Hours after more than 100 people read books while sitting cross-legged on the floor of Houston ISD’s headquarters, protesting Superintendent Mike Miles’ dismissal of dozens of librarians, the district’s appointed school board unanimously voted Thursday to give the new schools chief more power.

The votes, carried out in a meeting filled with jeers, marked some of the board’s first official decisions signaling their intention to clear the way for Miles to carry out his overhaul of the district with fewer roadblocks.

The slate of new policies approved by the board includes increasing the amount of money the superintendent can spend without board approval from $100,000 to $1 million and scaling back the number of required meetings with union leadership over working conditions. The board also gave Miles the ability to alter magnet programs at 85 campuses and waive requirements on principal qualifications districtwide.

Several board members and Miles have said the changes streamline decision-making and allow the district to govern more efficiently. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath appointed HISD’s new board and superintendent in June as part of state sanctions against the district.

The votes, however, stung for protesters who participated in a “read-in” demonstration before the meeting, organized by grassroots groups Community Voices for Public Education and Students Need Libraries. 

Many attendees turned their back to Miles and the board during the meeting, jeering in protest while holding up signs and books. Miles is eliminating librarians at dozens of schools participating in his campus turnaround model, arguing that the money can be better spent elsewhere.

“It just feels like the community is being ignored,” said HISD grandparent and protester Coretta Fontenot, as she held a novel written by a Houston author. “It feels very authoritarian.” 

Several of the approved policies were walked-back versions of proposed policy changes that Miles put forward last week. More than a dozen community members and one board member questioned the broad scope of the changes at a prior public meeting.

Of measures approved Thursday, the ten-fold increase in the superintendent’s purchasing power was among the most contentious. 

Board member Adam Rivon said the $1 million limit is “reasonable in regard to oversight from the board.” The board did vote to add a requirement, proposed by board member Ronaldo Martinez, that requires Miles to report new contracts between $250,000 and $1 million to the board quarterly. 

From left, Houston ISD board members Ric Campo, Rolando Martinez and Paula Mendoza vote to require that HISD Superintendent Mike Miles report new contracts between $250,000 and $1 million to the board quarterly during a meeting Thursday at the district’s headquarters in northwest Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

“When I’ve spoken to communities, it’s been helpful for me to have these things,” Martinez said. 

Still, the amendment wasn’t enough for some community members, who blasted the move to broaden Miles’ authority. Former HISD teacher Stephanie Myers said the board’s unanimous vote shows the board isn’t holding the superintendent accountable and isn’t representative of the community. 

“We don’t need a rubber stamp,” Myers said. “They can ask as many good questions as they want. … They just gave him more power than any other superintendent in America.”

The board also voted to loosen the administration’s requirement to consult with union leaders before making changes to labor practices and approved dialing back meetings between Miles’ administration and union officials from monthly to quarterly. A previous version of the proposed policy removed the requirement entirely, which drew backlash from local union groups. 

Houston Federation of Teachers Vice President Daniel Santos said the softened version of the policy change is still unacceptable because the organizations’ input is “vital.”

Board members also voted to approve an addition to district magnet program policy, giving Miles authority to modify magnet programs in the 85 schools undergoing the most significant overhaul this year. For months, parents have peppered Miles with questions about the future of their schools’ magnet programs, many wondering if the superintendent will change their campus’ offering.  

HISD policy states that the board must approve major changes to magnet programs, but Thursday’s vote gives Miles that power at the select schools. Miles has repeatedly said he will try to accommodate magnet programs with his DYAD initiative, in which community members contract with HISD to teach elective-like courses. 

The board does not have any more scheduled regular meetings before school starts Aug. 28.

 With just a few weeks before classrooms reopen, students attending the protest said the changes have them on edge.

Seventh-grader Eliana Gottlieb, who attends Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School, said she went to the board meeting because the changes to libraries made her want to “punch somebody.” The new policies will not impact her school this year, but she worries about what may be to come.

“I don’t know when they’re going to continue making these decisions and I don’t know if it’s going to be, like, next year or if it’s going to be in a week,” she said. “So it’s just a little anxiety-inducing.”

Students, parents and educators experience schools everyday — and we want to hear what you think. Reach the Houston Landing education team at asher@houstonlanding.org and miranda@houstonlanding.org with your questions and tips.

Update, Aug. 11, 9:10 a.m.: This story has been updated to include an additional organizer of the read-in protest.

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Miranda Dunlap is a reporter covering K-12 schools across the eight-county Greater Houston region. A painfully Midwestern native to Michigan’s capital region, Miranda studied political science pre-law...

Asher Lehrer-Small is a K-12 education reporter for the Houston Landing. He previously spent three years covering schools for The 74 where he was recognized by the Education Writers Association as one...