New Houston ISD board reviews budget, magnet schools in public meeting with access challenges

The board itself discussed the proposed 2.2 billion-dollar budget for the upcoming year and plans to vote on it June 22.

HISD Boardroom
Rebecca Noel/Houston Public Media
The meeting room was only half full with public attendees, while others demanded to be let in, right outside the doors.

The HISD board of managers held its second public meeting Thursday, with a physical setup that many attendees complained was exclusive. The board itself discussed the proposed 2.2 billion-dollar budget for the upcoming year and plans to vote on it June 22.

In contrast with the previous meeting, the boardroom was split in half, with one side taken up by a roundtable for the board's discussion. Less than 30 audience members were permitted to sit in the boardroom itself, while the rest were funneled into an adjacent overflow room where speakers addressed the board via Zoom.

As the meeting got underway, shouts of "Let us in!" could be heard from outside the boardroom, where attendees were clamoring at the doors as board president Audrey Momanaee called the meeting to order. Two community members were reportedly detained by HISD officers at the scene, though HISD has not confirmed the report.

State representative and former HISD trustee Jolanda Jones was among those in the boardroom and the first to speak during public comment. She echoed the sentiment shared by many outside.

"I'm rarely at a loss for words," Jones said. "You're not going to get the support of the community, including myself and others, until you meaningfully include the public. This is disrespectful... You have empty seats here, and there are people outside."

Momanaee said in a press conference following the meeting that the setup was intended to create an environment more conducive to the board's discussion.

State-appointed superintendent Mike Miles again was absent during public comment, though he said he watched online.

"We think that's a good way for the focus to be on the board, rather than anything I'm doing," said Miles. "It's the board's meeting, and the questions should be for the board."

He denied the notion that he arrived after public comment in order to dodge answering to those in attendance. "I'll face any music I have to face," he said, pointing out that he met briefly outside the building with parents from Pugh Elementary after public comment was over.

Budget Discussion

During the board meeting itself, Miles reviewed his plans for funding his proposed initiatives in the district as well as presented recommendations for how money could be saved.

Miles's reforms are projected to cost almost $107 million, while Miles's proposed spending cuts would save the district approximately $105 million.

Historically, HISD funded schools, in part, on how many students met attendance requirements. During the pandemic, the district has placed what’s called a “hold harmless” provision on its school funding model, making funding based solely on how many students are enrolled, even if they are frequently absent.

With federal ESSER funds from the pandemic running out, Miles was expected by some to ask for a return to attendance-based funding — a move which would contradict the stance of the ousted elected school board.

Former HISD trustee Sue Deigaard has said since the HISD school board was ousted that she now might be okay with the hold harmless cuts. She previously had a problem since she felt there wasn't a broader strategy.

"I don't disagree with them ending hold harmless," she said prior to Thursday's meeting. "I have a problem with a budget where the strategy hasn't been articulated."

Diegaard also said no one on the board of managers has yet reached out to her for advice, despite the TEA saying the elected board would have an advisory capacity.

At Thursday's meeting, Miles called for the preservation of hold harmless, for now.

“I’m recommending that we not change it," he said. "The pro of that is that we have less disruption because the budget’s already made."

However, with $317 million in ESSER funds running out in September 2024, he warned the provision may need to be lifted in the future.

"If we do nothing different, then we will reach a fiscal cliff," he said.

Instead, Miles proposed large cuts to central office staff and vendor contracts. In the 2017-2018 school year, 9% of the district's expenditures went toward vendor contracts. "That's way too high," said Miles.

Miles said the district will not end contracts with vendors that are necessary for schools, such as physical therapists and mental health counselors.

After the meeting, Diegaard said she was reassured. The elected board, in general, is split over Miles's reforms. Bridget Wade, Judith Cruz, Dani Hernandez and Sue Diegaard wrote an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle this week calling for the community to give the new leadership a chance.

Trustee Kathy Blueford Daniels, who represents many of the Northeast Houston schools facing reforms, has criticized the changes, arguing they will deepen inequality. Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who represents North Houston, is also skeptical of the test-heavy teacher evaluations and performance based pay.

“It’s recycled,” Santos argued. “It’s nothing that we haven’t seen before, but this is a whole other level of ridiculousness. It is going to be ineffective and not financially sustainable, nor is it going to be sustainable through human talent.”

Magnet Programs

One item on the meeting's agenda pertained to waiving the requirement for changes to magnet programs in the district to receive board approval.

Miles said this was intended to expedite the process of transitioning several schools that have magnet programs into the New Education System program Miles intends to roll out this coming school year. Twelve of the 29 NES schools are magnet schools.

While the 12 schools themselves will no longer be magnet schools, Miles said "I think most of those programs would be easily adaptable to the NES schedule." However, he said he will still need to meet with the principal of each campus before he can specifically verify which programs will remain in place in those schools.

He clarified that parents who have enrolled their children in out-of-zone magnet schools that are not part of the NES program will still be able to send their children to those schools.

Miles says magnet schools that are not part of the NES program will be unaffected.

The board's next meeting, where the matters discussed Thursday will be put to a vote, will be held at 5:30 p.m. on June 22.

Dominic Anthony Walsh contributed to this report.