While many of her Houston ISD colleagues were decompressing after a long year, Northside High School teacher Sarah Rivlin’s summer revolved around school.

As a member of the grassroots group Community Voices for Public Education, Rivlin’s three months outside of the classroom were punctuated with protests, school board meetings and advocacy events — so many that she stopped keeping count. Her goal: getting HISD’s new superintendent and board to stop their plans for making huge changes rattling the district.

“I don’t think Houston is going to take this sitting down,” she said. “We have a huge number of people who are really in it, ready to fight.”

As HISD Superintendent Mike Miles and board members have rapidly introduced drastic changes since they were appointed to lead the district in June, some parents, teachers, students and local organizations have pushed back against their plans at nearly every turn. Through protests, “read-in” demonstrations and heated public comments during school board meetings, Miles’ critics have called on him to retract policies they view as harmful to students and teachers. 

So far, it’s not amounting to much change. 

Amid community backlash and national headlines, HISD’s new leadership has pushed ahead with their preferred strategies for overhauling schools across HISD, walking back only a few relatively smaller aspects of plans in response to local feedback. 

With the backing of board members, Miles is dramatically reshaping operations at dozens of schools, restructuring HISD’s central office and instituting new performance pay systems. The former charter school chief has argued the changes are necessary to raise student achievement in the district, where more than half of students are not scoring at grade level in math and reading on state tests.

It’s difficult to gauge the districtwide level of support for Miles’ vision given the size and diversity of HISD. Miles has argued those opposed to his vision represent a small portion of the district, which serves about 180,000 students and employs nearly 25,000 people.

“You have people who don’t want to change, you have people who want to naysay, you have people who would rather sit on the sidelines and criticize,” Miles said. “I’m not dismissing large groups of criticisms or comments, but there are 11,000 teachers, and so even if 20 of them said negative things, that doesn’t make it a trend, that doesn’t make it the average, that doesn’t make it what actually happened.”

But at least publicly, the vocal opponents have far outnumbered the supporters. 

The Houston Federation of Teachers, which has about 6,000 members, and other unions totaling thousands of members have denounced Miles’ plans. So have top political leaders elected by the HISD community, as well several grassroots groups. At public events, a fractional minority of speakers have backed the changes.

For critics of HISD’s new superintendent and board, the feedback doesn’t seem to be influencing behavior. Dee Harris, the grandmother of students at Waltrip High School and Garden Oaks Montessori, said district leaders “are not listening” to the HISD community. 

“I feel like they came in with a plan, and they’re not gonna stop until they do what they’ve come to do,” Harris said.

Ultimately, Miles and the unelected board are accountable to one person — Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who appointed them and can essentially remove them at any time — rather than HISD voters.

Heard, but listening?

When Morath appointed Miles and the new board in June —  sanctions largely tied to chronically poor academic scores at Wheatley High School — the district’s new leaders said they would prioritize learning what matters to the community. 

They pledged to gather input from families, educators, local organizations and HISD’s elected trustees — though Miles warned that his administration would move quickly to implement changes he supported.

“This is not a traditional superintendent coming in where you do a listening tour for three or four months and then wait another six months to release a strategic plan,” Miles said upon his appointment. “Kids don’t have a year for us to figure out what to do. You need a superintendent who knows what to do and how to improve schools.”

Miles and board members held community meetings at about a dozen schools in recent weeks, presenting their plans and answering questions. 

Often, those in attendance bombarded them with criticism. Opponents have been particularly critical of Miles’ drastic changes to the classroom setting, the elimination of librarians on dozens of campuses and the board’s move to give the superintendent more authority to make changes faster. 

“It’s full steam ahead. They’re not listening,” Harris said.

Although the public comment portions of meetings and online discourse overwhelmingly produce condemnations of HISD’s new leaders, some board members have said the community feedback is less negative in other, less-public venues.

Board member Michelle Cruz Arnold said she has received positive encouragement and suggestions from community members in one-on-one conversations after public events.

Appointed Houston ISD board member Michelle Cruz Arnold speaks to attendees during a community engagement session Wednesday at Deady Middle School on the district’s southeast side. (Annie Mulligan for Houston Landing)

“We’ve had people come to us separately, or in a smaller meeting, (to) express their excitement — in part because they don’t feel comfortable doing it in the board setting,” Cruz Arnold said. 

