Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday blasted Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles’ plan to close dozens of school libraries and turn them into discipline rooms, alleging it was targeted at “selected communities.”

In an impassioned speech at City Council, Turner said the library had given him a view of other worlds during his hardscrabble youth. Turner and council members alleged that the move to shutter libraries was an extension of the Texas Legislature’s book-banning policies.

“You cannot have a situation where you are closing libraries for some schools in certain neighborhoods and there are other neighborhoods where there are libraries, fully equipped. What the hell are you doing?” Turner said.

Turner’s comments represented his most pointed critique yet of Miles, who was appointed by the Texas Education Agency in June as part of its takeover of HISD.

Miles has said the district will eliminate librarians and media specialists from 28 campuses that he targeted for overhaul in predominantly low- and middle-income neighborhoods. At 57 other schools that opted into his plan, the district said libraries “will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

The spaces will become discipline areas, called “Teams Centers,” often referred to as “Zoom rooms,” where teachers can send misbehaving students to learn virtually. Books will remain on the shelves with students still able to check them out based on an honor system, the district told the Houston Chronicle.

In an email Wednesday morning, HISD officials said “we understand the significance of certain programs associated with libraries and will strive to maintain those valuable offerings.” Miles previously has defended his idea as a back-to-basics measure that prioritizes spending resources on teachers in some of the city’s highest-need schools.

In a subsequent letter to Turner released Wednesday evening, Miles invited the mayor to join him at campuses undergoing the changes during the first week of classes, which begin Aug. 28. Miles wrote that the visits would provide Turner with “a clearer understanding” of how the changes will affect students.

As mayor, Turner has no direct power to influence policies at the independently-managed school district. However, he used his platform to urge the district’s state-appointed board of managers, many of whom are longtime civic figures in Houston, to reject the proposal.

“If you’re a board of manager, you cannot allow this to happen. If you represent the city in any way, and you are a board of manager, this cannot happen on our watch, because it does not reflect Houston’s values,” Turner said.

In recent years, HISD advocates has pushed to increase the number of librarians in schools. As recently as the 2021-22 school year, HISD reported about 55 librarians working in its roughly 270 district-run campuses.

For many years, HISD has employed a “decentralized” staffing model, in which principals had to choose which positions to prioritize with the millions of dollars they received for staffing. Many principals did not employ librarians with their limited funds. 

Supporters of that staffing model argued that principals knew their students’ needs best, while opponents said it led to inequities between schools. Critics of the system frequently pointed to the lack of librarians in many HISD schools.

Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles addresses 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)

Former HISD Superintendent Millard House criticized the staffing approach during his two-year tenure in HISD, pushing for all schools to employ librarians, nurses and other non-teaching positions. Various HISD and state payroll records offer widely conflicting information about how many campuses employed a librarian in 2022-23, though all records show at least some increase in the number of librarians compared to the prior year.

None of the nine HISD board members immediately responded to requests for comment.

Turner also invited Miles to City Hall, because, he said, “you are in Houston, you do not operate in a vacuum.”

District I Councilmember Robert Gallegos, a mayoral candidate, alleged that the change is part of a larger “culture war.” Gallegos noted that 62 percent of the district’s student body is Hispanic.

“Now you’re closing libraries to make sure we don’t learn our history?” Gallegos said. “This is part of the culture wars from Austin, telling people what they can learn and can’t learn, to make sure that they continue to stay in power in Austin. And we need to speak up for us and for our children.”

Update, July 26, 6:35 p.m.: This story has been updated to include information about the letter sent by Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles to Mayor Sylvester Turner.

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Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Houston Landing. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...

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...