face instruction, especially after such a long hiatus, outweigh potential health risks.

“We can provide a schooling online, but we can’t provide an education online,” Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Superintendent Mark Henry said at a July board meeting.

Others have opted to keep their students learning remotely for the foreseeable future, including Fort Bend and Alief ISDs. In Houston ISD, the state’s largest district, students will return Tuesday to online-only classes, which are scheduled to remain in place until mid-October.

District officials estimate that about 18,000 students still lack the computer or internet access needed for online classes. As a result, HISD is directing those students to 36 “learning centers” with adult supervision and available technology. HISD officials said they are not publicizing the learning center locations.

“It just can’t be everyone showing up,” HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said. “It’s truly assigned locations for students and staff.”

[…]

For those that already have opened classrooms, teachers and students still are adapting.

In Humble ISD, middle and high school students are coming into the buildings in alternating groups, with an A group coming on some days and a B group on others.

Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen said she has been surprised the elementary schoolers have not had as many issues with face masks and social distancing as some had feared.

“We’re starting to get our arms around it pretty well,” Fagen said. “Every day there are new metrics to monitor, and we hope we can get to a place for (more) in person in near future.”

For students at Klein ISD’s Mahaffey Elementary who chose in-person instruction, last Wednesday served as a crash course for their new school realities.

Staff practiced funneling students through entrances assigned by grade rather than the main doors in the front. They showed students how to keep their distance in hallways and spent class periods juggling between in-person students and those learning remotely on Zoom calls. They adjusted their cameras, helped parents troubleshoot technology problems and made sure the kids in their classrooms knew the new procedures.

It was a strange day here, as my girls started with remote learning. We’re used to that, in that we had done it before, but it was still strange to just transition from “no school” to “distance learning school”. Didn’t have that usual “first day of school” feel, you know? There were some connection issues on the HISD hub that affected Olivia’s school, but students were redirected to an alternate site that seemed to work, so no big deal. Ask me again in a week how it’s going.

For the schools that are reopening for in person instruction, I sure hope it all goes well. I hope the mask-wearing and social distancing and other protocols that are being adopted to (hopefully) keep virus spread to a minimum works as planned, not just for them but for the rest of us, who will be in the same position in six weeks. Unless it doesn’t go well, of course, in which case they’ll be in the same position as us. I absolutely want everyone to get back to school. I also absolutely want everyone to literally survive the year, with no adverse health effects lingering on. I don’t know that we can do both of those things just yet. I’m glad it’s not my kids’ schools that are the guinea pigs for that experiment, and I sincerely hope that experiment is a ringing success. I figure we’ll know, more or less, by the time it’s our turn to go back.

TEA updates its school-opening guidance

They heard the outcry.

Facing growing backlash from teachers, parents and health officials, Texas education officials Friday relaxed a previous order that would have given public schools just three weeks from the start of the fall semester to reopen their classrooms for in-person instruction.

School districts will be allowed to delay on-campus instruction for at least four weeks, and ask for waivers to continue remote instruction for up to four additional weeks in areas hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. During those second four weeks, districts must educate at least a small number of students on campus, and tell the state what public health conditions would allow them to bring more students into classrooms.

Local school boards in areas with a lot of community spread can also delay the start of the school year.

“Our objective is to get as many kids as possible on campus as long as it is safe,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on a call with school superintendents Friday afternoon.”But we know on-campus instruction is really the best instructional setting for the vast majority of our students in Texas. Please don’t feel compelled to use this transition period unless your local conditions deem it necessary.”

The revised guidance offers school districts more options on reopening their schools. Last week, the Texas Education Agency had released more stringent guidelines requiring all school districts to offer on-campus instruction daily for all students who want it, except for a transition period of three weeks at the start of the school year.

Educator associations still say Texas isn’t going far enough to protect educators and parents. The Association of Texas Professional Educators released a statement calling the revision “insufficient” and lacking in “science-based metrics,” since it still requires schools to offer in-person instruction to students who need and want it daily.

Specifically, the guidance says districts that limit in-person instruction must provide devices and WiFi hotspots to students who need them. Students who do not have reliable access to technology must be allowed to learn in school every day. And during the second four weeks of state-allowed remote learning, districts must educate at least some students on campus, though they can restrict that number as they see fit.

“We demand that Gov. Abbott issue a statewide order that all school buildings remain closed and all instruction be provided remotely until the pandemic has clearly begun to subside and it is safe to reopen school buildings under strict safety standards,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said in a statement Friday.

[…]

School districts may also, with permission from the state, choose high schools where students will receive part of their instruction on campus and part remotely at home for the entire school year. Students must learn on-campus for at least 40% of the days in each grading period, usually six or nine weeks long.

That option would be best for districts “if your health conditions are such where you really need to reduce the number of people on campus at any one time,” Morath said Friday. Some districts have already proposed bringing different groups of students into classrooms on alternating days or even weeks, and otherwise educating them remotely.

See here and here. The state is going to allocate more money for school districts to buy equipment for remote learning, which is a huge barrier for a lot of kids. Some counties like Dallas have issued local health advisories that would require schools to remain closed, which the TEA guidance is allowing for at this time. The AG’s office has released an opinion saying that local governments can’t force private religious schools to close. So there’s still a lot of moving parts.

The Chron covers the local angle.

In anticipation of a change in guidance, Houston ISD announced Wednesday that it plans to remain online-only for its first grading period, which lasts six weeks. District officials also said they plan to delay the start of school by two weeks, moving the first day of classes to Sept. 8.

