The state's education commissioner has notified the Houston Independent School District he’s moving to strip the nine-member board of its elected powers, a move that was widely expected but still marks an unprecedented takeover of the state’s largest school district.
In a Nov. 6 letter to the HISD board president and interim superintendent, Education Commissioner Mike Morath laid out why he's decided to replace the HISD board with outside, appointed managers.
First, he cited the special investigation into board misconduct that found multiple board members violated state rules and intervened in vendor contracts.
He also pointed to the chronic failing grades at Wheatley High School — which had received seven failing grades in a row — and the ongoing, long-term oversight from a state conservator as further evidence for the tough sanction.
In addition, Morath said he's lowering HISD's accreditation status to “warned.”
“Given the inability of the board of trustees to govern the district, these sanctions are necessary to protect the best interests of the district’s current and future students,” Morath wrote.
He added that instead of holding private meetings outside of the state’s required open meetings, the “board members should have focused on implementing effective change to improve the performance of students in the district’s low performing campuses. The board of trustees failed to do so.”
In response, the current Houston school board president, Diana Dávila, said voters have spoken and newly-elected trustees should have a chance to represent the voices of the people.
“I’m a firm believer of democracy no matter the outcome,” Dávila said.
Four of the nine seats on the HISD board were up for election this November. Two newcomers were elected to replace incumbents, Dávila and Sergio Lira, who were both implicated in the special investigation, while two other open races are headed to a run-off, which is expected to continue despite the pending sanction.
In a statement, HISD confirmed they’ve received the enforcement letter from the commissioner.
“We want to assure our students, parents, staff, and community members that our primary focus will continue to be the education and success of our students,” the district wrote.
According to agency rules, HISD will have a chance for a formal review of this sanction before the commissioner’s decision takes effect.
Still, the Texas Education Agency has already posted the application for any HISD resident to apply to join the board of managers.
The threat of a state takeover has loomed over the Houston district for over two years, because a state law can trigger a board of managers if even just one school chronically fails state standards. That threat has grown in the past year, since the HISD board abruptly fired the interim superintendent, Grenita Lathan, last October, which led to the special investigation into board governance.
Some business leaders in the region have actively called for the commissioner to intervene, notably the Greater Houston Partnership.
"A board of managers offers an opportunity to reset the culture of governance at HISD and lift the entire system,” Bob Harvey, the partnership’s president, said in a statement. “We think the board's long-term failure to consistently support every student warrants new leadership. This issue is bigger than any one school, and a temporary board of managers gives HISD the opportunity for a fresh start.”
HISD parent Heather Golden, who manages a parent advocacy group online and has two children enrolled in the district, said it’s unfortunate HISD is in this position and hopes the district can return to a democratically elected board soon. Golden said she hopes an appointed board of managers reflects the diverse Houston community and different stakeholders who make up HISD.
“Ultimately, I want students to have the opportunity to learn and grow in a way that they deserve,” she said.
Others have warned against this measure. Earlier this spring, a group of parents, teachers and elected officials rallied outside of the HISD headquarters to try and keep local control.
“This is a disappointing and sad period in HISD,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, in an email.
Capo said what’s lost in the news of the state takeover is that HISD came very close to earning an “A” grade from the state in the latest school report cards.
“Our students and our educators work hard and deserve better than this. Better support from a state who starved our schools for years, better than elected officials more concerned about who sits in the superintendent seat than who sits at the desks in our classrooms,” Capo wrote. “There are more politicians than just the trustees that need to be taken over and held accountable for where we are today.”