Much to community members' and former Houston Independent School District elected trustees' dismay, new financial and decision-making policy changes placing a lot of power in the hands of Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles passed approval at Thursday night’s board of education meeting.
These new measures included the authority for Miles to approve district expenditures of up to $1 million without the board’s approval; to request waivers from the Texas Education Agency to hire uncertified teachers, assistant principals and deans; and to modify magnet programs across the 28 New Education System and 57 NES-aligned schools without board input.
Several of these items were discussed and voted on individually, some with added adopted amendments. However, most were approved by a single consent agenda vote. This upset many attendees, who began piling out of the meeting when this occurred.
Among those leaving was Myrna Guidry, one of the former elected trustees who was replaced earlier this summer by the newly appointed board members when the TEA took over the school district. She walked out of the meeting in a huff and told someone who stopped her that the board was “just going to rubber stamp everything.”
Before these initial proposals, the district restricted the superintendent from making non-approved board purchases above $100,000. Miles had initially asked for a higher limit than the one approved, requesting that it be set at $2 million instead.
However, Miles' asking amount was ultimately cut in half, with the board adopting an amendment requiring the superintendent to have quarterly reports produced for costs exceeding $250,000. The amendment was proposed by appointed board member Rolando Martinez for transparency, he said.
Although Miles did not get exactly what he wanted, he seemed content with the outcome of the vote and said that it was a “give and take” with the board, but ultimately, they govern the district while he runs the operations of it.
Mindy Wilson, a parent of two HISD students, still took issue with the asking price. She said most government and municipal agencies don’t have this unchecked power.
“Just so we’re clear, this unelected board plans to increase the superintendent’s spending authority by an order of magnitude within two months of being appointed? All for proficiency? Is that what Mike Miles said?” Wilson said. “This is really a $1 million dollar power grab; there isn’t a public school district in the U.S. where any superintendent should make $1 million decisions without public visibility.”
Jim Terry, Chief of Finance and Business Services at HISD, presented the second major financial matter for consideration, the 2023-2024 school year budget amendment. Terry displayed a drop in local revenue by $270 million due to recently passed property tax measures. He said $170 million in increased expenditures account for the cost of reforms for Miles’ New Education System model.
Other policy changes approved included a decrease in the frequency to which HISD administrators will have to meet with employee unions. These meetings are typically held monthly for consultation; however, now administrators will only be required to host four meetings with them annually.
Other proposals bundled into the single consent agenda vote included changes to labor practices, such as the number of sick days permitted before needing a physician’s note and not requiring the district to confirm the information on employee applications.
The district is already coming under hot water for its efforts to hire teachers lacking teaching certifications and experience. According to Miles, roughly 87 uncertified teachers filled previously existing vacancies as of this week. He included that many of these instructors may not have standard teaching certifications but are pursuing alternative certification programs.
Sarah Rivlin, a high school teacher, said she was worried about dropping the district's teachers' qualifications. But was more concerned about the “back doorways” Miles has created to become one, such as getting hired as a “teacher’s apprentice.”
This role is meant for those needing to train to become a teacher; however, Rivlin said the position’s description made it seem like teacher apprentices could become actual teachers after four weeks.
“I’m going to be talking about the fact that my seniors who just graduated should apply for that job because it’s a decent salary, they don’t have to have a degree, and they can read from a script which is what Mike Miles wants this to be,” Rivlin said.
Although the board attempted to act efficiently, enforcing the one-minute time limit of public speakers and grouping in agenda items for a quick, all-encompassing vote – attendees did their best to disrupt proceedings as much as possible.
Before Thursday night’s meeting started, about a hundred community members – students, teachers and organizers – participated in a “read-in” outside the board room in a protest against Miles’ planned school library closures.
Many participating in the "read-in" outside, wrapped their books with signs protesting the potential new measures before heading inside the boardroom.
Photo by Faith Bugenhagen
This demonstration continued throughout the meeting and escalated when a community member asked Miles to face them while speaking, which he declined to do. One by one, people rose from their seats and turned their backs on Miles, holding up books and signs that read “What is equity?” and “Children need libraries, not spin bikes.”
Despite the clear opposition from the public, Miles said following the board meeting that he thought it went well. He said he understood why people have their concerns but hoped that the progress would show over time, and there’d be fewer interruptions.
According to Miles, there are still 63 teacher vacancies that need to be filled before the first day of school on August 28. However, Miles appeared confident that despite the time crunch, the district would find people to occupy these positions.
“We believe that number will be zero relatively soon, which is a great success story for this district, which has never had zero before, and great for our kids to have a teacher in every classroom,” he said.
Last year, the district reported 644 vacancies and only 450 substitute teachers, leaving 150 classrooms without a teacher. Schools were forced to combine classes, increase class sizes and find other alternatives to make ends meet.
The next board meeting is scheduled for September 14, a little over three weeks after school starts.