HISD officials hope to reopen campuses Oct. 19, but Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said public health circumstances will dictate whether that happens.

Officials in Aldine and Alief ISDs said they would start in all-virtual classes for the first three weeks, while Fort Bend ISD leaders said they will stay online-only indefinitely, with exceptions for a small percentage of students.

Several other school districts have released plans for reopening campuses that, for now, do not include online-only plans in August. However, superintendents in Conroe, Humble and Spring Branch ISDs, among others, said they are monitoring public health conditions and could decide in the coming days to keep campuses closed.

Spring Branch Superintendent Jennifer Blaine, whose district released a reopening plan Wednesday, said she plans to make a closure decision no later than the end of the month. Blaine said she first wants to see results of a survey sent to parents this week asking whether they want in-person classes or online-only instruction for their children.

“We don’t want to string this out,” Blaine said. “People are anxious and nervous. People want to know what the plans are going to be for August.”

The about-face on hybrid models in high schools, however, likely will cause some districts to re-evaluate their plans.

We’ll see what happens with HISD. One criticism that has been levied by teachers’ organizations about the TEA plan at this time – and to be fair, I think the TEA plan is still a work in progress, they have already changed it in response to public feedback – is that there isn’t yet a set of objective, scientific metrics that will govern how and when schools will reopen. I agree that this is a major oversight, but I will also point out that having metrics isn’t enough. We had a set of objective, scientific metrics that most people thought were pretty decent that were supposed to guide how and when the state reopened, and look what happened there. It’s necessary to have these metrics, but it is very much not sufficient. You have to actually follow them, and to be willing to slow down, stop, or even reverse course if the metrics aren’t being met. And given the nature of this pandemic, and the by now completely well-known lag between the case rate, the hospitalization rate, and the death rate, you have to be willing to do those things before we get into a crisis situation. You have to be willing to do them at the first sign of trouble, not at the point where things have already gotten bad ans now you need to try to catch up. If we haven’t learned that lesson by now, then we really are a bunch of idiots who will let many people suffer and die for no good reason.

Anyway. If you want a broader perspective from teachers about the upcoming school year and what we can and should be doing, give a listen to this week’s Mom and Dad Are Fighting podcast, which is usually about parenting but this week talked to four teachers from different parts of the country. As one of them puts it, if we move ahead with opening schools before we have this virus under control, some number of kids, and some number of teachers – and I would add, some number of parents – are going to die as a result. Do we really want to do that?

Schools get an in person opening reprieve

It started with this.

Texas will give school districts more flexibility to keep their school buildings closed to in-person instruction this fall as coronavirus cases continue to rise, Gov. Greg Abbott told a Houston television station Tuesday.

Public health guidance released last week indicated that school districts had to stay virtual for up to three weeks after their start dates, so they could get their safety protocols ironed out before bringing more students to campus. If they stayed closed longer than that, they would lose state funding.

Abbott on Tuesday said that time would be extended. His comment comes on the heels of a tumultuous week, after state education officials released guidance last Tuesday requiring districts to offer in-person instruction for five days a week to all parents who want it.

“I think Mike Morath, the commissioner of education, is expected to announce a longer period of time for online learning at the beginning of the school year, up to the flexibility at the local level,” Abbott said to KTRK. “This is going to have to be a local-level decision, but there will be great latitude and flexibility provided at the local level.”

The news, which Abbott said would be finalized in the next few days, will likely come as a relief to superintendents and educators asking the state for more flexibility on when and how they reopen school buildings. Some local health officials, including in El Paso and Laredo, had already demanded that schools in their areas start the year with virtual learning until cases go down.

And some larger, urban school districts, including San Antonio Independent School District, are planning to push their start dates later and keep all students online for three weeks, in order to avoid reopening school buildings as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge.

See here for the background. Bowing to reality, we got this yesterday.

Local public health officials will be able to keep Texas schools closed for in-person instruction this fall without risking state education funding, a Texas Education Agency spokesperson confirmed to The Texas Tribune Wednesday.

Last week, the state’s education agency released an order requiring schools to open their buildings to in-person instruction five days a week for all students who want it. The order gives districts a transition period of just three weeks at the start of the year to hold classes virtually and get their safety plans in place before allowing students back on campuses. After the three-week transition, districts that stay entirely virtual would risk losing funding.

But TEA officials confirmed Wednesday they would continue to fund school districts if local health officials order them to stay closed, as long as they offer remote instruction for all students.

[…]

A TEA spokesperson told the Tribune that school superintendents and school boards cannot make the decision to stay entirely virtual for longer than three weeks without a mandate from public health officials.

Some school districts, including San Antonio Independent School District, are moving their start dates to later in August and then starting their school years entirely virtually for three weeks.

And later in the day, HISD followed suit.

Houston ISD plans to delay the start of its school year until Sept. 8, and remain in online-only classes for at least the first six weeks of school, keeping students and teachers home during that time, district officials said Wednesday.

Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, speaking to a group of parent-teacher organization leaders, said decisions about returning to in-person instruction “will be based on what the health threat level is” in the area. While district leaders hope to reopen facilities on Oct. 19, that decision could depend on orders issued by local health authorities or Gov. Greg Abbott.

“Right now, it is just not possible for us to do (reopen campuses), and I’m sorry that’s the situation,” Lathan said. “We moved too fast in the city and state as it relates to reopening.”

