Education

HISD Trustees OK the Handoff to State Control With a Little Fuss But No Fireworks

A fateful and fated (?)vote at the HISD board meeting Thursday night.
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A fateful and fated (?)vote at the HISD board meeting Thursday night.

Late in the night, by the time the Texas Education Agency representative got up to explain the state takeover of Houston ISD there were just a handful of audience members left at Thursday school board meeting. Not that there had been that many in attendance to begin with.

Despite pleas from speakers earlier in the meeting that the TEA action be abandoned and pointed questions from some of the board members following the address from TEA Deputy Commissioner for Governance Steve Lecholop, any but the most dedicated true believers had to know it was over.

Despite all the objections raised by board members, in the end they acquiesced in a 7-1-1 vote with trustee Sue Deigaard voting against and Bridget Wade abstaining (?). The HISD board of education gave their formal OK to the transition of the district from locally elected leadership to a board of managers and a new superintendent that will all be appointed by TEA Commissioner Mike Morath.

Morath, as has been true in all the earlier heated TEA community meetings, did not show up but dispatched another one of his deputy commissioners to handle the questions and any heat that might arise. (Although he did take time to meet with the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board).

The public comment section began with Gerry Monroe, who said the district was not being taken over by the TEA but by God — basically because of the past sins of its administrators and board members. "Let it go. Get out of his way. And let God do what needs to be done."

Monroe was a minority of one as everyone who followed him up to the speaker's mic said they opposed  the takeover. Several said they see the action as a move to replace public schools with charters. Several objected to the new position of "transition manager" with its yet-to-be-named occupant although the rumor mill was flying with names. And more than a few said this was a way to disenfranchise minority voters with little regard for their children.

Essentially, however, they were whistling into the wind. As evidenced Thursday night, the end of HISD governance as we know it, will be going out with a whimper, not a bang.

Marie Pousson, a retied educator, pointed out that she doesn't see any sort of plan for how TEA will fix the district's problems. Even more so, she and others pointed out that "the posted agenda item was a blank page when I looked online."

Daniel Santos asked the board not to approve the transition to appointed managers saying: "This hostile takeover is designed to divide and dismantle our public schools."

As Deputy Commissioner Lecholop made his way through the timeline, he didn't have to contend with the shouts and heated accusations from the (non-existent) crowds that were present for the four TEA community meetings. But he did end up standing in the dock for a very long time between his presentation and the questions from board members. His highlights:

- Although there have already been 374 applications received for positions on the Board of Managers, TEA opened up a second application window which closes on April 20.

- One of the three prime conditions for a transition back to an elected board — that there be no multi-year failing schools — means that zero schools in HISD receive a D or F rating for two or more years.

- TEA and Commissioner Morath will not be determining what is done in HISD; it will be the new superintendent and the Board of Managers. (This continues to be a tough sell since both are appointed by and report to Morath).

- A significant focus will be on the special education program to bring it in line with state standards and law.

- After two years with the Board of Managers, Morath can decide to start the transition back to an elected board at the rate of three seats a year or he can extend the initial time period by another two years (at least).

- And again TEA is doing all this because of the 2019 dysfunctional board that he said violated the Open Meetings Act, the state law that gives the commissioner the discretion to take over a district after a conservator has been in place for two years or more and, of course, the fact that Wheatley  High School was a failing school for five years.

The last situation is not up to the commissioner's discretion but mandated Morath's two choices: close Wheatley or take over the school district. (Although the question was raised about there being a third option which would have been to "repurpose" Wheatley). 

TEA will formally take over the district on June 1 and as has been clear for a while but was reinforced Thursday, residents are looking at years of unelected leadership.