Abigail Ramirez says she “couldn’t be happier” with Pugh Elementary School, where her now-third grader has bonded with staff and already “loves” the teachers he’ll have next year.
So when Ramirez learned Pugh is one of 28 Houston ISD schools that new Superintendent Mike Miles wants to “reconstitute” next school year, with each teacher required to reapply for their job, she was shocked.
“They just want to barge in and change this and change that,” said Ramirez, who serves on a school committee that helps guide decisions made at the campus. “And (it’s) ‘We’re going to do this, and do that,’ without asking any questions, without seeing anything. They have to be here, to see, to hear.”
Now, that’s changed. The new board of managers appointed by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath lacks much geographic diversity.
Seven of the nine appointed board members live in affluent neighborhoods west of downtown, TEA officials confirmed, leaving many lower-income parts of the district without nearby representatives. While the board largely reflects HISD’s ethnic and racial diversity, some families and local leaders are wondering how the new board members will address issues unique to communities that don’t have a local trustee representing them.
Those concerns are amplified by Miles’ early comments about dramatically reshaping dozens of schools and potentially closing some HISD campuses — actions that will be acutely felt in many neighborhoods outside of the city’s higher-income areas. They’re also informed by skepticism about past TEA interventions, including the agency’s contentious annexation of North Forest ISD into HISD about 10 years ago.
Ivory Mayhorn, president of the East Little York / Homestead Super Neighborhood, which includes North Forest High School, said the appointments were “so inconsiderate (that) if you don’t laugh at it, it’ll make you kind of wanna go do something crazy.”
Geographic diversity was one of several considerations in selecting board members, TEA media relations director Jake Kobersky said in a statement. Straying from the single-member model will ensure the board is “accountable to the students and families of the entire district and not tied to the interests of just one area,” Kobersky said.
In interviews over the past week, Miles and four of the new board members said they will connect to communities without geographic representation through outreach and engagement.
Board member Janette Garza Lindner, who lives in Houston’s affluent Heights neighborhood, described spending eight hours on the phone the day she was publicly announced as a board member. People were eager to help her capture the voices of children and families who are “not heard,” she said.
“It’s important they get to know us, and we get to know what their perspective is on the challenges in the district and what they want to see to improve education for their kids,” Garza Lindner said.
Board member Cassandra Auzenne Bandy, the lone representative with a primary address on the city’s lower-income northeast side, said she will have “boots on the ground” in the district. She added that she has reached out to community members and former board members for insight and collaboration.
“You wouldn’t be able to tell me, as a fourth-generation HISD student, that I don’t represent my community,” Auzenne Bandy said. “I have ties all around Houston through my family and friends. And I believe that I personally do represent HISD, and I believe our board does, because we’re all parents. We’ve all had children that have gone to school.”
Miles, for his part, said he will be present in school pickup lines, talk with a wide range of staff members and reach out to local elected officials. He also hinted at deploying an app through which families, staffers and students can provide feedback.
However, he said some classroom initiatives will be guided more by research and experience.
“On the quality of instruction, on how well principals should be evaluated, I’m going to use the team that we have, I’m going to get input from the principals,” Miles said. “But that’s one thing where the parents and the community may not have as loud a voice.”
Those pledges, however, haven’t quelled criticism of the board’s makeup.
Carla Moore has a 7-year-old grandson attending Garcia Elementary School, a campus on HISD’s north side where 99 percent of students are considered “economically disadvantaged” by the state. She said her grandson’s teacher last school year was impressive, especially in handling a 31-student class.
To Moore, it’s “concerning” to lack a representative from inside her community.
“So if you live in, let’s say, River Oaks, you’ve never been to our hood, how could you possibly know what it is that we need?” Moore said. “You can get you a nice house out here in the hood and find out exactly what’s going on.”
HISD elected trustee Judith Cruz, who technically remains in office but had all of her powers stripped last week, said the previous board setup made it easy for trustees to get into a “single-member mindset,” with members mostly focusing on their own community. She said the district might benefit from a collective vision for all neighborhoods in HISD.
At the same time, Cruz said it will require “intentionality” to ensure her region has a seat at the table. Cruz represented a mix of neighborhoods, including largely lower-income areas on the city’s east and northeast sides.
“When you’re from that community, you usually have a shared understanding of the different needs that you can bring and share as you’re making decisions,” Cruz said. “They’re going to have to go to communities that they haven’t necessarily visited.”
This story has been updated to include comments made by TEA officials after it was initially published.