For now, the district’s 200,000-plus students will receive a mix of live instruction delivered via video conferencing and online coursework they can complete on their own time. Daily attendance will be tracked, with students considered present if they participate in live instruction, use the district’s online learning platform or submit completed assignments.

The district’s school board still must vote on delaying the start of the school year. HISD’s current 2020-21 calendar calls for resuming classes on Aug. 24. No school board meetings are scheduled for this month.

Six weeks is longer than three weeks, but as the story notes the forthcoming updated guidelines from the TEA are expected to allow for that. I can’t find it now, but there was a graphic some folks were sharing on Twitter that showed how we had closed all the schools when the COVID-19 case rate was way lower than it is now. I know we need to get the kids back into school for a whole range of reasons, and I certainly want my own kids to go back, but it doesn’t make any sense to do that until it’s safe. At this point, we’re doing what we had already done in March, kicking the can down the road and hoping things will be better in the future. That was briefly true at the time, but then, well, you know. Still better than sending kids into schools that aren’t ready to have them there in a safe fashion. We’ll see where it goes from here.

HISD being investigated over special education

Flagging this for later discussion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD will not change its calendar

Not for this year, anyway.

Houston ISD’s calendar for 2020-21 will remain largely unchanged, district officials said Thursday, bringing an end to nearly two weeks of debate over whether to extend the school year as a way to increase flexibility and instructional time amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

HISD’s school year will begin on Aug. 24, as originally planned, and end in late May 2021.

District officials earlier this month floated the possibility of resuming classes in mid-August and ending the year in mid-June, with 10 added instructional days and longer mid-year breaks built into the calendar.

In a letter to parents, Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the later start date gives the district “an opportunity to monitor the pattern of COVID-19 cases and make necessary adjustments.”

“We also want to be responsive to feedback received regarding week-long (mid-year) breaks during the school year being a difficult option for many parents,” Lathan wrote.

Instead of adding 10 instructional days for all students, HISD will host 10 “academic boot camp” days for children “who may have fallen behind academically due to COVID-19,” Lathan said. Those classes will be hosted Aug. 18, 19 and 20, and during unspecified days over the Thanksgiving, winter and spring breaks.

HISD officials have not specified who would be eligible to attend the boot camp days.

See here for the background, and here for the official announcement. I like the calendar fine as it is, but I can understand the reasons for the proposed alternative. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to really discuss the pros and cons of such a change if we wanted to do it for this year, but if HISD still thinks it’s a good idea and there’s enough support in the community for it, then let’s start that longer discussion now so there would be an opportunity to try it in the future with a broad consensus behind it. Like I said, I’m fine with letting it go, but if it really makes sense then let’s work our way through it.

HISD passes its budget

And had their own debate about police funding.

Houston ISD trustees Thursday approved a $2 billion spending plan for the 2020-21 school year that includes small raises and bonuses for nearly all employees, a compromise between board members and the district’s administration amid a back-and-forth over staff compensation.

Trustees smoothly shepherded through the budget in a 7-2 vote, ending a run of three consecutive years with last-minute changes, drawn-out debate and occasional bitterness before the approval of spending proposals. While the budget contains few major overhauls to HISD operations, it lays the groundwork for an unprecedented school year amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and difficult financial decisions looming in 2021.

“This has been a challenging year with all of the unknowns,” HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said. “We’re also going into a challenging time economically, and we’ve got some really hard work ahead of us.”

[…]

Under the new budget, HISD also plans to restructure police officers’ pay and increase their salaries by about $3.5 million — a significant boost for a department with combined annual salaries totaling about $11 million. Lathan said the raises would reduce turnover, which fuels high overtime costs, by bringing officer salaries closer in line with neighboring departments.

The increase drew added scrutiny in recent days after the death of former Houston resident George Floyd, which sparked calls nationwide from some advocates seeking to reduce or eliminate spending on police. About 15 members of the public urged trustees to reject the increase or disband the district’s police department ahead of the budget vote.

“I just don’t know about spending an additional $4 million on police officers when we can spend it on kids,” said Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who joined Trustee Dani Hernandez in voting against the budget.

See here for the background. The Press adds some details.

A number of speakers including several HISD students — fighting continued technical and human error problems with the new call-in, social distancing system — called for the district to pull its police force from schools and instead direct the money to counseling, mental health assistance and libraries. Several said black students are particularly targeted by campus police out of all proportion to their share of the student body.

Ironically enough, the new budget approved an additional $3.5 million for an increase in HISD police officers’ pay, which Lathan said was lower than other police departments in the area.

Lekha Sunder, a student who said she represents a coalition of more than 950 members of the Lamar High School community who signed a letter urging HISD and Lamar to remove police officers from campuses, spoke to the board saying “When schools place police officers on their grounds, they’re agreeing to send some of their students to juvenile court for behavior they would never otherwise be prosecuted for.

“When we criminalize our students, they begin to see themselves as criminals.”

Karina Barbosa, a graduate of HISD schools, said at her high school “We had a cop but no full-time nurse. We had a cop but no on-campus library. We had a cop but no mental health counselors.”

Larsen Tosch a senior from Bellaire High School said the use of police officers in schools instills “paranoia among students, especially students of color.

“I do not see why we need to pay for bullets at a school that routinely runs out of paper.”

Board President Sue Deigaard said she was putting together an ad hoc committee of trustees to discuss the police in schools issue. In addition she said there will be a board meeting on September 1 to discuss the issue with a report from the administration. The call to defund police departments has risen nationally following George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers who have been charged in his death.

