Houston ISD’s largest employees union filed a lawsuit against the district’s leadership Wednesday, alleging they violated state laws earlier this month when they approved a new teacher evaluation system.

The Houston Federation of Teachers argues HISD failed to gather legally required input from teachers and community members before adding new measures for how teachers are evaluated. Union leaders are seeking an injunction from a Harris County judge that would stop HISD from implementing the new system.

State law requires districts to consult with a districtwide decision-making committee and campus-level committees in developing new evaluation metrics. 

Union officials say it did not occur. However, lawyers for HISD noted in a legal filing Thursday that district leaders publicly posted the plans and asked members of campus decision-making committees to complete a survey with feedback on the system.

HFT President Jackie Anderson said HISD Superintendent Mike Miles exceeded his powers as superintendent in instituting the new evaluation system.

“He is refusing to follow the law by shutting out the voices of teachers, parents, students and other community members and punishing educators in the name of streamlining the district,” Anderson said in a statement. “This is autocratic, not democratic or even legal.”

In their filing, lawyers for HISD said the union has mischaracterized the district’s effort to get input on the appraisal system.

“HFT’s representations to the court are rather remarkable in light of Superintendent
Miles’ express requesting for feedback from the (Shared Decision-Making Committee), and in light of HISD’s public dissemination of the new teacher evaluation system — all 87 pages,” HISD’s lawyers wrote.

HISD board members approved Miles’ plans in mid-August for a new teacher evaluation system, which will grade teachers primarily on their principals’ assessment of their instruction and on students’ test scores. The formula also includes student feedback and schoolwide success metrics.

Teachers’ evaluations will be a factor in their compensation next year, according to the district’s policy.

The teachers union has pushed back against the plan, saying it will force educators into an unhealthy environment of competition. Teacher scores will fall along a bell curve, with no more than 20% of teachers earning top marks and 40% falling below “proficient.”

“We have to have a target distribution, otherwise there will be inflation and inaccurate, non-rigorous evaluations,” Miles said.

For the past two years, HISD has used an appraisal system known as T-TESS, which is the only state-recommended teacher evaluation model.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath appointed Miles and a new nine-member board to govern HISD in early June amid sanctions against the district, primarily due to chronic underperformance at Wheatley High School. It’s unclear whether HISD’s status as a takeover district has any bearing on the legal requirements for consulting with district and campus committees about teacher evaluation systems.

Anderson said Miles’ status as an appointed superintendent “should not give him carte blanche to break the law.” She expects a district court judge will decide whether to issue a temporary injunction by the end of Thursday.

Update, Aug. 31, 11:45 a.m.: This story has been updated to add information from HISD’s response in court to the lawsuit.

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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...