Prominent Houston political and faith leaders on Monday denounced Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles’ plan to convert some libraries into discipline centers, adding to the growing chorus of critics opposing the change.

Members of Congress, Houston City Council and high-profile religious institutions joined Mayor Sylvester Turner — already on record opposing the move — in describing the state-appointed superintendent’s plan as an attack on lower-income communities of color.

Teachers at dozens of campuses Miles has targeted for overhaul will send misbehaving students to the library — fashioned into what he has dubbed “Team Centers” — to learn virtually. Meanwhile, Miles is eliminating librarians and media specialists from 28 “New Education System,” or NES, campuses undergoing the most dramatic changes.

The strategy has drawn national media attention in recent days and infuriated much of the city’s Democratic political leadership. U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, said Monday at a City Hall press conference that the elimination of librarians is a move toward the “resegregation of society.” 

“I drank from the colored water fountain,” Green said. “I know what it’s like to have to sit in the balcony of the movie, in the back of the bus. I don’t want to go back to that. … (Mayor Turner) is taking the necessary steps to deal with this incremental step that is going to take us backwards. We’ve got to stop it here.”

Miles, appointed to the position in June by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath as part of sweeping state sanctions against the district, remains committed to his plan. Miles has said the strategy will create better learning conditions for students and allow the district to redirect more resources to classroom instruction.

In a statement released minutes before Monday’s gathering of civic leaders, Miles said he “cannot and will not govern the state’s largest school district by press conference or press release.” 

“The time for politics is over, and we will not be distracted by intentional misinformation,” Miles said.

While civic leaders can speak out against Miles’ proposals, they have no legal authority to force him to change course. Only members of HISD’s state-appointed school board — who Morath can replace at any time — have that power. All nine board members did not respond Monday to a request for comment about the library strategy.

Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles discusses changes he’s making at dozens of schools during a community meeting July 11 at Pugh Elementary in Houston’s Denver Harbor neighborhood. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

Libraries have become a frequent flashpoint in HISD, largely due to the district’s relative lack of investment in them. 

While most neighboring districts employ a librarian in every school, many HISD campuses historically have not had them. That’s mostly a function of HISD’s “decentralized” staffing approach, in which principals are given authority to choose which positions to prioritize with a dedicated amount of money. Most principals chose to put resources into areas other than libraries.

As recently as 2021-22, roughly three-quarters of the 28 NES campuses did not employ a full- or part-time librarian, state payroll data shows. However, the records show that all but three of the 28 schools had a librarian in 2022-23, when HISD Superintendent Millard House prioritized the position across the district.

Miles’ reversal of that approach, however, has led to one of the biggest uproars in his short tenure to date.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said Monday that Miles’ plan reminds her of being forced to sit in the back of a segregated train as a child. In reference to Miles’ comments Monday, the long-tenured member of Congress and current mayoral candidate said she has “never received a statement like that from any superintendent of any school district.” 

While librarians will be cut from some campuses, books will remain on the shelves and available for checkout on an honor system, Miles told the Houston Chronicle. But that doesn’t ease the worries of Houston City Councilmember Karla Cisneros, who called the move “an attack on communities of color.”

“Librarians are teachers, and they are some of the very best teachers,” Cisneros said. “If this is a way to cut on expenses, it is incredibly short-sighted. And it is a blow to students who are already living with the inequities that come with poverty or being a person of color.”

Monday’s event followed a heated week between Turner and Miles. The mayor has publicly blasted Miles’ plans, accusing him of creating an “apartheid situation” in the district and targeting “selected communities.” 

Miles has asked Turner, parents and community members to withhold their critiques until they see the Team Centers in practice, arguing that “discipline is a small part” of the model. He has added that the approach is largely centered on providing flexible learning environments for students. 

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    Miles invited Turner last week to visit the schools he is overhauling when classes resume in late August. Turner swiftly shot down the offer, saying he wasn’t willing to be part of a “photo op.” 

    Miles reiterated and expanded his invitation to other elected officials and leaders Monday. He said he will work with anyone “serious about improving the learning and life outcomes of HISD students.”

    Turner said Monday that he worries some students may never develop a love for reading if HISD reverses House’s course.

    “We do not want our schools to look like prisons,” Turner said. “Last week, I invited Superintendent Miles to City Hall to explain his plans for the state’s largest school district. … In the meantime, you cannot expect us to remain silent. These are our children. These are our kids. These are our schools. This is our city, and long after he is gone, we will still be here.”

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    Miranda Dunlap is a reporter covering small business and entrepreneurship for the Houston Landing. A painfully Midwestern native to Michigan’s capital region, Miranda studied political science pre-law...