As with the city of Houston, this is a starting point. The goal is to shift spending away from police and towards other services and resources. HISD’s expenditures on police is a much smaller percentage of their budget than Houston’s is, but the principle that this is not the best use of those dollars is the same. I’m glad to see HISD is discussing this – I hope they will solicit community feedback as well – and I look forward to the report in September.

Tell HISD what you think about their proposed school year calendar

It’s different.

Students in Houston ISD would return to campus in mid-August, spend up to 10 additional days in the classroom and end their school year in mid-June under a 2020-21 calendar option published by the district Monday.

HISD officials are seeking feedback on the potential changes as the district debates how to add more flexibility to its calendar and increase instructional time amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Some Texas districts are approving extended calendars with more mid-year breaks, which could be used as make-up days if campuses are forced to close due to COVID-19, while others are standing pat.

HISD leaders are not yet formally proposing an extended calendar, which must be approved by the district’s school board.

Under the option unveiled Monday, HISD’s school year would start on Aug. 13 for students, about a week and a half earlier than normal, and end on June 15, about 2 1/2 weeks later than usual. The district would add two week-long breaks, in early October and mid-February.

[…]

The option also includes extending the school day by five minutes, which would help the district exceed the 75,600-minute state requirement for the academic year.

“This would ensure the district has a bank of minutes to use for emergency weather events or closures, in lieu of make-up days and further adjustments of our calendar in the future,” district officials wrote in the survey.

That survey is here. As the story notes, some other area districts have already adopted this schedule, which is designed to allow for disruptions in the calendar due to flooding or (god forbid) coronavirus. It’s easier and less likely to result in high absenteeism if weather days have to be made up in October or February rather than on actual holidays or in June. I don’t know how much of a disruption the week-long holidays in the middle of the semesters would be, and I know some people (I raise my hand here) will lament the head start HISD’s early summer vacations have given us on trip planning, but you can’t have everything. Plus, all of this is still open to debate, because no one really knows yet what the fall will look like, let alone the winter and spring. Take the survey, give HISD your honest feedback, and we’ll keep the discussion going.

Don’t forget about school police

Maybe we can take another crack at breaking the school-to-prison pipeline.

Several social justice organizations called Monday for Houston ISD to eliminate its police department and contract with local law enforcement agencies, whose officers would respond only to emergency situations on campuses.

In a letter to HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, the organizations’ leaders argued police officers make students feel less safe in school and drain funds that could be better spent on mental health counselors and social workers. The organizations are Disability Rights Texas, ONE Houston, Texas Appleseed, Children’s Defense Fund Texas and the Earl Carl Institute at Texas Southern University.

“All children have a right to feel safe and supported at a school, and the police officer’s presence makes some kids feel less safe,” said Karmel Willis, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas. “I don’t think people always look at that.”

The effort follows the death last month of Houston native George Floyd, who stopped breathing after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his back and neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd’s death has triggered nationwide calls for police reform.

School districts throughout the U.S. have increased the presence of police in schools and installed more security measures in recent years following numerous on-campus mass shootings. About 30 miles southeast of HISD, a student is accused of fatally shooting 10 people at Santa Fe High School in 2018.

In a statement Monday, HISD’s administration said its leadership “requires time to thoroughly examine this proposal.

Lathan is proposing to spend an additional $3.5 million in 2020-21 on raises for HISD police officers, whose salaries trail those of Houston Police Department officers. Trustees are scheduled to vote Thursday on the 2020-21 budget.

HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said she has talked to Lathan in recent days about evaluating the district police department’s policies, practices and patterns. However, she said a “bigger conversation” is needed before making major changes to HISD’s police force.

“That is something that should be open for discussion as a board,” Deigaard said. “But we need to balance that conversation, especially in a world we live in with outside threats to our students.”

[…]

HISD Trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels, who represents some campuses with the area’s highest disciplinary rates, said she would not support eliminating the district’s police department this month or in the future.

“I can’t emphasize enough that the most important thing we can think about as board members is to ensure our children get to school safely and return home safely,” Blueford-Daniels said. “Heaven forbid that something should happen like it did in Santa Fe and there’s no one there to protect them.”

Clearly, there’s a need to discuss this at some length. Similar proposals are being made at other school districts as well. The problem with having police officers inside schools is that they tend to do the things that police officers do, which is write tickets and make arrests for things that would have been handled as internal school disciplinary matters had they not been there (*). Note the bit in that report about “the broad discretion given to school police officers to use pepper spray, Tasers and other types of force” inside schools, and the lack of transparency about same. That was from 2011. Now here’s a quote from the Houston Public Media story about this same proposal:

“They have tear gas, rubber bullets, battering rams,” said Sarah Guidry, director of the Earl Carl Institute at Texas Southern University. “They started getting this equipment, as if they were going to war. And if that’s your philosophy — ‘we’re ready to go to war’ — then it’s going to be easier for you to go to war as opposed to helping somebody.”

It’s almost as if these problems have been around for a long time, without anything being done about it. Note also that the number of armed police officers in schools increased in 2018 following the Santa Fe school shooting.

I doubt that the HISD Board will support cutting out their police department, but now is an excellent time to bring the subject up and make a plan to start drastically reducing police presence in our schools. I look at it this way: I attended public middle and high school in New York City between 1978 and 1984, when the crime rate was way, way higher than it is now. Neither of those schools had any police presence in them. Schools are for learning, not for policing. This is a great time to push for real reform here as well.

