TEA wraps up first phase of Houston ISD takeover as district leadership grapples with budget proposals

The takeover is slated to happen just ahead of the deadline for the district to finalize its budget. Teachers are wondering if they’ll still have jobs next school year. 


FILE: Things began to get tense at TEA’s first informational meeting about its planned Houston ISD takeover, on March 22, 2023. Parents demanded answers from Mike Morath, who did not attend the meeting.

The Texas Education Agency has finished the first phase of its plan to take over the Houston Independent School District.

The agency held the final of four community meetings at Kashmere High School on Thursday. The meetings have been dominated by people who view the takeover — replacing the superintendent and elected school board with state-appointed leaders — as an undemocratic power grab, although some community members have spoken in favor of the move.

There have been moments of useful information — like the confirmation that Education Commissioner Mike Morath will handle the search for a new superintendent on his own, rather than using a third party search group.

There have also been moments that heightened community anger. In an exchange about why the TEA is taking over a B-rated school district, Deputy Commissioner Alejandro Delgado said "It's not an A."

He laid out the criteria for Houstonians regaining local control of education: no schools should repeatedly fail to meet state standards, the special education department must come into compliance with state and federal law, and the board must implement student-focused governance policies and conduct.

Throughout the community meetings, community members have asked "Where's Morath?"

For at least half an hour, he was sitting for an interview with the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board.

"I think probably people are motivated to come to townhall meetings for three different reasons: some people want to hear the presentation, some people have questions and some people want to vent," Morath said. "So that’s what’s happening in those meetings. And it’s hard to actually serve all three constituents well in the same meeting format."

He told the opinion writers that he was under the weather last week and has been engaging with smaller groups of key stakeholders.

One key group that hasn't gotten a meeting with Morath: the teachers' union, Houston Federation of Teachers.

FILE: Houston Federation of Teachers building on Sutherland St. Taken on March 9, 2020. Union president Jackie Anderson said they have requested a meeting with Mike Morath after the TEA took over HISD.

Union president Jackie Anderson said the union has requested a meeting.

"I think he owes us that much respect," she said. "We have questions and apparently only he has answers, so I think he should come."

A TEA spokesperson did not comment on whether Morath plans to meet with the union.

Houston ISD teacher Arnetta Murray asked deputy commissioner Delgado if district staff should expect layoffs.

"Right now, the teachers are stressed," she told him. "Can you guarantee — whoever it is in charge — are teachers gonna still have a job after this takeover?"

"So that’s a great question," Delgado responded. "I understand your concern. What I can guarantee is that the Board of Managers and the superintendent are going to be committed to making sure that you are supported, you’re well resourced, and that you have jobs."

The possibility of losing staff at local schools is actually top of mind for district leadership, even without the looming takeover.

The administration and elected school board of the district are in budgeting mode right now. Admin has proposed some cuts to Central Office — mostly closing vacant positions — as well as slashing funding to high schools and certain small campuses. The proposals come as the district faces a ballooning deficit, now forecast to reach almost $280 million in the 2025 school year.

Houston ISD trustee Sue Deigaard emphasized that the budgeting process is far from complete, but she has concerns about the proposed cuts.

"If the only driver of this is to reduce the deficit, and it’s not at all based on student need, that’s in my opinion the wrong approach to any district’s budget," she said. "Small school subsidies, and cutting that in the way that they’re proposing, is just going to starve schools that are already starving."

The budgeting process has highlighted one feature of Houston ISD that a board of managers might overhaul — decentralization, with principals generally acting as captains of their own ships. The practice places decision-making closer to students and staff, but it also means that top district administrators can pass responsibility down the chain of command.

"It was never intended to be, ‘Here principals, here’s your money, do whatever the heck you want,'" Deigaard said. "It’s intended that there is still accountability to outcomes, that there is monitoring of progress, that there is support to help less experienced principals learn how to be effective with their dollars. And I don’t believe ... since I’ve been on the board, that hasn’t happened."

The agency plans to install the new managers and superintendent in early June. They'll have until the end of that month to finalize the budget for next school year.

In the meantime, the TEA will review applications and consider which Houston residents should be appointed to replace the elected school board of the state's largest district. The deadline to apply is Thursday, April 6.

Applicants for the board of managers receive an email laying out more of the timeline. The process will move quickly in April, with application reviews, governance and leadership training, background checks, and interviews with TEA staff members slated to wrap up before May.

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Dominic Anthony Walsh

Dominic Anthony Walsh

Education & Culture Reporter

Dominic Anthony Walsh covers education & culture for Houston Public Media's enterprise team. His work examines the institutions and policies affecting millions of students and families across Texas, with a focus on Houston — home to the largest school district in the state. He comes to the Bayou City after...

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