Houston ISD administration walks back school funding cuts, TEA clarifies metrics for return to local control

The budgeting process is already underway, but the Board of Managers is likely to have final say. 


A screenshot of HISD’s April 13, 2023 meeting.

Ahead of their replacement by state-appointed managers, Houston Independent School District trustees heard a presentation from Steve Lecholop, Texas Education Agency deputy commissioner of governance, about the takeover process and timeline.

Some board members noted the absence of Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who also didn't attend the community meetings in March.

"I’m glad you came in here and took this heat," trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels told Lecholop. "But we’d like to see Commissioner Morath."

The Board of Managers are slated to take control weeks before the June 30 deadline to finalize a budget. With declining enrollment and the loss of federal pandemic funds, the district faces a growing deficit, forecast to reach about $280 million by the 2025 school year. The budgeting process is already underway, but the Board of Managers is likely to have final say.

“Are they expected to learn everything in one month?" Houston ISD board president Dani Hernandez asked.

"The hope is that you guys will take the laboring oar and do most of the work," Lecholop responded. "As you guys know as trustees, there are processes every single month to make budget amendments … So there will be opportunities for the Board of Managers to evaluate the budget that is passed, to conduct three weeks or four weeks of diligence on the budget … and then to continually evaluate, in conjunction with the superintendent, to decide if amendments need to be made."

Houston ISD administration previously recommended slashes to funding for high schools and certain small campuses, as well as giving money to schools based on attendance instead of enrollment. Altogether, the cuts would have saved about $46 million.

After pressure from trustees, Superintendent Millard House II said the district won't make those cuts.

"This is already a time of significant uncertainty for schools," he said. "And I hope that agreeing to this budget recommendation as soon as possible will reduce a layer of uncertainty for our campus leaders, teachers and community."

Trustee Sue Deigaard previously said the cuts would "starve schools that are already starving."

"Of course there’s a lingering concern," Deigaard told Houston Public Media after the meeting. "There’s still a fiscal cliff out there. We have not been provided a comprehensive view from the administration of the allocations and proposals for all funding sources — like a comprehensive view of the budget."

The board also tabled an agenda item that would've recommended that the Texas Education Agency select a Houston resident to lead the transition.

"This is a time of year when a lot of decisions are being made that’ll impact next school year," trustee Sue Diegaard told Houston Public Media before the meeting. "And I do think that there is some benefit to having some collaboration and communication between the current HISD board and TEA as we're making decisions."

The resolution, which was not debated or voted on in open session, asserts that TEA’s process so far “has resulted in a lack of transparency and confusion.” It would've asked that the agency select a Houston resident to lead the transition and recommended specific candidates for the job — Alton Frailey, who served as superintendent in several districts before retiring in 2016, or AJ Crabill, who served as a TEA deputy commissioner under Education Commissioner Mike Morath before becoming a state conservator in DeSoto ISD near Dallas. It also would have promised a one-time stipend to teachers and school administrators who renew their contracts.

"The individuals listed as possible transition managers raise concerns," Daniel Santos, vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, told trustees. "The process has not been transparent."

Crabill — one of the people named as a potential transition leader — has pushed back against the idea that student outcomes have improved in Houston ISD. He did not respond to a request for comment.

"I don’t see compelling evidence that children are better off today than they were a few years ago," he told Houston Public Media's Town Square in March.

About three quarters of schools that failed to meet state standards in 2019 have since received passing ratings.

Since early March, the board has signaled its eagerness to ease the transition. Trustees voted 8-1 to end litigation shortly before the takeover was announced and, after the announcement, 5-4 against appealing the agency's decision. Board members tabled the resolution requesting a local transition leader without public debate.

A TEA spokesperson declined to comment on the proposal. Houston Public Media was unable to reach Frailey.

After the takeover, trustee elections will continue, but the managers will hold power.

"We will encourage you to serve as advisors to the Board of Managers, and we'll encourage the Board of Managers to stay in contact with you guys," Lecholop said, adding that trustees will be invited to serve on advisory committees.

He said the agency extended the application window for Houston ISD residents through April 20. According to an email sent to applicants, screening, training and interviews with agency staff wrap up before May.

Once the finalists take control of the state's largest district, Houston ISD must achieve three benchmarks before voters regain local control over their public schools. No Houston ISD schools can fail to meet state standards for two years, the district must maintain full compliance with state and federal special education laws, and the school board must implement governance procedures and conduct with "a focus on student outcomes."

Trustee Judith Cruz said some of the metrics "make sense" but will be challenging for a district of Houston ISD's size, with more than 190,000 students and about 275 schools. As other trustees pointed out, it also sets up a recipe for indefinite state control if those benchmarks prove too difficult to meet.

"If things aren’t changing, then I think that would merit a really tough conversation," Cruz said after the meeting. "But at the end of the day, it has to be about the kids."

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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