HISD Has Miles To Go As It Sets Out On a New Path

Incoming Superintendent Mike Miles being moved from room to room for media interviews at Wheatley High School.
Incoming Superintendent Mike Miles being moved from room to room for media interviews at Wheatley High School. Photo by Margaret Downing

"We've lost 28,000 kids in six years. At the same time we've closed no schools and our central office has grown. The number of people and the amount of expenditures in central office has grown. That doesn't seem like a financially viable methodology. So we're going to right-size that." 

That was interim Superintendent Mike Miles when asked about whether HISD is just too big a district and whether he intends to close Houston ISD schools. The first he answered "No." The second "Not this year, it's already June and I can't close a school in August. That would not be fair. No question we're going to look at that over this year."

In a flurry of 15-minute interviews, Miles made the rounds of the Houston media Thursday, his handlers shuttling him from one room to another in Wheatley High School which ironically enough was largely — but not wholly — responsible for the Texas Education Agency takeover of the district. As part of that takeover, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath appointed Miles the new superintendent replacing Millard House II and replaced the entire elected school board with his own appointments.

Meeting in the school's alumni room with tables so scratched up you had to wonder if they had ever seen better days, Miles was on his third media interview of the morning primed to answer questions. Much has been made of his military background, but any anticipation that this would be a drill sergeant barking out orders was quickly dispelled by a mild manner.

According to Miles he does work cooperatively getting input from his team. "Everyone on my team handled Ebola with efficiency in Dallas [in 2014 ]. At the same time, you have to make some decisions; I'm not afraid to do that."

What was evident: the former Army Ranger plans a busy summer and is not going to waste any time. There will be standards for principals and teachers alike and the principals will start their training sessions beginning Tuesday, June 6 for several days and again after the summer break.   Miles repeatedly promised all sorts of support, coaching, and monitoring  — "Accountability without support just breeds fear."

With this addendum:

"The corollary to that or the reverse to that is if you provide a lot of support and coaching and clear  expectations, then you can hold people accountable.  But not until then.," he said. ""So you ask about firing people, in the end yes, but only after a lot of support, a lot of coaching and clear expectations."

Asked how he's going to turn around a district with declining enrollment, Miles said, "I have 225 pages of an answer. But let me give you the bullets. No. 1 we have to make sure that we have a system that provides for all students. Not two different systems, a system for one set of students that are doing fine and the vast majority of kids not doing well. It's a tale of two districts right now. We've got to make it one.

"We have to focus on the classroom quality of instruction. I know everybody says that but at the end of the day it has not happened and we have to do that. One of the ways we do that is making sure we have principals who are accountable for high quality instruction and they make sure teachers are accountable for high quality instruction. We're all going to be on the same page as to what high quality instruction looks like. That's how we implement high quality instruction."

Also don't expect him not to sign up more charter schools, but at least not this year and if he ever does it — and he doesn't rule that out — they will not include the charter school company he co-founded Third Future Schools. since this he said would be a conflict of interest.

"The job is to turn around the schools that we have."

He wants to significantly increase teacher pay and sees a way to do that with other efficiencies (a word he's apparently fond of).  He's like to see the pay at $80,000.  Asked how to do that in a cash-strapped district, Miles said "it's cash-strapped because we're not spending our money efficiently and effectively.  We have too many people. What we need to do is develop a system that's high functioning, that's more effective and efficient and then we'll be able to pay teachers much more. And yes today, if we had a highly efficient system, our average teacher would be making $80,000."

Acknowledging the similarities and differences between Dallas ISD where he was superintendent and HISD, he says both are large urban districts with some of the same challenges although DISD is poorer than HISD and not as diverse.

Asked about reported plans that he will pull librarians, Miles said that was only at 29 schools where he said certain circumstances existed that would require a long explanation (one not fitting neatly into the 15 minutes we were allotted).
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Miles said he wants to raise teacher pay and sees areas of fat that can be carved away among HISD's expenses.
Photo by Margaret Downing
The child of a Japanese mother and a Black father and one of eight children, Miles said he met with Mayor Sylvester Turner earlier in the day Thursday. Although the mayor made it clear to him that he doesn't like the takeover of the school district, Miles said they did find common ground agreeing that the primary mission is to focus on the district's children.

Later Thursday, Turner issued a public statement that acknowledged best intentions on the part of the appointees, but blamed news of the takeover for the decrease in student population as well as the departure of high level staff and once again labeled the entire enterprise as anti-democratic. 

"This process has been flawed and anti-democratic from the very beginning. There has been minimal community engagement and very little transparency. The named Superintendent and Board of Managers were chosen behind closed doors by the state with little or no input from parents, teachers, or local community leaders," Turner said in part.

"I do not question the desire of those persons to do their very best on behalf of HISD. Still, they are being asked to address deficiencies and budgetary shortfalls without any additional resources coming from the state. In fact, the student population has steadily declined amidst all of this talk of a takeover by the state, which equates to a further loss of state financial support, not to mention the alarming exodus of tenured and experienced executive staff from HISD as a result of the incoming Administration, which will also have a detrimental impact on the students and remaining staff of HISD."

Turner's sentiments are shared by many in the community who aren't happy about the officials they elected being set aside by Morath who named their replacements. And experience shows almost no one likes hearing that their neighborhood school is being shut down or that a favorite educator has been deemed wanting and shown the door.  Top that off with many community members' deep distrust of charter schools and the drain they may put on the regular public schools in the district — and Miles is clearly a supporter of charter schools — and the new superintendent is starting work with a significant handicap.

However, even the strongest partisans of HISD have to be concerned with declining test scores, kids dropping out of school, inequality of resources among the district's schools, and the latest educational programs that rarely work as well as predicted. Not to mention the district's almost complete failure to straighten out its failings in the special education area — something that Miles went out of his way to acknowledge needing fixing in his statement to the community.

Technically, Miles will be listed as an interim superintendent for 21 days until the Board of Managers formally hires him. He said he had no part in the selection of the appointed board and had only just met them "I was pleasantly surprised at how great they seem."

The first school board meeting with all the appointees in place will be June 8.  At a minimum, it will be five years until a full nine-member elected board is restored and that's if everything goes swimmingly. Whether anyone likes it or not, we're in this together for the long haul. 
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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