Houston ISD’s state-appointed school board unanimously voted Thursday to begin the process of becoming a “District of Innovation,” a move that could ultimately allow the district to extend the school year for students and teachers. 

The designation, which most Texas districts have sought, would give HISD the option to skirt dozens of state laws related to school operations. HISD officials haven’t officially specified which exemptions they might seek, but new Superintendent Mike Miles and board member Angela Lemond Flowers said adding more days to the school year is a top priority in starting the process. 

“I very strongly believe that we need to take everything in our toolkit possible because we have big gains that we need to achieve,” Flowers said. “Our hands are bound right now to days, and so this opens up that flexibility.”

Barring an unexpected reversal, a board-appointed committee will draft a plan in the coming weeks that outlines the recommended exemptions. The plan must receive approval from HISD’s District Advisory Committee, which is largely composed of community members and HISD employees chosen by the board and the superintendent. Finally, two-thirds of HISD’s appointed board must support the plan.

Miles, who was installed along with the nine-member board to lead HISD in June, said he thought HISD students need 180 to 185 days in class each school year, up from the current schedule of 172 days. The tweaks to the academic calendar likely would mean adding more work days for teachers, most of whom currently clock 187 days.

“If we were to change the length of the school year, yes, the number of workdays would change also,” Miles said.

The potential for extending the teacher work year has drawn early complaints from some educators opposed to shortening their summer break. Rebecca Williams, a teacher at Navarro Middle School on the district’s east side, said she and many of her co-workers are worried about the possible changes.

“A lot of my colleagues are halfway out the door now,” Williams said. “When the District of Innovation comes, they will be totally out the door.”

Texas requires schools to start classes on the fourth Monday in August, but the vast majority of districts start earlier due to their District of Innovation status. About 965 out of roughly 1,200 districts have received District of Innovation status, including Dallas, Austin and San Antonio independent school districts, according to the state.

By starting the school year earlier, HISD could add more instructional days in August and avoid going deeper into June.

The District of Innovation system allows for sidestepping many laws related to academic calendars, educator certification, class sizes and teacher benefits. Other laws, however, cannot be shoved aside, including those addressing curriculum, special education, the school board’s power and the state’s academic accountability system.

HISD officials are expected to clear the path for approval of a District of Innovation plan, largely by reconstituting the District Advisory Committee. The committee shot down an attempt by HISD’s prior leadership in 2021 to pursue the designation, in part so the district could start the school year earlier. 

Miles said HISD board members, who select a majority of the committee, are in the process of selecting new District Advisory Committee appointees. HISD leaders also sent a message to district staff recently asking for nominations of parents, community members and business leaders to serve on the committee. 

The previous District Advisory Committee included several members who have been staunch opponents of the many changes implemented by Miles since his arrival. Karina Quesada León, who serves on the committee and voted against the District of Innovation proposal in 2021, said she’s concerned the overhaul will take away a key check on the superintendent’s power.

“This is the one thing that the District Advisory Committee does get to actually have a real vote on,” she said. “(Miles) is finding a way to circumvent that safety measure.”

Miles said the District of Innovation process likely will take two to three months before the board takes a final vote on approving a plan. Board members are scheduled to hold a public hearing Sept. 14, at which point they could vote to appoint a group to draft a plan.

“This initiates the process of consideration about the (District of Innovation), and it does not allow us all of a sudden to just throw the (District of Innovation) out there,” board member Adam Rivon said during the meeting.

HISD’s board also passed a policy Thursday reverting back to the district’s previous teacher appraisal system, known as T-TESS, for the entire 2023-24 school year. 

Board members voted in August to implement a new evaluation system preferred by Miles, but a Harris County judge issued a temporary restraining order on Aug. 31 that stopped the district from using it. The order followed a lawsuit filed by the Houston Federation of Teachers, which argued HISD didn’t follow legally required steps for adopting a new system.

Miles said using T-TESS this year will minimize disruptions. He acknowledged the change might spell tweaks to his plan to pay teachers next year in part based on their evaluation ratings, but details haven’t yet been finalized.

The superintendent also announced that roughly 179,400 students have enrolled in HISD schools so far this year. He expects that number to stabilize near 180,000, which would represent a drop of roughly 4,000 students from last year.

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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...