Superintendent Miles To HISD Principals: So Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want

Superintendent Mike Miles in a Thursday media briefing.
Superintendent Mike Miles in a Thursday media briefing. Photo by Margaret Downing

Thursday, HISD Superintendent Mike Miles packed the board room at the Hattie Mae White administration building but not with crowds yelling for him to leave town. Just an attentive group of principals teetering on the brink of saying they too want to join a new version of his New Education System program.

Although the NES was designed for and will be installed this fall in 28 schools selected by Miles and his cabinet, according to the superintendent there has been a surprise outpouring from principals at other schools asking if they could also operate under the same demanding curriculum with its emphasis on “quality teaching” determined in part by standardized test scores.

Thursday’s meeting, much like a last-minute heart-to-heart with a novice who’s thinking of becoming a fully professed nun, was a final reality check to see if these school leaders really, truly want to become what’s now being called NES-Aligned or NES-A.

Even if they'd already said they want to opt in, Miles is giving them one more chance to back out. Principals have till noon on Monday to decide to officially sign up and submit their paperwork to the central office.

The difference between NES and NES-A is that teachers in NES-A won’t get the higher salaries of the NES schools’ staff (although they will get a chance for extra stipend money) but they won’t have to reconstitute themselves by reapplying for jobs they already have. They will be subject to the same evaluation process as the NES schools and both will follow strict staffing models that will likely result in the loss of some staff in some areas and gains in others.

Miles was in his element at the front of the room backed by the usual power point presentation. Mic in hand, he was in turns endearing, self-deprecating, funny and (befitting his reputation) hard as the nails he was hammering home that yes, schools will use the curriculum the central office sends out and yes principals, it’s your responsibility to part company with people on your staff who won’t fit in to the new order.

His determined outlook on how things ought to be was also in place when asked how the bus schedules were going to work under the new start and end times for NES schools. All NES schools will start at 8 a.m. with instruction’s end at 4 (3 p.m. for kindergarten and 3:30 for first and second grade) and Miles says that HISD will make it work. If so, he’ll have better luck than previous superintendents who often saw the first week of the school year filled with delays, stranded students (particularly those awaiting transfers from their home schools to their magnet schools) and hundreds of complaint calls from parents. 

(Historical note: starting in the fall of 2018, the administration of then-Superintendent Richard Carranza, narrowed most HISD start and end times down to two options – meaning HISD no longer held the title of the most start times of any public school district in the state.)

Miles spoke and answered questions for close to two hours. About three-quarters of the way in, he asked for a show of hands of those still interested after walking them through the particulars of the program. He estimated about 40 had said yes.

The more cynical among us might guess that some principals were there for job security, a chance to ingratiate themselves with their new boss and if not prosper, then at least delay an unwanted departure. Others might be making a strategic move to join the program now and avoid the reconstitution step.

Miles’s take on it is that several principals have come to the realization that what HISD has been doing isn’t working, isn’t helping all its students.

The superintendent’s willingness to let even more schools into the program, comes with added financial burden to the district, even without the higher priced staffing restricted to the NES schools at least for now. Support staff will be trimmed, and many assistant principals and deans of students may find themselves moved to if not another location then at least other job duties.

It was difficult not to laugh – unless you were a technologically-challenged principal – when Miles told those assembled that yes, they’d be losing their dedicated computer tech at each school because everyone should be able to hook up and operate a webcam and he didn’t understand why millennials thought they couldn’t when he himself could. Any problems will be troubleshot by central office folks who will also be responsible for lesson plans and budgets.
In a media briefing afterward, Miles began by addressing the payroll disruption that occurred on Wednesday with not all employees being paid. “A combination of human error and technology errors and we will get it right,” he said. He pointed out that of the three senior people in the department, two were on leave and one absent that day "which is no way to run a business. We're going to make sure we don't repeat that mistake again."

Referring to the financial costs of instituting the NES-A program and the budget adjustments that will have to be made, Miles said,  “We may have to go into the the fund balance to fund it, we'll see. But keep in mind we have a $1.2 billion fund balance and I'm okay to go into the fund balance to fund this for the next couple years."
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing