In Business-like Manner, HISD Shuts Most of the Public Out of Its Meeting

The HISD public meeting room that would normally be filled with chairs and people attending a board meeting.
The HISD public meeting room that would normally be filled with chairs and people attending a board meeting. Photo by Margaret Downing

In the past, 400 people or more have filled the board room of the Hattie Mae White center for high interest public meetings but Thursday night that was all set aside in the interest of "order." Most of the 33 speakers  signed up for public comment were sent to the Houston ISD overflow room where a mic was installed to handle their one minute of allowed comments.

They couldn't enter the board room. In fact, nearly all the people who'd come to the public board meeting were turned away at the door by HISD police and had to settle for watching the meeting on screens. One person who tried to force his way in to the main event was reportedly arrested and led away in handcuffs for trespassing.

"This is supposed to be a public meeting and the public is not in here," State Representative Jolanda Jones, a former HISD board member and one of the few allowed in the board room told them in her one minute. "I came to listen to what you were going to say and talk about the budget that you're going to pass yet there's no public in here.

"No one's going to respect you. You're not going to get the support of the community including myself and others until you meaningfully include the public. This is disrespectful. You've got more room. You've got empty  seats here. There are people outside. I'm embarrassed for HISD."

Ann Eagleton, whose children went to HISD, told board members "The is taxation without representation. This is tryanny. You learn that in history class.."

Former elected trustee Kathy Bluford-Daniels, threw away her planned remarks, taken aback at the re-engineering scheme launched Thursday night. "I actually came here to try  to be a conduit, to help make this thing work. But when I came in here today and I see the people that's left out outside, and you're not allowing them the opportunity to come in here and have their voices heard no matter how difficult it is, then I am very, very disappointed. You will not be able to bridge relationships with people in the community by these actions that you're taking right here today. I'll tell you openly, I cannot accept the way this is being done."

Seats were reduced to a bare 35 in the board room with several  of those taken by former board members and the incoming staff of (for now) Acting Superintendent Mike Miles. Print and online media were given a small number of reserved seats over to one side and risers were provided for the TV cameras. A large area was set aside for a quadrangle of  tables and seats for the board members' discussion of the 2023-24 budget. One onlooker referred to that table configuration as "Mike Miles' Thunderdome."

The explanation for why the board needed to move from their regular seats down to the new arrangement of tables and chairs was that they needed to look at each other as they listened to the budget presentation and asked questions.  How then to explain why the look-'em-in-the-eye approach was not considered necessary between public speakers and the board?

What filled the board room space instead was mostly nothing. Just empty acreage that efficiently kept out the shouting of the last week when most of those present couldn't hear what was going on. There were occasional attempts to enter the room, that were stopped by the district's police.

Miles' task force knew they would be hammered for this, but as one explained, they felt needed to control the environment so that everyone could hear what the new Board of Managers had to say. There was still noise in the hallway but that was handled as well. A new intro to the board agenda stated that one warning would be given to a disruptive person and then they would be expelled.

It's hard to be disruptive if you're not there. 

Speaking of not there, Miles once again did not enter the meeting until after the public comment section was done. He denied that this was done to avoid the speakers; saying instead it was to keep the focus on the board members (who actually don't speak during the public comment section other than the board president announcing what topic the agenda speakers were about to discuss next).

Normally a story like this would have led with the news about the budget. Right now there's no tax rate increase for the next year. And in another good sign several of the board members did ask good questions about parts of the budget, pushing for specifics and not vague "we think"s.

The proposed $2.2 billion budget is essentially what the previous elected board had worked up to with some tweaking that cuts millions out in central office staff and some other categories in order to fund some of Miles' projects such as the NES (New Education System) schools. At 12 of those schools which have had magnet school programs, Miles said they're looking at what can continue in the curriculum to meet those special designations.

The way to balancing the budget will be done by significantly reducing the district's reliance on outside consultants and vendors. For example, the district will pay a firm $125 million over five years to teach leadership. Miles said this instead will be done in-house.

Of particular concern is the ESSER  (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) federal money funneled through the state to help out schools because of the pandemic. Those funds will disappear in September 2024  which has been used to hire several employees.

Miles constantly referred to planned arts activities at the 29 NES schools that would take students there beyond just practicing for tests. Teachers would be judged by the quality of their teaching instead of just student test scores, he insisted.

"The biggest measure is the quality of instruction in the classroom," he said.

Closing schools won't happen this year, but it is clear from comments made by Miles that that will be considered in the future, especially considering the small school subsides that HISD still has in its budget. Any school with fewer than 300 students should be on alert.

And he again emphasized that improvements to the the district's special ed program must occur this year.

And in a brief meeting with the media — accompanied by Board President Audrey Momanaee — following the end of the public meeting, in response to a question,. Miles said he was aware of the T.H. Rogers special ed debate concerning whether the special ed program will continue at that school, and said "There are no plans to change except to be additive."

During the budget portion of the meeting, Miles talked about all the people he's talked with, all the outreach he's done in the first two weeks on the job which in fact, is impressive. He even  went out to talk with the group of protesters from Pugh Elementary who assembled before the meeting Thursday. 

Outreach is great. Apparently though it's the incoming Miles and the board can't handle at this point. 

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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