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Houston Schools’ Superintendent: Budget Remains Biggest Challenge for New School Year

In advance of back-to-school, News 88.7 sat down with Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who’s served in the role since March, and talked about the biggest challenges for the Houston Independent School District.

Grenita Lathan comments during a library dedication at Attucks Middle School, January 18, 2017.
Grenita Lathan comments during a library dedication at Attucks Middle School, January 18, 2017.

Over 200,000 students and over 11,000 teachers return to class Monday in the Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest public school system.

The new year brings a fresh start after the previous academic year saw one challenge after another, including Hurricane Harvey, a budget deficient and the threat of a state takeover.

In advance of back-to-school, News 88.7 sat down with Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who’s served in the role since March, and talked about the biggest challenges for the new year.

Here are highlights from the conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

  • On Hurricane Harvey recovery: “We’ve rebounded in the fact that we were able to replenish a lot of the technology and supplies and materials that were lost as a result of Harvey. Some of our schools — Hilliard Elementary — is going back into their school and then we are rebuilding four schools. Our staff and our students and our parents, emotionally, still are suffering as it relates to the trauma. But we’re trying to provide those necessary resources through wrap-around specialists or counselors or social workers in our schools.”
  • On the threat of a state takeover due to chronically struggling schools: “Well, I don’t think it ever went away, truth be told. We are still hearing that that’s a possibility if we don’t continue to show progress at those schools. Whatever happens as it relates to from a state perspective, we will do what we need to do, though but right now our focus is on our children.”
  • On the district’s remaining struggling schools: “So, very confident those last little three to four schools that are struggling, that we have placed the right administrators there, we have the right teachers, we’re providing the necessary support … One of the things is those schools get priority status as it relates to whatever they need. And I’ll give you an example — One of our high schools, you know, we’re getting ready, we’re looking at their master schedules, we’ve added some additional support staff to make sure students are assigned to the correct courses … But we’re looking at what additional resources do we need to move those schools and to help improve student achievement.”
  • On continued state oversight from a conservator: “Well–I’m not going to say I agree or disagree. Here’s what I’m going to say. We are moving forward in HISD. We need to do a better job of governing ourselves as it relates to the resources that we allocate out to our schools. Do we need oversight to do that? Not necessarily. Did we encounter or have we encountered some problems in the past that have caused us to have to have oversight? Yes. And we can look at that based on the academic achievement of those schools. But I’ll say this year and in previous years, we’re showing that we’re heading in moving in the right direction. So if it’s oversight, that’s fine. With or without oversight, we’re going to do what we can for our children and for our schools.”
  • On the top challenges for this new school year:  “Oh, top three, of course, is our finances as it relates to recapture. You know, this year we’re going to send over $270 million back to Austin and we actually have to make a payment. Right now, if things continue the way they are, we’re going to be looking at cutting $54 million next June out of our budget. Number two is ensuring that we continue to provide the necessary educational opportunities for all of our students across the district. When you think about equity and fairness, we want students regardless of their ZIP code to have access. But, in order to have access to outstanding programming, you need to have funding to support it. So it goes back to my number one. And I’d say number three will still be competitive salaries —  definitely for our teachers and our administrators. We have a long way to go. We know we are not where we would like to be as a district and we had to make some hard decisions this year because of the fact that we had to cut items and finances out of our budget.”

 

 

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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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