(*) To be fair, internal school disciplinary processes are often quite problematic on their own. But one step at a time. Grits has more.

Our students need laptops

The pandemic has made this clear.

Houston ISD officials hope to provide every student with a district-issued laptop in 2020-21 and beyond, an ambitious target that would deliver much-needed technology to children but require voters to approve a bond package in the next several months.

Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said HISD officials are “working toward a goal” of buying computers throughout the upcoming school year for all 150,000-plus elementary and middle school students. HISD high school students already get computers under an initiative, known as PowerUp, started in 2014.

The laptops would assist families struggling with a lack of at-home technology amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, which pushed most instruction online for the last 10 weeks of this school year and likely will cause some classes to remain virtual into 2020-21.

Once the pandemic subsides, the laptops also would help bridge the so-called “digital divide,” providing more opportunities for students from lower-income families to access the internet and other educational programs.

“The goal is, as soon as we get them in is deploy them out,” Lathan said. “It will just take time to get the devices in. As we get them in, we’ll look to see if they’ll be given to middle school students first or elementary school students, or some at both levels.”

The initiative, however, would carry enormous costs that are not accounted for in HISD’s $2 billion spending plan for 2020-21.

District officials said they would have to spend $65 million on laptop hardware — not counting warranties, repairs, carts and replacement devices — to outfit HISD’s elementary and middle school students.

HISD leaders also would have to hire dozens or hundreds of staff members to maintain the laptops and eventually pay to replace older technology in the years to come.

District administrators still are calculating the price tag for supporting 150,000-plus additional students with laptops, but Chief Information Officer Scott Gilhousen told board members Thursday that early estimates put the bill at $90 million over five years for middle school students alone.

“The part we’re working on right now is the elementary schools and what it would take to outfit those students,” Gilhousen said.

In a statement Friday, HISD administrators acknowledged the district “would need to have a bond program” to pay for the laptops and recurring costs — a potentially tall task given multiple headwinds.

The HISD Board has been talking about a bond referendum for awhile, in the vicinity of $2 billion. That would mostly be for facilities. I don’t know if they might simply scrap that and substitute in a much smaller bond for the laptops and related equipment. A smaller bond would be easier to sell, but the facilities need would still be there. I’ll leave that to them to decide. I’ll just say, we all agree that this is a necessity now, right? Not just because of the current pandemic and any future ones we may face, but also because of weather-related disruptions and just the fact that a lot of the curriculum is done online now. However this proceeds, we need to support this initiative. It’s what the students need.

We still don’t know what the upcoming school year will look like

Lots of possibilities, no clear answer yet.

Houston ISD officials are planning for the possibility that some — if not all — students will continue to take virtual classes at home to start the upcoming school year, Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said Friday.

Leaders of the state’s largest school district are preparing multiple contingency plans for August, many of which involve a continuation of online learning, amid uncertainty about their ability to safely re-open campuses as the novel coronavirus pandemic lingers.

District administrators remain weeks away from finalizing key decisions about the upcoming school year, but Lathan said during a wide-ranging press conference that she hopes to announce within the next month whether some form of in-person classes can resume by August.

Under one potential plan floated Friday by Lathan, some or all of the district’s 209,000 students would spend part of the school week on campus and the remainder of the week in online classes — a method aimed at increasing social distancing in crowded buildings. Numerous education leaders across the state and country have suggested similar structure in recent weeks.

“We’re also looking at some students being virtually online the entire first semester or, possibly, the entire school year,” Lathan said.

Superintendents across Texas are grappling with how to structure their school calendars and daily schedules to best accommodate students while balancing public health concerns. Although children suffer medical complications from COVID-19 at far lower rates than adults, public health officials remain concerned about their ability to spread the virus to school staff and family members at home.

[…]

Beyond this summer, superintendents and school boards are evaluating major changes for the 2020-21 school year given the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and the need to support students falling behind during the current shutdown.

In HISD, administrators are starting to discuss with staff and families whether to start the school year earlier and build in longer breaks that could be used as make-up days if in-person classes are canceled due to COVID-19. Texas Education Agency officials are pushing the benefits of this model across the state, though decisions about academic calendars rest with local school boards.

HISD officials also are evaluating whether to extend the school day by 30 minutes, giving teachers and staff more time to help students recover from the disruptions. Lathan said such a move would come with additional pay for employees and could involve structural changes to campus operations.

“We have to look at the emotional toll it’s taken on our teachers to prepare and keep students engaged,” Lathan said.

See here, here, and here for some background. There are just too many variables to say with any confidence what may happen, so just try to keep up with the possibilities so you can make plans. We’ll be fine no matter what – both of us can work from home as needed – but a lot of people will have it much harder. None of this is easy. The best we can hope for is a treatment regimen for COVID-19, and eventually a vaccine. If we’re really lucky, we’ll have a better President next year and can maybe finally get a halfway decent federal response to this mess. In the meantime, this is where we are.

HISD may seek earlier school year start in the future

No earlier than the 2021-2022 school year, if they can qualify for it.

Students in Houston ISD could start their school year several days earlier beginning in 2021-22, joining peers in other districts who return to class in mid-August, under a plan in the early stages of development.

HISD officials this week said they want to seek a “District of Innovation” status that would grant them flexibility on four state education laws, including one that requires schools to begin their academic year no earlier than the fourth Monday in August. All of the region’s largest traditional public school districts, with the exception of Cy-Fair ISD and Lamar CISD, sought the status in the past few years and changed their start dates to mid-August.

