Education Advocates: Why Is a Person With No Education Experience in Charge of HISD?

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Some education advocates in Houston have a straightforward question for the Houston Independent School District Board of Trustees: Why is the person charged with overseeing education, as interim superintendent, someone who doesn't appear to have any experience in education?

Art Smith and his wife, Darlene Koffey Smith, who recently ran for the board of trustees for District 2, are planning to organize a group of concerned parents, former or current teachers, and students who have the same qualms, feeling that Interim Superintendent Ken Huewitt — who is otherwise the chief financial officer for the district — is not qualified for the job.

“The students and the parents don't feel like they're getting a fair shot at having the best people in place to oversee what's going on,” Art Smith said. “He's never taught in the classroom, he's never been a principal, he's never been an educator — that should wipe him out hands down on even being an interim superintendent.”

Huewitt took the post on March 1, following former superintendent Terry Grier's retirement. According to the Texas Education Agency, there are no criteria dictating how a school appoints an interim superintendent. Board members indicated to the Houston Chronicle that if Huewitt threw his name in the hat, they wouldn't rule him out. And in fact, Grier was actually so impressed with Huewitt's State of Schools speech that he said, “They ought to suspend the search and hire him."

But the district probably couldn't do that, because Huewitt doesn't appear to have a master's degree, at least according to his LinkedIn page and bios (since it's spring break, HISD wasn't available to immediately confirm this). Without it, he can't even take TEA's required superintendent training course. And even if he could fulfill TEA's requirements (TEA allows people to substitute managerial experience for a principal's certificate), that wouldn't stop some advocates from objecting.

“What raises my eyebrows is not only the fact that he doesn't have the credentials,” said Charles X. White, who said he used to be a substance abuse counselor and security officer for HISD, “but that this is the same guy that messed up the bond money.”

Last fall, HISD came under fire when it spent $11.6 million in bond money — which was supposed to be used on school construction and renovations — on things like airplane tickets, catered food, cellphone bills and salaries, as the Houston Chronicle reported. Huewitt defended the spending in the Chronicle article, saying that the majority of that $11.6 million was spent on salaries still tied to the bond program, such as for project managers or accountants. But White isn't sold. “If he did a bad job on what he does have credentials for, how bad of a job would he do in this area which he has no credentials for?”

It's clear that HISD will find itself in a financial rut in the coming school year, facing a $107 million budget shortfall thanks to a law requiring HISD to pay back a portion of its tax revenue because it is classified as a “property wealthy” district — despite the fact that four out of every five students come from low-income communities. (This school finance system is currently being challenged in the Texas Supreme Court.) “That’s a lot of money and it will require significant cuts,” Huewitt said in his State of Schools speech.

And perhaps that's a reason that the board found it necessary to put someone with financial creds, who was already second in command, at the helm as interim superintendent. He has already proposed cutting, on average, about 2.5 percent of each school's budget, which boils down to about $179 per student. But even though Huewitt linked the cuts to the tax revenue law, the idea of taking money from the kids already has the Smiths and other advocates bristling.

Still, money aside, to them, it will always come back to one central point: Does Huewitt understand what it's like to get up in front of a classroom and actually give a kid an education?

Darlene Koffey Smith said she'd be hard-pressed to believe that not a single person in HISD who actually is certified to teach and has higher administrative experience wasn't eligible for the interim position. She specifically pointed to Dr. Andrew Houlihan, the chief academic officer, who has experience as a principal, school support officer, chief human resources officer and director of various education leadership institutes elsewhere.

As the board continues its national search, Koffey Smith is hoping the board doesn't just fall back on the “buddy-buddy system” and pick Huewitt because it's convenient.

In the meantime, her husband, Art, suggested he stick to what he himself went to school for and “start counting the money again.”

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