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Houston ISD elected trustees sworn in at unusual ceremony. When could they regain power?

The elected school board for Houston’s public school system lost policy-making power to a state-appointed management board in June. Two incumbents and two newcomers still sought office. 

Dani Hernandez after taking her oath.
Dominic Anthony Walsh/Houston Public Media
Dani Hernandez after taking her oath.

In a non-public meeting on Thursday, four Houstonians swore to "faithfully execute the duties of the office of trustee for the Board of Education of the Houston Independent School District." Over their four-year terms, they probably won't have many actual duties to execute.

The four trustees include returning incumbents Dani Hernandez and Patricia Allen, who won their elections in November, as well as newcomers Plácido Gómez and Savant Moore, who ran unopposed. In June, the Texas Education Agency replaced Hernandez, Allen and the other seven elected trustees — including Gómez and Moore's predecessors, Judith Cruz and Kathy Blueford Daniels — with a handpicked Board of Managers, who hold complete control over the district.

Hernandez, who represents District 3 in Southeast Houston, wanted to remain on the elected board despite its lack of power.

"There needs to be somebody on the board with experience of what was happening before and what is happening currently," Hernandez said. "So that when the power is given back to the elected board, there’s somebody that understands what’s going on and that has been a voice for the community at the same time."

An unusual swearing-in

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Unlike previous swearing-in ceremonies, the district did not notify the public ahead of time. In response to an inquiry from Houston Public Media, a Houston ISD spokesperson said "This is not a public meeting, and, as such, no public announcement has been posted. Family members and close relatives of the trustees will attend, and the event will remain open to visitors unless the room reaches its maximum capacity."

On Thursday afternoon, trustees, family members and community advocates filled a conference room in the Houston ISD admin building, just down the hall from the larger room where the board usually conducts business, including swearing-ins.

savant moore, kbd far left
Dominic Anthony Walsh/Houston Public Media
Kathy Blueford Daniels films while her successor, Savant Moore, is sworn in.

According to comments from the TEA prior to the takeover, the elected board no longer has obligations under the state's open meetings laws, which require that elected officials meet in public with advance notice. When the TEA-appointed management board was sworn in during a closed-door ceremony on June 1, the oaths were taken individually by each manager to avoid violating that requirement.

Rifts on the elected board

Savant Moore now represents District 2, which covers Northeast Houston where many campuses face changes this year. His predecessor, Blueford Daniels, was an outspoken critic of the sweeping reform program implemented by TEA-appointed superintendent Mike Miles. She was also the only trustee who voted against ending litigation to stop the takeover after the Supreme Court of Texas sided with the TEA in its three-year battle for control.

"I live in Fifth Ward," Moore said. "We do live in a food desert. How many grocery stores are there? We also live in a broadband desert. These children don’t have Wi-Fi access to do their work. There’s also socio-economic issues. People don’t have that income."

Recently, Blueford Daniels has been critical of the new administration's decision to concentrate social services for homeless students into eight Sunrise Centers across the district. Like Blueford Daniels, Moore also called for a buildup of those resources at each campus.

"I know there’s a Sunrise Center, but there’s a transportation issue," Moore said. "They may not be able to get to the Sunrise Center, so we need to reach them at the school."

Long-standing differences among the elected board became more apparent after Miles launched his reform plan. Returning trustee Patricia Allen — whose District 4 stretches out across the southern part of the city — along with Myrna Guidry and Elizabeth Santos also criticized aspects of the reform program.

Asked how she feels about superintendent Mike Miles, Allen remained less than enthusiastic on Thursday.

"I feel Mike Miles is the superintendent," she said.

patricia allen and mother, rep alma allen
Dominic Anthony Walsh/Houston Public Media
Trustee Patricia Allen is sworn in by her mother, State Rep. Alma Allen.

Allen also pushed back on the management board's willingness to approve whatever Miles asks for. So far, the board has greenlit every administration-proposed policy, although managers have amended certain changes — like giving Miles authority to spend up to a $1 million without board approval after he initially asked for a $2 million limit.

"They seem to rubber stamp everything that the superintendent says," Allen said. "I know as a trustee, we have to consider the neighborhoods that voted us in and how they feel. We’re supposed to be the vision and the beliefs of the neighborhood."

After Miles took office, Hernandez and three other trustees wrote an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle calling for Houstonians to give the new administration a chance. Over six months later, Hernandez said she's mostly happy with the reforms.

"I’m excited to see that there are changes that focus on student achievement and closing the achievement gap, especially in our schools that have been historically underachieving," Hernandez said. "Not all changes are positive. There’s a lot of gray in between what’s happening — whether people like them or don’t like them — but only time will tell whether those changes are positive."

This month, outgoing trustee Judith Cruz penned another op-ed praising the "unwavering pace" of instruction she saw in the reformed schools as well as the management board's "bold goals" for student test scores.

Cruz's old district — D8, which runs just west of downtown through Houston's East End — is now represented by Plácido Gómez, who said the district doesn't need to choose between social support and academic progress.

"I think it’s incumbent upon everybody to recognize that we all want the same thing for students for them to succeed, and particularly for students from low-income backgrounds," Gómez said. "The best way we can make that happen is for everybody to work together."

placido gomez
Dominic Anthony Walsh/Houston Public Media
New Houston ISD trustee Plácido Gómez takes the oath of office.

The divides over the reforms represent conflicting philosophies about the purpose and potential of public education in a deeply unequal city.

Trustees in the areas where more schools struggled with state standards — and now face the most drastic changes — tended to oppose the top-down approach to change, the reduction in teacher autonomy and the focus on student test scores. They generally argued standardized test results are more representative of income and wealth inequality outside the classroom than the quality of the schools themselves. Other trustees have tended to place education among the greatest equalizing forces in society, arguing alongside Miles that "high-quality instruction" is the most significant factor in long-term outcomes for students.

When will Houstonians regain local control of their public schools?

According to guidance from the Texas Education Agency, Houston ISD must check three boxes before the transition back to local control can begin: all schools must consistently meet state standards, the district must achieve full compliance with laws protecting students who receive special education services, and the TEA-appointed management board must adhere to the agency's "Lone Star Governance" approach to running the district.

The actual timeline remains in the air, but Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath will have a decision to make in June, 2025: extend the management board's tenure by up to another two years, or announce a transition timeline.

In the first year of the transition to local control, three elected trustees will regain policy-making power while six TEA-appointed managers remain in place. In year two, six elected trustees sit on the board while three managers stay, and Houston voters regain local control in year three.

When asked how Morath will select which elected trustees regain power at each stage, a TEA spokesperson pointed to state law that gives him power to choose. If Morath declines to make a choice, "the trustees elected in an election following each of the last three years of the board of managers’ appointment, as determined by the commissioner, shall replace the designated members of the board of managers."

Under the fastest version of the timeline, the earliest possible date that elected trustees could hold majority power on the Houston ISD school board is June 1, 2026. The actual timeline will likely be longer. TEA revamped its state standards last year, prompting more than a hundred districts across the state to sue the agency. If implemented, Houston ISD would have more than 100 campuses that fell short of the more stringent standards last school year, according to Miles, compared to less than 10 the prior year. Special education compliance — the second exit criteria for the management board — has long been an issue for the state's largest school district, and the Texas Legislature failed to fix an outdated special ed funding formula last year. Miles has said he expects the TEA-appointed board to hold power for up to six years.