Published March 15, 2023
State education leaders notified the Houston Independent School District on Wednesday that they are resuming the process of stripping all power from the district’s elected school board and giving it to a soon-to-be appointed governance group – a long-anticipated move that faces strong opposition from many Houston-area politicians, educators and families.
The announcement, which largely stems from a state law mandating sanctions against districts with chronically low-rated campuses, follows a Texas Supreme Court ruling in January that lifted a temporary injunction blocking the elected board’s ouster. It now sets the stage for the largest state takeover of a public school district in modern American history, while also throwing the future of HISD into further doubt after years of board dysfunction and leadership upheaval.
READ MORE: HISD takeover, explained: Answering your questions about the TEA’s move
“In each of these cases, we have to look at what is in the best interest of students and what are the root causes that require state intervention in the first place,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said. “In this particular case, it’s about the leadership at the top. Making sure that we have a school board that is focused on ensuring that all kids in Houston, not just some kids in Houston, have access to great schools.”
The replacement governance team, known as a board of managers, will assume responsibility for setting HISD’s budget and districtwide policies, among other tasks. State leaders have not announced who will serve on the board of managers, though Morath told the Houston Landing this week that he expects to name replacements and transfer control to them no earlier than June 1.
Boards of managers in Texas historically have held power for roughly two to five years before transferring authority back to elected trustees. Morath said he sees no reason to expect the HISD board of managers’ reign would extend beyond that range.
Morath also confirmed that he plans to replace HISD Superintendent Millard House II – an authority given to him when appointing a board of managers – with a yet-to-be-named district leader once the replacement board takes power.
In a statement Wednesday, House said “it is education as usual, and the school year continues as normal.”
“As we wrap up this school year, my focus will be on working with our Board of Trustees and the TEA to ensure a smooth transition without disruption to our core mission of providing an exceptional educational experience for all students,” House said.
The state’s planned takeover is primarily tied to a state law passed in 2015 with bipartisan support. The law mandates one of two sanctions – the appointment of a board of managers or closure of low-rated campuses – in any district with a school that fails to meet state academic standards for five straight years. HISD’s Wheatley High School triggered that law in 2019 when it received its seventh consecutive failing grade.
In moving to replace HISD’s elected board, Morath also cited the seven-year presence of a state-appointed conservator in the district. The TEA dispatches conservators to help guide changes in a district, but state law gives Morath the option to appoint a board of managers if the conservator’s tenure lasts longer than two years.
Morath did not cite the results of a 2019 investigation that found multiple instances of trustee misconduct, such as violations of Texas’ open meetings laws and improper attempts to steer vendor contracts, in his notice to HISD on Wednesday. Morath previously argued that the investigative findings warranted the appointment of a board of managers.
Many Houston-area leaders and residents, however, argue that state officials should not be stripping their democratic right to elect school board members – particularly in light of HISD’s recent performance.
READ MORE: A full transcript of the Houston Landing’s interview with Mike Morath
HISD scored a districtwide B rating under Texas’ academic accountability system last year, Wheatley notched a C grade in 2022 and the district remains on solid financial footing. In addition, nearly all the school board members accused of misconduct have since lost their reelection bids or opted against running again.
The state’s intervention also carries stark political and racial overtones, which have simmered for years amid the threat of takeover. The HISD board and the local legislative delegation are predominantly Democratic and people of color, while Morath’s boss, Gov. Greg Abbott, is a Republican who has championed “parents’ rights.”
“We are incredibly disappointed with this outcome despite all of the evidence showing HISD’s improvement in performance,” the Texas Legislative Black Caucus said in a statement Wednesday. “With that being said, we want to ensure the people that we will not give up so easily and that we will continue to pursue all options at this time, including legislation.”
Despite the local opposition, Morath said he is legally required to install a board of managers or close Wheatley, even after the school’s recent passing grade. Morath has consistently argued that shuttering the Greater Fifth Ward campus does not address the causes of the school’s past struggles.
Morath said state officials will soon reboot their process for identifying replacement board members, an undertaking they began in late 2019 before the issuance of a court injunction.
TEA officials announced Wednesday that they will hold at least four community information meetings later this month, with the locations and times to be determined. State leaders also posted an online application for those interested in applying to join the board. The application deadline is April 6.
Morath reiterated a commitment to appointing a replacement board composed of HISD residents, and added that he would “prefer people who do not have ideological blinders, one way or the other.”
“They need to come in with wisdom and eyes wide open and make decisions in a very complex environment that are in the best interest of kids,” Morath said. “And this requires people that can think very, very clearly. That have an understanding of creating a culture of servant leadership and systems leadership. There’s not any specific agenda other than what is in the best interest of kids that we want to see pursued.”
However, hundreds of attendees at several recent protests opposing the takeover have voiced fears about Abbott’s education commissioner appointing managers who will push for charter school expansion and other policies favored by Republicans.
“Ultimately, I am really confused about what the end game is for Morath and Abbott,” state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said earlier this month. “If your objective is to make sure schools are run correctly, this is not the right way to do it. The takeover of school districts in the past, in my experience, have been school districts that are completely dysfunctional.”
ONLINE: Read the full letter from Morath to Houston ISD
Ultimately, the appointed board will have some incentive to implement policies that curry favor with local residents. If the board of managers defies the popular consensus in HISD on major issues, the elected board could immediately reverse those decisions upon retaking power in the coming years – a scenario that would cause even more disruption in a district craving stability. Morath said he expects the replacement board to remain engaged with HISD residents, leaders and trustees.
Elected board members will retain their seats, though they will not hold any power. Board elections will continue uninterrupted, with four races still scheduled for November.
“We don’t know who’s going to be on the board of managers, what connections they will have to the community, so I’ll be making sure they have somebody letting them know what the community wants and playing an advisory role,” HISD Board President Dani Hernandez said.
‘It’s not permanent’
The board of managers will arrive in HISD during a period of relative calm in the volatile district – albeit with some heady directives from Morath.
After multiple years of bitter battles between trustees, the board has – at least publicly – set aside some of the animosity that tarnished its reputation in the late 2010s.
HISD also benefited from some consistency atop the district with House, who has served as superintendent since mid-2021. The district previously grappled with leadership problems during the abnormally long three-year interim superintendency of Grenita Lathan, who operated under a fractured board and the constant threat of state takeover.
What’s more, HISD’s overall academic standing is better than many of its Texas peers, including Dallas and Austin ISDs, according to the state’s accountability system. Notably, the district only had nine campuses scoring in the D or F range last year, down from 50 in 2019. (Texas schools with D or F scores did not receive an official rating last year, due to the pandemic.)
Nevertheless, Morath identified three long-standing issues that he wants the board of managers to address. He said some low-scoring campuses still need more support; the district’s special education department needs to get in “full compliance” with state and federal laws; and the board must be “consistently focused on improving student outcomes and not something else.”
“This is certainly temporary. It’s not permanent,” Morath said. “We just want to ensure that the underlying structural factors that required this action in the first place are addressed.”
Whether an appointed board can finally resolve those persistent challenges remains to be seen.
To date, the TEA has only installed a board of managers in one district remotely close in size to HISD: El Paso ISD. In that case, the appointed board primarily stabilized the district’s leadership after a seismic cheating scandal ensnared board members and top administrators. El Paso ISD’s state standardized test scores rose during the board of managers’ two-year tenure, but only at a rate identical to the rest of the state.