In a presentation to board members Monday, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said her administration wanted to request two exemptions, which would allow HISD to start its year earlier and hire more non-certified teachers in hard-to-staff vocational and technical fields.

The switch to a mid-August start date would create a more balanced schedule between the first semester, which runs 77 days from August until winter break, and the second semester, which lasts 96 days.

HISD students also stand at a disadvantage on state standardized tests, as well as some college-centered tests, such as the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, because they spend fewer days in the classroom before the tests are administered, Lathan said.

“They’re already 10 days ahead of us academically and structurally because they’re starting 10 days in advance, but we’re all required to take the state assessments at the same time,” Lathan said.

Note that this has nothing to do with when schools may reopen this fall, for which the answer right now is “no one can say for sure”. The proposed change seems reasonable enough, and would likely mean a slightly earlier end to the school year as well. The story doesn’t say what HISD has to do to qualify for this status, nor how long it would take to know if it has qualified. I think as long as there’s enough time to let parents make plans for the summer of 2021, it should be fine.

The next school year is going to be different, too

As with many things, just how different remains an open question for now.

When Houston campuses finally re-open in 2020-21, at a date very much to-be-determined, the region’s million-plus children will experience a school year unlike any other.

Some students may spend more time in the classroom, arriving weeks earlier than usual or staying later in the day. Others may receive added attention from teachers, counselors and social workers. Many will get lessons typically delivered the prior spring.

“They’re going to have so much work to make up that I don’t know how they’re going to do it,” said Angie Tyler, the grandmother of a high school junior in Aldine ISD. “She’s so used to having her teacher on hand, teaching her math or physics she doesn’t get. Is she going to get to learn what she’s missed?”

Amid enormous uncertainty about the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Houston-area school leaders have started mapping out contingency plans for the upcoming school year, one in which students will arrive with learning gaps and significant health needs.

[…]

“We have to look ahead,” Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said. “We’re looking at instructional time as it relates to programming in the summer, possibly an extended calendar, maybe an extended school day.”

None of the region’s superintendents have suggested wholesale changes in the way students are taught. Rather, multiple district leaders have discussed increasing the amount of time spent in the classroom and adding more mental health support for vulnerable students.

If buildings can re-open in the coming weeks, Lathan said her district may allow more children to enroll in summer school, which normally runs from early June to early July. Typically, HISD only opens summer school to students at risk of failing to advance grade levels or who need to pass state standardized tests to earn promotion.

In Fort Bend ISD, the region’s fourth-largest district, Superintendent Charles Dupre said district leaders will have “serious conversations” about beginning the 2020-21 school year before the planned Aug. 12 start date. Under one possible scenario, Fort Bend students would spend August catching up on missed instruction from the prior year, then start their new grade-level classes after Labor Day.

Aldine ISD Superintendent LaTonya Goffney, who leads the Houston area’s fifth-largest district, also said her district’s calendar “cannot be August to May.”

There’s more, and you should read it with an understanding that this is all contingency planning, with lots of things likely to change between now and whenever. School districts are limited by law in how early they can open, but it’s possible that could get worked around or waived. Basically, if you have a kid in the public schools, pay attention to the communication you get from your district and your schools. This is not going to be back-to-school as usual, and you’ll want to make sure you know what is going on.

HISD takes a step towards a bond referendum

Just a step. If there’s to be a bond referendum on the ballot, this year or later, they’ll have to vote again to authorize that.

Houston ISD trustees kept hopes alive for a November bond election during Thursday night’s board meeting, voting to approve spending on a facilities assessment that must be completed before asking residents to provide tax dollars for campus and security upgrades.

Board members voted 6-3 to spend up to $5 million on the assessment, which will document the conditions of HISD’s aging schools, space needs for campuses and demographic trends in the district. District officials said they will use the assessment to guide the creation of any bond proposals, which remain in the early stages of development.

[…]

Trustees and administrators who backed the assessment argued the analysis will provide vital information needed to create an accurate and updated picture of the district’s facilities needs. HISD last commissioned a facilities assessment in 2016, but the work only documented building conditions, with no alignment to academic and space needs.

Three trustees voted against the bond — Judith Cruz, Dani Hernandez and Elizabeth Santos — amid questions about timing of the assessment.

Board members and Lathan have not held extensive discussions about their detailed vision for the district since January, when four new trustees joined the nine-member board.

In addition, public trust in the district has waned over the past two years following extensive in-fighting, as well as the possible ouster of elected trustees due to multiple findings of misconduct by board members and chronically low ratings of Wheatley High School.

“It feels rushed, and I want to make sure we’re doing this the best way possible,” Cruz said.

The vote came after nearly 20 students, parents and educators spoke in favor of rebuilding crumbling schools, describing outdated facilities that disappoint children and scare away prospective families.

See here for some background, and here for a preview story from Thursday, when the vote was taken. The last bond was in 2012, and it’s getting to be time to do some more capital spending. Previous bonds have passed without too much commotion, and even with HISD’s current issues I think they’d be able to get one passed this year, if they do a decent enough job presenting what it would do and get sufficient buy-in from the community. The looming TEA takeover may work in their favor, as I for one have no idea whether a board of managers could or would attempt to authorize a bond, and waiting around for another four or five years seems like a terrible idea. Let’s see what the assessment says and we’ll go from there.

No metal detectors at HISD schools

For now, at least.

