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UPDATE: HISD Won’t Reconsider Charter School Contract, Mayor Turner Supports Decision

Turner stressed that focusing on students is more important and suggested that the state should grant the school district a one-year waiver

Parent and activist Travis McGee addressed a crowd of people at the HISD meeting while the board was in closed session and before a scuffle erupted with police officers.
Parent and activist Travis McGee addressed a crowd of people at the HISD meeting while the board was in closed session and before a scuffle erupted with police officers.

The Houston school district has decided not to reconsider the charter school contract meant to avoid state sanctions.

“We are not bringing another partnership proposal to the Board, nor will there be another meeting to consider partnerships for the 10 schools,” said Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan on Wednesday. “Instead, we will continue to reinforce our commitment to helping students, staff, and families of our Achieve 180 schools continue the hard work they’ve done this year to transform their campuses and increase student achievement.”

Lathan said that current staff will remain in place unless budget cuts force layoffs across HISD. She added that HISD will supplement resources and supports at these campuses to try and help them meet standards.

The board’s decision followed advice earlier Wednesday from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. He encouraged them to “stand down” and try and get a waiver from state officials instead.

The move puts even more pressure on the 10 under-performing schools to try and meet standards this year. If they don’t, they could be shuttered, closed and then reopened as new schools or the whole board of trustees could be replaced.

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Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said  that he supports Houston Independent School District (HISD) standing down on trying to figure out a partnership deal for 10 struggling  schools ahead of the state’s deadline.

“Not to submit a proposal, not to submit a plan based on this April 30th deadline. Focus on the kids. Focus on trying to improve these schools as best you can between now and the academic year,” Turner told reporters at City Hall Wednesday. Instead, Turner said that HISD should ask state officials — again — for a one-year waiver on sanctions because of Hurricane Harvey.

 

Earlier on Wednesday, Houston school police have decided to drop charges against two women who were arrested at a tense board meeting on Tuesday night over a controversial charter school contract.

The original charges involved criminal trespassing and resisting arrest.

In a statement, HISD said that they’ve agreed with the decision from Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg to retract the charges.

“No further action is needed and the two detainees are being released now,” the statement said.

The arrests came amid a tense meeting that turned into a protest and ended with no decision on the future of 10 struggling Houston schools. Tensions erupted when Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones asked police to remove the audience after one speaker went over her time limit and people protested.  

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The HISD board met Tuesday night to consider a plan to temporarily surrender control of the schools to a charter group called Energized for STEM. Dozens of people spoke against the proposal, raising concerns from financial dealings, academic issues and what it means for the primarily black communities affected.

“The fact that the board president cleared the room when there was some disruption — but it wasn’t at a level that we’ve seen at other times — is an indication of a larger problem of lack of transparency. And I would even say a lack of courageous leadership,” said Jasmine Jenkins, who directs Houstonians for Great Public Schools, which advocates for effective school boards and leadership.

Jenkins added that she believes confidence in the HISD board has eroded over several months because of several issues, including the situation with struggling schools, budget difficulties and changes with district leadership.

“I don’t know that the board has time to rebuild that trust,” Jenkins said.

The board is facing a tight deadline to decide what to do next.

If it wants to partner with an outside group to try and avoid closing schools or a state board of managers, it has to submit plans to the Texas Education Agency by April 30.

Another option is to close and reopen these schools. Some want the board to do none of those things and sue the Texas Education Agency instead.

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Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones talked with an activist at the HISD meeting after dozens of people were ejected from the building.
Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones talked with an activist at the HISD meeting after dozens of people were ejected from the building.

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What started as a heated workshop to consider handing 10 Houston schools over to a charter network turned into a skirmish and protest Tuesday night. It led to the detention of at least two women and ended without a vote on the future of the schools.

When the last public speaker went over the 1-minute time limit, people protested and Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones ordered the room cleared. The protest turned physical and police removed people from the room.

Houston Public Media confirmed Wednesday with multiple people involved in the protest that in total three women were detained by police, with two of them arrested–one put in handcuffs and the other dragged on the floor. HISD has not detailed what the specific charges are.

 Eventually, the board reconvened only to adjourn the meeting without deciding if it will surrender control of its 10 most struggling schools to the charter group, Energized for STEM.

“It sends the message that the community’s voice does not matter,” said Jenny Espeseth, an HISD parent and advocate and one of the women who was detained, but not arrested. 

In a statement, HISD cited board policy that audience members cannot be disruptive or abusive during board meetings and said that one of their police officers sustained minor injuries.

“While the district appreciates and shares the passion the community has for the students and schools and welcomes public input, audience members are expected to be respectful and observe decorum so that their views may be heard and appreciated,” HISD’s spokesman Tracy Clemons said in a statement.

“During Tuesday night’s workshop, after continuous disruption and multiple outbursts from members of the audience, and after several verbal requests from the Board President to adhere to the rules, attendees were instructed to clear the room and called for a recess.”

About 100 people were removed from the HISD auditorium after a scuffle with police officers and a protest ensued. The heated meeting was meant to consider a charter partnership for 10 schools, but ended without a vote.

About 100 people were removed from the HISD auditorium. Many remained outside the doors, chanting for the release of one of the women detained.

Trustees later reconvened just after 11 p.m. Many protesters refused to return because they didn’t want to make the meeting seem legitimate and would have been required to sit in an overflow room — not the board auditorium.

The HISD board of trustees eventually voted to adjourn 8-1, with Trustee Elizabeth Santos casting the sole no vote. 

“I teach my students to stand up against unjust laws and things that might hinder making progress. And I’m an activist, I’ve witnessed things before, but to feel like you were in a real live textbook was pretty intense,” Santos said after the meeting.

Earlier during the public hearing, trustees heard from dozens of students, parents, teachers and advocates. All of them opposed giving Energized for STEM control of 10 schools that have failed to meet state standards for four years or more. Some cited financial concerns about the charter group. Others opposed the deal as privatizing public education. And several speakers, including members of the black community, said that the deal sold out schools that enroll mostly black students.

“Have a backbone and stand up to this,” said Travis McGee, a parent and activist from Sunnyside, a neighborhood that might lose two public schools under the deal.

With the board not taking a vote, it’s not clear what HISD’s next steps for its 10 most struggling schools. If they don’t meet state standards this year, they could trigger sanctions under the law known as HB 1842, including closure or a board of managers for the whole district. The partnership route with a charter school or another group could buy time for the schools to meet standards and avoid those sanctions, under the law SB 1882.

If the district still wants to secure a partner, it has to meet the state’s April 30 deadline  — less than a week away.

In order to call another meeting on the issue, the district is supposed to provide at least 72 hours notice.

It is not clear what the HISD board will do next. In a text message, Board President Skillern-Jones told News 88.7 that no decision has been made. In a Facebook post, she said that she asked police to clear the room after several outbursts.

“I hoped we could calm the tension and return for an orderly meeting. Unfortunately the situation escalated and subsequently caused many unintended consequences,” Skillern-Jones wrote. “I’m saddened at this outcome as it was not at all what I wanted. I take responsibility for calling this recess and am regretful it only created more discord. The one positive result from the chaos is that we did postpone a hasty decision, gained some additional perspective and broadened our considerations.”

Other trustees expressed sadness as well. Trustee Anne Sung wrote on social media that she has “no words yet. I’m just heartbroken” for what happened.

Sung said that even before the chaos, she did not have enough information to vote on the charter partnership with Energized for STEM and wanted answers to the “very reasonable list of questions that any partner should at a minimum answer.”

What is at stake here is no less than our children and the future of whole communities,” Sung said.

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Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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