Many Houston Independent School District families and employees are concerned about the potential impact of state officials once again trying to strip power from the district’s elected school board members.
Here are answers to some of the most common questions arising from the state’s controversial move to take more control over Texas’ largest school district.
What is the state planning to do?
The Texas Education Agency notified HISD leaders Wednesday that they intend to install a new “board of managers” in the district. If this process is completed, HISD’s nine elected board members would temporarily lose all of their power, and the state would transfer that authority to a different group of nine people. The board of managers would be hand-picked by the TEA.
The new governing team would be responsible for setting HISD’s budget, establishing districtwide policies and monitoring student achievement, among other roles. State officials also plan to replace HISD’s current superintendent, Millard House II, with a yet-to-be-named official – a right given to them under state law in cases when a board of managers is appointed.
What does this mean for HISD students, staff and families?
The short answer: we don’t know yet. TEA officials haven’t announced who they plan to appoint to the board and the superintendent role. Ultimately, those 10 people will govern and run the district as they see fit.
State officials will not be directly involved in the governance and day-to-day operations of HISD. However, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath can replace a member of the board of managers at any time and for any reason – a power that, in theory, allows him to remove appointees who run afoul of the agency’s preferred approach to governing the district.
Why is the state planning to do this?
Morath has cited three legal reasons for moving to replace HISD’s board and superintendent:
Wheatley High School’s failure to meet state academic standards at any point between 2012 and 2019. Under a state law passed in 2015, the Texas education commissioner must install a board of managers to oversee the entire school district or close a chronically low-rated school after a campus receives its fifth consecutive failing grade. State officials said Wheatley triggered the law in 2019 after failing to meet state academic standards for the seventh consecutive year (the campus was given a “not rated” mark in 2018, due to Hurricane Harvey). TEA leaders have said they believe closing Wheatley does not address the root causes of the academic problems at the campus.
A TEA investigation that substantiated multiple allegations of misconduct by HISD trustees, primarily around the late 2010s. Texas law gives Morath the option to install a board of managers based on the results of TEA investigations into claims of misconduct within a district. In HISD’s case, Morath cited several findings of misconduct by board members from an investigation concluded in 2019, including violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, attempts to improperly steer vendor contracts and making false statements to investigators. HISD trustees accused of misconduct largely denied the state’s claims, with some board members alleging that the TEA conducted a biased and incomplete investigation.
The six-year presence of conservator Doris Delaney in HISD. State law provides Morath the option to replace school boards when a conservator – a state-appointed official sent to help address significant issues within a district – remains in place for more than two years. TEA officials initially appointed Delaney in 2016 to “ensure and oversee district-level support for Kashmere High School,” one of HISD’s lowest-performing campuses at the time. TEA leaders formally expanded her role in 2019 to include “overseeing the governance of the district.” However, the indefinite nature of Delaney’s appointment has prompted questions about why state officials have not ended her tenure.
What about signs of improvement at HISD?
HISD’s overall academic and financial positions are solid, Wheatley scored a passing grade last year and the trustee misconduct findings are several years old.
Still, state officials say they are legally required under state law to appoint a board of managers or close Wheatley due to the school’s past academic performance – regardless of its recent results.
Keep in mind: TEA officials did begin the process of appointing a replacement board in 2019 for all three aforementioned reasons, but HISD trustees sued to block the effort. HISD won a temporary injunction, but the Texas Supreme Court threw it out in January after a three-year legal battle. HISD trustees voted last week to drop their lawsuit, citing “no further legal recourses.”
How will the TEA decide who serves on the board of managers?
TEA officials haven’t released a clear plan yet for selecting the appointed board. State law only dictates that the board “must, if possible, include community leaders, business representatives who have expertise in leadership, and individuals who have knowledge or expertise in the field of education.”
However, the state’s process for choosing managers in 2019, when the TEA began the process of replacing HISD’s board before the courts stopped the effort, could be instructive.
In that case, state leaders declared that board members must be eligible voters living in HISD boundaries; meet state eligibility requirements for running for an elected school board position; and pass a background check, among other requirements. TEA officials also said the appointed board must include members who “reflect the broad diversity present in HISD campuses, including, but not limited to, ethnicity, race, gender, age, disability, economic and educational backgrounds.”
When will we know who is appointed to the board of managers?
State officials haven’t released an exact timeline, but Morath told the Houston Landing this week that he expects an appointed board would take over “on or about June 1.”
In the meantime, the TEA will be recruiting and training potential members of the replacement board, Morath said.
How long would a board of managers remain in place?
It’s a complicated question, but based on recent history and state law, it’s likely that some appointed board members will remain in power for up to five years.
Texas law states that the education commissioner must establish a timeline for ending the appointed board’s tenure by the end of its second year in power. The law also states that one-third of the elected board members must retake their position annually over a three-year period.
The statute is somewhat vague on whether the education commissioner is expected to begin rolling elected trustees back onto the board soon after announcing a timeline. However, appointed boards remained in power for two years in El Paso ISD and five years in Beaumont ISD, the two largest districts with a board of managers in recent years.
Morath said this week that “I don’t see any reason” why the HISD board of managers would remain in place longer than roughly five years.
What is the state’s track record with school boards of managers?
TEA officials have installed a board of managers in about a dozen school districts over the past two decades. Nearly all districts have served less than 10,000 students, making them virtually incomparable to HISD. Two larger districts, Beaumont and El Paso ISDs, at least offer some frame of reference.
In Beaumont ISD, the board successfully put the district back on steady financial footing after mismanagement and misconduct by prior leadership. However, the state’s presence did little to immediately raise student performance in the district. (The financial turmoil caused an exodus of teachers, which didn’t help the situation.)
A similar situation played out in El Paso ISD following a cheating scandal that ensnared the district’s superintendent and prompted claims of inattention by board members. The board of managers stabilized the district during its two-year reign, and improvements in standardized test scores mirrored statewide gains.
HISD is an unprecedented case. The district’s overall academic standing is strong relative to its big-city Texas peers, its finances are in order and nearly all board members accused of misconduct no longer serve on the board. Some long-struggling HISD campuses continue to produce poor academic results, though none have received more than two consecutive failing grades from the state. Wheatley, for example, received a “C” grade from the state in 2022.
Is there any way the board takeover can still be stopped?
At this point, it’s highly unlikely. Once HISD trustees officially drop their lawsuit in the coming days, there will be no active litigation aimed at halting the takeover.
Three Democratic state senators from Houston – Carol Alvarado, Borris Miles and John Whitmire – filed legislation last week that would nix the requirement that the TEA appoint a replacement board or close a campus following five consecutive failing grades. However, it’s not expected to gain traction in the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature.
Will HISD’s elected trustees lose their positions once a board of managers takes over?
No. All nine trustees will remain elected officials, and they will need to continue running for re-election on the same four-year election cycle to keep their seats. Four seats currently held by trustees Patricia Allen, Kathy Blueford-Daniels, Judith Cruz and Dani Hernandez are up for re-election in November.
Of course, the elected trustees won’t have any power over the district until they are re-seated on the board by the TEA commissioner. In the meantime, the elected board members can continue to serve in an advisory capacity, just like any other HISD resident.