Houston ISD trustees shelved a request from administrators Thursday to authorize up to $3 million for metal detectors, arguing district officials need to provide more concrete recommendations and plans for school security before the board votes to allocate money for the machines.

The board’s decision comes as Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s administration continues to solicit feedback and analyze security protocols following last month’s on-campus fatal shooting of Bellaire High School student Cesar Cortes, 19. Lathan said she has not yet decided whether to install metal detectors in some middle and high schools, but her administration wanted quick access to funds for the machines if district leaders decide to buy them.

Some trustees suggested they remain open to possibly deploying metal detectors at access points in schools, though they said administrators and the board first need to conduct more detailed conversations about districtwide security plans. Several trustees questioned why Lathan asked for authority to spend on metal detectors now, rather than waiting until she decided to purchase the machines.

“It’s so easy to try to put a metal detector out there as a quick fix,” Trustee Anne Sung said. “I just want to make sure we’re being thoughtful and utilizing a strategy.”

[…]

Lathan said the prospect of installing metal detectors has received some public support, but three other security measures top her list of potential recommendations as of now: increasing the number of police officers on campuses; bumping up police officer pay to reduce vacancies and turnover; and adding social workers to address students’ social and emotional needs.

Students attending the district’s high schools have been particularly supportive of placing more police officers on campuses, Lathan said. Her comments came after closed-door meetings with about 25 Bellaire students last month and 35 high school students from across the district earlier this week.

“I thought that was powerful,” Lathan said. “Especially in this day and time, when there’s still animosity in some communities when it comes to police officers, what I heard is, we want more police officers.”

HISD trustees have not yet held extensive discussions about specific security recommendations, many of which would require the board to authorize additional funding. Some board members have asked Lathan to present data on the efficiency of metal detectors in schools, though relatively little national research exists.

“I think we need to have a conversation on what our philosophy and approach is as a district, rooted in conversation with community members and students — which I know we’ve begun to do — but also research and policies,” Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said Thursday.

See here for the background. I’m glad we are not charging ahead with this, and I agree with Trustees Sung and Vilaseca that we need to put a lot of thought into this and do some research. And put me down in opposition to increasing police presence at schools, because the research we have on that shows that more police at schools is a key component of the school-to-prison pipeline. Too many kids win up getting citations for low-level, non-violent behavior that historically has been handled at the school level – that’s what police officers do, after all – and that has significant and long-lasting effect on the kids. Let’s take a long, serious look at other options before we go down this path, because the potential for unintended consequences is great.

HISD considers metal detectors

It’s (maybe) come to this.

Houston ISD officials are exploring the idea of installing metal detectors at the district’s middle and high schools in response to last week’s fatal on-campus shooting of a student, a step few districts in the region have taken following nationwide incidents of mass gun violence at schools.

In a blog post, Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan wrote that she will be meeting with students and community leaders to determine whether the district should increase security measures following the Jan. 14 shooting of Cesar Cortes, 19, at Bellaire High School. Authorities have said they believe a 16-year-old classmate accidentally shot Cortes while showing off a semiautomatic pistol.

“These meetings, along with reconvening safety and security council committees on every campus, will be a catalyst for increased vigilance and preventative measures in our schools,” Lathan wrote Tuesday. “Another measure the district is exploring includes assessing middle schools and high schools for metal detectors as a screening measure for entry onto campuses.”

HISD does not regularly employ metal detectors or require clear backpacks at its campuses. Aldine and Spring ISDs are the only two large Houston-area districts that use metal detectors each school day. Cy-Fair ISD, the region’s second-largest district, issued a clear backpack mandate for students following the May 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School that left 10 people dead.

[…]

The addition of metal detectors would represent one of HISD’s costliest and most significant security upgrades in recent years. While prices for metal detectors vary, outfitting all 106 campuses that serve grades 6 and higher could be costly, particularly if the district installed multiple machines at larger schools. Chicago Public Schools officials last year approved the purchase of an undisclosed number of metal detectors for nearly $4,000 per unit, with installation and warranty included.

HISD officials have not said who would operate and maintain metal detectors, which could carry additional costs.

Any districtwide purchases of metal detectors likely would require approval of the HISD school board. Trustee Patricia Allen, a former elementary school principal, said she supports the installation of metal detectors in middle and high schools, arguing the increase in security outweighs the logistical hurdles of screening students daily.

“You already see them so much, even at the football stadiums where they have lots of people going through those,” Allen said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

However, Trustee Dani Hernandez said she opposes metal detectors at schools, largely because of the message they send to students. Hernandez added that she heard backlash to metal detectors from community members following the November 2018 death of 18-year-old Delindsey Mack, who was killed in an apparent gang-related shooting within feet of Lamar High School grounds.

“We would need to figure out more about the cost, but also how that plays into the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Hernandez, a former elementary school teacher.

Here’s the blog post in question. A little back of the envelope math based on the Chicago schools’ experience suggests this would cost at least $4 million for the equipment, with likely additional costs for the personnel to operate the machines. As the story notes later, HISD will be getting an additional $2 million from the state for “safety-related upgrades”, which is both insufficient and doesn’t address ongoing costs.

