As the Texas Education Agency’s takeover of Houston ISD drew near, the city’s liberal leaders warned that Gov. Greg Abbott would install new management pushing vouchers, charter schools and other Republican priorities.
Instead, HISD is getting a school board that’s more in the mold of Abbott’s education commissioner, Mike Morath.
A Houston Landing review of the newly appointed board’s political contributions, public statements and work history suggests the nine members likely will govern from the political center, avoiding education culture wars galvanizing the right and forgoing the preferred policies of union-aligned progressives on the left.
In doing so, they would mirror the blueprint set in recent years by Morath, who has largely forsaken political red meat while aggressively working to reshape how Texas public school districts operate.
Throughout his seven-year tenure as Abbott’s education chief, Morath’s administration has espoused equity-minded principles while employing more conservative-backed policies. He has prioritized research-driven literacy initiatives; defended standardized testing and data-driven accountability systems; supported systems designed to push higher-rated teachers into lower-rated campuses; and fostered charter school expansion.
Morath appointed the new board and Superintendent Mike Miles on June 1 as part of a set of punishing state sanctions largely resulting from Wheatley High School’s failure to meet state academic standards for seven straight years.
The board is responsible for setting HISD’s budget, monitoring student achievement, engaging with community stakeholders, holding the superintendent accountable, and establishing or changing policies. Under state law, Morath can replace appointed board members at any time.
The board’s makeup offers some reprieve to Democrats who predicted Abbott would stick HISD with conservative firebrands. It has also pleased some members of the city’s business class, who grew weary of the elected board’s in-fighting and ineffectiveness in recent years.
“It just strikes me that this is a group that will understand the purpose of and limits of the governance role on the board,” said Bob Harvey, CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, the region’s largest chamber of commerce and a supporter of the TEA’s intervention.
But the new board’s early embrace of Miles’ blueprint for shaking up large parts of the district — raising teacher pay, restructuring classroom responsibilities and cutting central administration positions, among other changes — has angered many progressive political leaders, educators and families. Critics also have publicly denounced the state’s takeover of HISD in its entirety, making for a series of heated public meetings marked by protests, heckling and other disruptions.
Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson, who leads the district’s largest employee union, said she believes Morath picked board members who would allow Miles to seamlessly implement his plans. Her organization generally opposes standardized testing and pay-for-performance systems, among other Morath-backed policies.
“We are concerned because we don’t think the board of managers is representative of the diversity of the district,” Anderson said. “These people are giving him authority to make decisions when they don’t understand the complexity of these issues.”
Texas Education Agency officials did not grant an interview request for this article. When he announced plans in March to replace HISD’s board and superintendent, Morath told the Landing that he “would prefer people who do not have ideological blinders, one way or another.”
“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 in March. “And this requires people that can think very, very clearly, that have an understanding of creating a culture of servant leadership and systems leadership.”
Reviewing the record
Many of HISD’s new board members are relatively new to education and politics, making it difficult to definitively discern their philosophies. HISD officials didn’t respond to requests to interview board members for this article.
But public data and background information sheds some light on their potential middle-of-the-road leanings.
Campaign finance records show four board members — Michelle Arnold Cruz, Janette Garza Lindner, Audrey Momanaee and Angela Lemond Flowers — have donated exclusively to Democratic candidates and political action committees on the federal and state level in the past five election cycles. Their contributions totaled $5,150.
The board’s biggest political benefactor during that time, real estate executive Ric Campo, has given the vast majority of his roughly $718,000 in contributions to Republicans, including $75,000 to Abbott’s campaign. He has also supported more moderate Democrats in recent years, most notably dedicating $32,000 to U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston, since 2019.
Another board member, entrepreneur Paula Mendoza, earmarked most of her nearly $15,000 in contributions for Democrats in recent election cycles — though she gave $3,500 to Abbott’s campaign in the late 2010s.
The Landing did not find records of the three remaining board members — Cassandra Auzenne Bandy, Rolando Martinez and Adam Rivon — making federal or state political contributions in recent years.
On the education front, three board members’ employment histories and public statements reflect approaches to education that align more closely with Morath than teacher unions.
When Garza Lindner ran for HISD trustee in 2021, a race she lost by 48 votes to union-backed incumbent Elizabeth Santos, her platform included placing HISD’s “most effective” teachers in struggling schools, a priority Miles immediately announced upon his appointment.
Garza Lindner also cited state standardized testing data as a window into student and teacher performance. Union leaders have consistently argued that standardized testing data is more indicative of a child’s socioeconomic status than academic performance.
Lemond Flowers, meanwhile, worked in recent years at Teach for America, an organization that places college graduates from non-education backgrounds in schools predominantly serving students from lower-income families. Some union advocates argue that Teach for America is too cozy with charter school operators and too often backs more-conservative education policies.
Cruz Arnold works as vice president of government relations and advocacy for the College Board, a nonprofit that develops SAT and Advanced Placement exams. She previously held similar roles with the TEA and Greater Houston Partnership.
The newly appointed board is notably devoid of staunchly union-aligned members, a stark contrast from recent HISD boards. As recently as 2018, union-endorsed candidates held eight out of the nine HISD board seats. That number had dropped to four prior to the board’s ouster.
On the same page
To date, the appointed board has publicly moved in lockstep with Miles, who generally shares Morath’s outlook on education policy. Miles served as the Dallas Independent School District’s superintendent from 2012 to 2015, overlapping with Morath’s time as a Dallas board member.
Mendoza said in early June that the board is “100 percent” behind Miles. Newly appointed board member Auzenne Bandy called Miles a “bold, no-nonsense, brave, courageous leader that doesn’t mind taking the heat.”
“It’s going to take someone like him. His record is proven,” Auzenne Bandy said. “It’s amazing some of the things he’s done, and we’re honored to have him as our superintendent. We believe in his vision.”
In the coming months and years, the HISD board and Miles will make consequential decisions about staffing, curriculum and school closures, among many other topics.
For now, Harvey said he’s pleased with the board’s approach and sees its arrival as an “honest” opportunity to heal a “highly fractured” community.
“Within a fairly short period of time, we may actually be providing quality education to kids in neighborhoods that have probably never had it, not in their lifetime,” Harvey said. “That’s pretty exciting.”
Jay Malone, the Texas Gulf Labor Federation’s political director, said there is “nothing progressive about overturning the will of voters,” despite how board members might regard their politics.
“If your stakeholders aren’t the community, if your stakeholders are Mike Morath, you’re going to act differently,” Malone said. “You’re no longer a ‘small-d Democrat’ when you do something like that.”