Superintendent Millard House II said goodbye Tuesday night to the Houston Independent School District in his final public address as leader of the largest public school system in Texas.
"You all have proven that you are capable of great things," he told graduating seniors at the commencement ceremony for Carnegie Vanguard High School's Class of 2023. "Even as superintendent, there are days where life takes a turn, and I wonder if I am on the hidden camera show at times — because it feels like a reality show, from time to time. You all are students that can make a difference, but it’s important that you go out and make that difference for yourself."
The Texas Education Agency is expected to replace him along with Houston ISD's nine elected school board members on Thursday, due to alleged illegal behavior by the previous school board as well as the year-after-year failure of Wheatley High School to meet state standards prior to 2019.
Throughout his two-year tenure with the district, the specter of a state takeover lurked in the background. He was hired about two years after a divided school board, in a deeply controversial decision, narrowly ousted interim superintendent Grenita Lathan (they subsequently reversed that move). That dysfunction was part of the reason the TEA attempted to takeover the district in 2019 — a move that was delayed in court until this year. Only two trustees who were on the board at the time are still in office.
Under House, the district pulled dozens of campuses from the lowest rungs of the TEA's school-ratings system. Only nine campuses failed to meet state standards in the 2022 school year, compared to more than 40 in 2019.
During the commencement speech, he recounted a story about his struggles with reading and speaking as a child.
"I remember being a student with exceptional needs and struggling with dyslexia and what was called a tongue thrust, which caused me to have some issues," he recalled. "I was frustrated with myself and often felt like I was not enough for what society needed. Something as common as reading aloud sent this fear through me, and I would often hide during class just to avoid those moments."
He's shared the story several times over the past two years. He often wraps up the story by encouraging audiences — from young children at Bruce Elementary in Houston's Fifth Ward to young adults graduating from Carnegie Vanguard — to persevere through challenges.
"Nearly two years ago, when I accepted the position of Superintendent here in HISD, there were several obstacles that our students were facing," he said. "But I knew that we could come in and work together to overcome many of them. You all are a shining example of the perseverance, as well as the family members that you all have had to support you ... Life will throw some curveballs. We can always bank on that. But I challenge you to catch that ball and throw it back."
House's tenure wasn't without controversy. In late 2022, Houston ISD announced it would shutter a beloved program for profoundly disabled students at T.H. Rogers School. House initially blamed the TEA for the move, but the district later walked back its decision.
He also released a 5-year strategic plan that some elected school board trustees felt was disconnected from their own goals for the district. That feeling continued when the administration suggested slashes to funding for schools this year in an attempt to head off a growing deficit related to declining enrollment, but House ultimately dropped the proposal after trustees pushed back.
During a training for Board of Manager candidates in April, former TEA Deputy Commissioner A.J. Crabill argued that "House basically ignored the board's goals."
"With, frankly, the compliance of a board majority at the time," Crabill continued. "But there are board members who pitched a holy fit, as well they should have, because it’s not the job of superintendents to represent the visions and values of the community."
"That’s a true statement," trustee Sue Diegaard said.
"This isn’t just Millard. A lot of districts do this because their board doesn’t actually have any goals for the district," she said. "We're just putting all these strategies in the 79-page plan, but what are we doing and how are we doing them? What’s the plan to fund them? Where are we implementing them? ... There’s a lot of content there, a lot of questions board members asked that there weren’t answers to."
In response to an interview request one week before the takeover, a Houston ISD spokesperson wrote "As of now, the Superintendent will not have any interviews scheduled."
In the leadup to June 1, House has been widely praised.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted last week that House "improved the academic performance of the schools that needed attention."
"I want to thank him and apologize to him for how the State treated him," he continued.
Union president Jackie Anderson, with the Houston Federation of Teachers, called him "one of our district's best superintendents."
Turner and others have claimed that the TEA has already selected former Dallas ISD superintendent and current charter school network executive Mike Miles to replace House. Miles hasn't responded to requests for comment, and the TEA has declined to confirm or deny the rumor. The agency says it will announce the new superintendent and the Board of Managers "on or around" June 1.