After weeks of rumors and speculation across the Houston area, the highest official at the Texas Education Agency confirmed the state will be taking over the Houston Independent School District for some time.
“Ultimately, this intervention is necessary,” Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath said.
Leaders at HISD received a letter on Wednesday morning notifying them that the TEA will temporarily take over the state’s largest school district. The decision came following reported failures on the district level and multiple schools that have faced unsatisfactory grades for several years.
Superintendent Millard House II issued the following statement following the announcement:
“I stepped into my role understanding the obstacles we faced as a district, including a looming TEA intervention. My team and I remained focused on building a framework that prioritized a high-quality educational experience supported by world-class talent for all students.
I am proud to say, in the last 19 months, we have already seen vast improvements. Because of the hard work of our students, teachers, and staff, we have lifted 40 of 50 schools off the D or F TEA accountability ratings list. Together, with our parents, community members and leaders, we developed the district’s first comprehensive five-year strategic plan to build a better HISD.
Today’s announcement does not discount the gains we have made district-wide. I am confident our educators and staff will continue to do the necessary work to ensure positive student outcomes at every level. For our students and families, it is education as usual, and the school year continues as normal. As we wrap up this school year, my focus will be on working with our Board of Trustees and the TEA to ensure a smooth transition without disruption to our core mission of providing an exceptional educational experience for all students.”
Morath said he doesn’t take the decision lightly in a sit-down interview with ABC13.
“This was extraordinarily difficult. We live in a democracy, and one of the elements of that democracy is locally-elected school boards,” Morath said. “What that law requires is if that threshold is ever met, that the commissioner of education is required, it’s not discretionary, is required to either order a closure of that school or order a board of managers for the whole district.”
Morath said this was a necessary step. He said shutting down Wheatley High School was not the position they wanted to take as a state.
“We issued that order in 2019 but had been stayed by the courts, essentially put on pause for three full years while we were basically sued during this process,” Morath said. “All the court proceedings stopped essentially three weeks ago and so we have, we’re still required under that same law to act. We still have the same two choices available to me to make that decision, and it’s not in the best interest of kids at Wheatley to close Wheatley. So, that leaves us with the board of managers.”
The move comes after years of what the state considers dysfunction and a failure to properly educate all children. In 2019, HISD had 21 schools that received an F grade.
This past August, for the first time in eight years, Wheatley High School, which was one of those F schools, had a passing grade.
The TEA concluded in 2019 that board members also violated multiple laws. The district had a conservator for two consecutive school years, and say five consecutive poor ratings at Wheatley caused them to take mandatory action.
So, if an improvement has been seen within the last few years, why is the state still moving forward with the takeover?
“The kids of Wheatley are amazing and they’re clearly working hard to get the best education possible. The teachers, as well, are working tremendously to provide the learning for kids. As you point out, Wheatley has improved a little bit since 2019, which is good news,” Morath said. “That being said, there are still a number of campuses within Houston ISD that essentially suffer from multiple years. In fact, one particular campus hasn’t had an acceptable rating since 2011. And that’s not Wheatley. It’s a different campus in the district.”
Understandably, for the last several weeks, there have been a lot of questions about what this now-official state takeover will look like and how soon it will happen.
“There are no changes in Houston ISD today. Same school board. Same superintendent,” Morath emphasized. “What we’re starting today is a process where we recruit people to be members of the board of managers. A board of managers has the same authority as an elected school board. So, all the powers and duty of the current school board they have. We’ll go through a process in the next couple of months to try to find those people, and then ultimately place and name the board of managers and the superintendent.”
Morath confirmed with reporters that they will be appointing a nine-member board of managers by June 1. There’s an online application for anyone interested in being considered for a board member role.
“They’re temporarily the empowered body of people will be the board of managers,” Morath said. “Our goal is that those two groups of people collaborate very closely, because again, this is a temporary action and the board of trustees is going to come back, so we want to make sure sort of fully engaged.”
He says he will have final say on who will sit on the board of managers, but assures the board will be a diverse group whom live and work within the HISD district lines.
“Only when you have this sort of diverse of group of people coming together can you then arrive at what are the best decisions to be made for kids,” Morath said. “Certainly in a district as large and diverse as HISD, they have to be able to get along with one another. They have to go through and have vigorous debates with one another about what the best course of action is, but then ultimately agree to be unified in support of kids.”
Morath added that the board of managers will have the powers and duties of the elected HISD board of trustees. He said their roles are not permanent, and assured the local board of managers will govern the district and not the TEA.
“My job is not to direct activity in Houston. My job is to make sure I set Houston up with good local leadership so that it can make progress as quickly as possible for kids,” Morath said. “My continued involvement is based upon — Are you making progress towards those goals or not? I want to make sure that the board of managers continues to act with integrity and in full compliance with the law through this process.”
So, how soon will we see changes? Morath confirmed the current HISD board of trustees and the superintendent will remain in their elected roles, however, they will have no authority until the state decides to transition out of their HISD oversight. This could happen in months or years. He confirmed that in past school district takeovers, the boards of managers have stayed in the district between two and six years.
Morath said they want to turn HISD back over to the board of trustees as soon as possible, but also recognize that change takes time. Once the temporary takeover is eventually lifted, the board of trustees who are still in their term limits will be able to take on their roles again.
“Our goal is not to disrupt the great things that are happening at Houston ISD, because there are a lot of great things happening at Houston ISD. But, our goal is where there are students that aren’t being well served, to make sure that we have the right structures of support,” Morath said.
Morath added that the HISD board of trustees will no longer have authority but are asked to stay engaged with the appointed board to create a seamless transition once the state pulls away from HISD.
He said in order for the state takeover to be over, the TEA wants to see no more multi-year D and F schools, special education needs to be provided as a service to students in Houston ISD, and for the governing body itself to conduct their business with a focus solely on student success.
“When we see all of those three conditions met, we start the process to return back to elected trustee control. I would like that to be as fast as humanly possible but of course, change does take time,” Morath said.
Applications for the new board of managers are now open and people across the community are encouraged to apply.
“This work is hard and you have got to believe that all children can learn and achieve at high levels when you give proper supports, and unfortunately, not everyone actually believes that. A lot of people say that, but you have to truly believe all children can learn and achieve at high levels,” Morath said.
When asked if this is a politically-driven move, Morath told ABC13 it’s a move about meeting the needs of students. He said his goal and focus is enduring children are providing all the support they need to succeed.