“We’ve had a couple people tell us that they were worried about how their comments would be perceived by the rest of the people at the board meeting, because it would be contrary to many of the people that were testifying.”

The appointed board members are hosting several more community meetings at schools this month. But beyond the public meetings, the full extent of the board’s engagement with those embedded in HISD’s lower-income neighborhoods isn’t clear. Seven of the nine board members live in more affluent areas of the district.

In an early September interview, Cruz Arnold could not name any community groups with which she’s met. Cruz Arnold said she’s met with one of HISD’s nine elected board members, Bridget Wade, whose trustee district largely covers higher-income parts of HISD. Cruz Arnold noted other board members have connected with trustees during meetings she didn’t attend. (HISD’s elected trustees technically remain in office, but they have been stripped of all authority.) 

In an early August interview, board member Ric Campo said he and some colleagues planned to coordinate meetings with organizations such as the Greater Houston Partnership, the Kinder Foundation and BakerRipley. The Greater Houston Partnership, which is the region’s largest chamber of commerce, has been a vocal supporter of Miles and the appointed board.

Elected HISD Trustee Judith Cruz, who urged the community in June to give HISD’s new leadership a chance, said she and her colleagues have had a lesser and more informal role than they expected following their ouster. In an interview with the Houston Landing in March, Morath said “we want to make sure that we have done everything to ensure the voice of the elected individuals are there at the table throughout this process.”

While she’s had phone calls and meetings with a “handful” of appointed board members, the transition between the two boards lacked any formal structure or planning, she said. 

“Even if I’m not being reached out to, I am reaching out to them,” Cruz said. “Had there been an actual transition plan with the trustees and the appointed board, I think there could have been (a stronger relationship). … It was just like a complete wipe off of what was there.”

An unwavering vision

Regardless of the amount of feedback given to date, Miles and board members have appeared committed to their plans for overhauling HISD.

The superintendent and board have largely stuck with a 200-plus page plan that Miles drafted before his tenure began. Miles previously deployed many of the strategies in his previous roles as a charter school leader and superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District.

When HISD leaders have backtracked amid public criticism, the changes have been relatively minor or under duress from other government officials. 

Most notably, Miles increased the amount of recess time he scheduled at elementary schools and scrapped plans for implementing his new teacher evaluation system this year amid a lawsuit. HISD board members also softened a plan to give Miles’ administration more financial authority, cutting a planned limit on spending without board approval from $2 million to $1 million.

As a result, some community members have labeled the board as a rubber stamp for Miles and Morath, who share a similar vision on education policy, rather than a representative body.

Campo said the absence of elections will make the HISD board more effective, giving them more latitude to make unpopular decisions that ultimately help students. In recent years, HISD trustees have faced heat for embarrassing episodes of in-fighting and a failure to better support students in long-struggling schools.

“The good news with us, with the board of managers, there’s no politics. I’m not running for anything,” Campo said. “Our debates are not going to be political divides.” 

Cruz Arnold said the board has applied community feedback when considering votes on key issues during board meetings.

“If anyone wonders, ‘Does emailing the board make a difference?’ I would say, absolutely, because when we get 100 emails about a board policy proposal, it’s hard to ignore that,” Cruz Arnold said.

While critics of the state-appointed leadership haven’t had much success in staving off Miles’ plans, advocates say their efforts have other positive consequences. Michelle Williams, president of the Houston Education Association union, said HISD teachers have banded together while pushing back against Miles’ changes.

“Am I for the takeover? Absolutely not,” Williams said. “Do I believe that some good is going to come out of it? Definitely, because it sheds light on issues that we were having prior to this.” 

Rivlin, the Northside teacher, said the last few months have been frustrating —  but she believes the fight for control of HISD isn’t over. 

“I have never seen this kind of energy around public school before, and it gives me a lot of hope,” Rivlin said. “HISD didn’t go quietly.”

The Kinder Foundation is a financial supporter of the Houston Landing. The Kinder Foundation had no influence on decisions related to the reporting and publishing of this article. The Landing’s ethics policy and list of financial supporters are available online.

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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...