Now, the additional cost this would impose on HISD may still be worth it. I’ve got two kids in HISD, and one of my older daughter’s best friends attends Bellaire, so I very much have skin in the game here, and the safety of HISD’s students is something I care a lot about. The first question is, would this be a good way to improve school security? As the story notes, the studies we have so far have not yet shown evidence that metal detectors do improve safety; there wasn’t enough data to draw a conclusion. We’ve all seen news stories of metal detectors at airports failing to detect guns. There’s already evidence that other “security” enhancements at schools, like live shooter drills, has had an overall negative effect on students’ mental health and well-being. Suffice it to say, I’m skeptical.

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.

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.

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.

An update on the races in HISD and HCC

As you know, there’s been a lot of action not just in the Houston City Council races but also in the 2020 election races. That doesn’t mean things have been dull in HISD and HCC, which of course have elections this November as well. I’m going to bring you up to date on who’s doing what in HISD and HCC, which as always deserve more attention than they usually get. We will refer to the Erik Manning spreadsheet for the names, though there will be some detours and some plot twists. Settle in and let’s get started.

There are four HISD Trustees up for election this cycle: Rhonda Skillern-Jones (district II), Sergio Lira (III), Jolanda Jones (IV), and Diana Davila (VIII). Lira, running for his first full term after winning in 2017 to succeed the late Manuel Rodriguez. He has no declared opponent at this time.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones has decided to step down from HISD and is now running for HCC Trustee in District 2. That’s the district currently held by the execrable Dave Wilson. (Hold that thought for a moment.) Her jump to HCC has been known for about a week, but as yet no candidate has emerged to announce a run in HISD II. I’m sure that will happen soon.

Diana Davila is being challenged by Judith Cruz, who ran for this same seat in 2010 after Davila’s abrupt departure when she was first an HISD Trustee; Cruz lost the Juliet Stipeche, who was then defeated by Davila in a return engagement in 2015. Davila has been at the center of much of the recent chaos on the Board, especially the disputes over interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan. I would expect that to be part of this campaign.

Jolanda Jones has two challengers for what would be her second term on the Board. One is perennial candidate Larry McKinzie, the other is Matt Barnes, a career educator with some charter school experience that I’m sure won’t cause any issues at all for anyone in this election. Ahem. A possible complicating factor here (we do love complicating factors) is that there has been chatter about Jones running for City Council again, this time in District D. It’s not the first time that this possibility has arisen. To be clear, as far as I know and unlike that other time, Jolanda Jones herself has not said anything about running for Council. This is 100% speculation based on other people talking about it, which I as an irresponsible non-journalist am mentioning without bothering to check for myself. I do that in part because it allows me to dredge up the past discussion we had about whether the term limits law that existed in 2012 would have allowed Jones to run for Council again, and from there to pivot to whether the same questions apply to the updated term limits law. Jones served two two-year terms and would hypothetically be running for a third and final term, which would be for four years. Council members who were first elected in 2011, such as Jack Christie, got to serve a total of eight years via this mechanism, and because the updated term limits law that was ratified by voters in 2015 was written to exempt current Council members who were not on their third terms. Would that also cover a former Council member who had served two terms? I have no idea, but if the question became relevant, I feel confident that lawyers and courtrooms would quickly become involved, and we’d eventually get an answer. See why this was irresistible to me? Anyway, all of this is probably for nothing, but I had fun talking about it and I hope you did, too.

Now for HCC. There are three HCC Trustees whose terms are up: Zeph Capo (District 1), the aforementioned Dave Wilson (District 2), and Neeta Sane (District 7). We’ll start with Sane, whose district covers part of Fort Bend County. She is running for Fort Bend County Tax Assessor in 2020 (she had previously run for FBC Treasurer in 2006, before winning her first term on the HCC Board), and while she could run for re-election in HCC first, she appears to not be doing so. Erik’s spreadsheet has no candidate in this slot at this time.

Zeph Capo is also not running for re-election. His job with the Texas AFT will be taking him to Austin, so he is stepping down. In his place is Monica Flores Richart, who had run for HISD Trustee in my district in 2017. Capo is Richart’s campaign treasurer, so that’s all very nice and good.

And that’s where this gets complicated. Dave Wilson is the lone Trustee of these three who is running in 2019. He is not, however, running for re-election in District 2. He is instead running in District 1, where I’m guessing he thinks he’ll have a chance of winning now that the voters in District 2 are aware he’s a conservative white Republican and not a black man or the cousin of former State Rep. Ron Wilson. I’m sure Rhonda Skillern-Jones would have wiped the floor with him, but now he’s running for an open seat. He won’t have the same cover of stealth this time, though. You can help by supporting Monica Flores Richart and by making sure everyone you know knows about this race and what a turd Dave Wilson is. Don’t let him get away with this.

(Hey, remember the big legal fight over Wilson’s residency following his fluke 2013 election, and how he insisted that the warehouse he moved into was his real home? So much for that. I assume he has another warehouse to occupy, which is totally fine because our state residency laws are basically meaningless.)

Finally, while their terms are not up, there are two other HCC Trustees who are seeking other offices and thus may cause further vacancies. Eva Loredo, the trustee in District 8, has filed a designation of treasurer to run for Justice of the Peace in Precinct 6 next March, while current Board chair Carolyn Evans-Shabazz in District 4 is now a candidate for City Council District D. If Wilson loses (please, please, please) and these two win theirs we could have five new members within the next year and a half, which would be a majority of the nine-member Board. The Board would appoint replacements for Evans-Shabazz and/or Loredo if they resign following a victory in their other elections, and there would then be an election for the remainder of their terms. I will of course keep an eye on that. In the meantime, if you can fill in any of the blanks we’ve discussed here, please leave a comment.

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.