Mayor Turner and Superintendent Miles Clash Over School Libraries

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner doesn't like the way the new Houston ISD superintendent does business.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner doesn't like the way the new Houston ISD superintendent does business. Screenshot

Telling Mike Miles that “No one can take action in this city as if you are the general and we are less than your soldiers," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday accused the new Houston ISD superintendent of creating two different school systems: the haves and have-nots.

Miles released his own statement in anticipation of Turner's 1 p.m. press conference, saying: "I cannot and will not govern the state's largest school district by press conference or press release. The time for politics is over, and we will not be distracted by intentional misinformation."

At issue, of course, is Miles' increasingly controversial decision to remove libraries from the 28 schools he has designated are most in need of immediate help in his New Education System program. Instead, the rooms previously devoted to books and librarians will be re-constituted as Zoom rooms for misbehaving kids at the schools. The librarians are being dispatched to other assignments, if they can fit in somewhere in the new HISD universe.

Representative Al Green, U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee, County Commissioner Precinct 2 Adrian Garcia, council members Karla Cisneros and Robert Gallegos and other community and faith leaders joined Turner in his press conference.

“When you shut off the library without librarians, you are not just providing space to those kids who are unruly, you are denying functional space to every student at that school and what is the message that you're sending to those students?” Turner said at his press conference.

“Now if people can’t see the disparity in that, something’s missing and how can you teach these kids if you don't see the disparity in what you are doing? And why would you expect a city or one community to stand quiet when we see that disparity, would the superintendent prefer that we not say anything? Would the superintendent prefer that we just rubber stamp this discrepancy? And then what do we say to our children? What do we say to them, that this is okay? That the superintendent told me to mind my own business?” said Turner, eliciting head shakes and chuckles from those standing nearby.

"I am standing firmly on that today I will not be the mayor of two cities in one and I will not be the mayor where they are creating two different school systems in the same district. HISD is creating a school district of the haves and have nots with some areas of the district equipped with libraries full of books and technology, while others will resemble a stark institution with no place for the students to go to their school library to study, check out a book, get the assistance of a librarian and expand their own imagination by exploring treasured authors in history.”

“I am serious about the learning and life outcomes of HISD students, and I have been serious before this superintendent ever stepped on Houston's ground. I have committed most of my professional life in improving the quality of education and the quality of life for students, not just in HISD, but across the state.”

“We stand ready to assist any person, Superintendent, Board of Managers, teachers, anyone else to improve the quality of education in all of our schools, but you cannot do that by closing libraries on some campuses and converting them into disciplinary centers. That you can not do. We are in 2023, we are not in 1953, but in 2023. This sends the wrong message.”

After lengthy court battles, the state of Texas took over HISD with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath saying it had failed too many times at some of its schools. In making his case,  Morath cited years of unacceptable performance at Kashmere and Wheatley high schools and what he called a violation of state and federal law regarding students with disabilities. Morath handpicked not only Miles but the entire Board of Managers, who took over from the elected board of trustees.

Once in place, the hard-charging Miles, made changes almost immediately. He has said several times that many of the district's schools were in such dire straits that he couldn't wait to take action for a phased-in program, but needed to shake things up now.

He immediately instituted his NES program and was more than gratified when another 57 schools signed up for the same program, even without the higher pay NES teachers are supposed to receive. These so-called NES Affiliated Schools would not have to be reconstituted (with principals and teachers reapplying for their jobs) but even that assurance was on shaky ground when Miles recently replaced principals at three schools, two of which were NES Affiliated.

Miles for his part Monday repeated his earlier invitation for Turner and other leaders to see in person how classes at NES schools operate.

"I will work with anyone who is serious about improving the learning and life outcomes of HISD students. I have extended an invitation to the Mayor to come see these schools in action and to learn more about the NES model, which is designed to provide the most support to Houston's most disadvantaged children. I extend the same invitation to other elected officials and community leaders so they can see for themselves the difference high quality instruction can make for our kids," Miles said in his press release.

But Jackson Lee said she had called Miles from Washington and has yet to receive a call back. And she said she's never seen a reaction from someone in Miles' position to criticism from the mayor before.

"My understanding is that he [Morath]  is picking and choosing those elected officials that he speaks with. Unacceptable. Unacceptable. Because we represent millions of parents, teachers and children in HISD. Unacceptable.”

And Turner, alluding to his long tenure in Houston as opposed to Miles' more recent arrival, stated:

“These are our children. These are our kids. These are our schools. This is our city and long after he is gone, we will still be here.”
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.
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.
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